We've been hearing for years now about the Crisis of the Cities, but in fact there is no such crisis. That is, there is no overall decline in the importance of the city as an institution, the city per se. More of us live in cities and metropolitan areas than ever before in history.
What has been happening over the past couple of decades is a steady, unmistakable migration of the American population, not away from cities as such, but away from some cities in favor of others. And as writer Nicholas von Hoffman has pointed out, for politicians in the cities that are losing people: "Population loss is power loss. In some ways that's what the urban crisis is, the clamor made by the heads of institutions that fear they can't follow the people when they leave for happier climes."
The question is, why are all these people leaving? The most common answers place the blame on climate, economic changes, and simple old age. Newsweek reported in May 1981, for example, that "there has been a massive shift of people and jobs from the Snow Belt cities of the North to the Sun Belt cities of the Southwest. While the older cities struggle to rebuild aging steel mills and auto plants, the newer cities march into the postindustrial world of computers and semiconductors."
This kind of analysis is plausible enough as far as it goes. People do prefer to live where the climate does not present major obstacles to their comfort, mobility, efficient use of time, and achievement of affluence. And the biggest growth records set by American industry in the past generation have indeed been set by firms in the mainly Sun Belt-based computer and electronics fields.
Still, to blame the urban migration entirely on the weather and the location of most new high-tech industry is to indulge in dangerous oversimplification. Anchorage and Denver, two of the fastest-growing of the boomtowns of the 1980s, are undeniably in the Snow Belt. And just as undeniably the climate in Phoenix is a forbidding one: some, who have visited this rapidly growing city during the summer months, might even without fear of argument call it more forbidding than the climate of Detroit or Cleveland. Nor is all our new high-tech industry headquartered in California and Texas and Florida. Some of the largest and fastest-growing electronics firms and communications technology companies are headquartered instead in suburban Boston and suburban Chicago. They are in the suburbs rather than in the city proper, it is true; this is a highly significant fact to which I shall return later. But they are relatively new high-tech companies, and they are operating and even prospering in the metropolitan areas of Snow Belt cities that, despite such pockets of hope, go right on dying.
Some commentators discuss the difference between the declining cities and the booming cities in terms of age—the older cities are declining and the younger cities are booming. But this explanation, too, is fraught with difficulties. The city of Los Angeles, which is commonly (and properly) seen as a perfect instance of the "younger" city, celebrated its 200th birthday last year. In 1790, at a time when Chicago, Cleveland, and Kansas City were mere Indian villages or frontier trading posts, Los Angeles was only nine people smaller than Louisville, Kentucky, which was founded three years earlier in 1778. By 1900 Louisville was twice the size of LA (204,000 to 102,000); today it is only a little more than a tenth the size of LA. Since 1960 Louisville has lost nearly 20 percent of its population; the population of LA has grown about 15 percent in the same period. Louisville is not an older city than Los Angeles. They are almost exact contemporaries. But one of them grew more rapidly and then declined, while the other has continued to grow.
Nor is this an isolated phenomenon. San Antonio, Texas, and Akron, Ohio, were also founded at about the same time, circa 1825. San Antonio has always been the larger of the two, but as time has gone by, the gap has widened noticeably. In 1900 San Antonio had a population of 53,000 to Akron's 42,000, which means the Texas city was about 25 percent larger than its Ohio sister. By 1950 San Antonio was the 25th-largest American city, with a population of 400,000, while Akron was the 39th-largest, with 275,000 people. Today San Antonio is our 10th largest, with 785,000 residents, while Akron has slipped to 59th, with only 240,000. San Antonio is now more than 200 percent larger than Akron.
Houston and Milwaukee are another instructive pair. Milwaukee is the younger of the two by one year, having been founded in 1837 to Houston's 1836. At first Milwaukee grew much more rapidly: in 1850 the Wisconsin city was already nearly 10 times the size of its Texas cousin. But by 1960, when Milwaukee's population reached its all-time high of nearly 750,000, Houston's had grown to 940,000. And today Houston is at 1.5 million and still growing, while Milwaukee has fallen back to 630,000—a 12 percent drop in population over the last decade alone. Houston is also an older city than Atlanta (founded in 1847), but it is Atlanta that is declining. The population of Georgia's biggest city fell by 15 percent during the 1970s, while Houston's population grew by nearly 30 percent.
