Blogs > Cliopatria > Rationality, Cars, and Satellite Radio

Feb 14, 2005 8:20 pm

Rationality, Cars, and Satellite Radio

Sorry to slip away from the Churchill brou-ha-ha, but I find myself distracted by Rational Man, Rational Woman, and the D.C. commute. The distraction came courtesy of this Washington Post article (registration required) on commuting in the D.C. area.

Six out of ten D.C. suburban commuters don’t like their commute. They will rearrange their lives, their schedules, and on occasional even change jobs or work locations. They even support raising gasoline taxes to fund new major projects to ease their lives, if only temporarily.

The one thing the vast majority will not do is give up their car, even thought they understand that their choice, multiplied by the millions of other people who make the same choice, is what causes the problems

Here is the one spot where the article fails. It does not ask the commuters why they won’t give their cars up. Some simply don’t like the public transportation, but are there practical necessities (for example, the ability to pick up little Billy at school if he gets sick)? Is it a vaguer, “I never know when I will need it,” sense of necessity? Or is it simply the fact that a car that we own is our own space in a way that a Metro seat can never be?

In any event, the solution for most is to make their car as comfortable and useful as possible. Cell phones, books on tape, Satellite radio, CD’s: the car becomes a second home, a bit short on scenery, but long on creature comforts and practical, non-transportation utility.

The mentality here gives us, in a nutshell, the problems facing traffic engineers, environmentalists, anyone who deals with the long-term consequences of masses of individual decisions. One-by-one the decisions by these commuters may be rational; that is, each person may be making the best of the situation he or she is in.

Taken together the decisions are insane. They don’t simply create horrendous problems, but they do so in such a way that there is no politically viable solution other than to extend the problem by increasing the number and size of highways. This projects the problem forward to a new generation.

But, hey, it’s all rational.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 2/13/2005

I didn't own a car in Boston: if I needed to get out of town, there's dozens of rental places which would supply the necessary capital equipment for much less than the cost of maintaining it myself.

I'm a huge fan of trains and buses, for most of the same reasons as Sharon, but the capital investment necessary makes it difficult to see how the market will provide them.

I should use my car less than I do, but I'm not prepared to make the shift to bicycle yet.

Sharon Howard - 2/13/2005

Count me in the darn few. I might *need* one in the next few years, but that's not the same thing.

Public transport, where it's any good (and from what I gather it's even worse in much of the USA than in Britain), has its advantages. Somebody else does the driving. (And here's the thing: I hate driving. It just doesn't feel very liberating to me.) I can sleep, read (on trains anyway), eat and drink, have conversations, just relax a bit. The stressful part is missing connections, waiting for connections that never come, worrying about making it to wherever on time. So you have to learn to make allowances, start earlier, be aware of alternative routes. But traffic jams and roadworks and all the rest of it mean that car drivers frequently have to do the same thing anyway.

Jonathan T. Reynolds - 2/13/2005

Call me irrational, but I am one of those folks who loves his car(s) and dislikes public transport. Part of my infatuation with cars is tied to a deep and abiding love affair with physics. The inner workings of the internal combustion engine (or steam engines for that matter) fill me with rapture... but that is off the topic.

More to the point, however, I love private transportation because it allows me to be where I want to be. As a grad student in Boston, I kept a car so I could get out of town when I wanted to. The T just couldn't get me to the White Mountains or even the Cape. Similarly, as an outdoorsy guy, I continue to love having a car because it will take me to places public transport never would... small quiet rivers far from the maddening crowd being a regular favorite of mine. Yet, I love Thai food, and my car lets me get to it.

But, I think there is a deeper point here. Control over transportation has always been a major locus of state power. Private transport makes it easier for more people to go where they want to when they want to... and if that isn't a form of popular soverignty, I don't know what is. No doubt there are many serious drawbacks, but the advantages are obviously highly desired. That's why there are darn few people in the world who don't at least WANT a car.

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