EDITORIAL: A world without cars

The internal-combustion engine has freed mankind

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Bureaucrats across the globe hope the public will take time this weekend to imagine a world without automobiles. Saturday is the 14th annual World Carfree Day, which is billed as a “celebration of cities and public life, free from the noise, stress and pollution of cars.” Not surprisingly, much of the partying is at the public’s expense.

Last year, for instance, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments spent $39,600 on local radio advertisements and $7,794 on transit-bus signs urging people to “Pledge now to un-car for a day.” Governmental agencies offered cash, prizes and advertising space toward the effort in metropolitan areas throughout the United States and Europe.

Aside from clearing D.C. streets for Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s motorcade and making room on Parisian highways for limousines ferrying eurocrats between sustainability meetings, the one day’s hate for the internal-combustion engine will accomplish nothing. It’s just as empty as Earth Day and its little brother Earth Hour, in which lights are dimmed for 60 minutes to conserve energy — as if doing so will rescue the planet from some mythical, imminent doom.

If individuals choose to believe sea levels can be altered and polar bears saved by flipping a switch or riding a bicycle, that’s their business. It’s not right to raid the public treasury to bankroll these futile gestures. Instead of wasting the day demonizing all things automotive, the time would be better spent celebrating the invention that freed mankind from the clamor, anxiety and filth of 19th-century transportation alternatives.

All it takes is a history book to envision the reality of a carless world, and it was a miserable time. Tailpipe emissions and the rumble of engines haven’t ruined modern city life; they’ve preserved it.

A Lincoln or Lexus at speed makes far less racket than the pounding of hooves and rickety cart wheels over cobblestones. The modern internal-combustion engine generates so little pollution that many SUVs on the market today boast ultralow-emissions certification from California, where the standard for harmful gases is measured in thousandths of a gram. The same can hardly be said for the weighty and noisome byproduct of travel by horse.

Car-haters frequently point to the annual toll of 32,885 who perish on our highways, implying things would be far safer if only we would return to the halcyon days when trains and trolleys dominated the landscape. It just isn’t so. According to contemporary census reports, 26 Washingtonians died in railroad accidents in the pre-automobile days of 1890. Despite having streets clogged with automobiles and double the population, the District saw just 25 traffic fatalities in 2010.

In 1890, even more lives were lost because of runaway horses. According to the Feb. 24, 1890, edition of The Washington Post, Ann Hessler, a market woman, was thrown from her horse-drawn wagon onto K Street after losing control of the reins. Her life slipped away on the cold pavement because there were no ambulances back then to rush her to the hospital. “Her skull was fractured and by the time medical aid reached her, she was dead,” the Post reported.

That is what a world without automobiles actually looks like.

The Washington Times

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