The Car Scam

I was listening the other day to a podcast I’ve been a fan of for a few years The War on Cars. This podcast is based out of New York and has some good discussion of decaring cities, though unfortunately from a liberal, and not radical, perspective. They had the author Cory Doctorow on to discuss the decline and hopefully the fall of the rideshare company Uber. The discussion of Uber itself was interesting, and touched on the type of venture capitalist gish-gallop that Uber and many of its contemporaries use. In Uber’s case, this was the argument that it was a company developing a ride-hailing algorithm, and then later that it was doing autonomous vehicles, and then later that it was a mobility platform for transportation as a service, and so on. More interesting to me however, was their brief discussion of the “bezzle,” which denotes the time between a scam being completed (the money leaving the mark's possession) and when the mark realizes they’ve been scammed.

The host and Doctorow discuss if they think that automobile society is a scam, but don’t really come to a conclusion, but I think the case is strong for the fact that it is. Cars are a scam, and have been from their invention. We can think of a few main points that follow intrinsically from the car.

The first of these is that cars demand car-centered infrastructure. The car, to be useful, has to reshape the world around it. This is because the car has a poor ratio of size to utility. Cars are large, transport one person for the most part, need distance between each other, need to be stored, and so on. In a city designed for people, the car loses utility, and so the use of cars demands that the world be reshaped for them.

However, this reshaping creates several problems that constitute the main part of the scam. For city governments that cater to the car, they gradually impoverish and indebt themselves over time. This is an argument made persuasively by Strong Towns. The types of buildings that are compatible with car-centered infrastructure are things like strip malls, big box stores, and drive-thru fast food places. Compared to a densely packed downtown block, these places have a much lower tax revenue, sometimes not even enough to cover the maintenance costs the city mus pay for the roads, power, water, and sewage that connect to them.

This is the heart of the scam, and where the bezzle currently is. For the past hundred years, but especially from the 60s onward, the built environment in the United States has become more and more car-centered. For a while there was enough surplus to sustain the scam for longer. The carbon bill hadn’t come, major disasters didn’t happen concurrently, and there was enough close-by space to cities for housing to be built to keep prices down.

Now though, those challenges have come back, and the towns, cities, and states are finding that their pockets are empty. They will have to either choose to let some roads turn to gravel, some bridges to collapse, some lights to go off, or they will have to abandon the car. But hey, at least some auto executives and their shareholders made money.