What if a major highway goes through Cambridge?
That was the proposition residents faced 50 years ago when Massachusetts officials announced the Cambridge Inner Belt. The eight-lane expressway will destroy 2,200 housing units and displace 13,000 people. But they resisted the plan through protest and activism. Finally, in 1971, Governor Francis Sargent rejected the Inner Belt in defiance of a powerful lobby. Without losing a single house, the people of Cambridge crossed the highway.
This story is not unique to Cambridge. For more than a century, people and machines have been at war. When the interstate highway system was being built in the 1950s, urban communities began to oppose the network. These protests, called “highway riots,” took planned interstate highways in New York, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Some highway riots, like here in Cambridge, have been successful; others, like Los Angeles, have failed with devastating consequences.
Since then, the dissonance between strong opposition to highway projects and the views formed when drivers got on them has grown.
For the rest of the century, car ownership became a symbol of freedom in America. Today, on screens, in magazines and on billboards, car manufacturers encourage us to invest in a personal car – for choice, convenience and even preservation. Parts of our media ecosystem protect cars when needed. The auto, oil and gas industries give millions of dollars to elected officials. All this work supports one of the most profitable industries in the country.
For generations of Americans, driving a car meant complete liberation, a passport to the open road.
But for the quality of our lives and the sustainable development of our planet, we must change.
Almost all regions of the United States suffer from an over-reliance on automobiles at the expense of other modes of transportation, such as walking, bicycling, and public transportation. This concept, called “car addiction,” has strangled our cities. Once noticed, it is impossible to ignore.
Planners are building housing around cars, enforcing single-family zoning. Officials prioritize car infrastructure such as parking lots, quick speed limits and wide roads. Getting anywhere in many American cities requires a car. The lack of an alternative locks everyone into the system – far from liberation.
Car dependency has catastrophic social consequences, from socioeconomic inequality linked to deaths to poor health. Transport remains the largest polluter in the Commonwealth, degrading air quality and contributing directly to climate change.
The economic implications are not much better. Massachusetts heavily subsidizes its cars, trucks, roads, and parking lots. The cost of this vehicle economy? Approximately $64 billion a year, more than half of which is borne by the public. That’s $14,000 for a Massachusetts family. We all pay a significant portion of the cost of transportation, whether we own a car or not.
All this precedes the carnage that takes place on our roads every day. In 2021, there were 42,915 fatal crashes 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 machinery of American infrastructure imposes a system of governance on its people that ensures the primacy of the automobile—a system I call motorocracy.
Matocracy is the culmination of oil capitalism.
The oil and gas industry successfully transitioned the United States from transit to private cars. Today, the industry contributes more than $90 million to Congress, and politicians respond in kind. In a motorocracy, the government depends on the auto industry for government revenue and job growth; As such, our executives are quick to respond to industry inquiries.
As a result, our legal system protects and supports 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 and highway construction, stretching resources over longer distances at lower densities.
Under a 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 lower expectations for how safe a driver should be on the road, and criminal charges are rare, even if the driver kills someone.
The imbalance between cars and people creates an inherent injustice in our justice system. In Massachusetts, motorocracy reinforces decades of residential segregation, displacement, and environmental racism.
Resource collapse, dark money, judicial corruption, racism and death. These are the consequences of car addiction. In its current form, motorocracy is antithetical to democratic ideals in America. It should be dismantled.
To this statement, many motorists may insist that they have the right to drive. I ask, is the right not to sit behind the wheel?
The growth of cars required the destruction of tens of thousands of houses. It unjustifiably and systematically deprived communities of color of wealth. And it irreversibly damaged our climate.
Fifty years ago, communities across the country recognized the dangers of motorocracy. Some decided to rebel. But many did not.
For our country to maintain justice and equality before the law, it must abandon its excessive dependence on automobiles. Our regions must invest in fairer and more equitable modes of transport and guarantee mobility. Car dependency cannot be our future, nor should it be.
Clive Lawrence ’25 is a government concentrator at Adams House. His column, Our Transportation Crisis, is published every Monday.