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In the early 1800s, when railroads first began to spread across Great Britain, the Duke of Wellington reportedly sneered that this innovation would “only encourage the common people to move about needlessly.”
For last week’s World Car-Free Day, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, channeled the Duke of Wellington, complaining about the “domination of the car” and called for a new type of society “in which we are not dependent on it to such a great extent for our daily needs.”
The Prince reportedly owns two Audis, two Jaguars, a Range Rover and an Aston Martin. The Duke of Wellington undoubtedly had other means of getting around the British countryside, but despite being separated in time by two centuries, these two aristocrats had something in common — a distaste for commoners enjoying the mobility to which they themselves were born.
World Car-Free Day appeared, at first glance, to be a lifestyle event — a celebration of living without cars. But it had an underlying political agenda; its organizers call on “governments to help create permanent change to benefit pedestrians, cyclists and other people who do not drive cars.”
And these days, when the air is thick with claims of impending climate catastrophe and the need for so-called sustainability, calls for automotive restrictions are finding an increasingly receptive political audience.
But for most people in this country, the car-free life would be as desirable as being shackled to a ball-and-chain. It is easy to forget the incredibly liberating nature of the automobile. In the 1910s-1920s the car ended the crushing isolation of rural life. In 1955-56, it enabled black people to boycott the segregated buses of Montgomery, Alabama. In the 1970s-1980s, it gave mothers the ability to enter the job market while still getting their kids to day care and putting food on the table. Today, the car allows new immigrants to enter the American mainstream by vastly expanding their choices of where to work and where to live.
Even in cities with well-functioning mass transit, a car can be essential if you’re old or ill, or are carrying babies and groceries, or if the weather’s miserable, or if you’ve got to get somewhere after the busses and subways have closed. It’s no wonder that most promo shots of Car-Free Day events featured only the young and healthy, out on picture-perfect sunny days.
Being able to get around freely is not some superficial desire that can be dismissed as the product of an allegedly car-addicted Western culture. Some Americans may view India and China as countries happily populated by bicyclists and pedestrians, but consumer demand for cars in those countries is booming, especially with the introduction of new low-priced vehicles. The car, it appears, satisfies a pretty basic human need.
A philosophy professor who emigrated here from Eastern Europe once commented on Car-Free Day by noting that, given his time behind the Iron Curtain, he’d already endured enough car-free decades.
Living car-free may be fine for many people during some phases of their lives, and it may be fine for some people for all of their lives, but it’s no way for most of us to live — regardless of what Prince Charles and his fellow aristocrats may think.