The Auto and its Enemies

Ten years on, reprinting this book review seems appropriate if just to see how his predictions are holding up. So far, they are holding up very well.

Written By: review by Ken Orski
Published In: Environment & Climate News > September 1999
Publication date: 09/01/1999
Publisher: The Heartland Institute

Driving Forces: The Automobile, Its Enemies and the Politics of Mobility James A. Dunn Jr. Brooking Institution Press, 1998 250 pages; paper $18.95, cloth $44.95

no-cars_1By all accounts, the automobile is the nearest thing we have to an ideal transportation system. No transport technology offers people more convenience, comfort, security, and privacy. The auto serves its users on demand, from door to door, with no transfers, no waiting, and at an acceptable price. Widespread car ownership has given millions of people a wider range of options of where to live and work, and it has opened up access to greater social and economic opportunity.So, why do a number of vocal critics see the auto not as a solution, but as a problem? Why do they view existing auto and highway policies not as a success, but as a failure?

In an insightful and widely noticed book, James A. Dunn examines the gulf in perceptions that separates the auto’s critics from the millions of ordinary citizens who treasure the auto as a symbol of personal freedom.

Behind the current anti-highway rhetoric, Dunn, professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden, sees a loosely organized band of crusaders who harbor visceral hostility toward the auto and its culture. This “anti-auto vanguard,” as Dunn calls them, view the automobile “not as a proud achievement of American industry but as a relentless oppressor and a menace to civilization.” The fact that cars are less polluting, safer, and more energy-efficient today than they were 25 years ago is no consolation.

The car critics are not interested in solving problems, writes Dunn. “It is the whole gestalt of the auto as the central socio-cultural icon of our society that they want to eliminate.”

According to Dunn, the vanguard’s immediate goal is not a total abolition of the car, just a dramatic decline in its importance in the transportation system. But the anti-auto activists go beyond seeking more balance in transportation by improving public transit and providing incentives for its use. They want to make auto travel more expensive and less convenient–if necessary, by resorting to legislative mandates and regulatory measures.

The ultimate goal of the vanguard is to bring about a massive change in our travel habits. Dunn finds this highly ironic. In the past, he observes, progress meant replacing an older transportation technology with a newer one that offered greater mobility. The vanguard’s goal of replacing the auto with “alternative transportation,”–transit, walking, and bicycles–would be the first modal shift in transportation history that would reverse this historic process by restricting rather than expanding mobility. The vanguard’s objective, far from being progressive, is profoundly reactionary.
The Vanguard’s Impact

How successful has the anti-auto movement been, and how is it likely to fare in the future? Dunn traces the rise of anti-car sensibilities to the “green tradition” in American thought and literature of the 19th century, exemplified by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. In the 20th century, social critics and urbanists like Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs drew on those values to focus on the negative effects of the automobile on America’s cities. The 1970s saw an outpouring of books, articles, and reports highly critical in their assessment of the car’s impact.

“Within a few years the private car and the whole industrial and social apparatus that supported it were redefined by its critics in very negative terms,” writes Dunn. The car was demonized as a voracious consumer of irreplaceable energy resources, a major source of greenhouse gases, a killer of tens of thousands of accident victims, a destroyer of cohesive communities, and a despoiler of the landscape.

But early critics’ predictions of the “death knells of the automobile culture” did not materialize. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the automobile kept gaining ground, not just in America but in the rest of the world as well. The critics vastly overestimated the public’s willingness to give up personal mobility, and underestimated the extent to which autos and highways fit the values of the American political and social culture.

What does the current generation of critics make of the auto’s continued dominance? Do they still expect the end of automobility? Or have they changed their views? “The visceral hostility to the auto and its culture is clearly still present” writes Dunn. The most committed members of the anti-car movement resist arguments that their basic goals may be unattainable. Contemporary critics, such as James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere, 1993) and Jane Holtz Kay (Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America, 1997) still believe, in Kunstler’s words, that “the Auto Age as we have known it, will shortly come to an end.”

