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Road to nowhere

It's not just the Hyperloop. Tesla is also a distraction from the fact that cars are slower, less-efficient trains that you're forced to drive.

Published onAug 14, 2022
Road to nowhere

Car arguments are happening online again because folks are speculating that Elon Musk may have proposed the Hyperloop to kill California’s high-speed rail project so his company Tesla could sell more cars. Well, I have some bad news for Musk: cars are actually the world’s worst trains.

The argument, of course, isn’t mine. In 2009, a 1973 essay by French philosopher André Gorz made the rounds after being republished in Copenhagenize. The whole thing is worth reading, but one piece of the essay comparing cars to trains has stuck with me for over a decade.

At the time, I was midway through college in Boston, experiencing being carless in a city with decent transit for the first time in my life. Reading this passage by Gorz at that moment of my life completely changed my perspective not just about cars and transit, but about how our society is organized:

…Between 8 and 9:30 a.m., between 5:30 and 7 p.m., and on weekends for five and six hours the escape routes stretch out into bumper-to-bumper processions going (at best) the speed of a bicyclist and in a dense cloud of gasoline fumes. What remains of the car's advantages? What is left when, inevitably, the top speed on the roads is limited to exactly the speed of the slowest car?

Fair enough. After killing the city, the car is killing the car. Having promised everyone they would be able to go faster, the automobile industry ends up with the unrelentingly predictable result that everyone has to go as slowly as the very slowest, at a speed determined by the simple laws of fluid dynamics. Worse: having been invented to allow its owner to go where he or she wishes, at the time and speed he or she wishes, the car becomes, of all vehicles, the most slavish, risky, undependable and uncomfortable. Even if you leave yourself an extravagant amount of time, you never know when the bottlenecks will let you get there. You are bound to the road as inexorably as the train to its rails. No more than the railway traveller can you stop on impulse, and like the train you must go at a speed decided by someone else. Summing up, the car has none of the advantages of the train and all of its disadvantages, plus some of its own: vibration, cramped space, the danger of accidents, the effort necessary to drive it.

In a few sentences, Gorz eliminated my once-firm belief in the pervasive myth that America exported to the world: that the car is synonymous with freedom. In fact, he makes clear, commuting via car is, in its rough aggregate, almost exactly like commuting via train or bus. You must leave home at a certain time to make it to your destination on time. You must get on at the same place as everyone else in your neighborhood (your local highway onramp), and off at the same place as everyone going to your destination. In the middle, you must go the same speed as everyone else.

The main differences between the car and the train are that the train’s schedule is coordinated, so it moves much faster and with far fewer delays; it’s driven by someone else, so you can spend your commute time reading, playing games, zoning out, or otherwise engaging in activities far better for your mental health and much less deadly than driving; and once you arrive at your destination you don’t have to waste time parking it, so you don’t have to waste money, time and space storing a machine that sits unused for 95% of its life.

In this way, the car is similar to many supposedly time-saving workplace inventions that I’ve discussed before. Like, for example, email or digital calendars, the car doesn’t actually result in additional time-savings or convenience for its users. Instead, it shifts the labor, cost, and liability of getting people from point A to point B from state-run transit agencies to individuals. And it makes transport a profitable industry for private corporations, rather than a mostly public good.

Of course, most people in this country don’t have a choice but to travel in cars. And that’s exactly Gorz’s point in the larger essay. The car’s primary function is not to move anyone from point A to point B conveniently. It’s terrible at that! No, the car’s main function is to make itself inevitable by reorienting our routines, cities, taxes, and economies to the point where we literally can’t imagine life without it. As Gorz eloquently points out, being forced by society to choose a particular mode of transit is, in fact, the opposite of the freedom the automobile is marketed as delivering.

Until this paragraph, I’ve deliberately said nothing about the extreme environmental impact of cars compared to public transit. That’s because, going back to the jumping-off point of this post, when you leave out the environmental impact of cars and focus on its other impacts on society, it becomes clear that Musk’s much more successful project Tesla is, like the Hyperloop, an attempt to avoid better, but less profitable solutions to the climate crisis.

Yes, electric cars are going to be vital for tackling climate change. But only because our society is oriented around cars. Electrifying cars will reduce their environmental impact, but it won’t change their essential function of extracting more profits for corporations at the expense of everyone else’s time, labor, mental and physical health, and public spaces.

The good news here is Musk’s Hyperloop buffoonery is a great opportunity to see through his Tesla con, too. If we’re willing to look beyond the car, we can imagine a much freer way of life than it could ever deliver, no matter what’s powering it.

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