by Jason Montgomery
Addicts devote themselves to satisfying some personal desire. They are happy when they have their fix, but miserable in withdrawal. "Good" addicts, such as music addicts, are harmless, and we ignore them. "Bad" addicts are those who hurt others to feed their habit. Society prosecutes them-unless their addiction is automobiles. Despite their social cost, auto addicts are pampered. For, although cars are convenient appliances, they cost dearly. And, while a few cars are thrilling to drive and a few are beautiful, cars generally bring danger and ugliness.
Auto addiction is detrimental to society. But car addicts don't seem to care about the downside of their addiction. They are too concerned that their car gives them an identity, that it takes them everywhere they want to go whenever they wish to go there. Since they are totally occupied in living the sort of life that their addiction prescribes, we must indicate how we all pay for their addiction. The first place that auto addicts hurt us is the pocketbook. Cars are expensive, and consume money that would otherwise be spent on something of more lasting value. Perverse values are revealed when $50,000 automobiles are as common as hungry children.
Auto addicts choose to live away from their work, and their long commute costs plenty. Auto dependence spreads out the city and increases infrastructure cost. Because auto addicts will not use public transportation, they require expensive highways.
Other costs are less obvious. Valuable land becomes parking lots, and its value decreases. Our perfectly good downtown deteriorates as the auto addicts drive to suburban malls. "No free parking downtown," they complain. To them, "free" means "free to me." Auto addicts do not recognize that someone pays for "free" parking. And "free" roads, too. In his unnecessarily big and expensive car, the auto addict commutes for hours every week. But, commuting is inefficient and unproductive. It costs the commuter, the commuter's family, and society.
Auto addiction reduces the quality of life. Urban highways are ugly, parking lots are ugly. Automobiles offend other senses, too: fumes stink, cars pollute the air, they are noisy. Commuters reduce the quality of life in communities through which they pass. Inner-city residents must either fight to protect their neighborhoods or put up with danger, pollution, noise, and unsightliness. The auto addicts lose out, too. They lose because commuting is both stressful and isolating. Alone in their cars, they have no chance encounters with friends or neighbors. These connections are vital to personal and social well-being.
Auto addiction is a tough problem to solve because the addicts won't accept responsibility. A part of being an addict is to hold others accountable for the painful results of your habit. When all the car freaks exercise their addiction during rush hour, they sometimes create a traffic jam. Who do they blame for the jam? Not themselves; not other addicts. They blame the city or unyielding communities.
Auto addicts refuse to accept that the traffic problem results from too many cars, not from inadequate roads. So, we cannot look to the addict to voluntarily cure his or her addiction. However, we can help them to consider alternatives. We can restrict the city's expansive growth. We can refuse to widen streets where such widening diminishes community life. We can protect inner city communities from commuter pollution to the extent that we have protected outlying areas.
We can tax auto addicts so they pay for their addiction. We can increase gasoline taxes, and we can base registration fees on the size of the car being registered. We can make inner-city communities more attractive to those who now just drive on by. We can improve our public transportation system and be more innovative in improving its quality and convenience. Implementing such changes is difficult because there are so many auto addicts.
And yet, we must act because a city of auto addicts is not sustainable. Sooner or later, auto addiction will end because of its costs, its inefficiency, and the ugliness it creates. If we all begin to take the cure, we will have a more livable city now and in the future.
Jason Montgomery is a retired professor of human ecology. This article originally appeared in World Without Cars newsletter.