What if a major road ran through Cambridge?
That was the proposition residents faced 50 years ago when Massachusetts highway officials announced the Cambridge Inner Belt. The eight-lane highway would destroy 2,200 homes and displace 13,000 people. But through protest and activism, they fought the plan. Finally, in 1971, Governor Francis Sargent rejected the inner belt, defying powerful lobbies. Without losing a single home, Cambridge residents made it through the freeway.
This story is not unique to Cambridge. For more than a century, people and cars have been at odds. When the interstate highway system was being built in the 1950s, urban communities began to oppose the network. These protests, called “road riots,” occupied planned interstates in New York City, Seattle, Washington, DC, and elsewhere. Some freeway riots, like here in Cambridge, were successful; others, like Los Angeles, failed, with devastating effects.
Since then, a dissonance grew between the powerful resistance to freeway projects and the opinions that developed once drivers were on them.
For the rest of the century, car ownership came to symbolize freedom in America. Today, plastered between screens, magazines and billboards, car manufacturers induce us to invest in a personal vehicle, for choice, comfort and even to keep it. Parts of our media ecosystem defend cars when necessary. The auto, oil and gas industries contribute millions of dollars to elected officials. All this work strengthens one of the most profitable industries in the country.
Generations of Americans later, driving has meant total liberation, a passport to the road.
But for our quality of life and the sustainability of our planet, we must change.
Almost every region of the United States suffers from an over-reliance on cars at the expense of other forms of transportation, such as walking, bicycling, and public transportation. This concept, called “car dependency”, has strangled our cities. Once you notice it, it’s impossible to ignore.
Planners develop housing around cars by enforcing single-family zoning. Officials prioritize car-centric infrastructure, such as parking lots, fast speed limits and wide roads. To get anywhere within many American cities, you need a car. The lack of alternatives locks everyone into the system, far from liberation.
Car dependence has disastrous social consequences, from socioeconomic inequality associated with fatalities to poorer health outcomes. Transport remains the Commonwealth’s leading polluter, worsening air quality while directly contributing to climate change.
The economic consequences are not much better. Massachusetts heavily subsidizes its cars, trucks, roads and parking lots. The cost of this vehicle economy? About $64 billion a year, more than half of which is borne by the public. That’s $14,000 per Massachusetts family. We all pay substantially for vehicle economy, whether we own a car or not.
All this precedes the carnage that occurs every day on our roads. In 2021, there were 42,915 fatalities nationwide, including more than 400 in Massachusetts.
The evidence is clear. People are worse off when they can’t choose how they want to travel.
Despite the evidence, the cogs of American infrastructure impose on its people a system of government that ensures the supremacy of the automobile, a system I call motorocracy.
Motorocracy is the culmination of oil fueled capitalism.
The oil and gas industries made America’s transition from traffic to private automobiles. Today the industries contribute more than $90 million to Congress, and policymakers respond in kind. Under motorocracy, the government depends on the automobile industry for state revenue and job growth; Thus, our leaders respond quickly to industry requests.
As a result, our legal system protects and enforces motorocracy. In Greater Boston, single-family zoning and other land-use restrictions make apartments illegal on 80 percent of available land. The system also requires parking space and freeway construction, stretching resources over greater distances of lower density.
Under motorocracy, the law tacitly blames pedestrians for their own deaths, refusing to hold drivers accountable. Jaywalking, a made-up and sometimes racially biased crime, remains technically illegal in most of the United States, including Massachusetts. There are fewer expectations about how safe a driver should be on the road, and criminal charges are rare even when a driver kills someone.
The imbalance between cars and people creates an inherent unfairness in our justice system. In Massachusetts, motorocracy reinforces decades of residential segregation, displacement, and environmental racism.
Collapse of resources, dark money, judicial corruption, racism and death. These are the effects of car dependency. As it stands, motorocracy is antithetical to democratic ideals in the United States. It must be disassembled.
To this statement, many motorists might insist that they have a right to drive. I ask, what about the right not to drive?
The rise of the automobile required the destruction of tens of thousands of homes. It unjustifiably and systemically removed wealth from communities of color. And it irreversibly damaged our climate.
Fifty years ago, communities across the country recognized the dangers of motorocracy. Some chose to revolt. But many did not.
For our country to preserve justice and equality under the law, it must break away from its excessive dependence on cars. Our regions must invest in fairer and more equitable modes of transport and guarantee mobility. Dependence on the car cannot be our future, and it must not be.
Clyve Lawrence ’25 is a government hub at Adams House. His column “Our Transport Crisis” appears on alternate Mondays.