Wednesday, October 03, 2012

California's middle-class car culture

Until I moved to California, I did not appreciate how pervasive and deeply ingrained their car culture is. I used to have the impression that CA was at the forefront of developing a post-car culture, with extensive public transportation and accommodations for bicycles on roads. However, once I saw this with my own eyes, I realized that relative to east-coast cities, California's urban areas are intrinsically unfriendly to pedestrian and bicycle commuting. Maybe this comparison is unfair, since I've mainly lived in declining cities, and their lower population density may facilitate biking; but my impression is that even Boston is intrinsically more bike-friendly than California cities. The only way that non-car transportation is possible in California is if cities really go out of their way to promote it.

As we all know, the dominance of cars in America's transportation system has been promoted by decades of state decisions to facilitate car transportation, often at the expense of other modes. I don't think there was any particular conspiracy -- it just made sense* given the socio-economic conditions after WWII. The problems with our car-centric culture started to become apparent in the 1970's, but by then powerful vested interests (both the car industry and car-commuters) made it hard to change course.

Anyway, we've reached the point where access to a car is practically considered a civil right -- at least for the middle class (as always, the lower classes get to bear the costs without reaping the benefits). So with this perspective, I was interested in proposition 33 on CA's ballot this fall. This proposition changes the rules regarding auto-insurance fees, by allowing companies to consider a new customer's history of coverage when setting rates. My libertarian impulse says "sure, let the markets decide", and when I look at the arguments against the measure I see that they are based on the idea that the right to drive is too important to be left to market forces. However, this initiative does not seem to simplify regulations in any general manner, so it gets no libertarian points, and I'll have to vote against it on the grounds that I am opposed to micromanagement of government by referenda.

Still, I wanted to check if this proposition might actually amount to an abandonment of car culture by the state of California. Since it is supposedly being promoted by the car insurance industry, it would not make sense for it to be designed in a way that discouraged new drivers from getting behind the wheel. When I looked at the details, I saw that it has an explicit clause to assure that middle-class spawn develop into the next generation of drivers:

(4) Children residing with a parent shall be provided a discount for continuous coverage based upon the parent’s eligibility for a continuous coverage discount.

So yeah, this is just a way to milk adults who temporarily give up driving for one reason or another.

I'm especially bothered by this notion that children gain legally enshrined economic rights based on the economic status of their parents. First it was Obama's health insurance coverage up to 26, and then this. It seems like this should be unconstitutional. As always, the state says "screw the poor".

*Clarification: it made sense to the ruling class...

3 comments:

Lorraine said...

When I first read your statement of a provision of the proposition—"This proposition changes the rules regarding auto-insurance fees, by allowing companies to consider a new customer's history of coverage when setting rates." I assumed this was a reference to penalizing DUI (driving without insurance) offenders by assigning them to the lucrative "high risk pool," one of the features of the poor-tax that I've been burned by here in Michigan. But when I got to your punch line: "So yeah, this is just a way to milk adults who give up driving for one reason or another," the true horror of it sank in. For me, the selective social exclusion implicit in car culture is reason enough to want to kill it, but you, of course, will want to frame it in market terms. I suggest the angle that a competitive market is characterized by low entry and exit costs. People too often overlook the latter. It appears the insurance shills want to impose heavy exit costs on the automotive lifestyle. I wrote about entry/exit costs of car-use at some length several years ago, here. The situation is bad as it is, but this is beyond the pale.

Ricketson said...

funny...
Driving Without Insurance = DWI = Driving While Intoxicated

I suppose that this would penalize people who let their insurance lapse even if they still drove... and also people who gave up driving temporarily.

" For me, the selective social exclusion implicit in car culture is reason enough to want to kill it, but you, of course, will want to frame it in market terms."

That's basically what I also dislike about cities that require cars (and the consequent economic and environmental costs). As a cultural issue, it's something that I would like to change regardless of "markets"... the markets are just for setting prices on economic products.

But still, I don't think that the state should be picking winners in either economics or culture. But I will be more vocal in opposing state support of bad culture than state support of good culture... and car culture is bad culture.

rulingclass said...

Actually when I devote any thought to Cali, the first thing that comes to my mind is the Political economy of Water, not the automobile. Southern Cali, naturally, is a desert.