More on Class and Transportation

Here’s a clip from a book chapter I’m doing on this neglected topic:

pyramid-kapFor the private jet set, the travel world is luxurious and comparatively full of fun. CNBC reports that, as of 2008, “Private jet travel [was] the fastest growing luxury market segment. Over 15% of all flights in the U.S. are by private jet. There are more than 1,000 daily private jet flights in key markets such as South Florida, New York and Los Angeles.” In between Asian and European shopping junkets, trips to exotic beaches, and retreats to country homes, the super-rich commonly maintain mega-garages full of extravagant, specialized cars and trucks, each of which serves the need or mood of any particular moment. “The typical Ferrari customer, for example, orders $20,000 to $30,000 of options,” reports CNN, noting that “most Ferrari owners have more than one — a half-dozen or so is common.”

At the bottom of American society, experiences are different. In 2001, when 11.7 percent of U.S. households received incomes below the official poverty line, those same households accounted for only 6.1 percent of all automotive miles traveled in the United States. The last time the U.S. Department of Transportation conducted its National Household Transportation Survey, it found that:

Households without a vehicle are not spread uniformly across the population. For example, households with an annual income of less than $25,000 are almost nine times as likely to be a zero-vehicle household than households with incomes greater than $25,000. Not only is income related to the availability of household vehicles, but it is also related to the age of the vehicle. For example, households with a household income of $100,000 or more had a vehicle with an average model year of [5 years old], while households with a household income of less than $25,000 had a personal vehicle [when they had one] with an average model year of [ten years old].

At a purely logical level of analysis, seeing a car critic such as the present author draw attention to inequality in the distribution of automobiles might strike some readers as a case of forgetting the lesson of the old joke in which the diner complains that “The food in this restaurant is awful, and the portions – so small!” Yet, however awful cars-first transportation may be, it remains true that, once it exists, access to one’s own automobile can be a major determinant of the quality of life.

Indeed, in her extensive interviews with welfare recipients in the United States, family sociologist Karen Seccombe has found that automobiles are a very deep dilemma in their lives. Seccombe summarizes what she learned:

It…became clear in the interviews that transportation was a major structural barrier to women getting or keeping jobs. Past recipients…report that the lack of affordable transportation presents a barrier even more serious than the lack of childcare to securing employment. Women on welfare cannot afford to buy reliable automobiles….Most women who had cars…[almost always] owned older models that were in a constant state of disrepair….Obviously, [despite a widely-known political trope to the contrary] women on welfare are not driving Cadillacs….While offhand it is easy to say, “You can walk to work,” reality may dictate something else….Walking can add an hour or two to childcare bills, and may necessitate being away from one’s children for 9, 10, or 11 hours a day instead of the usual 8….In many communities, walking to work can be more than just inconvenient. It can be dangerous.

Of course, reality is immensely worse at the global level. The most basic statistics about worldwide disparities in access to transportation are stark. In the United States, there are now about 765 motor vehicles per 1,000 residents, and these vehicles operate on more than 4.2 million miles of paved, dedicated roadways. Meanwhile the number motor vehicles per thousand residents is 19 in Guatemala, 8 in Pakistan, and less than 1 in both Afghanistan and Malawi.

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Transportation Inequality in America

From the beginning, corporations and allied planners and politicians have promoted the automobile with large doses of syrupy propaganda about its overwhelming wonders and benignity. This wave of dogma routinely includes paeans to the automobile’s allegedly democratic and egalitarian nature. According to Rutgers University transportation engineer James A. Dunn, for example, not only does “the auto provide a kind of individualist equality that is particularly well suited to American values,” but owning and driving cars “unites [Americans] across class, racial, ethnic, and religious lines as few other aspects of our society can.”

Alas, Dunn seems not to have examined the most basic data on the distribution of automobiles in the United States, to say nothing of the world. If he had bothered to do so, he might have discovered that, contrary to long-running industry intimations and intellectual pre-suppositions, cars are, in fact, one of the most unequally distributed product categories in the United States.

Here is a table I just assembled from the most recent Consumer Expenditure Survey:

Dawson Table 1

As you can see, the rich are savers/investors, but they also dominate spending.  New vehicle spending in particular.

That sucking sound you hear?  A century’s worth of cars = freedom + democracy incantation going into the flushbowl, where it belongs.

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Cars-First Must Go

anotherjam Here in this country, radical reconstruction of the U.S. transportation order is the best political proposal we can pursue and promote.

The cars-first transportation arrangement of the United States (which China is now rapidly copying) will make or break the human species in this make-it-or-break-it century. If we permit the powers-that-be to continue to preserve it, even with a large infusion of so-called “green cars,” we are doomed, thanks to cars-first’s stupendous and stupendously wasteful energy requirements, its deep ties to military conflict in our heavily armed world, and probably also its greenhouse emissions effects.

If we could mount a serious and adequate program for transcending cars-first transportation through planned urban and inter-urban reconstruction, it would not only provide a way to create millions of new public- and private-sector jobs, thus unifying a potentially very large coalition, but doing so would provide a practical, readily-understandable way for us to bring sustainability, energy constraints, and ecological economics to the center of the stage. This could generate a sense of political meaning and passion amongst a demoralized, frustrated population that is thirsty for these things. Getting this topic onto the agenda would also bring on a whale of a good fight with the U.S. oligarchy, which is certainly the single most dangerous social formation in today’s world, on many different fronts.

If we fail to press this topic, meanwhile, you can start making your Mad Max plans…

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