MACHINE OF FREEDOM
But if weather and economic trends and old age aren't the answer, what is it? Why are so many of our cities dying? The answer is to be found in the controversial final report of President Jimmy Carter's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties (available in paperback from Spectrum Books under the title A National Agenda for the Eighties). "Contrary to conventional wisdom," the report states, "cities are not permanent; their strength is related to their ability to reflect change rather than to fend it off." And those American cities which are in decline have, by and large, brought their decline on themselves by trying to fend off one of the most powerful and comprehensive forces for change to appear in human civilization for centuries: the advent of the automobile.
Barely a hundred years ago, there was no such thing as an automobile; today it is all around us, and there is no escaping its all-pervasive influence on American society. Without it, 87 percent of our work force would have to find some other way of getting to work—if they still had jobs to go to. One out of every six jobs in this country owes its existence to the automotive industry. Ninety percent of all personal transportation in this country is by private car. Nearly eighty percent of all commercial transportation is by truck. Seventy-five percent of all American adults drive. More than 130 million Americans own their own cars. Cars have made insurance, tourism, rubber, and petroleum into giant industries and have created other industries where none had existed before: the motel business, the service station business, the car wash and car repair and rent-a-car and parking businesses. Cars have given us drive-in movies, drive-in restaurants, and drive-in convenience stores, to say nothing of drive-through banks, drive-through photo developers and drive-through fast-food joints.
Moreover, from The Great Gatsby to The Grapes of Wrath to On the Road and Play It As It Lays; from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to Easy Rider, from Tobacco Road to Thunder Road to Rebel Without a Cause; and from "In My Merry Oldsmobile" to "Route 66" to "Wake Up, Little Susie" to "Little Deuce Coupe" and the scores of trucker ballads ground out annually by our country music industry, the automobile has become one of the central symbols of our national folklore and a staple image in American literature, American film, and American popular song. It has become literally one of the cornerstones of American culture, and for a reason so obvious that it needs periodic restatement to prevent its being entirely forgotten: our culture draws both its distinctive national character and its remarkable fecundity and durability from a fundamental and unshakable commitment to exactly the sort of self-reliant individualism and personal freedom that have found their most advanced technological expression to date in the development of the automobile.
The car, writes John Rae in his classic, indispensable study, The Road and the Car in American Life, "offers individual, personal, flexible mobility, as nothing before it has ever done, and as nothing else now available can do." The car, writes David Laird in a recent essay on the automobile in American fiction, offers "enclosure, security, individual autonomy and control, freedom to do as one pleases." The problem with most "reflections on the impact of the automobile," writes economist Robert L. Heilbroner, is that they "still fail to do justice to its quintessential contribution to our lives. This is its gift of mobility itself…as a direct enhancement of life, as an enlargement of life's boundaries and opportunities. This is so enormous, so radical a transformation that its effect can no longer be measured or appreciated by mere figures. It is nothing less than the unshackling of the age-old bonds of locality; it is the grant of geographic choice and economic freedom on a hitherto unimagined scale." If A.J. Liebling was right in his contention that freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one, then it would seem indisputable that freedom of movement belongs to the man who has some means of getting about—and only to the extent of that means' efficiency and flexibility—which is why, for the person who owns one, the automobile is truly the machine of freedom.
The truth of this point is acknowledged even by the most hysterical of the automobile's opponents and detractors—even by A.Q. Mowbray, for example, who believes that unless we are prepared "to limit by fiat the manufacture of cars and trucks; to coerce car owners by tax or otherwise to use public transportation; to close state and city borders to visitors approaching by car; to tear up rather than to build freeways, garages, bridges, and tunnels," we will shortly reach a time when "the environment will have become utterly hostile to human life." Even A.Q. Mowbray, author of Road to Ruin, has noticed that auto ownership "confers many blessings: unparalleled freedom of action, opportunities for travel and home location, and simply the pleasures of tooling around aimlessly. The possibilities for movement seem infinite, and all with a degree of independence and privacy never before achieved.…The automobile gives its owner multiple choices in spades—he goes where he wants to go, when he wants to go, and stops when he is ready, and not before."
