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 from competition.

"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 enough.

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 it.

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 Vehicle.

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.

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