The Motorcar vs. America

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Were it left to me, I should answer in a statement to the motorcar and highway interests. “Gentlemen, you have been turning out toys for chicken feed,” I should say. “Incidentally, you have been pushing your country toward ruin. We offer you a chance to do a man’s job for real money and, incidentally, take on the most exciting piece of work man has ever set hand to. We call on you to rebuild the nation .” Addressing Detroit, architect Philip Johnson has said, “Now look, turn your aims around. You now want to build great cities, not make automobiles. As in World War II, when you served public ends so efficiently and built no pleasure cars, adapt your incredible know-how, your great management abilities, to this new task. Do it efficiently and beautifully. Here is 100 billion or so for the first two years. Give us an accounting when you have used it up.”

Asking why we do not live in good cities, Philip Johnson replies that “it can only be that we do not wish to. … Everyone seems to like other things more. It is my thesis that we shall not get cities designed closer to our hearts’ desire until the values of people change. … If I am right, we face a dismal future. Popular faiths change slowly, slowly.” And popular faith in the motorcar seems to remain a consuming one.

Yet there are signs of a burgeoning resistance to the “tyranny of the motorcar”—the currency of that expression being one of them. Because “the resentment is so deep,” Mayor John V. Lindsay has overruled the projected Lower Manhattan and Cross-Brooklyn expressways. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, opponents of the Inner Beltway around Boston are still managing to hold the line. So are opponents of the proposed freeway along San Francisco Bay. Citizens’ groups are still fighting hard to kill Three Sisters Bridge. Most spectacularly, a prolonged battle to save New Orleans’ historic Vieux Carré district from an elevated freeway has finally been won, with the freeway’s coup de grâce having been delivered by a former road contractor, John A. Volpe, Secretary of Transportation.

The Nixon administration has sponsored legislation providing for the expenditure of ten billion dollars over the next twelve years to help cities build mass-transit systems. This would represent a very great advance over the annual pittance the federal government is at present putting out ($175,000,000 to pay only half the costs of mass-transit systems) but hosannahs are being reserved until it is known how much is actually to be committed.

In the contest with the motorcar we may be able to count on the assistance of one force that is strong enough to dethrone it. This the Washington Post anticipated when, after charging automobiles with killing passenger trains and urban transit systems, it predicted that “In time, automobiles will kill themselves since the nation’s fleet is now large enough to fill the 41,000-mile Interstate highway system bumper to bumper and is growing each year by enough to fill a two-lane highway bumper to bumper from Washington to Los Angeles.” Before that auto-da-fé takes place, however—if the expression may be forgiven—irreparable damage may have been done to society. The basic decisions may have to be made much sooner; within five years, if the forecast of a traffic expert in the nation’s capital is sound, “every single city-center area of every big city will be absolutely choked with automobiles.”

Meanwhile nature conservationists and urban redemptionists may recognize that a common foe gives them a common cause. Every additional dollar of tax on motor vehicles and their requisites (a fifty-cent-a-mile levy would be proportionate to the damage the motorcar does, a pharmacologist at Stanford, Robert H. Dreisbach, suggests), every additional dollar of appropriations for public transportation, every dollar withheld from highway construction—is a step toward a supportable and rewarding way of life in the future.