The Automobile: Promoting Racism and Inequality

The more cars in a community the worse it is for poor people, especially those in debt.

A recent Wall Street Journal article titled “In Debt Collecting, Location Matters” reveals how companies trying to collect overdue bills can “shop around for the best places to bring their claims.”

The article details what debt collectors look for when choosing a small claims court; the ability to pursue as much of a debtor’s assets as possible, a sympathetic judge and, get this, a car-dominated landscape. The WSJ explains, “Decatur Township [an Indianapolis suburb] has become the preferred courthouse for lawyers who collect soured debt on behalf of medical providers, according to Pam Ricker, who has managed the court’s operations for more than 25 years. The township has no hospitals. Ms. Ricker says a lack of public transportation discourages many defendants from showing up in court, resulting in automatic wins for debt collectors.”

Somewhere along the way debt collectors realized that people who can’t afford to pay their medical bills are more likely to be car-less and thus less able to attend a small claims court far from any bus service. Apparently, these soulless debt collectors care little that those without a vehicle are probably less able to pay their medical bills.

Of course, Decatur Township’s medical collection gambit is an extreme example of how a car-dominated landscape exacerbates inequities, but private car transport also places a greater financial burden on lower income folks in many other ways.

All other forms of land transportation are much more accessible. Shoes, a bike, or a metro pass are cheaper than a car, which costs on average $8,500 to own and operate annually.

Though they drive less, lower income folks are more likely to live on heavily trafficked streets/neighborhoods. Increased car noise and pollution leads to various ills, including higher rates of asthma and cancer. The car contributes to ill health in other ways. As an important means for the wealthy to assert social dominance, the private car heightens cultural inequities and inequality is an increasingly recognized negative health determinant.

The private car has made it possible for the wealthier to live far from the poor (or anyone else without an automobile). Partly to keep out poor people and black folks, suburban counties such as Decatur Township have failed to invest in public transit. In Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism & New Routes to Equity Robert Bullard describes how resistance to “urban” infiltration constrained the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) to serving two of the Atlanta region’s ten counties. When Cobb County voted against joining MARTA the unofficial slogan was “Stop Atlanta.” And so, MARTA is filled with lines that bypass wealthy suburban areas or terminate at their boundaries.

Travelling across the U.S. by Greyhound bus to research an ‘anti-car road trip story’ we experienced what appeared to be race/class-inspired transit planning. In the suburbs of New Orleans buses ended their routes abruptly at the edge of municipalities as if the asphalt itself had run out. Less subtle than this relay race bus tag, some highways are made in ways that block buses. In New York, for instance, the overpasses on the Jones Beach Parkway from Manhattan to Long Island were built deliberately low to stop busses from passing beneath and reaching the beaches.

The desire to avoid living with or near blacks stimulated much of U.S. suburban expansion. Although largely understood as a post-Interstate Highway system phenomenon, the white exodus from the city began earlier. The most famous example is the meticulously planned suburb of Levittown, Long Island. In 1953 it had a population of 70,000 — all of whom were white.

In many places the movement of better off whites from the city has diminished the property taxes required to fund social services such as schools, libraries and community centers. Spatial separation enabled by the automobile strengthens the disadvantages of race and class in other ways. Jobs are increasingly located on the outskirts, which is disadvantageous to low-income car-less individuals who often cannot reach these jobs by public transit. People of color are hardest hit since they are less likely to own a car and twice as likely to utilize non-automotive modes of transport.

While increasing inequities the private car also shields drivers from “undesirables”. When we were in Portland an Oregonian columnist writing about street youth shared a reader’s letter detailing the lengths he went to avoid the homeless. In the morning he entered work through the underground parking. At lunch he eschewed the nearby restaurants and slipped into his car to avoid panhandlers. Finally, he used the parkade exit to avoid street people on his way home from work. “Many of us, myself included,” a businessman from Northeast Portland e-mailed the paper, “drive garage (home) to garage (downtown) to garage (home) and never leave the building because of this [street youth] problem. …It’s easier just not to deal with it.”

For the well-to-do, private cars have long been a way to avoid social problems. The automobile’s capacity to create social distance en route appealed to early car buyers. Prominent auto historian, James J. Flink, remarked, “the automobile seemed to proponents of the innovation, to afford a simple solution to some of the more formidable problems of American life associated with the emergence of an urban industrial society.”

Overwhelmed by capitalist culture and enmeshed with unions tied to automobile production, socialist parties and movements have largely failed to challenge car-oriented transport for exacerbating inequities. Much the same could be said for an environmental movement highly dependent on rich philanthropists.

We need to face the truth. By design, urban areas liberated from the danger, pollution and ecological devastation of the private automobile enjoy both heightened quality of life and equality of residents.

Getting rid of our private automobile-dominated transportation system should be a priority for all those who believe in social equality and saving our environment.

Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler are authors of just released Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Environmental Decay. Anyone interested in organizing a talk as part of a book tour please e-mail: yvesengler [at] Read other articles by Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler.