Man or Motor?

The changes caused by the automobile are permanent, and the expansion of our highways is likened to a lava flow: irreversible. Shall we run the automobile or will it run us? Paul B. Sears, eminent ecologist and student of natural resources, warns us that no master study to coordinate land, air, and water transport is yet in sight.



IN 1863 Samuel Butler wrote to the editor of the Press of Christchurch, New Zealand, a letter which he called “Darwin Among the Machines.” Though not himself a scientist, Butler had a better grasp of evolution than many of the professionals of his day. In this letter he points out that the machine is definitely an evolutionary phenomenon, but warns that, useful as it is, it could become man’s master and he its slave.

The germ of this idea was not new, going back to Daedalus and Icarus, the scriptural account of Babel, Aladdin and his formidable servant, and the old tale “Why the Sea Is Salt.” In this last, be it remembered, a sea captain was granted a wish. Since his business was the transport of salt, he asked for a machine that would produce and grind it into the hold of his vessel. He got his wish, but not the formula for stopping the process. And so his ship foundered, while the mill continued to operate beneath the waves.

Nearly a century was to elapse after Butler’s warning before the late Norbert Wiener, who had contributed his genius to developing the modern computer, spent his last days in cautioning us about its dangerous potential. Meanwhile, Julian Huxley and others have reminded us that evolution is now a cultural rather than a purely biological process and that man has the fearful responsibility of guiding it.

On our historical time scale, man is likely to remain about the same organism he is now. But the extension of his physical powers through invention is bringing about developments that far surpass, in rate and kind, those which have taken place throughout the known history of life. Nothing else since the origin of terrestrial organisms has produced such profound disruption of the natural environment or such striking variation in the behavior of a single species in so short a time as the computer.

Developed and perfected within the memory of many now living, the automobile is a prime evolutionary phenomenon. Of the attributes of living things — metabolism, motion, response, and reproduction — it possesses the first two beyond question. But the controls of the nervous and reproductive systems are in another body, that of man, and so, in consequence, is the control of energy flow and the accompanying chemical changes which represent metabolism and make action possible. As economist Kenneth Boulding has put it, a visitor from another planet might conclude that we had evolved a swarm of giant wheeled bugs with detachable brains.

To be quite philosophical, the automobile should be viewed in the light of a continuum — man’s effort to transcend the barriers of space and thus of time. This series began with foot travel and face-toface communication, moving on to horse, rail, wire, automobile, airplane, missile, satellite, and electronic message in exponential fashion. So rapidly have we been overtaken by these latter developments that we have dealt with them only by crude improvisation. Certainly nothing is more sorely needed than a masterly study aimed at the coordination of all forms of transport by water, land, and air. The individual whose occupation obliges him to travel is beset by raggedness and disorder, which add greatly to his burden.

However urgent the need for such a study, it is not yet in sight. Meanwhile, we can only follow the ancient rule — when a problem is too big and complex to handle, we must keep looking at it and thinking about it in the hope that we can discern some pattern. As a practical matter, we must break it up into pieces of digestible size and try to deal with them one at a time. So far as the automobile is concerned, there is more than enough reason to tackle it as an entity. For its impact upon society, the individual, and the environment of both is more and more pervasive, powerful, and insistent.

In 1962 the number of births in the United States was slightly more than four million. In the same year there were almost seven million passenger cars sold at factory, of which the number exported was about half that of imports. In service at present there are two automobiles for every five people in our country. In 1900, with a population of some seventy-five million, there were an estimated four thousand cars sold, about one for eighteen thousand people.

Those of us who remember the spluttering cough, frequent balking, and tentative engineering of the first automobiles, the mud roads between towns, and the cobbled or unpaved urban streets of 1900 will probably agree that the bulk of Americans get around at least ten times faster now than sixty-odd years ago. If so, we cover as individuals some hundred times more territory in a unit of time. The energy for this activity comes no longer from the food of men and horses, but from fossil fuel. Passenger cars alone consume over forty-two billion gallons of gasoline per year, over six hundred gallons per car. Knowledgeable estimates reckon that this material is being used a million times faster than it was formed during past ages.

This explosive release of energy devoted largely to fast movement is taking place in a population now doubling in half a century or less. Here we come face to face with a physical rule that applies to man as well as molecules, for both are dynamic particles. When stich active units, whether of gas in a flask or living humans on an island or even a continent, are confined within a finite space, the mean free path of each decreases with crowding. And if energy is added to the system, either by heating the flask or moving man about faster through the use of fossil fuel in the internal combustion engine, the degree of freedom is still further reduced.

