The car is king in America, but not because of the free market or conservative values.
British motorists react with horror at the prospect of a strike on the train system or buses. They know that already-congested roads will be swamped with thousands of additional vehicles. Any moves to shut down railroads would be met with outrage from motorists as well as rail commuters.
American motorists, particularly those of a conservative bent, have a different attitude to mass transit and some would rejoice at the permanent elimination of train services. In Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential election campaign he even threatened to close down Amtrak, a poorly funded passenger rail service. This was music to the ears of his supporters who see such services as a drain on the public purse. The effect of such a closure on already-congested freeways does not enter this sort of short-sighted discussion.
Unlike Europe where mass transit is an accepted part of the essential national infrastructure, hostility to the very existence of it is deeply ingrained in American conservative thought. Buses and trains are seen as a symbol of the collective endeavor of socialism, whereas the owner-driven car is a symbol of independence, individual expression, capitalism, and prosperity. But does this really chime with conservative values?
Take the seemingly pragmatic conservative argument that people should have the freedom to choose how they want to travel. Railway use has dwindled in America where, uniquely in the developed world, it is now almost perceived as an outmoded form of transportation. The American people are abandoning the “socialist” train for the “capitalist” car. But do they have legitimate options to choose from, or are they being coerced into the automobile by government interference in the market?
A new Mustang might be the ultimate symbol of freedom, but a car is only half a system. The private automobile would be quite useless without a road on which to drive, and only government can provide it. Roads must be constructed, maintained, landscaped, and adorned with signage, signals, detector loops, lighting, and other infrastructure. If this were all paid for by gasoline taxes then American motorists would be paying a European style $8 per gallon at the pump. This would be twice what Americans are paying now, but the popular perception is still that we live in an age of unusually expensive gasoline, so conditioned were American consumers to paying a dollar per gallon. Road transportation in America is heavily subsidized by the federal income tax, and yet trains and buses are singled out for opprobrium for their “wasteful subsidies”. Our generous car-centric infrastructure has become an entitlement.
Since the 1960s the geography of many American cities has been shaped around a utopian vision of sprawling roads and happy suburban families escaping the grime of the dreaded crowded city. The reality has proven to be one of gridlock no matter how many more lanes are added.
Has the flight to the suburbs taken place because the free market has demanded it? Not entirely. Even those who would prefer a more urban lifestyle have been forced into suburbs by government regulations in the form of single-use zoning ordinances. If an entrepreneur gets wind of a new housing development and wants to build a corner store in or next to it, in many American cities he would be prevented from doing so because government officials have decreed that the area is zoned for residential use only. Employers do not have the freedom to locate their businesses within walking distance of their customers or employees. Daily activities are compartmentalized and separated so that each day requires at least one journey using motorized transportation. Unlike in other developed countries where cities are allowed to grow organically, American cities are artificially forced into low-density car-dependent development where the government has made it dangerous or impossible for people to choose to walk. Hardly the free market in action.
Conservatives argue that government should not engage in social engineering by forcing people to select one mode of transportation over another, and yet that is exactly what has been happening for fifty years. The automobile and the lifestyle that goes with it has been foisted on the entire population, while even moderate attempts to provide citizens with the choice of a viable bus or train alternative are met with opposition because of the cost, which is relatively moderate.
In a true free market, businesses would be free to locate where they deem appropriate. Decisions about the appropriateness or otherwise of a particular location would be decided on a case-by-case basis with each planning application. Roads would be funded through gasoline taxes or tolls by the people who use them. Families who choose to live in suburbs would be free to do so, but singles who want to live in higher density downtown areas without owning a car would also have the freedom to do so. Resources for infrastructure would be allocated according to demand. All cities would have high density cores where it would be feasible for mass transit to operate commercially, as happens in Europe where bus and train services have been privatized, bringing competition and improved service to public transportation.
Opposition to mass transit may be a required soundbite for any Republican running for office, but it is contrary to all the principles that American conservatives purport to hold dear.