Your Freedom Is Someone Else’s Hell

Yonah Freemark, a writer over at Atlantic Cities–which normally loves any transit boondoggle–somewhat sheepishly admits that light rail hasn’t lived up to all of its expectations. Despite its popularity among transit agencies seeking federal grants, light rail “neither rescued the center cities of their respective regions nor resulted in higher transit use.”

Not to worry, however; Atlantic Cities still hates automobiles, or at least individually owned automobiles. Another article by writer Robin Chase suggests that driverless cars will create a “world of hell” if people are allowed to own their own cars. Instead, driverless cars should be welcomed only if they are collectively owned and shared.

The hell that would result from individually owned driverless cars would happen because people would soon discover they could send their cars places without anyone in them. As Chase says, “If single-occupancy vehicles are the bane of our congested highways and cities right now, imagine the congestion when we pour in unfettered zero-occupancy vehicles.” Never mind the fact that driverless cars will greatly reduce congestion by tripling roadway capacities and avoid congestion by consulting on-line congestion reports.

Chase’s motives are obvious: as the co-founder of several carsharing programs, including ZipCar and BuzzCar, she stands to make enormous profits if everyone adopts her model. Just why Atlantic Cities buys into her vision is less clear, but the love Atlantic Cities writers seem to have for transit and car sharing suggests a collectivist mentality, while the hatred they have for individually owned cars implies a dislike of giving other people freedom.

Of course, Chase has an explanation for why single- or zero-occupant vehicles are to be abhorred. “People consider the cost of individual car trips to be just the cost of gas,” she says, “and we won’t think twice about asking a driverless robot car to do our bidding.” In other words, people are too stupid to own their own cars; it would be much better to have a sharing system that forces people to see the “full cost” of driving (including profit for the owners of ZipCar).

Personally, I happily imagine sending my dog to a vet without me accompanying it. Even more likely, I look forward to sending my car in for servicing or to take an appliance to a shop for repair without wasting my time. People could be more productive if they didn’t have to be stuck behind the wheel of a car all the time, and everyone would be better off. But to Chase, such people would somehow pose a burden on everyone else.

Her solutions are, first, to make sure that “the cost for autonomous vehicles be high enough that each vehicle will need to be used well.” In other words, keep them out of the hands of ordinary people who might “misuse” them.

Second, she wants highway agencies to charge an extra per-mile fee to people whose cars run around without an occupant. Why? Zero-occupant cars impose no more costs on society than multi-occupant cars. The people who own the cars should get to decide when and where they go and how many people they will carry, not some central planner who hates cars and the freedom they offer.

There’s nothing wrong with car sharing if people want to do it, but it shouldn’t be imposed on people. The great thing about mass-produced automobiles is that nearly every household in American can afford one. Collectivists would send us back to the nineteenth-century two-class society in which a few wealthy people have freedom and mobility and everyone else is dependent on some collective form of transport–then they’ll demonize the people with freedom. That’s the wrong way for America to go.