This, of course, sounds like statistical nonsense to the Nebraskan who can speed on good roads from Lincoln to Denver in a day. It is more convincing to the victim of daily traffic jams and parking problems, or to the traveler caught in a seven-mile lineup of stalled cars by blockage of a tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It takes on ghastly conviction at the sight of a fatal traffic accident and the realization that there are over forty thousand deaths per year from this source. With men as with molecules, collisions increase as the mean free path decreases.

THE sheer physical aspects of the automobile are not confined to what happens when it is in motion. Alive or “dead,” it is a jealous consumer of space. The stabling of a single car requires some 13 percent of the floor space of an average family home. Commercial parking establishments, nearly eleven thousand of them, aggregate into big business with an annual intake of over a third of a billion dollars and the consumption of an important amount of urban space. Metered on-street parking is a significant element in municipal income. But both free and paid parking are often at a premium in commercial areas, their benefits being offset by the obstruction to the flow of traffic. The loss of sales in the older civic centers due to parking difficulties is amply proved by the growth of peripheral shopping facilities, due only in part to suburban expansion.

The death rate of automobiles is astonishingly high, some 70 percent of the number manufactured each year being junked. Since our human birth rate is about three times that of the death rate, this gives some sobering thoughts about the future and its problems. To a greater extent than is commonly realized, both family size and the discarding of cars are products of vogue rather than physical necessity. One must keep up with the neighbors in both respects. Whether apocryphal or not, there is truth in the saying attributed to a distinguished executive, “If the public ever catches on to the fact that a new car every two years is not a necessity, we are sunk.”

The American public, so often accused of materialism, suffers from exactly the opposite malady — a lack of respect for materials. The modern automobile, aside from weird vagaries of appearance which seem to be quieting down, is a superb engineering achievement deserving more respect and better care than it usually gets. One cannot help thinking nostalgically of an earlier day when possessions were harder to come by and home equipment such as edged tools and rifles was given the loving care now bestowed on household pets.

Except for the aficionados whose hobby is antique cars, few Americans would feel the pride of a British friend bowling along in a nineteen-year-old Rolls, running like a top and good for years more. In addition, there are the factors of mechanical ignorance on the part of owners, the increasing complexity of the machine itself, and the scarcity of competent and reliable mechanics to be reckoned with. So blinded are we by our general affluence that the small margins of time required for proper maintenance are never balanced against the many hours which rapid travel adds to our time budget.

The concrete and highly visible symptom of this waste is the growing size and number of automobile graveyards that disfigure the countryside. These are among the worst of many needless blots on the beauty of our landscape. Concealing walls, such as are required around unsightly spaces in Mexico City, would help greatly. More important. however, are the economic factors involved. New processes for the treatment of low-grade ores have reduced the value of junk in manufacture. A further complication is due to the presence of more than a dozen alloys in the modern automobile. Unless some economical means of separating the various metals for reuse can be devised, car cadavers will remain a drug on the market and an offense to the eye.

So long as cheap materials direct from mine and smelter are available, industry is not likely to underwrite the needed research. But competent authority believes it can be fruitful and might, in the interest of long-term national economy as well as aesthetics, be undertaken by a suitable federal agency, possibly the Bureau of Mines.

A UNIVERSITY official once ventured the opinion that it is safer to woo a colleague’s wife than to go after any of his office or laboratory space. This intriguing hypothesis will probably — for what we might call technical reasons — remain where he left it, but the fact is that rivalry for space is an old and growing problem in the human adventure. It lies back of tribal conflict and enforced prehistoric migration to all the continents. It explains the near extinction of the bison and our ambivalence toward the forest, at once a source of benefit and a rival for space. And anyone who has tried to move by taxi through the New York garment district, between Grand Central and Penn Station, is well aware that our own creation, the automobile, annihilates space in more senses than one.

This vehicle is not only a taker-up of room. It is also, as we have suggested, a potent biological and cultural influence. One would be tempted to call it an artificial organism if that did not make it necessary to coin another word for the living prototypes, each structurally and functionally complete and self-contained in its way. Even so, it shares enough properties in common with things truly alive to give us a start.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the automobile has its close parallel in natural history. The rise of new forms reacts upon those already existing, often in the most intimate ways. Aside from obvious competition, often toughest among members of the same species since their requirements are identical, there is an elaborate spectrum of relations between species. These vary from coexistence through mutual aid, interdependence, and on, by various degrees, to complete parasitism and slavery.