The mainstream environmental movement, although less apocalyptic in its predictions and more restrained in its rhetoric, is no less convinced of the need for fundamental change. Groups such as the Worldwatch Institute, Union of Concerned Scientists, Environmental Defense Fund, and Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) build their policy recommendations on the basic proposition that the current dominance of the automobile is unsustainable in the long run.

There are three key elements in the vanguard’s long-term strategy, observes Dunn. First, there must be continuous consciousness-raising among policy-makers and the general public. The auto must be made to pay its “true social costs.” Once people are confronted with paying the full costs of auto travel, the argument goes, they will be much more willing to consider other transportation alternatives.

Second, auto critics must engage in effective lobbying of the legislature. The most notable success in this regard, notes Dunn, has been the efforts of the STPP to introduce more funding flexibility into the federal-aid highway program and to earmark funds for environmentally friendly transportation initiatives.

The third element of the vanguard’s strategy is to build bureaucratic momentum, writes Dunn. To that end, the vanguard has become an active part of the policy-making process and seeks a voice in numerous forums to influence the course of debate on auto-related environmental issues, such as global warming, “sustainability,” “smart growth,” and “livable communities.”

Will the vanguard succeed in its campaign to drastically reduce society’s dependence on the automobile and bring about a massive modal shift? Dunn doubts it. The main strength of the anti-car lobby lies in its sense of outrage and missionary zeal. Its weakness–which, Dunn thinks, will doom its efforts in the end–is that it is disconnected from mainstream America. Its goals are not shared by the vast majority of people and run counter to the deeply entrenched preferences of most Americans.

The vanguard’s vision of a largely carless world in which residents mostly rely on bicycles and public transportation lacks political realism and seems beyond the bounds of public acceptability. “They [the anti-auto vanguard] threaten to take away the individuals’ tangible embodiment of their personal freedom, their car, without offering a superior substitute,” Dunn notes.
The Future of Mobility

Dunn offers an alternative policy future. The most effective policy response to any pressing auto-related problems, he writes, is not to discourage people from using cars, but to encourage improvement in the technology of the auto itself. Such an approach would welcome the advent of less polluting, more efficient cars. It would allow individuals and communities to choose freely from an expanded range of choices, rather than seek to impose bureaucratic “command-and-control” patterns of travel behavior. It would try to preserve rather than denigrate the immense and undeniable benefits of car ownership.

Above all, Dunn believes that “a successful politics of mobility must have common-sense appeal to citizens.” People must see it as a means to help them meet their specific personal needs, not as a crusade to save the planet or to reshape the living environment in the elitist image of the anti-car vanguard.

The anti-auto forces will not like Dunn’s book much. But the broad public, having been exposed for years to strident anti-automobile rhetoric, deserves a better understanding of the mentality behind the anti-car ideology. James Dunn has performed a valuable public service in better illuminating the anti-auto movement’s agenda, motivation, and philosophy.

Ken Orski is editor of Innovation Briefs.

22 replies
  1. Lyle
    Lyle says:

    The key point is that automobile owners and operators must be made to pay the true costs. Until now, they have been able to enjoy the “immense and undeniable benefits” while forcing others to bear the immense and undeniable costs.

  2. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    As someone who has owned a car for over 25 years, I see nothing wrong with a well-reasoned, anti-car stance. Being anti-car however, is NOT necessarily a good platform for a pro-bike movement.

    Cars are very good rural transportation machines. The problem is we decided to jam them into our cities and towns, then built millions of acres of development to serve them. The result is we are now servants to our cars as much as they are servants to us.

  3. Lucas da Costa Dantas
    Lucas da Costa Dantas says:

    Taking too much space for individuals rising all the moral
    the money can stand on its rights
    therefore all the influences that takes it to the economy
    is the sophistication of a living be for a car society .

    Selling and payments to keep the flow and the comsume pride
    so far not enough to but the public freedom and some kind
    of wrong to supply this idea that trap everyone surounded
    by others product dependences .

