Cars are nearly inescapable. They are the modern kudzu, taking over our cities at an uncontrollable rate. The streets are covered in them, parking garages spring up to support their hordes, and highways become ever wider as more lanes are added in an attempt to alleviate the ever-increasing strain automobiles put on our infrastructure. American proletarians have been systemically forced into car ownership and usage for decades which results in massive debt, climate destruction, and the growth of individualism.
Debt owed on auto loans is almost as much as student loans in the United States (1). Student loans are for a different article despite many similarities, but the closeness of the numbers helps highlight the importance and prevalence of automotive debt.
The primary way that car ownership leads to debt is due to its near mandatory nature; ownership is usually not optional outside of a few cities. In the same way that the proletariat has no choice but to work for the bourgeoisie, car ownership is also not an option. The proletariat is forced to sell their labor to the bourgeoisie to make enough money to pay for necessary costs such as rent, food, and utilities. To get to their job, the proletarian needs a vehicle. Transportation becomes one of the necessary costs.
Thus, the proletariat must own a car; however, cars are expensive. New cars are often upwards of $30,000 and even used cars have been increasing drastically in price over the past few years (2). Here is where the debt trap arises. The worker does not have thousands to spend on a car, they must get a loan. The trap is now fully sprung; they are stuck under likely thousands of dollars of debt that they were forced into. Proletarians need a car to work and have to work to pay off the car. Paradoxical.
Unfortunately, auto debt and costs do not end at purchase. The car has to be maintained, the driver has to be licensed, insurance is mandatory in many states, and fluctuations of gas prices have massive consequences. Gas prices now are skyrocketing to $4-8 across the country; at times a single gallon of gas costs more than an entire hour of work at the federal minimum wage.
Infrastructure is one of the factors that causes the near mandatory car ownership for many Americans. Workers need cars to get to work because their job is not within walking or biking distance and public transit is not often an option. Infrastructure and city design are policy decisions made by the rich, the bourgeoisie, and they have and continue to make decisions that benefit their class. One of these policymakers was Robert Moses in New York. For example, “Robert Moses instructed his building engineer Sidney M Shapiro to build the overpasses so low over the Northern State Parkway that buses would not be able to pass under them” (3). Moses is known for building many parks throughout the city, but his policy decisions clearly aimed to restrict who would be able to enjoy those parks - only people that own cars. He also fought for zoning laws that led to the building of single family homes out of the city, opposed studies into building mass transit lines to the Long Island Expressway, and built exclusive bridges over a parkway for estate owners. His actions supported the wealthy and forced car ownership upon citizens of Long Island whether they wanted it or not.
Robert Moses is one person in one city and many of his actions are not even mentioned above. America’s automotive infrastructure extends across the entire country and is not unique to Long Island. Any city across the country could be chosen and there will likely be someone similar to Robert Moses in its history. There have been hundreds of people just like him and there will be hundreds more until we collectively fight for our interests as a coordinated working class.
Another consequence of the auto infrastructure across the United States is climate change, although it is likely more apt to call it climate destruction or decline. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, which trap heat in the atmosphere and increase temperatures, in the U.S. are “burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.” During 2020 transportation made up 27% of those greenhouse gas emissions; however, the coronavirus pandemic started the same year and a shift toward working from home combined with the shutdowns in some industries made 2020 one of the lowest years for greenhouse gas emissions from transportation since the 90s (4). The reduced rates of emissions in 2020 indicates that a different approach is possible, although the infrastructure in the U.S. is not setup for a gradual transition away from cars at the moment.
According to the EPA, over half of emissions from the transportation sector come from gasoline and diesel powered engines. A common argument used when hearing about gasoline being the problem is that electric cars would solve the issue. There is a clip of Sen. Stabenow of Michigan talking about it. In that clip, Sen. Stabenow says, “I’m looking forward to the opportunity for us to move to vehicles that aren’t going to be dependent on the whims of the oil companies and the international markets.” Who then will drivers be at the whim of? If every driver in the country magically received an electric car then the electric companies would be in control of prices instead of oil companies. It is naïve to think that electric companies would be fair in their monopolization of electricity when they already do not exhibit fair behavior in their monopolization of gas.
Countless cars are gathered together everyday at rush hour using their $7/gal gasoline and pumping greenhouse gasses into the environment without even moving because of the crippling inefficiency of automotive transportation infrastructure - traffic. Replace the gasoline car in the example above with an electric car and the impact is a potential cheaper cost per mile to travel as well as a reduction in greenhouse gasses, but the issue of inefficient infrastructure is still present. 1,000 workers driving their gas cars or 1,000 workers driving their electric cars are going to be stuck in the same traffic jam.
Another major issue facing workers mentioned previously is the cost to own the vehicle. It is already years of debt to pay back a gas fueled car and the only difference when considering an electric car is that there will be more years of debt. According to Kelly Blue Book, the average price of a new electric vehicle was $56,437 in November, 2021 (5). That is not a solution, it makes the existing problem worse. Even if workers were to make the switch to an electric vehicle they are already in need of transportation in the first place because they are already working, so they are likely already in debt for their current car. The massive campaign over the past few years toward electric vehicles has also led to a growth of individualism. Most people are aware that cars are not good for the environment, it is no secret. The promotion of electricity as an alternative fuel source is not wrong, but it also does not solve the problem. A few corporations are responsible for the majority of negative climate change. Individualism comes into play here via drivers believing that their switch to an electric vehicle will help curb climate decline. While making the switch does have an impact it is merely a drop in the bucket compared to the impact that large corporations have on the climate. It is a far cry from the environmental saviors that electric vehicles are touted to be by much of the media and elected officials.
Electric cars are a small, small step in the right direction in regard to climate change specifically and have many other problems. We can take leaps in the right direction by expanding public transit and removing the reliance on cars and the infrastructure that comes with them. Increased access to free busses, rail, and walkable/bikeable infrastructure has to happen before any meaningful shift away from cars is possible.
Make no mistake, even if public transit was suddenly built overnight in America, capitalism would still be here. The mode of production will not change because of the way the proletariat is able to transport themselves, it will only change through revolution. Reliance on cars is just one link of the chain that binds the proletariat. The bourgeoisie still owns the means of production and private property, but that does not mean that improved public transit cannot be a demand on the way to removing the bourgeoisie from power forever. The ultimate solutions rely on the specific material conditions of each country, state, and area, but the overall message is clear: public transport is a wide impact issue that can be potently laden with support from the masses.
1 - https://www.newyorkfed.org/microeconomics/hhdc
2 - https://policyadvice.net/insurance/insights/how-many-americans-own-cars/
3 - https://classicnewyorkhistory.com/how-robert-moses-shaped-the-long-island-he-misunderstood/
4 - https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions
5 - https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/eight-straight-new-vehicle-prices-mark-another-record-high-in-november-2021-according-to-kelley-blue-book-301442015.html