Automotive historians generally agree that it was the desire for exactly such independence, autonomy, and control over one's own personal movement that made Americans such enthusiastic buyers of cars from the very first moment of their availability in the American marketplace. Those who lived on farms or in rural towns, for example, welcomed the freedom to really take their business elsewhere if they couldn't find what they wanted in the mail order catalogs and the few small stores of limited inventory that they had nearby. They welcomed the freedom to live in the country without having to worry that their distance from centers of medical treatment might someday lead to the death of one of their loved ones. They also welcomed the freedom to use more of their time satisfying their own personal desires—a freedom they were given not only by the Model T, which shortened the span of hours they had periodically to spend on trips into town, but also by the Fordson tractor, introduced by Ford shortly after the Model T, which dramatically shortened the time they had to spend in the fields.
By 1926, according to Harvard researcher Joseph Interrante, 89 percent of the tenants and 93 percent of the farmers in the prototypical farm state of Iowa owned automobiles. And after the advent of the car, writes Michael Berger in his recent book The Devil Wagon in God's Country, "everything was more complex. No longer did one choose friends, leisure activities, or the family doctor merely on the basis of proximity. The new associations included people from geographically separate units, and interest rather than location became the primary tie among them. As John H. Kolb and Edmund deS. Brunner concluded in 1935, 'rural society is becoming less dependent upon locality and organic relationships and is freer to employ voluntary and contractual forms.' Time ceased to be the barrier it had once been."
EXODUS FROM THE CITY
For those who lived in the cities, the story was much the same. Before the car, city dwellers found it necessary to live within easy walking distance of their jobs and the stores where they shopped. Never mind that the housing immediately adjacent to the factories where most of them worked was almost always crowded, dirty, and noisy. Never mind that the prices were high in the small neighborhood shops where they were forced by circumstances to do all their business. Never mind that such shops offered only a limited selection of merchandise at their high prices. The city dweller in 19th-century America lived in the land of Hobson's choice: he could take whatever his neighborhood happened to offer or nothing at all.
This situation was improved somewhat during the last three decades of the last century by the fairly extensive development of fixed-rail urban transit, at first in the form of horse-drawn streetcars and trolleys and then in the form of electric or steam-driven streetcars, trolleys, and commuter trains. Urban rail transit markedly increased the options available to city dwellers, but only within certain very narrow limits. You had to want to go where the rails led; if you had another destination in mind, the streetcars, trolleys, and trains couldn't help you. You had to be willing to go when the transit company (commonly a city-granted monopoly) was ready to take you. And you had to put up with a lot: "Travelers on urban fixed-rail trolleys," writes Mark H. Rose in Interstate: Express Highway Politics, 1941–1956, "all faced encounters with pickpockets, drunks, thugs, and the obnoxious. Streetcars themselves were dreadfully over-crowded. Passengers were 'packed like sardines in a box, with perspiration for oil' and were forced to 'hang on by the straps, like smoked hams in a corner grocery.'"
"With conditions like these prevailing in our mass transit systems," writes A.Q. Mowbray, "we need not wonder why transit riders reacted to the automobile like a starving man in a supermarket. Here was comfort, convenience, privacy, independence." Here also was a way out of the city. Whether one wanted to get out for a few hours or a couple of days on an outing in the newly accessible countryside or to get out for good, abandoning the city for life in the suburbs where one could afford a house instead of an apartment and relax on one's own land instead of on some corner of a crowded public park—one could do it if one had a car. And one could leave the city in any direction one liked. It no longer mattered where the rails led.
The rest, as they say, is history. Beginning around the time of World War I, rising to a peak in the late 1920s, falling off somewhat during the Depression and World War II years, then rising again over the next quarter-century to hitherto undreamed-of levels, people got out of the cities. As early as 1908 the advertising profession had seen the beginnings of this trend. In The Road and the Car in American Life, John Rae quotes an auto ad of that year: "The Sears is the car for the business man who has tired of home life in a congested neighborhood and yearns for a cottage in the suburb for his family."