    And getting worse to tell everyone must have its on to play .

    With the cities becomming a playground for drivers
    it banish activities for economical purposes sayng its safe competition .
    Globalization and internation stays are also on its dependences
    for space and freedom this corruption does
    that again another influences for products like drugs to supply
    its freedom lost .

    Ideas to destroy the car society::
    1.All the cars must have instaled a device for monitoring its activities .
    2.That must be recorded on powerful computer centrals all over the cities .
    3.The tax must stand for 1,time moving and 2.time parked at public place .
    4.Tax are raised or lower in dependence of number of automobiles that time at street .
    5.Priority for single living be at streets including animals on its walks .
    6.The cars cannot run fast at public streets .

  4. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    Eric: It seems to me the biggest arguement against autos is primarily from their souce of power. Create transportation that uses non-polluting, renewable fuel and the anti-car proponents lose their biggest dog in the fight.

    I also think that the issue of true costs has some weight. The problem has been agreeing on what the costs items are, and how much value (dollar or otherwise) should be placed on any one of them.

  5. MikeOnBike
    MikeOnBike says:

    Andrewp said: “Create transportation that uses non-polluting, renewable fuel and the anti-car proponents lose their biggest dog in the fight.”

    Not really. It’s one factor, but the impact of a car-centric society goes far beyond the fuel.

    At the same time, I agree with Mighk that car criticism is not a good foundation for cycling advocacy.

  6. Lakis Polycarpou
    Lakis Polycarpou says:

    I haven’t read the book, but from your review it seems that the author either unintentionally or deliberately misses or ignores the key arguments of the anti-car lobby.

    The most important point is this: an auto-centered society doesn’t arise out of thin air, is the result of scores of political, policy decisions that destroy cities. Cars need roads to drive on; roads cost money, money paid for with taxes. Cars require acres of parking, which in most places is mandated by law. For every new acre of parking, cities become more spread out, which then requires more parking, and more highways, which cost more money, which supplants funding for other alternatives and making living decently without a car impossible. You call this progress?

    I find it highly ironic that your author calls the anti-car position “elitist” when it is the “pro-car” position (whatever that is) that requires rich and poor alike to own an expensive, two-ton giant piece of machinery for basic life necessities, never mind utterly disenfranchising anyone who can’t drive for whatever reason.

    Of course cars are seductive; as Mumford himself pointed out so many years ago, the first person who owned a car felt like a king. The problem is once everyone owns cars and city and suburb alike are a sea of asphalt and strip malls and the average commute takes an hour and a half in stop-and go traffic.

    Finally, the most important point: the imminent decline of oil throws the whole auto infrastructure into question. At some point soon, the majority of Americans will not be able to afford cars or the gas that goes in them; at that point we will look around at the mess we have built (a mess which makes no sense without the car) and wonder what the hell we’ve done.

  7. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    The fundamental problem with the car is that it makes cities very unpleasant to live in. It destroys social networks by making streets impossible for people to use. The noise causes severe stress. The land use planning required to support autos is incompatible with the land use planning required to support people.

    This is why Holland and car-free cities like Venice score so high on surveys of human happiness and quality of life. This is why people want so desperately to live in the car-free parts of Toronto such as Toronto Islands.

    I do not live in a car-free zone. Where I live and where I work there is zero car parking. Call it a car-light zone. Even still, the cars on the street are intimidating, noisy, polluting and destructive of the urban ambiance and environment. I would dearly love for them to be gone, because cars and people are incompatible in the city.

  8. Stephen C. Rose
    Stephen C. Rose says:

    Anti Auto is right on. I have been substantiating this with reference to Christopher Alexander and Pattern Language. Densities in metrosprawl serve the dying automobile economy. We need to create settlements on the corpse of metrosprawl. This is an interesting ans salient piece though it ignores those of us who have been positive critics. So does the rest of the world.

