There’s nothing like a car—to get you from A to B, or enhance your image while dawdling in a jam, or to stir strongly held views about the future of the air we inhale. The Wall Street Journal claims the car “is fundamental to the American Dream, and Americans are not going to give up them up. … We’re not going to deny that congestion is a problem. But our guess is that we’d have a lot less of it if the ‘solutions’ stopped treating cars as nuisances and began to look at them the way most Americans do: as a vehicle to opportunity.” The occasion for this defense of the vehicle formerly known as the automobile is the release of some statistics from the Census Bureau. These figures reveal that it takes the average working American a little less than 24 minutes every day to get to work; that about 80 percent make the journey by car; and that about only 5 percent of those whose journey to work is less than 24 minutes take public transportation. (Non-working Americans on the road—for example, retirees—don’t count; they may take up space on the roads, but the time it takes for them to reach, say, the clubhouse at their local golf course isn’t a significant traffic factor.) This evidence, the Journal believes, suggests that urban planners must come up with more and bigger highways and roads. But it’s not cars that are the nuisance on the road (even if the exhaust emitted is a serious concern) but the drivers. There are bad drivers, there’s road rage, and as Stephen Budiansky wrote in the Atlantic Monthly a few months ago, there are spectacular jams on the highway caused by one person driving too slow in the fast lane. “Under the right conditions,” Budiansky writes, “a small, brief, and local fluctuation in the speed or spacing of cars—the sort of fluctuation that happens all the time just by chance on a busy highway—is all it takes to trigger a system-wide breakdown that persists for hours after the blip that triggered it is gone.” No matter how good the planning, it seems drivers will always find one way or another of fouling up the highways. And by the way, how long did it take you to get to work today?
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