The automobile as prison. The city as freedom.

The automobile has been pitched as a machine for freedom. But you travel caged inside a small metal box, strapped to your chair, while your life is being threatened randomly by high speed two-ton projectiles, forced to keep eyes focused on the road and obliged to place hands at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions on the wheel, with your foot constrained to a small area on the floor. This doesn’t sound like freedom to me.

1925 Studebaker Patrol (Paddy) Wagon. Source: Wikipedia
1925 Studebaker Patrol (Paddy) Wagon. Source: Wikipedia

If you choose to enter a freeway, you are not even permitted to leave your car til you exit the road.

On streets, your behavior is governed by inanimate traffic lights, signs, and paint, which are violated at penalty of automatically generated fine or imprisonment.

This is all self-imposed, so it is more like committing yourself to an institution, the automobility asylum, perhaps, than prison which is imposed by others.

An alternative view is that freedom is not ensconced in a machine but in a way you can interact with the world. If you can, at your whim, when you want to, do what you want, engage in the activities you want, without fearing for your life, that is closer to freedom.

Jarrett Walker argues frequency is freedom. This is closer to the truth. While on a bus or train I am still caged in a metal box, it is a larger box, I am not strapped in, and I am much safer. I am also now free to do something with my time while in motion, not constrained to monitor the road.

And where can I travel in these safe freedom machines, reaching many more opportunities? Cities.  This gives a new meaning to the expression: Urban air makes you free.

‘But I can reach more places in a car than on transit in the same amount of time, almost everywhere,’ you argue. This is true, if you ignore the costs you impose on society, if you ignore the fixed costs of that opportunity to you, and if you ignore the ability to use time in some other way, as is available when not driving.

Freedom from car ownership, freedom from the obligation of driving, and freedom from negative externalities borne by the community at large are how we should reframe transport and land use goals. What can we do to give people those freedoms?