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Running Out of Gas

The present afflictions of the automobile business—from political and financial disdain to consumer preference for small cars—are a sickness born in past strength. Like all dominant national industries—and like, for example, the British railroad industry in the mid-nineteenth century—the auto business depended for its early, glorious growth on the sustenance of social and institutional partiality. Such support provided roads, a favorable tax structure, a dispersal of cities and jobs. It encouraged the decay of alternative modes of transportation, and suspended rational calculations of the costs of auto development and auto waste: it made possible the great and sustained power of American demand for automobiles.

Automotive growth required the technological priority of Fordist mass production, and the opportunities of mass consumption, and also a favoritism of national development. Yet it is exactly this structure of social support that seems most unreliable in present auto troubles, at once the hope and the nemesis of auto development. The recent difficulties of auto selling are caused in part by the collapse of such institutional support, by new public preoccupation with the irrationality and occasional inconvenience of auto use, with the cumulative costs of past auto excesses. At the same time, the apparent inevitability of auto travel in states and cities designed for automobiles is a major force sustaining auto sales and profits—just as the “inertia of use and wont,” which Veblen found in British railroad investment and in the planning of nineteenth-century economic and urban development, was responsible for the lingering successes of the demoralized British rail industry. Meanwhile, in yet another conflicting role, this same social inertia of auto development also contributes to the business immobility of auto corporations, which, expecting continued support and continuing, if depressed, profits, are unable to change their habitual strategies.

Consumer preference for automobiles, in the context of social support for auto use, seems more soberly self-interested than mysterious and absolute. Beyond its evident qualities—in offering freedom, independence, privacy, sensations of power—auto transportation has provided the advantages of participation in a most favored sector of the national economy. There seems no need to propose an unexplainable “affinity” between Americans and automobiles: rational consumers would in any case choose to travel on socially subsidized highways, in socially favored cars.

Highway construction is only the most tangible part of such subvention. Auto and fuel taxes are used largely to encourage further auto use; the costs of auto use in pollution, destruction of cities, waste of national environmental and energy resources, have been charged, historically, to the general revenue, or to posterity. Where national planning, business incentives, and property taxation favor trucking, it is reasonable to send freight by road rather than on less wasteful railroads. Where all but a tiny percentage of citizens travel to work beyond walking distance, and where public-transit services are decayed or have disappeared, it has been reasonable for 82 percent of Americans to commute to and from work in the automobiles they support as taxpayers.

(The psychological appeal of auto transport, in this situation, is itself a consequence of historical partiality. Just as the English felt a joyous mania for nineteenth-century railroads, and as Japanese consumers spent comparatively reckless amounts on television sets and other consumer electrical goods that dominated their national economic growth in the 1960s, so, for American consumers, automobiles were the products that corresponded best to a most ecstatic moment of national development.)

Social partiality made possible auto domination and the extraordinary profits of the auto industry. Yet because it was supported by quite specific partiality, auto power is comprehensible, contingent, reversible. It required national sustenance, which will be reduced as auto ascendancy declines. Auto sales and profits were able to expand not only because of the opportune efficiency of auto companies, but also because the costs of auto development were ignored or deferred. The 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s brought a consequent overinvestment in auto transport, whose costs now seem ever more apparent. As with the auto companies’ industrial decline relative to newer businesses, so an increased national investment in auto support would amount to throwing good resources after bad. The economic troubles of the auto industry are tied to its social troubles: as the industry’s rise changed national life, so its decline will bring dislocations barely imaginable in modern, auto-centered cities.

In the present situation of auto difficulty, social support for increased auto use is already fractured and disintegrated. Commuters still find it cheap to travel by automobile—but such travel may also be inconvenient and frustrating, especially for short trips, and may soon be increasingly expensive. The discontent of some consumers, particularly in large cities, where the disadvantages of auto-based planning are first apparent, seems in part a reaction against past extremes of auto enthusiasm. More concretely, modern auto consumers are in fact paying a price, in money and convenience, for the past distortion of national development, for decades of overinvestment in auto institutions. In the next ten or twenty years, the real costs of the present and historical structures of automotive support will become ever more evident—and ever more disruptive of auto expansion.

The waste left by auto development will seem less and less tolerable—a waste which is integral to the ways in which cars are made and sold and used. Auto transportation is already seen as a major social expense by all government agencies concerned with preserving national resources, the natural environment, national energy supplies. The arguments of these agencies—of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, for example, showing that given the need to conserve national fuel supplies, currently expected growth in automobile use would be “unacceptable”—are persuasive.*

American autos and trucks each year burn 40 percent of all petroleum used in America, and one-eighth of all petroleum used in the world. They are designed in such a way that they waste fuel. All recent auto changes, adding large engines, extra weight, extra options, particularly air conditioners, cause cars to use more fuel: the average mileage per gallon of an American passenger car fell from 15.3 in 1940 to 14.9 in 1950, 14.3 in 1960, and 13.7 in 1969. Auto selling wastes more resources, with cars designed to be scrapped quickly, and difficult to recycle, and with auto parts easily damaged and designed to be replaced instead of repaired. The market pressure to sell more cars creates a yet more wasteful use of the automobiles that people buy.

