Automobility and Freedom: Conflicts and Resolutions

In this article, Todd Litman discusses how freedom is often associated with cars.  Opponents to smart growth often argue on the grounds that restricting car use and where people live restricts freedom.  He quotes P.J. O’Rourke on a rant about how trains are nothing more than a way for the government to control our lives.  Litman argues that this view is immature and selfish, and that true freedom includes elements of responsibility.  Cars restrict our freedom through being expensive, altering land use patterns to remove other travel options, being limited to those old enough or wealthy enough to drive, creating greater risks to non-drivers, and massive public subsidies.  The true measure of car-based freedom should be determined on whether or not its positives outweigh these negatives.  He also questions, how much of our driving is voluntary and how much of it is mandated by the way our cities are built?  Would some drivers choose to walk, bike or take transit if these options were as convenient, attractive and affordable as car travel?  “A transportation system maximizes freedom by offering a diverse range of mobility and location options, so people can choose the combination that best meets their needs,” he says.  Car-dependent transportation is sneaky about taking away freedom.  Sure, you can walk places, but the fact that everything is built for the car makes other modes less safe, timely and accessible, as well as taking needed funds from other systems.  “Economic theory can help guide this analysis,” he says.  “It indicates that, in general, an efficient and equitable transportation system must reflect the following principles:

  • “Consumer options (also called consumer sovereignty), which means that consumers have viable transportation and location options to choose from.
  • Cost-based pricing, which means that the prices of goods and services (including the costs of using roads, parking facilities and fuel) reflect the full marginal cost of providing them unless a subsidy is specifically justified.
  • “Neutral public policies, which means that planning, funding and tax policies do not arbitrarily favor one transport mode, location or group over others.”

In many ways, our contemporary transportation systems don’t reflect these facts.  We need to build transportation that is more intelligent, equitable, and free.


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