This 40-Year-Old Essay Explains What's Wrong With Cars Today

It seems like every day we're being told that the big problem with cars is that they pollute and melt the icecaps and raise the oceans. There's another problem, and you'll be surprised to hear that it's outlined in a nearly 40-year-old essay.

Don't get me wrong, cars play a part in fucking up our water resources, atmosphere, coasts, deserts, and just about everything else climate change is screwing over. That's just not the one and only problem with cars.

They are screwing up our lives, from how we live to where we work.

This essay, "The Social Ideology of the Motorcar," written by French philosopher André Gorz and published in Le Sauvage in late 1973 and recently republished on Copenhagenize, points out how the fundamental design of the car dooms it to hellish traffic, how cars are ruining cities, and even how cars are ruining themselves.

Gorz opens the essay with the fundamental problem with cars. Cars sell speed, and if everyone has a car, there's no room to go fast.

The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don't have one. That is how in both conception and original purpose the car is a luxury good. And the essence of luxury is that it cannot be democratised. If everyone can have luxury, no one gets any advantages from it. On the contrary, everyone diddles, cheats, and frustrates everyone else, and is diddled, cheated, and frustrated in return.

Gorz outlines how driving in traffic makes everyone else your enemy.

It gives and supports in everyone the illusion that each individual can seek his or her own benefit at the expense of everyone else. Take the cruel and aggressive selfishness of the driver who at any moment is figuratively killing the "others," who appear merely as physical obstacles to his or her own speed.

Gorz goes on to say that the freedom of driving is just a myth on today's congested roads, and explains why people still believe in it.

The persistence of this myth is easily explained. The spread of the private car has displaced mass transportation and altered city planning and housing in such a way that it transfers to the car functions which its own spread has made necessary.

Selling speed is exactly what slows everyone down, Gorz explains.

[W]hen everyone claims the right to drive at the privileged speed of the bourgeoisie, everything comes to a halt, and the speed of city traffic plummets-in Boston as in Paris, Rome, or London-to below that of the horsecar; at rush hours the average speed on the open road falls below the speed of a bicyclist.

Adding room for more cars doesn't help, Gorz continues.

Nothing helps. All the solutions have been tried. They all end up making things worse. No matter if they increase the number of city expressways, beltways, elevated crossways, 16- lane highways, and toll roads, the result is always the same. The more roads there are in service, the more cars clog them, and city traffic becomes more paralysingly congested.

Gorz goes on to quote some figures from Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich, which are probably out of date today, but still make a surprisingly relevant point about the time we waste in our cars.

"The typical American devotes more than 1500 hours a year (which is 30 hours a week, or 4 hours a day, including Sundays) to his [or her] car. This includes the time spent behind the wheel, both in motion and stopped, the hours of work to pay for it and to pay for gas, tires, tolls, insurance, tickets, and taxes .Thus it takes this American 1500 hours to go 6000 miles (in the course of a year). Three and a half miles take him (or her) one hour. In countries that do not have a transportation industry, people travel at exactly this speed on foot, with the added advantage that they can go wherever they want and aren't restricted to asphalt roads."

Gorz goes on to explain the history of how cars were sold, how they caught on in society, and how they ended up clogging all of our cities. The problem from there, Gorz explains, is that buying a car is no longer a choice. Our world is designed around cars and simple solutions to congestion just aren't possible anymore.

The truth is, no one really has any choice. You aren't free to have a car or not because the suburban world is designed to be a function of the car-and, more and more, so is the city world. That is why the ideal revolutionary solution, which is to do away with the car in favour of the bicycle, the streetcar, the bus, and the driverless taxi, is not even applicable any longer in the big commuter cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, Trappes, or even Brussels, which are built by and for the automobile. These splintered cities are strung out along empty streets lined with identical developments; and their urban landscape (a desert) says, "These streets are made for driving as quickly as possible from work to home and vice versa. You go through here, you don't live here. At the end of the workday everyone ought to stay at home, and anyone found on the street after nightfall should be considered suspect of plotting evil." In some American cities the act of strolling in the streets at night is grounds for suspicion of a crime.

These are only excerpts of the essay, and I encourage you to read the whole thing right here on Copenhagenize. Gorz goes on to offer his own solution for the problem of automobilia - tear the big cities down and build new, small ones where everything is close enough for bikes. The solution sounds like something you'd hear at the end of a lecture on urban planning today.

Ultimately, the essay has problems. First of all, the idea that a car traveling an average speed of three and a half miles an hour over the course of a year is in no way comparable to walking. Cars greatly, greatly increase the total mobility of people (particularly poor people who wouldn't have had money for frequent train rides back in the days before cars) in ways that walking never can.

For that matter, you can't just hand every American a bicycle and expect them to get to work on it. Nor can you say that tearing down the world's superhighways in favor of bike paths is a particularly reasonable solution.

That said, the essay is absolutely spectacular when it comes to arguing with your friends about what's good or bad about cars, because when they say why they think traffic is so terrible, or why their suburban development is so boring at night, or why the huge expressways running through the middle of town suck so much, you can point out that people have been making the same arguments for the past 40 years.

Of course, this will make your friends think you're an asshole, but that's what French philosophy is for, right?


Again, you can read the whole essay right here on Copenhagenize.

(Hat tip to Ed Niedermeyer!)

Photo Credit: Philip Lange/Shutterstock