  9. Keri
    Keri says:

    This is an interesting discussion. I’d never even heard of anti-car until I got in to cycling advocacy. I’ve never considered myself anti-car (I own one and use it), but I’ve certainly complained about the effects of car-dependent development and the social results of car-centrism, speed dominance and entitlement to drive.

    ISTM, all the evils associated with the car are really a product of flawed human nature. The car was just a tool. That we built our societies around it was a result of our hyper-individualism. Did it destroy our communities, or did we use it to do that? To get away from each-other? Because we’re selfish and shortsighted and have been since the dawn of civilization? And when will that change? What will be the next tool?

    That people are transformed into mindless wildebeest or hostile bullies isn’t really the fault of the car, it’s the human inability to handle power and anonymity with integrity. Seeing how some people act in cars is a painful reminder of how little we’ve evolved from barbarians.

    (While riding the Mount Vernon trail into DC, I had a bicycle commuter buzz me and cut me off as I was negotiating a road crossing. The rude prick nearly ran me off the trail. No different than bad motorist behavior.)

    Car-centrism (rather than the vehicle itself) is central to a lot of problems of sustainabiity, livability, civility and access. I think going back to comment #1 by Lyle, if we didn’t insidiously subsidize the cost of private auto use, we’d find a better balance.

  10. Keri
    Keri says:

    One additional comment:
    As Mighk and Mike have noted, anti-motoring is a poor foundation for cycling advocacy. It is appropriate for community advocacy, but not bicycle-specific advocacy.

    Bicycling advocacy really needs to focus on whats best for bicyclists, not what will get people out of cars or what will punish motorists. Too often, when those sentiments get involved it results in infrastructure that is not best for bicyclists (like removing a travel lane to install a door zone bike lane).

  11. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    “Bicycling advocacy really needs to focus on whats best for bicyclists, not what will get people out of cars or what will punish motorists. Too often, when those sentiments get involved it results in infrastructure that is not best for bicyclists (like removing a travel lane to install a door zone bike lane).”

    Ah, Keri points us to some yummy irony this morning. Many anti-car bikeway advocates are promoting bicycle facilities which make auto use easier (at least at the most obvious level) by getting bicyclists out of the way of motorists.

    Some years ago a local anti-car, pro-cycle-track woman (who was not much of a cyclist at all, but was a car owner) spoke to our Citizen’s Advisory Committee on the benefits of cycle-tracks. One committee member (a former bike shop owner) related his story of visiting The Netherlands in the 1950s. He said car travel was slow-going in some places due to all the bicyclists, who basically took over the roadways. I imagine Dutch motorists are probably happier these days with cyclists out of the way on many major streets.

  12. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Keri wrote:
    “While riding the Mount Vernon trail into DC, I had a bicycle commuter buzz me and cut me off as I was negotiating a road crossing. The rude prick nearly ran me off the trail. No different than bad motorist behavior.”

    Kevin’s comment:
    The key difference is that when rude people in cars hit me, I am much more likely to die.

  13. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    Kevin’s comment:
    “The key difference is that when rude people in cars hit me, I am much more likely to die.”

    Yeah, I think most folks already understand that.

  14. Abhishek
    Abhishek says:


    bicycle ridership in The Netherlands has risen faster than the population growth. This means, more people adopt the supposedly inferior bicycle infrastructure every day.

    What Kevin is inching towards is that if more people bicycle, the chances of car-on-bike accidents will reduce. Bike-on-bike accidents are much less severe.

  15. Eric
    Eric says:

    >bicycle ridership in The Netherlands has risen faster<

    And that is what matters, is it? Having ridden on cycle tracks, I think they are as unsafe as riding on sidewalks here.

    More people on sidewalks or cycletracks doesn't make anyone safer.

    If you wanted to change the law to the way it is is in the Netherlands where a car driver is automatically thought to be at fault and to back in time and change things where 75% of the population after WWII rode bicycles to work, I would think that you and Kevin would have a point.

  16. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Eric wrote:

    “If you wanted to change the law to the way it is is in the Netherlands where a car driver is automatically thought to be at fault…”

    Kevin’s comment:
    We have the same law here in Ontario. Does Florida not have something similar to this?

