Cars Should Be For People — Not The Other Way Around

This is an ongoing series of extracted readings from various authors we’ve come across who offer unconventional, out-of-the-box thoughts on the social, the political, the religious and everything in between. This column will run each Friday and will feature authors with varying backgrounds and philosophies. The common thread is that their wisdom is sought by some of the most successful and effective people in the world, thus putting you, the reader, in that same elite company. Although this column is for everyone, we have a hunch that it will prove particularly valuable to leaders and individuals — in government, in business, in religion, in the nonprofit sector, etc. — who are on the cutting-edge of making the world a better place. And it all starts in Maywood.

Lewis Mumford (October 19, 1895 – January 26, 1990) was renowned as a humanist, architectural critic, innovative urban thinker, historian of the city and philosopher of sorts. His 1961 book, The City in History, won the National Book Award and its insights are relevant today. Mumford is particularly important, in our opinion, because his writings hold some of the keys toward both understanding and dealing with a future that will almost certainly be defined not so much by humanity’s failures, but by our successes — in getting what we want, in inventing and exploiting new technologies, in increasing our material comfort, etc. These successes are causing our present, gradual downfall — from precipitous global warming to abominable income and wealth inequality. Mumford explains that in order to save ourselves, we have to discover and realize those values that made us so unique in the first place and we have to realize them in our day-to-day lives. Below is an excerpt from an essay called “The Highway and the City,” which Mumford published in Architectural Record (April 1958):

“As long as motorcars were few in number, he who had one was a king: he could go where he pleased and halt where he pleased; and this machine itself appeared as a compensatory device for enlarging an ego which had been shrunken by our very success in mechanization. That sense of freedom and power remains a fact today only in low-density areas, in the open country; the popularity of this method of escape has ruined the promise it once held forth. In using the car to flee from the metropolis the motorist finds that he has merely transferred congestion to the highway; and when he reaches his destination, in a distant suburb, he finds that the countryside he sought has disappeared: beyond him, thanks to the motorway, lies only another suburb, just as dull as his own. To have a minimum amount of communication and sociability in this spread-out life, his wife becomes a taxi driver by daily occupation, and the amount of money it costs to keep this whole system running leaves him with shamefully overcrowded, understaffed schools, inadequate police, poorly serviced hospitals, underspaced recreation areas, ill-supported libraries.

In short, the American has sacrificed his life as a whole to the motorcar, like someone who, demented with passion, wrecks his home in order to lavish his income on a capricious mistress who promises delights he can only occasionally enjoy.

For most Americans, progress means accepting what is new because it is new, and discarding what is old because it is old. This may be good for a rapid turnover in business, but it is bad for community and stability in life. Progress, in an organic sense, should be cumulative, and though a certain amount of rubbish-clearing is always necessary, we lose part of the gain offered by a new invention if we automatically discard all the still valuable inventions that preceded it. In transportation, unfortunately, the old-fashioned linear notion of progress prevails. Now that motorcars are becoming universal, many people take for granted that pedestrian movement will disappear and that the railroad system will in time be abandoned; in fact, many of the proponents of highway building talk as if that day were already here, or if not, they have every intention of making it dawn quickly. The result is that we have actually crippled the motorcar, by placing on this single means of transportation the burden for every kind of travel. Neither our cars nor our highways can take such a load. This overconcentration, moreover, is rapidly destroying our cities, without leaving anything half as good in their place.

…we lose part of the gain offered by a new invention if we automatically discard all the still valuable inventions that preceded it.

What’s transportation for? This is a question that highway engineers apparently never ask themselves: probably because they take for granted the belief that transportation exists for the purpose of providing suitable outlets for the motorcar industry. To increase the number of cars, to enable motorists to go longer distances, to more places, at higher speeds has become an end in itself. Does this overemployment of the motorcar not consume ever larger quantities of gas, oil, concrete, rubber, and steel, and so provide the very groundwork for expanding the economy? Certainly, but none of these make up the essential purpose of transportation, which is to bring people or goods to places where they are needed, and to concentrate the greatest variety of goods and people within a limited area, in order to widen the possibility of choice without making it necessary to travel. A good transportation system minimizes unnecessary transportation; and in any event, it offers a change of speed and mode to fit a diversity of human purposes.


The fatal mistake we have been making is to sacrifice every other form of transportation to the private motorcar — and to offer as the only long-distance alternative the airplane. But the fact is that each type of transportation has its special use; and a good transportation policy must seek to improve each type and make the most of it. This cannot be achieved by aiming at high speed or continuous flow alone. If you wish casual opportunities for meeting your neighbors, and for profiting by chance contacts with acquaintances and colleagues, a stroll at two miles an hour in a relatively concentrated area, free from vehicles, will alone meet your need. But if you wish to rush a surgeon to a patient a thousand miles away, the fastest motorway is too slow. And again, if you wish to be sure to keep a lecture engagement in winter, railroad transportation offers surer speed and better insurance against being held up than the airplane. There is no one ideal mode or speed: human purpose should govern the choice of the means of transportation. VFP.

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