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Hart, Stanley and Alvin Spivak. The Elephant in the Bedroom: Automobile Dependence and Denial. Pasadena, CA: New Paradigm Books, 1993 (173 pp.). This short but highly provocative book has become a controversial classic in the field of transportation studies. The title refers to a phrase used in Alcoholics Anonymous for human denial Ė the elephant in the bedroom being that big, smelly thing we all see but choose to ignore. Itís easy to see how this metaphor applies to alcoholism, and Hart and Spivak use that same idea to characterize Americaís relationship with its automobiles. As they say in the very beginning: "We prefer not to see the waste, the dependence, the environmental and social costs." In effect, Americans are addicted to the car, they argue, and their addiction is fed by federal policies and subsidies that prop up the car economy. Whatís invigorating about this study is the authorsí direct style; they donít write in flowery terms, and they donít even pretend to spin an interesting narrative. Their concern is to communicate facts, and they do this in a straight-forward, journalistic style that reads like a very long memo Ė but itís filled with statistics and details that lend their argument a logical foundation, rather than the emotional appeal many other mass transit enthusiasts, environmentalists, and others employ to denounce our car-oriented culture. Now, Hart and Spivak acknowledge that their campaign is probably doomed to failure, since the individualistic ethos in America is so prevalent and the transportation lobby is so politically powerful Ė and they even say as much at the conclusion; but if nothing else, this book should be read to encourage conversation about the ways in which dependence on the automobile has transformed our towns, families, and, most of all, world economies (that subsidized gallon of gasoline our Lexus slurps, for example, makes the Kalahari Bushmanís kerosene even more expensive). The main argument here is that America prides itself on its market-driven economy. Conservatives love to say, for example, "Let the market decide," and if there is no demand for a product, it will necessarily fade away Ė a sort of Darwinian version of economic natural selection. Hart and Spivak would like the nation to apply that same faith in the market system to transportation, where our car-oriented choices have been tremendously subsidized for decades. Itís no secret that most of the world pays three or four times what Americans pay for gasoline, and thereís a good reason: without state and federal subsidies, thatís what it costs to drive! Almost everyone knows this, of course, which is why the elephant metaphor is so appropriate. We know, for example, that drivers do not pay anywhere near the cost of driving, if all expenses are factored in: building and maintaining highways, free parking nearly everywhere, environmental destruction and pollution, deaths and accidents, social fragmentation, and many other costs to society. Using conservative estimates, the authors calculate that drivers should pay at least $5 a gallon for gas to adequately cover these costs. Because we donít Ė and because itís political suicide to even suggest such a heavy tax Ė the cost for our car-based lifestyle is covered in other ways, mostly through state and property taxes and increased retail prices. Hart and Spivak were among the first to argue what many urban planners now accept: building more highways only increases traffic; itís a never-ending cycle of dependence, and communities simply canít build their way out of congestion. The winners in this game are Big Auto, Big Oil, and the growth industries that perpetuate sprawl. The losers, according to the authors, are most Americans and especially the poor, since their transportation systems have been gutted in order to pay for more highways. The authors briefly recount the now well-known 1930s conspiracy among auto, tire, and oil corporations to buy many of the nationís streetcar lines, and then wreck the systems so citizens would be forced to buy automobiles (the perpetrators were fined $5,000). However, they blame less the corporations and more the politicians and citizens who not only allowed but encouraged the dismantling. What we end up with is two unworkable approaches: an inefficient highway system that gets more clogged, demands more funding, and grows more hazardous to people and the environment; and a bankrupt mass transit system doomed to failure because of insufficient funding, and because our suburban, low-density lifestyle renders mass transit infeasible. The authors conclude with a series of proposals for addressing the current situation, most of which will probably never be adopted as long as Big Auto and Big Oil, in particular, continue to be among the largest political donors. They are not fans of some of the more popular transportation ideas being bandied about, such as alternative-fuel cars or HOV lanes and other schemes to encourage carpooling, since these and most other proposals do little to discourage driving Ė they simply make it easier. Demand can only be reduced in two ways: either make driving more annoying (which we try to offset with wider roads, HOV lanes, etc.) or make it more expensive (which weíre not apt to do, certainly not to the extent required). One tax-related proposal demands attention; and that is the sequestering of gas taxes for highway construction and maintenance, while sales and property taxes are not sequestered. For example, most drivers think they pay for highways through gas taxes; the truth is these dollars account for about half of highway funding, with the remainder taken from other taxes (often taxes people who do not drive also pay). Gas taxes are sequestered so they can only be applied to highway construction and maintenance; but property, sales, and other taxes are not sequestered in this way (say, for schools or police) and, as a result, these funds are continuously raided to pay for highways. If sales taxes were sequestered in the same way, for example, to pay for educational programs, then drivers would begin to understand how Americaís car culture has been subsidized inappropriately. That probably wonít happen, but a proposal of this sort, even at a local level, would certainly encourage interesting discussion and open some eyes.


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