We live in a fantastic time. Our standard of living is the best it has ever been in human history and in general, it is only getting better. Despite this self-evident fact, there will always be a number of luddites who idiotically try to fight and condemn the very things that have led to our comfort and happiness today. Anti-vaccination kooks are a fantastic example of this trend. Another foolish but growing anti-progress group is the anti-automobile movement.
We (as usual) are paying a heavy price for our electoral apathy, particularly on the municipal level. Despite the vast, vast majority of people in North America happily owning and using personal automobiles, many municipal governments are taking on an outright anti-automotive stance on development. Despite need and demand for improved automotive infrastructure, municipal governments focus on initiatives designed to hinder automotive use with no visible benefit. Calgary’s ridiculous and barely utilized downtown cycle track are a prime example. Tens out thousands of autos have been displaced for these tracks as lanes and parking are lost while hipsters numbering in the dozens use these tracks. That is fine for Nenshi’s council as the goal was never to facilitate bicyclists. The goal was to hinder cars. Traffic calming measures, ridiculous pedestrian strategies and the constant choking of parking reflect this ideology as well.
This anti-automotive movement can be far more damaging to us than simply some inconvenience in commuting. If we allow more collectivization of transportation, we will begin to lose individual rights.
The personal automobile was as responsible for the empowerment of workers as labour unions were, if not more so.
In the last few years, I spent a great deal of time working on oil exploration programs in the “Rust Belt” of the USA in the last few years. There are countless small, single factory towns squirreled around Western Pennsylvania and Ohio. One that stood out for me was Avonmore Pennsylvania.
Avonmore is a town of about 800 and is in the Kiskiminetas River valley about 40 miles from Pittsburgh. The town population peaked in 1910 at 1262 and has been on the decline ever since. This is typical of these types of towns as their industries decline. Many Pennsylvania towns have long histories and some great old architecture. Avonmore however is somewhat plain and it can be seen even in the design of the small downtown that this is a planned and company town. There is one large steel mill in the town and a small number of supporting businesses. That has always been the nature of this town.
Being in a deep river valley and being so dominated by one company, one cant help but imagine just how dependent workers were in a town like this at the turn of the century. The only route out at that time would have been by rail (controlled by the company), or by wagon (slow and expensive). The dominant company in these towns often owned the associated businesses in the towns from the general stores to the local hotel and often the housing. It is this dependency that led to a great deal of labour abuse. While unions had made strides at the turn of the century, in towns such as this they had little power as labour was essentially captive. What would you do if you were fired? Move? How much do you owe the company store? Back rent on the house perhaps? Can you get all your belongings on the train? Does the company control the train? Can you shop for a new place?
This all changed in 1914 when the Ford Model T took America by storm. Suddenly a factory worker could buy a family automobile with just four months pay. A worker could now commute to other workplaces should they choose to. A family could travel and broaden their shopping options. Employers and services suddenly faced a mobile workforce who could and would commute or relocate if need be should they find themselves abused. A mobile workforce becomes a commodity and supply and demand now could apply to them. Reality set in and work conditions throughout the entire continent improved not with strikes and labour actions but through employees exercising their ability to take their services elsewhere. With Pittsburgh and other industrial communities being only a short drive away, the companies that controlled Avonmore and countless other communities were forced to change their practices in order to retain their workers.
We often take that personal mobility for granted as we allow municipal ideologues to chip away at this important individual right. Aside from labour mobility, the contributions that personal transportation make to our general standard of living can’t be understated. While municipal leaders often chide people to take the bus or ride a bike, how can this reasonably apply to the parent of a few kids who needs to go grocery shopping. Should they simply walk to a convenience store and pay the premium that comes with that? Do we really expect senior citizens to suddenly choose to ride a bike to the pharmacy? What do we think will happen to the price of consumer goods if people can no longer broadly shop around? Personal autos also allow a possible escape for people in abusive relationships.
We need to be vigilant as ideologues try to take away or limit the very important right of personal mobility and nothing provides that right more effectively than the personal automobile. We have to thank the automobile for so many great things we enjoy in life today and to oppose personal automobiles is pure and simple foolishness.
We can get by just fine without labour unions today. If we lost the personal automobile however, we would all suffer on a number of levels. We should always celebrate this great innovation that has empowered us all.