The Campaign Against the Car: Europe’s Call for a Car-Free Day

From the October/November issue of CEI UpDate


Al Gore might not have mentioned it during his presidential campaigning, and you may not have been aware of it, but September 21st was designated “World Car-Free Day” by several international groups and European governments.

An anti-consumerist Canadian group, Adbusters, was among the chief groups pushing World Car-Free Day. “A future without cars is a tantalizing prospect,” they say. “A day without cars is a glimpse of that future.”

Nasty automobiles, according to Adbusters and similar anti-car groups, alienate people from each other and from the earth. Says Adbusters flatly: “Public enemy number one is the car.” On its Web site the group promotes issuing fellow drivers false traffic tickets—one is encouraged to put it on a car to trick the owner. The ticket reads, “Your operation of this vehicle makes you personally liable for the following,” and goes on to laundry-list the supposed evils of automobile use.

And what evils are these? Cars upset environmentalists because they represent our “wasteful” modern lifestyle. Cars spew pollutants, causing air pollution and global warming. Car-dependent development has created the pernicious urban sprawl, and the use of “open space” for infrastructure. Worse, cars encourage the uncontrolled use of carbon-based energy.

To Earth in the Balance author Al Gore, the car represents nothing less than the symbol of everything that is wrong with modern society. According to Gore, we are “addicted to the consumption of the earth itself.” We “follow a pattern of thinking that encourages the domination and exploitation of the natural world for short-term gains.” Civilization “as presently organized, is colliding violently with our planet’s ecological system.” Ask Al, and he’ll tell you “we have lost our connection to” nature.

Yet, for all the ills alleged of the automobile, anti-car advocates forget that their romanticized idea of the past was place to a much more difficult lifestyle. Personal mobility was once a privilege available only to the wealthy. American automobile manufacturers such as Henry Ford made mobility affordable for millions of Americans.

And the car does not just help personal mobility, but individual health as well. For instance, contrast the ever-decreasing emissions of cars with the more baleful pollutants caused by horses. Also, the broad use of automobiles, engines, and carbon-based energy did much to improve farm productivity and the availability of food worldwide. Mobilizing farm production actually promoted the preservation of wild areas because more and more food (for more and more people) could be grown on less and less land.

Advocates of car-free societies suggest that taxpayer subsidized public transit is the solution to environmental ills. Gore has said that we should subsidize light rails and trolley systems. True enough, trolleys evoke nice imagery—everyone likes Rice-a-Roni, right? But as nice as they might be, trolleys just won’t serve the transportation needs of a growing nation, and neither will light rail.

Al Gore has also suggested that we subsidize auto companies to create eco-cars. They may be a good idea, but they should compete on a level playing field. Currently, such cars have enough room for two passengers and maybe a gallon of milk. Subsidies will benefit some groups (single urban residents like myself, for instance) at the expense of others-families who need larger vehicles to tote soccer teams and run errands.

Moreover, such subsidies distort incentives for businesses and individuals—and government officials’ accountability. Transportation systems should compete, and only privatized systems would truly compete with each other. The first highways were in fact private, as historian Burt Folsom describes in his book Empire Builders. Just as data-flow solutions are evolving in cyberspace, a traffic system freed to experiment would soon do the same.

Environmentalists suggest that car ownership rates in the US are the highest in the world because the government “subsidizes” vehicle transportation infrastructure. While governments do fund infrastructure, most of our roads are funded by gas taxes, which are paid by automobile users. Yet it’s certainly difficult to find any industry that does not benefit from the provision of roads—how many truckers haul their loads on light rail? More to the point, automobiles and roads provide individual flexibility, not just for work, but also for recreation, family life, education, and economic decisions.

Transportation and environmental concerns are important issues. So is preserving individual freedom and choice, especially for the less privileged members of society who should not be precluded from individual transportation choices. Yet those concerns needn’t be mutually exclusive; personal freedoms do not need to come at the expense of environmental aesthetics. Only a level playing field and a market freed to address modern transportation concerns will be successful at promoting individual mobility and a clean environment.

The car-free world envisioned by the European organizers of “Car-Free Day” is a mere utopian dream. The answer to all of our problems, the organizers suggest, is to get rid of cars. But Public Enemy Number One is not the car. It’s those who would sacrifice personal mobility and freedom to such utopian schemes.

A version of this article appeared in