The Motorcar vs. America

For the ordinary citizen who can afford one, as most Americans can, the motorcar probably means more than any other single gift of the machine age. It is the magic carpet that makes us master of the world’s domains: it is wings; it is speed, it is drama, it is adventure. It is also nirvana in a capsule. Enclosed in its luxurious appointments, in a body-contoured seat, air-conditioned, removed from reality by power brakes and power steering, lulled by the blandishments of various worlds of make-believe piped in by the dashboard radio, we know ourselves cherished and safeguarded as we could hardly expect to be elsewhere this side of the womb.

The motorcar is the fulfillment of pride, an embodiment of rakish elegance specially designed by platoons of experts to put its possessor ahead of the Joneses. It is self-assertion. It is an arrogant chromed and lacquered torpedo with the throbbing power of three hundred champing horses, the apotheosis of humdrum man, the transformation of the put-upon adolescent into a figure to be reckoned with. Svelte and racy for the female of the species, it is sexual drive incarnate for the male. It is symbolism, and it is sin itself—an ever-available mobile bedroom in which more chastity goes by the board every week than has been undermined by all the erotic books in history.

But the price: that messy business of a price …

Perhaps too much should not be made of those fifty-odd thousand lives destroyed and the hundreds of thousands of injured the dreamboat leaves in its wake every year. The subject has become banal. We have lived so long with the slaughter that the victims have become mere statistics, mere repeated statistics.

Well, not entirely. There is that scene none of us is spared for long: the red light flashing atop the police cruiser, the crumpled cars askew, the splintered glass, the dark stains on the concrete you pray are only gasoline or oil, and—oh no!—the two figures prone on the grass. It is a vivid scene, and no less so in retrospect when your wife is late in getting home or your daughter is out in a motorized missile (the term is an insurance-company president’s) with a youth charged by an adolescent’s flood of hormones and an impulsive and reckless exhibitionism. (On the test track, says a writer who tried one, the new Ford Torino “loafed around the banked turns at over 115 m.p.h.”) Try not to think of it. Just hope that the wives and children slaughtered will once again be someone else’s. The mathematical chances are that they will be, and that probability satisfies the public.

But if the public can go along with highway deaths the equal of seven Gettysburgs a year—and I have little doubt that it can and will in time take those of ten or a dozen in its stride—so can civilization. Whether civilization can survive the other costs of the motorcar is the real question.

It is not by mere chance that “civilization” and “city” are inseparably linked etymologically. From the beginning the city has been civilization, and the history of civilization is the history of great cities. And what stirring and exalting things great cities are!—Periclean Athens and Renaissance Florence with a few tens of thousands, as well as, I am certain, London, Paris, and Rome with millions. Surely the great city is the outstanding work of man, synthesizing all his other works in an organic whole with a life, vitality, and personality of its own. Historically, human achievements in the arts and in the arts of civilization are clustered in cities; it is in the interaction of those to whom perceptions, ideas, and cultivation of the mind are important that civilization flourishes.

But we need cities for humbler purposes, too. We need frequent and intimate encounters with others to bring out what is latent in us and to draw us out of ourselves. “All the evidence of psychiatry,” says sociologist George C. Homans, “shows that membership in a group sustains a man, enables him to bring up children who will in turn be happy and resilient.” We are both comforted and kindled by the throng and variety of human beings bent upon their pursuits in the living city. We need that, at least much of the time, as we need the human sounds of the city, the laughter and shouts, the scents of bakeries—all that goes with human lives being lived together, interwoven and juxtaposed.

But the city, as we all know, is now faced with bankruptcy and is hard pressed to provide even the essential services. Life has been withdrawing from its streets, which are increasingly unsafe. Increasingly, we discuss as a real question whether the city can be saved. But what we resist acknowledging is that in the demise of the city the automobile is playing a key role. Indeed the automobile could hardly do a better job of wrecking the city if it had been designed for that specific purpose.