"The outward trend of population in American cities," Rae comments, "was clearly visible in the 1920s. Figures for eighty-five metropolitan districts (which would now be termed SMSAs) show a growth pattern in which the rate of increase for outlying territory was twice as great as in the central cities. At that time the suburban population was 30.0 percent of the metropolitan total, although in eleven of these districts the population outside the central cities was already greater than that inside. In addition, there was evidence of a tendency for large cities to lose population in their inner zones."
Half a century later, this tendency had become even more pronounced. Between 1950 and 1970, according to Landon Y. Jones in Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation, "the population of the suburbs doubled from 36 million to 72 million. No less than 83 percent of the total population growth in the United States during the 1950s was in the suburbs, which were growing fifteen times faster than any other segment of the country."
And today, according to the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties, "although more than 70 percent of the U.S. population still lives in metropolitan areas, migration to the suburbs continues, and, since 1970, there has been a reversal of the traditional movement in the United States toward the cities. People are now moving away from the cities entirely—to rural areas and small towns."
Of course, as we have seen, it can be misleading to say that people are leaving "the cities," because in fact they are leaving some cities and moving into others. And much of the movement away from cities to small towns in rural areas will doubtless be seen retrospectively—perhaps as soon as the end of the present decade—to have been movement to the suburbs. Twenty years ago a family that moved from Houston to La Porte, Texas, would have been leaving a city and relocating in a small town surrounded by farmland. Today a family moving from Houston to La Porte would simply be making a move to the suburbs, and not even to one of the farthest-flung of Houston's suburbs, which now continue some miles past La Porte to League City, on the other side of the Galveston County line. Seventy years ago, Hollywood was a small town at the foot of the mountains north of Los Angeles and was separated from Los Angeles itself by miles of open fields. Today Hollywood is generally regarded as part of the inner city of Los Angeles. Times change.
ADAPTING TO CHANCES
And they change for business as well as for families. Since World War II, American industry has also been relocating in the suburbs—or, in the case of heavy industries, in the country beyond the suburbs. John Rae reports that "in an eight year period (1947 to 1954) the number of industrial plants in Chicago's suburbs doubled; during the same eight years Detroit had a 47 percent increase in central city manufacturing establishments but a 220 percent rise in the suburbs. At longer range and on a broader scale, before the Second World War nine out of ten new factories were built in metropolitan areas; by the mid-1950s new construction was about evenly divided between urban and country districts; subsequently the proportion of new factories located outside metropolitan regions has risen to 80 percent—a striking measure of the extent of industrial dispersal."
This passage was written in 1970. Since then the trend has continued. "Businesses have relocated in suburbia at a rate equal to that of families," William Severini Kowinski wrote in the New York Times Magazine early in 1980. "New York City's share of metropolitan-area employment dropped from 65 percent in 1953 to 52 percent in 1976. Thomas Muller, principal research associate of the Urban Institute, cites this loss of private employment as a major factor in New York City's fiscal crisis. The same could be said of Chicago, Boston and other cities."
Why have businesses been leaving the cities? In the case of retail businesses, the answer is obvious enough: in pursuit of their departing customers. But in the case of the manufacturing industry, the answer is more complex. "First," writes John Rae, "is the rapid development of industrial technologies stressing continuous flow of materials and automatic controls, which may require production processes involving straight-line movements of considerable length. In addition, modern methods of handling materials with mechanized equipment, such as conveyors and fork-lift trucks, work best in one-story structures. These factors in combination demand space and therefore encourage location where the cost of land is comparatively low, a condition more likely to be met in outlying than in central city areas."
Of course, as Rae points out, "this incentive to disperse must be balanced against other considerations. The factory has to have a site permitting ready movement of goods in and out and accessible to the work force. In the past these factors limited locational choices, since the places where land was plentiful and cheap were likely to have inadequate transportation and to have too few people within practical traveling distance. The motor vehicle and the highway greatly expanded the options. The passenger car solves much of the problem of personnel and is a major locational factor in its own right, allowing a plant to be in open country and draw its labor supply from as far as thirty to forty miles. Parking facilities, in fact, may require more land than the plant itself, another incentive to seek open space."
