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How Cars Drive Inequality

A recent study looking at how social mobility varies across US cities found that the poor are less likely to rise the socioeconomic ladder the more residents are geographically segregated. In other words, the further apart different social classes live the more entrenched inequality becomes.

The Equality of Opportunity Project study shows that relatively compact cities such as San Francisco, New York and Boston have greater social mobility than their more sprawling counterparts Memphis, Detroit and Atlanta. In relatively transit and pedestrian oriented San Francisco, for instance, someone born into the poorest fifth of income distribution has an 11 per cent chance of reaching the top fifth while in car oriented Atlanta this number is only 4 per cent.

In an article on the study New York Times columnist Paul Krugman blamed the inverse relationship between sprawl and social mobility on the poor (and carless) being unable to reach available jobs. “The city may just be too spread out,” he wrote about Detroit, “so that job opportunities are literally out of reach for people stranded in the wrong neighborhoods.”

This is no doubt part of the explanation, but it ignores the broader political impact of automobile generated sprawl. In Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay, Bianca Mugyenyi and I argue that the private car spurs right-wing (anti-egalitarian) politics by chaining would-be political actors to their jobs with debt, reducing intermixing between different social groups while in transit and atomizing communities into suburbs.

But it’s even more fundamental than that as the private car perpetuates class domination in a number of other ways. Since the dawn of the auto age, the car has been an important means for the wealthy to assert themselves socially. Prior to our modern day acquiescence to the automobile, a private car was viewed as an obtrusive and ostentatious display of wealth. A 1904 edition of the US farm magazine, Breeders Gazette, called automobile drivers, “a reckless, bloodthirsty, villainous lot of purse-proud crazy trespassers” while in 1906 Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, declared, “Possession of an auto car is such an ostentatious display of wealth that it will stimulate socialism.”

Among the wealthy, the automobile was popular partly because it reaffirmed their dominance over mobility, which had been undermined by rail. Prior to the train’s ascendance in the mid 1800s the elite traveled by horse and buggy, but the train’s technological superiority compromised the usefulness of the horse drawn carriage. Even for shorter commutes, streetcars became the preferred mode of transport by the early 1900s. More available to various classes of society, the train and streetcar blurred class lines. The automobile, on the other hand, provided an exclusive form of travel.

The automobile’s capacity to create social distance appealed to early car buyers. Prominent auto historian, James J. Flink remarked that, “the automobile seemed to proponents of the innovation, to afford a simple solution to some of the more formidable problems of American life associated with the emergence of an urban industrial society.”

In a car, one could remain separate from perceived social inferiors while in transit. Down the Asphalt Path’s Clay McShane writes about the elite’s disdain for public transit riders: “Trolleys were dirty, noisy, and overcrowded. It was impossible for middle-class riders to isolate themselves from fellow riders whom they perceived as social inferiors. Distancing themselves from blacks, immigrants, blue collar workers, and, in general those stereotyped as the ‘great unwashed,’ was often precisely why the middle classes had moved to the [streetcar] suburbs.”

The car has made it possible to live far from the poor (or anyone else without an automobile). In one of the most extreme examples of modern day segregation, people barricade themselves into gated communities. Across the U.S., especially in the car-dominated Southwest, millions of affluent families have retreated into these exclusive and exclusionary residences.

If we want a more egalitarian society we must reverse geographical segregation and build communities and cities where people can get around without the private automobile.

Yves Engler is co-author of Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay. His latest book is The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s foreign policy. For more information yvesengler.com

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Yves Engler’s latest book is ‪Canada in Africa: 300 years of Aid and Exploitation.

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