During an urbanist twitter free-for-all last week, the thoroughly awesome term “liberty machines” was used to describe the virtues of the car. The claim was made that cars let individuals go wherever they want, whenever they want and are therefore a ‘freedom enhancing’ form of transit.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this argument in libertarian(ish) circles. But it doesn’t tally with my experience and I’m not sure it makes any sense even within its own premise.
A Personal Anecdote and a Couple Thoughts
When I learned to drive way back when, it was in the great state of Texas where driving is basically a necessity. In that context, getting my license (and being economically fortunate enough to have access to a car) was certainly liberating for me after a fashion.
Thinking back, though, I enjoyed far less mobility as a car bound teenager in suburban Houston than I do now living in Oakland, California. I walk to the grocery, take BART to work, bike to the gym, catch a Lyft to go out, and/or drive myself when the occasion demands. Most of my trips are multimodal and the integration of transit modes affords me far more freedom of movement than car use alone ever could.
The biggest reason for this is that single occupancy vehicle use doesn’t scale as a stand alone system. Unpriced roadways are prone to hitting congestion points and, as readers of this blog are probably aware, adding lanes doesn’t help. When roads become clogged, and there are no viable alternatives, a reliance on cars becomes a constraint. And to respond to the idea that mass transit relies on government subsidies and car use does not…the technical term for that would be factually incorrect. Mass transit is more than capable of paying for itself and let’s just say highways don’t exist in the state of nature.
Returning to this idea of ‘freedom enhancing’ transit, a reliance on cars has got to be the worst of all options. Besides the congestion problems, there are distributional impacts as well. If you’re too young or too old to drive, you’re reliant on those who still can. Not to mention the fixed overhead of car ownership is a regressive burden on the least well off.
So…is there a case for the car as the pro-liberty choice in transit? Not as far as I can see. And while #libertymachines is an incredibly tweetable hashtag, it’ll have to remain ironic for now.