One of the first steps into mature thinking about transportation is to remove undue necessity from transportation technologies – to talk not about what they are but what they do. To fetishize a tool, rather than the utility the tool provides, is to make a fundamental category error. Both autophiles and railfans make this error constantly. What we need is not cars nor even transit per se, but mobility, whatever form that may take.
I have nothing against cars as tools (I find them necessary and useful about once a week). What I have a problem with is the social costs imposed by the ubiquitous and even obligatory use of one tool for all tasks. As transit advocates we get accused of making arguments about kind, as though the tool (Cars vs. Bikes!, Buses vs. Trains!) were the most important consideration. The proper discussion is all about degree, the scale of transport required for our daily lives.
Car dependence doubly reinforces this error. As ownership represents sunk costs – lowering the marginal cost of each individual trip – the incentives to drive soon overwhelm all other considerations. As a result, one begins to see a car not as a tool well-suited for a particular task, but as transportation itself, appropriate (by definition!) to any trip. To borrow an analogy from golf, car dependence puts you in the absurd position of driving, pitching, and putting with just one club (and your largest one at that)!
Though I concur with all the standard urbanist arguments, increasingly I find conservative arguments against car dependence the most compelling. Specifically, my aim these days is to maintain a diversified portfolio of transportation choices instantly and freely available, and to use the least-intensive technology possible for each trip. By contrast, car dependence poorly manages risk, leaves you badly overcapitalized and acutely vulnerable to price shocks, and forces you into an obligatory all-you-can-drive insurance model that is completely insensitive to usage patterns. Such dependence actively prohibits you from scaling your life up and down as necessary, and as such it represents a considerable loss of freedom.
The familiar result is waste, as suddenly society must provide a parking space and a lane of road whether the task is as simple as a loaf of bread or as complex as hauling furniture. We would scoff at someone who buys a $4.75 ORCA PugetPass when his/her daily commute costs $2.50, but we tend not to scoff at the pickup owner who hauls loads a handful of times a year, even though the principle is the same.
If at any given moment you can choose to walk, bike, take transit, taxi, or drive, you can properly match the tool with the task. I would argue that this provides a liberating flexibility of movement, and a freedom of spontaneous adaptation, that car ownership actively stifles.