So it was that the advent of the car influenced businesses to move out of the central city. But another automobile called the truck was an even greater influence. In the late 19th century, the transportation of people, both within cities and between cities, was accomplished primarily by fixed-rail systems. The transportation of goods, on the other hand, was accomplished by rail only when the goods were traveling from one city to another. When they were traveling within cities, or to recently established towns that weren't yet served by rail lines, they went by horse and wagon. The introduction of the truck in the early 1900s changed all this. Trucks proved to be a much faster method of getting goods to their destinations, and time was money then just as it is today. So trucks quickly replaced horse-drawn wagons within cities and began gradually to supplant the railroads as intercity carriers as well. As new towns and cities sprang up, it was discovered that these new population centers could be served by truck much more cheaply than by train, if only because establishing train service required immense capital outlays for the construction of new tracks, while trucks were able to use the roads that were already there.
Unfortunately, the era of the truck created problems for the very manufacturers who were trying to save money by converting to truck transport—the problem of congestion, for example, which filled the narrow streets around their inner-city factories with nightmares of tangled vehicles and threatened to create delays that would eat up the savings they had hoped for by switching to trucks in the first place. There was no question of constructing off-street parking areas and loading docks for the trucks: the space wasn't available, or if it was the price was prohibitive. On the other hand, if the factory were to move to the country outside the city, it could provide plenty of space for trucks at relatively low cost. And although moving out of town would put the factory at a distance from rail terminals, that was no longer as big a problem as it once had been. After all, the owners could merely cease relying on the railroads altogether and use trucks for all their transportation requirements. Thus began the exodus of industry from the central cities.
CITY OF THE AUTO ACE
And thus it is that today we live in a country in which the typical American is a suburbanite, in which a majority of our fellow citizens live in suburbs rather than in central cities or rural areas, in which the lion's share of the nation's business is now out in the suburbs, and in which the only cities not suffering from steady and apparently irreversible decline are those which have adapted to the automobile by becoming more suburban—that is, less dense, more decentralized and auto-accessible—in character. When everybody drives his own vehicle, there's more traffic and more of a parking problem and really very little question, in any city of more than a million people, of being able to build any single central business district that could possibly be both compact enough to be genuinely centralized and lavish enough in its parking facilities to accommodate all the cars of all its workers and shoppers and players all at once. The car and the old centralized city are fundamentally incompatible.
The city of the automotive age, on the other hand, is decentralized. It has not one central business district but several. In Los Angeles, for example, the largest and best known of our decentralized cities, there is downtown (including the Wilshire corridor from civic center to Beverly Hills), which houses the city's governmental buildings, its convention center, its music center, and its garment district; Hollywood, which provides a home for one of the city's largest medical centers, along with most of its bookstores, record shops, and movie theaters, a generous selection of its best restaurants, and, of course, the radio, TV, and film industries that have made LA the international center it is today; and Century City, the downtown of the airport area that also, in effect, absorbs the high-rise office towers and luxury hotels that spill over from downtown and the entertainment that spills over from Hollywood. There are also the extensively developed central downtown sections of three important "close-in" suburban cities—Beverly Hills (which is so close-in that it has long been completely surrounded by Los Angeles), Glendale, and Long Beach. And there are the "downtowns" that have developed in the past decade in Westwood (site of UCLA) and Van Nuys (adjacent to the campuses of three large commuter schools—Valley College, Pierce College, and California State University at Northridge).
The Angeleno in search of employment, shopping, or entertainment of the sort traditionally found in central business districts is likely to be able to find what he wants in any one of these eight central business districts and so will usually tend to visit the one closest to his home. But should he need to travel to one of the others, he will find it easy to get there by car—either via freeway or via wide, fast-moving "surface streets" like the city's major six-lane east-west thoroughfare, Olympic Boulevard—and easy to park once he's arrived. He may travel more miles in the course of his shopping trip than his counterpart in a centralized city, but he may very likely invest less time in the project. And as John Rae has noted, "the essential element of transportation for a modern metropolis" is the realization that "the time required to complete a journey is more important than the distance traveled."