The average car, this major national investment, is parked at least twenty-two hours a day. When it is used, it is likely to be more or less empty. Of the 82 percent of commuters who drive to work, two-thirds drive alone, or 56 percent of all commuters: the efficiency of automobiles, in city streets, for moving passengers per gallon of fuel, is minute compared to the efficiency of buses, trains, taxis, or even jumbo jets, considerably less than that of the proposed SST, and little more than that of the old Queen Mary ocean liner. Such waste is in no way coincidental to present automotive arrangements—arrangements which also misuse, with reckless profligacy, national and personal wealth and the human energies of millions of people, including, perhaps, the auto production workers of whom Henry Ford wrote that “in our industries, we think of time as human energy [yet] wasted time does not litter the floor like wasted material.”

Such costs, and such waste, are not trivial relative to national development. People will continue most evidently to waste money and resources and energy; the question will be, rather, whether auto civilization is what people want to waste their chances on. Automotive arrangements are not absolute, or absolutely appealing, but depend on a particular conjuncture of social and historical partiality—a conjuncture which has had the most serious national costs. As the social partiality which supported auto expansion erodes, it will become possible to see auto transport as one way among many, a particularly costly way, of spending and wasting resources.

The adjustments required to pay the costs of past auto partiality will be both expensive and disruptive. The political struggles now developing over antipollution legislation, government regulation of the auto industry and fuel shortages, distribution of highway revenues, are certain to intensify. One senator has described the possibility of “extremely emotional” conflict. The auto business will face ever new troubles as national resources are rearranged. Past coalitions of political support will disintegrate—the interests of auto makers, oil corporations, highway lobbyists, auto rental firms, components suppliers need no longer correspond, as different corporations attempt different modes of diversification. Foreign auto expansion may damage US employment. The economic costs of auto stagnation will be severe, for areas of the United States, and for hundreds of thousands of American workers whose jobs, already intensively reorganized, may be reduced, or moved, or destroyed.

American overinvestment in automobiles and in highway transportation involved perhaps the largest commitment of resources in the history of any country. Yet a reduction of the automotive system is possible—because the reasons for auto growth are historical, and contingent, and no longer compelling, and because, at least in large American cities, the auto system no longer works. The habitual inertia of auto investment, in highways and jobs and the shapes of cities, is as gigantic at least as the inertia of nineteenth-century railroad investment, but like that earlier repudiated investment, auto investments can be transformed, grassed over, used again.

The decline of auto-industrial domination does not mean the decline of American business, and the transformation of auto investment will not require the abandonment of transportation, or of highways, or of American automobiles. Economic distortion made possible automotive power, and makes necessary its reorganization: it seems within the grasp of social ingenuity over some decades to preserve the benefits of auto freedom without present and perceived excesses of automotive waste. Many of the great advantages of rail investment were lost in the convulsions of twentieth-century business evolution. But automotive benefits could be saved—by improving vehicles, traffic patterns, the utilization of autos and trucks, by changing modes of transport, from autos and trucks to trains and new transit systems, by reducing the total demand for transportation.

Some changes will occur quite easily as auto domination contracts. I would expect, for example, that automobiles should in the future be used more for leisure and pleasure, and less for daily routines: more improved recreational vehicles, and fewer commuter cars. Close to half of all auto trips involve driving to and from work, or going shopping, functions in which automobiles confer much frustration and social cost, and comparatively little enjoyment, and which could be performed relatively easily by more or less elaborate public-transit systems. Improved bus services, or a city car-rental scheme, could be used for commuting to work (and work would be created in newer transport industries). The most modest rearrangements could improve ways of shopping, reducing the need for second family cars; even in existing suburbs and shopping centers, for example, dialed buses could transport shoppers if markets and groups of stores across the country provided efficient, free delivery vans, which could also be slow, nonpolluting, and used busily all day.

Beyond such simple readjustments, improvements in transportation should be expected from the development of research and technology—as the struggles of perpetual business evolution yield some progress, some new products. These improvements might also be directed to replacing the routine functions of auto travel—either by mass transportation, or by replacing such travel altogether. Some of the more trivial and tedious reasons for travel could be removed, by improved communications or telecommunications. More generally, it seems likely that different social changes will affect the total demand for transportation. If fewer people work in large factories, and more people work for the government or in small service offices, jobs may become more decentralized. If fewer people have children, the demand for suburban life may fall. More people may live near their work; people may live in what the OEP calls “clusters,” or in neighborhoods.

American arrangements for the end of auto domination will require social and economic adjustments, like other adjustments in world history—adjustments of peculiar force, which yet remain a part of continuing national change and repudiation. Automotive dominance was a consequence of business evolution even in the days when Henry Ford built his new factories, and Alfred Sloan looked down at the “splash of jewel-like color presented by every parking lot,” and it is industrially mortal today as it faces decline.

  1. *

    The OEP study of energy conservation finds that the transportation sector of the US economy is particularly wasteful and provides particular scope for conserving energy, but that the government has acted historically to “aggravate the energy problem” because “it favors development of [air and] highway transport.”

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