Whose Love Affair With the Car?

Charles Lave is a professor of economics at UC Irvine.

Dumb things get repeated, some so often they become the "truths" we use to interpret the world. Take "California's love affair with the auto." Please.

Where is the evidence for this love affair? Californians own fewer vehicles than the national average: .73 vehicles per person versus .75 nationally. We use less fuel in a year: 520 gallons per person versus 560 nationally. And we drive less: 8,400 miles versus 8,500 miles.

So how did this "love affair" phrase get started? My guess is it came from the jostled pen of a New York Times reporter, jammed into a rush-hour subway and indulging in a bit of sour-grapeism.

Everyone loves cars. In every country, as people become rich enough to buy cars, they do. Over the past 25 years, Europe's auto fleet (measured in cars per person) has grown three times faster than the U.S. fleet, despite $4-per-gallon gasoline, scarcity of parking places, poor roads and superb public transit. And, just as here, public transit usage declines each year.

People who speak of California's love affair are trying to make us feel guilty. But since we drive less than average, if there is auto-sin going on, it is the other states that are guilty. Even more, the whole world is lusting in its heart for our style of transportation. Guilt has not been sufficient to change people's transportation choices here or in the rest of the world.

We have failed at shaming people into driving less, but we have produced better cars. Today's cars use only half as much energy as was normal 20 years ago. Today's cars emit only 1/20th as much gunk as cars did 30 years ago. More engineering advances are the strategy to pursue. We know how to improve cars. We don't know how to improve people.

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