The automobile is so much faster than any form of surface public transit that it makes distance within an urban area virtually irrelevant—whether you're a business or an individual. Rae reported in 1971 that "companies that relocated along the Santa Ana Freeway in Southern California" shortly after that freeway was opened about a decade before quickly "found that the travel time to central Los Angeles was less than from their former intown sites." Even in rush hour traffic in the heart of the central business district, the automobile is faster than its alternatives. Wilfred Owen reported in a Brookings Institution study in 1966 that cars averaged 14 miles per hour in such circumstances in Washington, while transit vehicles that also operated on the surface averaged only 8 miles per hour. In Philadelphia, the situation was comparable: cars averaged 8.3 miles per hour in downtown rush hour traffic, while surface mass-transit vehicles were able to manage only 5.6 miles per hour.
Even under the worst of conditions, that is, the automobile is a more efficient means of transportation—in addition to offering a degree of individual autonomy, privacy, and personal choice in transit that could not possibly be delivered by any alternative now known to human science. Is it any wonder that Americans have opted for it so overwhelmingly? The automobile is the machine of freedom, and the decentralized or polycentric city it has brought into being is better equipped than any city of any other known type to accommodate all at once all the many disparate choices, decisions, and actions of millions of individuals, each of whom has the power to move himself at will to any urban destination of his choice. The decentralized city is the best framework yet developed for the spontaneous order of a free market in mobility, perhaps because the decentralized city is itself the product of such spontaneous order, of the predominantly free interaction of past market forces. As the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties argued: "Federal urban policy efforts should not necessarily be used to discourage the deconcentration and dispersal of industry and households from central urban locations. Each emerging deconcentration trend is nothing more than an aggregate of countless choices by and actions of individuals, families, and firms influenced by social, cultural, and economic considerations; our public policy tools are least useful when they attempt to alter in a predictable way what the individual household or firm will do."
It was neatly symbolic of the official view of the automobile and urban decentralization that President Carter publicly rejected his commission's findings on the crisis of the cities literally as soon as they were presented to him. For from the very beginning, ever since the days when police in a number of American towns were legally empowered to keep cars outside the town limits by shooting at their tires and by stretching ropes or chains across local roads to block their progress, public policy on every level of American government has almost always been virulently anticar and procentralization.
This view of our recent transit history is, of course, violently at variance with the current conventional wisdom on the subject. But then the conventional wisdom on almost every subject is almost invariably wrong. In this case the conventional wisdom contends that the automobile has come to dominate our transportation horizon because it has been the beneficiary of massive government subsidies, principally in the form of federal and state freeway and superhighway programs and government-funded construction of parking facilities in central business districts. These roads and lots and garages, it is argued, induced people to abandon public transit and buy cars. Otherwise, the argument goes, they might not have done so, or they might have done so in smaller numbers.
Such an argument requires for its success either an extreme credulity or a profound ignorance of the history of urban transit on the part of those it is intended to convince—though its partisans have also profited to some extent from the Big Lie technique first described in the abstract by Adolf Hitler: tell a preposterous falsehood often enough, loudly enough, and with enough self-assurance, and everyone will soon come to believe it. It is true, of course, that our roads are government-built. But by and large, they always have been in this country. Was government supposed to stop building them after the invention of the automobile in order to discourage use of the new invention?
It is also true that one is more likely to buy a car if there is a road to drive it on than if there isn't. But it is absurd to try to pretend that there were no roads in the pre-automotive era. On the contrary, as John Rae points out, "analysis of the data reveals that motor vehicle transportation actually requires less street space than most cities had in the pre-automobile era, even including the substantial area taken by freeways. The reason is that when the fast-moving through traffic is put on built-for-the-purpose arterial roads, then the amount of ordinary street space needed for strictly local movements and for access to property drops sharply." (Emphasis added.) An urban freeway system, he argues, can carry upwards of 50 percent of all urban traffic on only 2 to 3 percent of the land. Moreover, he writes, "what applies to city streets applies equally to the entire national highway network; most of the roads would have to be there even if the motor vehicle did not exist. They would be different in quality, but the same mileage of roads at the very least would be needed for local transport."
