Jewish World Review July 17, 2001 / 26 Tamuz, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Consumer Reports

Why Americans would rather drive -- WITH glittering pomp and ancient ceremony, Nicholas II was crowned czar of All the Russias on Massachusetts Avenue, just past Symphony Hall near Boston's South End. There was some tension between the young czar's widowed mother and his new wife, Alexandra. But how it was resolved I won't know until I get in the car to go home this evening and resume listening to my current book-on-tape, Robert K. Massie's moving account of the last years of the Romanov dynasty, "Nicholas and Alexandra."

My daily commute to and from work generally takes about 25 minutes. Traffic and weather sometimes conspire to make it last 45 minutes or more. But if I've got a good book to listen to, a prolonged commute doesn't upset me. In fact, I don't mind my solitary drive at all -- I rather like it.

And I'm not the only one.

In a nationwide survey of drivers conducted for American Demographics, fully 45 percent agreed that "driving is my time to think and enjoy being alone." Only 30 percent disagreed; the remainder were neutral. This is an issue with no gender gap: A preponderance of both men and women say they like their drive time. The sentiment holds up across income lines, too. Only among drivers older than 55 is the number who don't enjoy commuting greater than the number who do.

"The time they spend sitting in their cars ... offers many drivers a rare space over which they have total control," writes Alan Sipress in his Washington Post story on the American Demographics survey, "a breather amid the breathless pace of work and home, phones, and the Internet." The story cites other evidence, assembled by scholars at the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, confirming that "motorists are far less negative about the time they spend in the car than experts had previously believed."

But it hardly takes think tanks and scholars to demonstrate that Americans generally like to drive themselves to work. For decades we have been bombarded with demands that we get out of our cars and into mass transit. We've been told that cars are bad for the environment and bad for communities. We've been hit with heavy gasoline taxes and we hear regular demands that they be made even heavier. We've been forced to deal with hurdles that make commuting alone, and driving in general, more difficult, from speed traps to carpool lanes to crumbling highways to the maddening ineptness of motor vehicle bureaus.

Nevertheless, we drive. Only 5 percent of commuters take mass transit to work -- and the number has been dropping. While the use of cars (including light trucks, such as pickups and SUVs) has soared more than 85 percent since 1970, the use of mass transit -- buses, subways, trolleys, commuter trains -- has dropped by 3 percent.

"Today transit represents barely 1 percent of the nation's surface passenger travel," says transportation analyst Wendell Cox, whose invaluable "Urban Transport Fact Book" can be found at "During the 1980s, transit's work trip market share declined in all but two of the 39 largest metropolitan areas."

Virtually without exception, every time a city builds or expands a subway system, the percentage of commuters using public transit declines. At a cost of more than $10 billion, Washington, DC, built a gorgeous metrorail network in the 1970s and '80s. It now carries a smaller proportion of the region's commuters than the old bus and streetcar system did 30 years ago.

Americans are not being obstinate. It makes sense to prefer private cars to public trains and buses. Cars and highways are available 24 hours a day. They go virtually everywhere, no small consideration in a nation with widely dispersed population centers. They sharply reduce travel time -- nationwide, the average mass transit commute takes 42 minutes, while the average commuter driving to work makes it in only 20. And without question, cars and highways are safer: Fatality rates are notably lower for cars and highways -- especially interstate highways -- than for most forms of mass transit.

It isn't a "love affair" with cars that keeps Americans behind the wheel. It is the freedom, flexibility, and efficiency that automobiles provide. Nor is this an American phenomenon. Anywhere people have the choice, they choose to drive. In Europe, where gasoline frequently costs upwards of $4 a gallon, automobile use has risen steadily for decades. Since the liberation of East Germany in 1989, the share of riders using mass transit has been halved; the share using cars now equals that in the former West Germany.

"What do you call a system that 85 percent of workers -- 100 million people -- use every day?" asks Cox. "You call it mass transit. It is the automobiles on our highway system. We have already made the capital investment. We already own the vehicles. All we need to do is use what we've got better."

Anti-car propagandists need to face reality: Americans, with reason, would rather drive. Subways and commuter trains, no matter how much is spent to subsidize them, will never account for more than a minuscule fraction of commuter trips. We have far more mass transit than we need, but not nearly enough highway lanes. It is time to start spending the money where it's needed -- and to make drivers, not straphangers, our top transportation priority.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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