America’s Love Affair with the Refrigerator

An article by Dan Neil in The Wall Street Journal takes the issue of driverless cars a bit further and concludes that it would make the nation more productive economically.

 The one brilliant part of the U.S. economic profile is productivity. It turns out, Americans are a little nutty when it comes to work.

 If autonomy were fully implemented today, there would be roughly 100 million Americans sitting in their cars and trucks tomorrow, by themselves, with time on their hands. It would be, from an economist’s point of view, the Pennsylvania oil fields of man-hours, a beautiful gusher, a bonanza of reverie washing upon our shores.

 The self-driving car is the next step in this process and promises to make our metropolitan areas even more productive by reducing traffic congestion, freeing more time for productive activity, reducing public expenditures on urban transport and improving safety.

Perhaps most importantly, Neil goes out of his way to put to rest the so-called American  “love affair with the automobile.” Americans and virtually all peoples around the world have similar love affairs — with convenience and better lives. Yet, we do not hear of their love affairs with refrigerators or televisions or smart phones. That’s because, among the plethora of modern conveniences that have enriched the lives of billions, the automobile has a special place as the Great Satan among those who believe they are anointed to be the the architects of other people’s lives.

For too long, superficial analysis has misled many to believe that there is a choice  not to drive. In fact, however, the automobile has been crucial in creating and supporting the huge and efficient labor markets that are large metropolitan areas. Access and mobility within them, and their attendant economic growth and poverty reduction, could have been achieved no other way with the technologies available. It is true that transit is unparalleled in the access it provides south of 59th street in Manhattan and in, at most, five other large central business districts (downtowns) in the United States. But for the 95 percent of work destinations outside these few places, the auto is usually the only alternative or takes half the time of any alternative (See: “Where Rail Works and Why, in The Road Less Understood). A similar story can be told about Paris, London, Toronto and the rest of Western Europe and Canada, where the automobile is king outside core areas that contain a minority of the metropolitan population.

The point was effectively made in a recent Washington Times editorial, entitled “A world without carsThe internal-combustion engine has freed mankind:”

 All it takes is a history book to envision the reality of a carless world, and it was a miserable time. Tailpipe emissions and the rumble of engines haven’t ruined modern city life; they’ve preserved it.


Note: America’s Short Commute Times: One clarification is required. The Wall Street Journal article states that Americans have an average commute of 50 minutes. That is true. However, that is both ways combined. The average one-way work trip is about 25 minutes. This is an important point, since people ideologically opposed to the personal mobility and bereft of any understanding of its economic role have often talked as if average one-way commutes are much longer (one to two hours is not an unusual claim).

In fact, Americans have among the shortest commutes in the world. They spend less time going to and from work than people in Europe, affluent Asia and Canada. The data is in our Frontier Centre (Winnipeg) report on the competitiveness of metropolitan areas in Canada:


Comments (18)

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  1. Dr. Steve says:

    More time to watch DVRed X factor or ESPN on the way to work and start drinking early on the way home. This is going to be great!?

  2. seyyed says:

    Automated vehicles seem like a scary proposition. Even if I were in one I’d constantly keep my eyes on the road to make sure the car wasn’t making any mistakes!

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