Are cars the most socialist form of transportation?
Everyone throws the world "socialist" around these days as if it is a terrible thing to be. The people who complain most about creeping socialism often are angry about money spent on transit and on bike infrastructure. But as Tim Engstrom points out, cars are the most socialist form of transportation.
The fact is, automobile drivers enjoy the most socialist aspect of America... While it might seem rather expensive to drive an automobile, the true, much more expensive cost is offset by all sorts of subsidies in this country of ours. Those gas taxes and vehicle registration fees indeed offset the cost of most of the highways. However, city streets, many local roads and many parking lots come from other tax sources, such as property taxes, income taxes and sales taxes. Everyone pays those regardless of whether they drive, bike or walk, yet the local streets and roads are where people generally walk and bike.
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Engstrom refers to an older post on the subject by James Schwartz of the Urban Country who looked at the issue a few years ago, where James posts the dictionary definition of socialism:
"any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods"
That is certainly what happens with the means of production and distribution of goods in the world of transportation: a persistent and consistent bias toward one mode. It's pretty much been this way for 60 years, since Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill that created the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways at a cost of $329 Billion in today's dollars. Schwartz writes:
From subsidies given to oil companies to produce cheap oil, to government bailouts/ownership of auto manufacturers, to road construction and maintenance on streets that cost nothing to use, to highly subsidized parking spaces, to government health care costs associated with pollution from automobiles, to the detrimental health that results from sedentary lifestyle that cars promote, to the vast government policing forces required to enforce our streets: it is undeniable that driving places enormous costs on our society, and this cost is highly subsidized by our government.
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Schwartz also does the math and finds that for all the complaints about drivers paying so much in road taxes, they pay very little of the real cost of transportation; he and a few friends can rent a car, fill it with gas and drive it to the next city for a quarter the cost of taking the train. This math was done a few years ago but it is even more exaggerated now with the low price of gas:
To further illustrate this point, we can compare the cost of a litre of gasoline to that of a one-way ticket on public transit. In China a litre of gasoline ($0.946) is almost 3 times the cost of a one-way ticket on local public transport ($0.32). In the United States a one-way ticket on public transit ($1.94) is almost double the cost of a litre of gasoline ($1.00).
Really, if the American automobile transportation system was NOT socialist, there would be no such thing as free parking, there would be tolls on every road or the gas tax would be high enough to cover all of the true costs and externalities. And no doubt the transportation system would look very different. As Engstrom notes, "It’s good remember just how subsidized and socialist getting around in an automobile really is."