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The Greatest Invention: How Automobiles Made America Great

Randal O Toole cites facts to show how the automobile has improved the lives of all Americans






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The Greatest Invention

How Automobiles Made America Great

The automobile has been widely criticized for its social costs, including accidents, pollution, and changes to urban form. But few of the critics consider the many benefits that the auto has produced for the average American. This new paper (940-kb pdf) from the American Dream Coalition fills that gap, showing that the automobile has played a large or dominant role in:


  • Increasing personal incomes by seven times;
  • Increasing personal mobility by six to eight times;
  • Increasing homeownership rates by nearly 50 percent;
  • Reducing the cost of consumer goods and increasing the variety of such goods by up to 100 times or more;
  • Enabling the civil rights and women's liberation movements;
  • Making outdoor sports and numerous other recreational and social opportunities available to the average person;
  • Reforesting 80 million acres of deforested horsepasture lands and converting 40 million acres of other pastures to higher-value croplands;
  • Providing rapid access to fire and other emergency services and swift escape from natural disasters.

Automobiles, trucks, and tractors also allowed a significant improvement in land uses in this country. Since they replaced horses for most farming and hauling uses, farmers converted 80 million acres of horsepasture to forests, which are far superior for wildlife and watersheds, and another 40 million acres of pasture to the production of higher-valued crops. In comparison, the 21 million or so acres of low-density suburban development that has taken place since 1945 is relatively insignificant.

Because of these benefits, it is reasonable to call the mass-produced automobile the greatest invention in the 230 years since the American republic was founded. Those who seek to reduce the amount of driving people do by imposing disincentives to the auto or allowing traffic congestion to increase risk killing, or at least limiting, the automotive goose that laid the golden egg of American prosperity.

The paper recommends:

  • Governments should be neutral regarding people's transportation choices, only insuring that people pay the full costs of their choices
  • Transportation agencies should be led by transportation professionals, not political appointees, and funded as much as possible out of user fees such as gasoline taxes, tolls, and transit fares.
  • Subsidies needed for purposes of social equity should be given to transportation users, not transportation bureaucracies.

These policy guidelines will insure that government programs produce transportation systems that are safe and efficient, allowing the nation to continue enjoying the benefits of the greatest invention in its history.


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