We have only glimpses of the way in which the more extreme degrees of interspecific tyranny have arisen. Many of them, no doubt, started in fairly casual and innocuous fashion, tightening their grip by gradual stages. There are, for example, insects that form galls on plants. Eggs are deposited within the host tissue, and when the larvae hatch, the chemicals they produce stimulate the formation of succulent plant cells. Within the swelling so produced, the young find food and shelter until they emerge. One genus of such gall-makers is responsible for an astonishing range of complexity, presumably an evolutionary scries, in these edible homes. The series begins with a simple swelling of the affected stem and goes on into more and more elaborate forms, resembling less and less what the plant Would produce on its own. Each form identifies the species of insect, but the plant does the work under the biochemical control of its boarder.

The trick here, as in other cases of insidiously begun piracy, is the initial tolerance of the host. If the first invader were so uncongenial (“toxic” is the word, Bergen) as to kill the cells surrounding it, it would starve. But we know that many poisons of animals and plants, in minute amounts, act as stimulants instead of killers. First steps on the road to captivity can be acceptable, or even disarmingly agreeable, whether we speak of plants and animals, marriage, politics, or inventions.

While we leave the reader to draw what further conclusions he has a mind to from this biological parable, we may examine a few of the side effects of the automobile on man, his environment, and his way of life. Let us admit at once that the mixture of debit and credit is so intimate and confusing that no easy solutions are in sight.

Neglecting for a moment the mutilation and death of human bodies, I noted in the days before I owned a car that my friends who had them laid on weight much faster than I did with my threemile walk to and from work. A Scandinavian military observer in Korea and a warm friend of the United States ventured the opinion that we had forgotten how to walk. Where we could move men and matériel by motor, we were invincible, but where this was impossible, the enemy could sometimes get himself and his equipment in place by sheer muscle power, to our great discomfiture.

Neither physical comfort nor safety appears to be the first consideration in modern car design. Space for the human body is too often minimal. One hears complaints of “throughway sciatica,” while a driver and passenger need not be far advanced toward senile stiffness to find it an awkward business getting in and out of their seats. Medical men have troubles enough without looking into the effects of tension resulting from car travel, but the eyestrain from shiny hoods and sloping windshields requires no statistical proof.

Aside from accident, the most notorious effect of the automobile on the human body results from what it does to the air we breathe. When we depended upon horsepower in its classical sense, the effluvia might not have been pleasant to all, but they were certainly harmless, as well as useful to the soil. As to those from the motorcar, they are unpleasant, useless, and do us no good, even though we have much to learn about their cumulative effects. The skunk is a small-time operator at best and a good citizen in many respects. It would be well if he could spare some of his potent warning power to the more dangerous discharges of the modern motorcar.

In addition to exhaust fumes, we have to reckon with vapor displaced when tanks are filled. In great cities this is awesome in amount and becomes definitely toxic through chemical change in the upper atmosphere. So prevalent is contamination that it has become a dual pleasure to travel in remote regions where water is fit to drink and air to breathe. We have little reason to pride ourselves on our technological brains so long as we tolerate such conditions, but we must give the automobile credit when it enables us to escape for a time from them.

Even this credit for escape has its ambiguities. It is a wonderful thing that motor travel is knitting us into consciousness of our unity as a nation. A British friend, recently naturalized, celebrated that event by a coast-to-coast automobile trip with his family. He came back glowing with pride at his adopted country. The spreading uniformity of which critics complain also has its merits to those who can recall the execrable hotel fare and infested beds of less than a lifetime ago. Yet our choicest beauty spots, such as the Yosemite, are being loved to death, while even New Mexico, beautiful land of sunshine that it is, is in danger of being dubbed the beer-can state by visitors who see the roadsides as they spin along.

EVERY biological entity not only is acted upon by environment but reacts in turn upon its surroundings. This property is shared by the automobile in most highly visible form by its demand for pathways. It has reversed the ancient legend of the invention of shoes, which explains that an oriental monarch required his minions to spread a strip of smooth leather before him to protect his bare feet against the rough ground. This went on until some genius found that the same result could be obtained by fastening leather soles to the royal feet.

The current annual cost of highway construction approaches five billion dollars, something like twenty-five dollars per capita. In an earlier day each male citizen was often required to give the equivalent of a day’s work on the roads each year. Women and children were exempted, as, statistically speaking, they no longer are. While 88 percent of the more than 3.5 million miles of highway are rural, travel in passenger miles on urban roads almost equals that on the rural. As an interesting footnote, we have made many counts on urban traffic. We have yet to find a time when fewer than 75 percent of the cars carry a single passenger. If we could accept as honest an average rating of 100 horsepower for each car and the rating of one horsepower as equivalent to ten man-powers, no despot ever had such transport service.

