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America’s Greatest Invention

Opinion Editorial
September 21, 2006

Despite being demonized for years, the automobile may be the greatest invention of the past 230 years. Mass-produced automobiles and their relatives, trucks and tractors, vastly increased the mobility, income, and quality of life for the average American.

In 1920, when America had the most extensive urban transit and intercity passenger train service the world has ever seen, the average American traveled little more than 1,000 miles per year by rail. In truth, most Americans hardly rode trains at all, as only the wealthy and upper-middle class could afford the fares.

Millions of Americans never journeyed more than 50 miles from their birthplace. Those who left home might rarely, if ever, return to visit family and friends left behind.

The automobile changed all that. Today, the average American travels 16,000 miles per year by auto. Automobility is more evenly spread out among social classes, as more than 90 percent of American families own at least one car.

This huge increase in mobility contributed to a seven-fold increase in incomes in the last century. The auto gives people access to far more jobs, and employers access to a more highly skilled workforce, than could ever be possible relying solely on walking and mass transit.

The increase in mobility and incomes led to a 40-percent increase in homeownership rates. In 1900, homeownership was limited to the wealthy and white-collar workers. The automobile enabled blue-collar workers to buy and travel to and from their own homes.

Automobiles, trucks, and tractors revolutionized the production and distribution of food and other consumer goods. The share of incomes devoted to food, clothing, and other personal goods has dropped by 50 percent or more even as quality and variety have increased. The average supermarket today sells a hundred times as many different products as could be found in the average grocery of 1906, an increase almost solely due to automobility.

The automobile vastly increased our social and recreational opportunities. “No burden has ever set quite as heavily on farming and upon the farm family as has the curse of isolation and loneliness,” wrote the editor of American Agriculturalist in 1927. The auto ended that isolation. Today, Coloradans think nothing of driving a hundred miles to go skiing, backpacking, mountain biking, or other sports that did not even exist before the automobile.

Automobiles allowed blacks and other minorities to escape their oppressors. “I’ve always viewed automobiles as freedom rides,” says Washington Post writer Warren Brown. “The civil rights movement, which began with the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott, would have been a failure had it not been for the automobile,” which blacks used to carpool people to work. Similarly, it is no coincidence that the women’s liberation movement took place only when most American households became “two-car families.”

Autos have been blamed for urban sprawl, but actually they produced significant land-use benefits. All American cities and towns together cover less than 130 million acres. Between 1920 and 1970, the area of private forestlands increased by nearly 130 million acres as farmers no longer needed those acres to pasture horses.

The auto was once justly blamed for being unsafe and fouling the air. Yet auto fatality rates per mile of travel have declined by 80 percent in the last fifty years, and pollution rates have declined by 90 percent. Today’s cars are among the safest forms of transportation in the world, and urban air is far cleaner today than it was in 1900 when coal-powered steam trains and other coal burning made cities a sooty nightmare. Today’s cars are also nearly 50-percent more fuel-efficient than cars of a few decades ago.

Despite the benefits of automobility, Denver, Boulder, Ft. Collins, and other Front Range cities are on a relentless crusade to get people to drive less. They put barriers in streets to increase congestion, limit parking in new developments, and divert highway user fees to transit, bike paths, and anything else other than increasing roadway capacity to meet the demand for auto travel. These policies risk killing the automotive goose that laid the golden egg of American prosperity.

Rather than discouraging driving, cities should be neutral regarding people’s personal transportation choices, making certain only that everyone pays the full cost of their choices. New highways funded out of a combination of gas taxes and tolls can relieve Front Range congestion. Coordinated traffic signals and other low-cost improvements can also greatly reduce delays and air pollution. These and similar programs will allow Colorado to continue enjoying the benefits of the greatest invention in American history.