Breaking Up the Radical Monopoly
In Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich argued how cars have created
a "radical monopoly" in transportation. Illich wrote, "By
'radical monopoly' I mean the dominance of one type of product rather
than the dominance of one brand. I speak about radical monopoly when one
industrial production process exercises an exclusive control over the
satisfaction of a pressing need, and excludes nonindustrial activities
"Cars can thus monopolize traffic. They can shape a city into their
image--practically ruling out locomotion on foot or by bicycle in Los
Angeles. They can eliminate river traffic in Thailand. That motor traffic
curtails the right to walk, not that more people drive Chevies than Fords,
constitutes radical monopoly. What cars do to people by virtue of this
radical monopoly is quite distinct from and independent of what they do
by burning gasoline that could be transformed into food in a crowded world.
It is also distinct from automotive manslaughter. Of course cars burn
gasoline that could be used to make food. Of course they are dangerous
and costly. But the radical monopoly cars establish is destructive in
a special way. Cars create distance. Speedy vehicles of all kinds render
space scarce. They drive wedges of highways into populated areas, and
then extort tolls on the bridge over the remoteness between people that
was manufactured for their sake. This monopoly over land turns space into
car fodder. It destroys the environment for feet and bicycles."
When I read Illich back in the 1970s, I could see exactly what he meant.
I saw the downside of urban sprawl in North San Diego County, as housing
developments removed open space and wildlife habitat. Suburbs make public
transportation impractical since the population is not dense enough to
efficiently transport people from one point to another. Worse, cars are
at the root of destroying our cities. Those wealthy enough to own cars
could move to the suburbs and commute to work. Their options are open
to work and shop anywhere they wish and prefer those places with free
parking. Those who are left behind in the cities are too poor to own cars
and are dependent on public transit to get around. As wealth shifts out
of the cities, there is less money available for city services, including
public transit. Eventually businesses and jobs leave the cities, as well,
making the poor even poorer. More on this can be found in Jane Jacobs'
The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Too many job announcements include the qualification "must have car"
or "must have reliable transportation." The second one means
the same as the first to most employers. To them, a bus, train, and bike
are not reliable forms of transportation, although I have never been on
time when I have relied on those vehicles to get to work. Having assisted
low-income people with their job searches, I find it absurd that people
should be forced to take minimum wage jobs that require them to drive
long distances in older model cars that are expensive to maintain. The
answer is to reinvest in our cities and bring back the jobs to the people
who need them.
I am not arguing for the abolition of cars, but for less dependency on
cars to get around. We can have fewer cars with more carpooling and car
sharing. In fact, I am a member of City CarShare and have access to car
when I need one. The concept of car sharing is to rent a car on an hourly
basis. The cost of gas, maintenance, and insurance is figured into the
rental fee, along with a nominal membership fee.
Car sharing can actually increase public transit ridership, especially
in families that own more than one car. Who is going to pay to ride a
bus when she or he has a car sitting in the driveway with fixed costs
such as insurance, registration, and a car loan to pay off? If you are
paying for a car whether you use it or not, it makes no economic sense
to not use it.
Cars pollute while they are parked which is another reason to have fewer
of them. Car sharing also gives people access to newer, more energy efficient
cars such as hybrids. I like having access to a Prius since I could never
afford to buy one. (The pickup truck has come in handy when I have needed
to move furniture and recyclables.)
I remain optimistic that people will see the light and live in cities
that are pedestrian and bicycle friendly. Maybe they will discover "bicycle
therapy" that has kept me from getting too depressed by the world
condition. Our cities that have been destroyed by car culture are depressing
In 2006, I had a job in East Oakland. One of the job interview questions
was how I would get to work since I didn't own a car. I responded that
I would take my bike on BART and ride from the Coliseum station. At this
point in the interview, I was convinced that I was not going to get the
job. In a way, I did not really mind if I had failed the interview. Riding
to the interview, I saw what a bleak environment East Oakland had become.
There are few trees, but many liquor stores. The church that wanted to
hire me looked like a prison with iron bars and a security guard at the
entrance. Ironically, the position was to assist newly released felons
in their job searches. I had no problem working with ex-offenders, but
I wasn't sure I wanted to come to such a depressing environment to do
I was actually shocked when they called back with a job offer later that
day. I did commute to work exactly the way I said I would, and my co-workers
feared for my safety since I was riding through a high crime area. Not
once did I have a problem, other than almost being late from BART delays
and, one time, a flat tire. During that same period, two of my co-workers
were involved in a car accident with one unable to work for several months.
One day, as I rode down the streets, I had an epiphany. While this is
not the most beautiful neighborhood I have ever ridden through, I was
beginning to see some of its charm. I saw parents walking their children
to school. Retired people were tending their flower gardens in their front
yards. These people were not afraid for their safety. It was broad daylight,
and they were enjoying life in their neighborhood. It was not the scary
place that people were seeing on the evening news. That is when I realized
how cars and television have distorted our perspective of the world we
live in. The problem, I realized, is that too many of us view the world
from either behind a windshield or in front of a TV screen. Just as cars
isolate us from our environment, the TV news tells us that environment
is a dangerous place. It reinforces our isolation from each other.
That thought about fear and isolation led me to consider the popularity
of SUVs. As people have become more fearful of their neighbors, they feel
increasingly vulnerable even in their cars. They read about carjackings
and encase themselves in tank-like vehicles as protection. Garry Trudeau
had the same idea in one Doonesbury strip's mock ad for the Family Assault
Coming out of neighborhood isolation is comparable to coming out of the
closet for a gay person. It means getting out of the fear of hiding and
finding real freedom. So friends, come out, come out where ever you are.
Get to know your neighbors. Learn that the world in not such a scary place.
There is no terrorist or mugger behind every right rock. Come away from
the TV screen and out from behind the windshield. Take a breath and live.