    Onus of disproving negligence

    193. (1) When loss or damage is sustained by any person by reason of a motor vehicle on a highway, the onus of proof that the loss or damage did not arise through the negligence or improper conduct of the owner, driver, lessee or operator of the motor vehicle is upon the owner, driver, lessee or operator of the motor vehicle. 2005, c. 31, Sched. 10, s. 3.


  17. danc
    danc says:

    Eric, thanks for the link and thread. Here is shorter related article: Mobility Contested: Ethical Challenges for Planners, Administrators and Policy Analysts By James A. Dunn, Jr.

    Summary: Are the ethical problems more serious when one side in the debate bases its policy recommendations on moralistic claims of fostering the public interest, enlightened inter-generational stewardship, and saving the planet, while the other side makes its case on market efficiency, majority rule, and freedom of consumer choice?

    In developing policies to reduce the negative externalities of the automobile in democratic nations with widespread auto ownership, they should consider the principle that mechanical engineering is almost always easier and more cost effective than social engineering.

    Responsible public administrators and policy analysts have an ethical obligation to critically examine the assumptions behind their preferred programs, to continually and carefully consider the arguments and the data that are raised by the program’s critics, and to be ready to use their expertise to revise or replace such programs when the facts warrant it.

  18. ChipSeal
    ChipSeal says:

    Kevin Love pointed out Canadian law that says; “Onus of disproving negligence

    193. (1) When loss or damage is sustained by any person by reason of a motor vehicle on a highway, the onus of proof that the loss or damage did not arise through the negligence or improper conduct of the…is upon… the operator of the motor vehicle.”

    In the USA, citizens are held innocent by our government unless the government can prove otherwise in most cases. Sadly, this principal is subject to an ever decreasing sphere of American life.

  19. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    ChipSeal wrote:
    “…citizens are held innocent by our government…”

    Kevin’s comment:
    The concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is a standard part of British-derived criminal law in Canada, the USA and other parts of the world that inherited British-developed concepts of democracy and human rights.

    But I wasn’t writing about criminal law. The Ontario statue is about civil liability. The onus is upon operators of motor vehicles to avoid hitting other persons or things upon the road. And if one of them does hit a cyclist, they are responsible for paying for the damages they cause and can be sued in civil courts. If a motorist does cause damage and is sued, he is assumed to have been negligent unless he can prove otherwise.

    Even in the USA (at least in Wisconsin, I don’t know about Florida) it is much easier to establish responsibility in a lawsuit than a criminal conviction. As a certain O.J. Simpson famously found out.

    The standard for a successful lawsuit is that of “balance of probability.” Are the odds 51% or higher?

    The standard for a criminal conviction is “beyond reasonable doubt.”

    As a matter of practical working out, the civil negligence statue in Ontario is an extremely valuable tool for cyclists. There have been several well-publicised cases where motorists who caused serious injuries have “beat the rap” criminally, but were found at fault when sued. And were awarded damages substantially in excess of their (mandatory) drivers’ insurance policies so as to be sued into bankruptcy.

    I constantly read in USA newspapers about children who were killed on the road and the motorist says things like “she darted in front of my car.” Consequences = zero. In Ontario, that motorist would be about to lose everything he owns.

    The result is that people driving cars do so very carefully in residential areas so that they don’t hit children. Or cyclists.

  20. Keri
    Keri says:

    My first bicycle crash involved a child on a bike darting off a sidewalk from behind a parked panel van. I had no way of seeing her – even as I was traveling at <15mph and had much better visibility than a motorist would. She was very lucky I was not driving a car. She rode away with a few bruises. I had a broken pinky finger, which is still crooked… but a lesser wound than the mental one I would have suffered from hitting her with a car.

    A lot of kids are killed every year because they dart into the road without looking. We need to contain cut-thru traffic and enforce caution (25mph is too fast on residential streets), but it’s also imperative to teach kids responsibility with their bicycles.

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