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Columns

Motocracy: The Politics of Car Dependency

Our Transportation Crisis

By Clyve Lawrence, Contributing Opinion Writer
Clyve Lawrence ’25 is a Government concentrator in Adams House. His column “Our Transportation Crisis” appears on alternate Mondays.

What if a major highway cut through Cambridge?

That was the proposal residents faced 50 years ago when Massachusetts highway officials announced the Cambridge Inner Belt. The eight-lane expressway would destroy 2,200 housing units and displace 13,000 people. But through protest and activism, they fought back against the plan. Finally, in 1971, Governor Francis Sargent rejected the Inner Belt, defying powerful lobbies. Without losing a single home, Cambridge residents beat the highway.

This story is not unique to Cambridge. For over a century, people and cars have been at odds. As the Interstate Highway System was being constructed in the 1950s, urban communities began opposing the network. These protests, called “highway revolts,” took on planned interstates in New York City, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Some highway revolts, like here in Cambridge, were successful; others, like in Los Angeles, failed, with devastating effects.

Since then, a dissonance grew between the powerful resistance to highway projects and the views that developed once drivers were on them.

Over the rest of the century, car ownership began symbolizing freedom in America. Today, plastered across screens, magazines, and billboards, car manufacturers entice us to invest in a personal vehicle — for choice, convenience, and even conservation. Parts of our media ecosystem defend cars when needed. The automobile, oil, and gas industries contribute millions of dollars to elected officials. All of this work bolsters one of the most profitable industries in the country.

Generations of Americans later, driving has meant total liberation, a passport to the open road.

But for our quality of life and the sustainability of our planet, we must change.

Almost every region in the United States suffers from an overreliance on cars at the expense of other forms of transportation, such as walking, cycling, and public transit. This concept, called “car dependency,” has strangled our cities. Once you notice it, it is impossible to ignore.

Planners develop housing around cars by enforcing single-family zoning. Officials prioritize car-centric infrastructure like parking lots, fast speed limits, and wide roads. To get anywhere within many American cities, you need a car. The lack of alternatives locks everyone into the system — a far cry from liberation.

Car dependency carries disastrous social consequences, from socioeconomic inequality associated to fatalities to poorer health outcomes. Transportation remains the largest polluter in the Commonwealth, worsening air quality while contributing directly to climate change.

The economic consequences are not much better. Massachusetts subsidizes its cars, trucks, roads, and parking areas considerably. The cost of this vehicle economy? Roughly $64 billion a year, over half of which is borne by the public. That is $14,000 per Massachusetts family. We all pay substantially towards the vehicle economy, whether we own a car or not.

All of this precedes the carnage that plays out on our roads every day. In 2021, there were 42,915 traffic fatalities nationwide — including more than 400 in Massachusetts.

The evidence is clear. People are worse off when they cannot choose how they want to travel.

Despite the evidence, the gears of American infrastructure enforce upon its people a system of government that ensures automobile supremacy — a system I call motocracy.

Motocracy is the culmination of oil-fueled capitalism.

The oil and gas industries successfully transitioned the United States from transit to private automobiles. Today the industries contribute over $90 million to Congress, and policymakers respond in kind. Under motocracy, the government depends on the auto industry for state revenue and job growth; our leaders thus respond quickly to industry requests.

As a result, our legal system protects and enforces motocracy. In Greater Boston, single-family zoning and other land-use restrictions make apartments illegal in 80 percent of available land. The system also requires parking space and highway construction, stretching resources across greater distances of lower density.

Under motocracy, the law tacitly blames pedestrians for their own deaths, refusing to hold drivers accountable. Jaywalking — an invented and at times racially-biased crime — remains technically illegal in most of the United States, including Massachusetts. There are lower expectations for how safe a driver must be on the road, and criminal charges are rare even when a driver kills someone.

The imbalance between cars and people creates inherent unfairness in our justice system. In Massachusetts, motocracy reinforces decades of residential segregation, displacement, and environmental racism.

Resource collapse, dark money, judicial corruption, racism, and death. These are the effects of car dependency. As it stands, motocracy runs antithetical to democratic ideals in America. It must be dismantled.

To this statement, many motorists might insist they have the right to drive. I ask, what about the right not to have to drive?

The rise of the automobile required the destruction of tens of thousands of homes. It unjustifiably and systemically removed wealth from communities of color. And it irreversibly damaged our climate.

Fifty years ago, communities across the country recognized the dangers of motocracy. Some chose to revolt. But many did not.

For our country to preserve justice and equality under the law, it must decouple itself from its overreliance on cars. Our regions must invest in fairer, more equitable modes of transportation and guarantee mobility. Car dependency cannot be our future, and it doesn’t have to be.

Clyve Lawrence ’25 is a Government concentrator in Adams House. His column “Our Transportation Crisis” appears on alternate Mondays.

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