Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Car story

Public transit in America is a hard sell -- outside a few 'transit legacy' cities, most notably New York. Private autos are the overwhelming favorite wherever (in the whole world) people can afford them; nothing surpasses the promise of  personal freedom of private mobility. Public transit, in contrast, can be seen as collective mobility.

Almost everyone knows the Volkswagen label, especially its iconic Bug and Beetle models. Many people also know that the original VW idea was pushed by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.  For more on the story, look at "The People's Car." in Richard J. Evans's The Third Reich in History and Memory.

Even dictators look for ways to please crowds.  Nevertheless Evan's story seemingly challenges the libertarian narrative I describe above. "In the early 1930s, Germany was one of Western Europe's least motorised societies.  This was partly because its public transport even then was second to none -- smoothly efficient, quick, omnipresent and all-encompassing. Germans mostly felt they didn't really need cars" (p. 181).  It was Hitler and the Nazis who pursued construction of the Autobahnen as well as the development of an affordable car. "The automobile, Hitler declared, responded to the individual will, unlike the railway, which had brought 'individual liberty in transport to an end.'" (p. 182).

Evans notes that Hitler's VW project never amounted to much.  The Beetle's huge success, first in Germany and then abroad, was a post-war phenomenon.