Geologically speaking, the modern highway has only one equivalent. That is a lava flow. It is essentially an irreversible phenomenon, put there to stay, regardless of any future potential for the land which it occupies. Highway location not only cancels out any other possible use but determines the future geometry of the nation. Consequently, the location of any major highway should be an object of the most considered thought, the most complete information, and the best judgment available. Aesthetic as well as economic and engineering considerations should be in balance.

Early roads were consequent on topography as well as need. Often they followed animal trails, which had been influenced by the principle of least effort. With the opening of the Northwest Territory in 1787, the level surface of Ohio made possible a rectangular grid system of roads enclosing each square mile, which has been followed since wherever possible. Thus, a convenient pattern of land measure was combined with general access, but most of these roads were incredibly dusty when they were not hub-deep in mud. Even before the automobile appeared, local merchants and farmers had worked to begin a program of crushed stone roads devised by McAdam in 1815.

With the advent of machine travel, experiments in hard-surfacing began, leading gradually to our present techniques based on massive earth-moving and construction machinery. As the range and efficiency of the automobile increased, so did the demand for longer roads, an early example being the transcontinental Lincoln Highway, now Route 30. This development resulted in increasing participation by higher units of government, culminating in the present impressive federal aid interstate system.

Such vast activity called for special engineering expertise. As a result, not only the construction but the details of location have come to be governed primarily by engineering considerations. A notable factor has been the rise of state highway commissions, amply financed. So great is their power that citizen protest is often helpless unless it can reach a sympathetic state governor.

Meanwhile, instances of such protest have been increasing. Traffic noise, community disruption, destruction of historic buildings, parks, natural areas, and scenic values have all been involved. More than once high engineering skill has been thwarted by circumstance. The New Jersey Turnpike, designed to carry a traffic load predicted for 1975, encountered it on opening day, and the volume has been increasing ever since. Again, a splendid highway may debouch into a constricted outlet, slowing down and piling up traffic, like the blood in a varicose vein. It has come to be a truism that good roads serve to increase the pressure of traffic as much as to solve its problems. I have yet to find a city with the good sense to put a taxi driver on its traffic commission. I usually find they have very sound ideas arising from their daily experience.

Protesters have been free in their criticism of the engineering mind, despite the fact that this profession rates among the highest in mental capacity, but the individual engineer is seldom a free agent. Whether he works on automobile design or highway planning and construction, he works for somebody else. So far as highways are concerned, the employing officials and commissions are themselves under enormous pressure. When one considers the combined, almost glacial power of the truck and bus industries, the purveyors of road metal and construction machinery, the contractors and car manufacturers, it is little wonder that proponents of the longer view have tough going.

Yet there is hope. Citizen groups can be persistent. We now have A National Program of Scenic Roads and Parkways signed by the six U.S. Cabinet members and the housing administrator who serve on the Recreation Advisory Council. In explicit terms these makers of policy acknowledge the responsibility of government to enhance the aesthetic quality of landscape where road building is concerned.

The longer view is not merely concerned with beauty for its own sake, important as that may be. It is equally concerned with ultimate economic values. Those who hold this view believe that in trying to meet the needs of the present we are also designing the future. Their prescription is disarmingly simple. They urge that so far as highway planning is concerned, a much wider range of talent and interest be involved than at present. That this is feasible was demonstrated years ago on a simple scale when Texas assigned a landscape architect, with power, to its highway department. The initial coolness toward him was promptly taken care of by strong executive order. The results, as I saw them in the 1930s, enhanced safety as well as appearance and cut economic loss of soil and water significantly.

Special treatment and a different order of discourse would be required to deal with the effect of the motorcar on our society. H. G. Wells’s Mr. Britling exemplified the utility of his Ford for illicit skylarking. Cars are a centrifugal influence upon the modern family and clearly weaken our sense of attachment to place. Along with other inventions, the automobile must share blame for the absence of bookshelves in the model homes of today. Ten million Americans owe their employment, in one form or another, to the motorcar, while the budgets of millions more, along with current practices in family banking, are under its spell. It serves business, crime, the messengers of mercy, and the frivolous with equal impartiality.

With all this it is still not a sentient being, but merely an extension of the human body. Whether we are to run it or be run by it is for us to decide. Only vigilance can block the shaded path that leads from convenience to necessity and from necessity on to tyranny.