For maximum efficiency of performance and maximum comfort of passengers, automobiles do require better-quality roads than would otherwise be necessary. But they do not require better roads in order to function at all. Automobiles caught on so quickly in the early years of this century, long before there were any government-built freeways to tempt people to buy them, precisely because they made for an enormous improvement in the quality and efficiency of transportation, despite the fact that they had to travel over mostly inadequate roads. Freeways and widened, resurfaced urban streets were a reaction to the coming of the car, not a cause of it.
And when the time came to make these improvements in our roads, the owners of automobiles paid for it through gasoline taxes, tire taxes, and other approximations of user fees. "One of the great changes that automotive transportation has brought about, at least in the United States," John Rae wrote a decade ago, "is that user taxes make the highway system self-supporting." Unfortunately, this is no longer true, though it would be if the trucking industry didn't use its political muscle to avoid paying its fair share—that is to say, the lion's share—of the cost of road maintenance. It is trucks and buses that create the need for major road maintenance in the first place. The passage of ordinary cars has almost no effect on the surface of a modern road.
Still, there are today freeway links that have been built and maintained with public funds, that carry massive amounts of daily traffic, including trucks and buses, and that nevertheless are more than self-supporting through user fees. In the San Francisco Bay area, for example, the two busiest toll bridges, the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge, have long since paid off the entire cost of their construction, including interest on the amounts borrowed for the projects, and continue to produce revenues so far in excess of what is needed to keep them in good repair that they can also pick up the staggering losses posted each year by the AC Transit and Golden Gate Transit and Muni bus companies and by the even more phenomenally unprofitable ferry service that connects San Francisco to suburban Marin County. This is the typical pattern of public policy toward the automobile and the decentralized, freeway-based city: not subsidies for automotive transport, but levies of taxes against automobiles and their drivers in order to subsidize mass-transit boondoggles that have never at any time in the past half-century been able even to pay their own costs of operation, much less earn a profit.
It is possible to cite at least one recent example of an urban freeway being built by private businessmen operating without the power of eminent domain and without government money. Such a case was reported in 1980 by this magazine, in a Trends item describing a new freeway project on the crowded west side of Houston. And it is easy to cite cases of privately built parking facilities that earn respectable profits. But where is there a case today of a privately owned and privately capitalized subway system or streetcar system? The question answers itself. Such systems are everywhere publicly funded, and they everywhere lose money—even in cities like New York, where almost everyone uses them.
Outside New York, in fact—and Philadelphia and Washington and Chicago and San Francisco—scarcely anybody uses them. Eighty-four percent of us go to work every day by car, either our own or someone else's. Another 5.5 percent of us walk to work. Only 6.3 percent of us take mass transit. Almost as many people walk as take mass transit. Walking, like driving, enables us to go where we want when we want by the route we want and in the company we want, without having to stop unless we want. Autonomy. Freedom of choice. Self-reliant individualism.
When will we acknowledge at last that these are the values that have built the car culture and crippled the old centralized city? When will we acknowledge that most Americans, given their druthers, want personal freedom, personal privacy, a little space between themselves and their neighbors, a lot of independence from centralized systems, and an opportunity to live in relatively homogeneous communities where most of the people and their houses and their lifestyles are pretty similar? When will we acknowledge that the decentralized city that looks like a cluster of suburbs with no one center is the kind of city most Americans prefer? When will we acknowledge that for cities in the automotive age, it is sprawl or die—and that this is the reason Los Angeles, Houston, and Phoenix are booming while New York, Chicago, and Atlanta are in decline? And when will we stop fighting it? When will we stop squandering our resources in a futile attempt to stop change, fight the passage of time, and preserve an obsolete mode of living that has been trying for decades to lie down and die quietly, and with dignity?
Jeff Riggenbach lives with his wife and two children in a 78-year-old Edwardian house in downtown Oakland, California, where he participates in the decentralized urban renewal trend known as the gentrification movement and frequently rides BART—the San Francisco Bay area's fixed-rail urban transit boondoggle—though not as often as he travels by one of his two cars.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Vroom to Grow".