The marginal uselessness of muscle-cars

Also published on Resilience

Waiting at a stop-light, sitting on my bicycle while leaning against a telephone pole, ready to step down hard on the pedals, it was only natural to think about the economic concept of “marginal utility”.

I enjoyed my little game of beating fast cars through intersections after stopping for lights. Having taken up biking in downtown Toronto in the early 1980s, I quickly realized that for all the power in their absurdly oversized engines, many, perhaps most, cars could not accelerate their great bulk through an intersection any faster than an ordinarily fit cyclist could accelerate a bicycle. As long as we both started from a dead stop, and as long as I had already downshifted to a torque-maximizing low gear, and as long as I sprinted away the second the light changed, and I shifted gears smoothly at least twice while getting through the intersection, I could make it to the other side before a single car had gotten up enough speed to overtake me.

And when an aggressive driver in an expensive Camaro or BMW did beat me through the intersection, the advantage was fleeting: I would catch up and pass that car, in the typically congested city traffic, before we reached the next stoplight.

In the city traffic game, the marginal utility of each additional horsepower in a car’s engine was awfully close to zero.

All the cars on the road, whether their engines produced 70 horsepower or 370, could move far faster than a bicycle on an open road, and all of them could easily surpass the speed limits on highways. Yet they were all hard-pressed to accelerate from 1 – 20 km/h faster than a bicycle, with its human engine of less than 1/2 hp, could do.1

The marginal utility of the first 10, 20, or 50 horsepower, in pushing a car and its human passenger down the road, was significant. But the next 50 or 100 or 200 hp in a car engine accomplished very little, even on an open road – much less on the crowded city streets where these cars burned so much of their gas.

Following the magazine version in 1973 Energy and Equity was expanded into a small book, which is now available as a free download from various sources including Internet Archive, here. Quotes and page numbers cited in this article are from the Internet Archive edition, as originally published in 1974 by Harper & Row.

These musings on the intersection between physics and economics spurred me to have another look at a curious little book I’d come across a few years earlier – Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity.

Illich was a controversial Catholic priest who eventually settled in Mexico. He published a flurry of books in the early 1970s questioning many of the most cherished practices of “first world” countries. His work was particularly popular in France, where Energy and Equity was first published by Le Monde in 1973.

I briefly attended the school Illich founded in Cuernavaca, Mexico, an experience which enriched my life and challenged my thinking in many ways. Yet Energy and Equity struck me as engagingly odd but hyperbolic on first reading, and it had little immediate impact. That changed when I started to experience city traffic from behind the handlebars instead of behind the steering wheel. Today, more than forty years later, I’m amazed at how clearly Illich summed up both the comedy and the tragedy of industrial society’s infatuation with high-powered travel.

Once I had taken up cycling, and I realized I could accomplish my daily travel routines in the big city as fast on bike as I could do in a car, Illich’s trenchant critique of car culture was no longer threatening – it was a broad beam of illumination.

Illich didn’t fall for the idea that North Americans moved around at 100 km/hr, therefore getting around 10 times as fast as our ancestors had. Instead, he looked at the immense amount of time Americans devoted to building cars, building roads, paying for cars, paying for insurance, washing cars, fixing cars, trying to find parking for cars. To find the true average speed of travel, he said, one needs to tally all the time society puts into the effort, and divide that time into the total amount travelled. Or, you could do the same on an individual basis:

“The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. … The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour.” (page 19)

Car ads, of course, encourage us to think only of that rush of acceleration when we’re able to step on the gas – never of the time spent waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, never of the time we spend earning the wages that go to monthly car payments. But once I’d absorbed Illich’s way of thinking, I could understand how much time I saved by not having a car. In the mid-1980s I calculated that owning and operating a car instead of a bicycle would have cost about six weeks of my wages each year. Getting around by bike, then, meant I could take six extra weeks of annual vacations. Some hardship, eh?

A class structure of speed capitalists

My initial reactions to Energy and Equity, you may have noticed, were rather self-absorbed. They were shaped by Illich’s observations, but equally by my varying degrees of privilege. Male privilege meant I could ride the city streets at all hours without fear of sexual harassment. White privilege meant I could move around the streets openly, for years, and only once be stopped by a police officer (who gave me just a polite scolding). I took for granted the blessings of good health and the ability to find a reasonably well-paid job. Perhaps most significant, bicycling for me was a choice, and I could, if and when I chose, also rent a car, get on a train, or buy a plane ticket to fly across most of the world’s national borders.

Thus I wasn’t as quick to catch on to Illich’s more fundamental critique of car culture and the traffic-industrial complex: that the reorganization of life which affords some people the privilege of high-powered, high-speed mobility, inevitably results in many other people having less effective mobility and less free time. In Illich’s summary, “Energy and equity can grow concurrently only to a point. … Above this threshold, energy grows at the expense of equity.” (page 5)

To explain his viewpoint, Illich gave his particular definitions to three key terms: “By traffic I mean any movement of people from one place to another when they are outside of their homes. By transit I mean those movements that put human metabolic energy to use, and by transport that mode of movement which relies on other sources of energy.” (page 15)

For most of history, traffic and transit were pretty much the same. Most people got around on their own two feet using their own power. As a result people were generally capable of mobility at roughly the same speed. Ideally, Illich said, improvements in traffic should not impair the pre-existing ability of anyone to engage in transit under their own power.

Unfortunately, motorized transport has played out much differently so far. Soon after passenger trains came into use, and particularly following the introduction of motorcars, impediments to the non-passenger class began to be built into daily life. Streets became deathly dangerous to pedestrians, crossings became highly regulated, soon vast areas of cities had to be devoted to parking for the car-owning class, neighbourhoods were razed and new controlled-access highways created wide barriers between districts for those unfortunate enough to depend on foot-power. Distances became greater for everyone in cities, but the problem was worst for pedestrians, who now had to detour to find relatively “safe” road crossings.

This Google satellite view of downtown Chicago shows how infrastructure built to support high-speed travel pushes cities apart, increasing the distances that pedestrians must walk even within their own neighbourhoods. Of course, in Chicago as in all other industrialized cities, the “high-speed” infrastructure still fails to provide high-speeds when these speeds would matter most – during rush hour.

Illich was fond of a quote from José Antonio Viera-Gallo, an aide to Chilean president Salvador Allende: “Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.” By contrast, he wrote, “Past a certain threshold of energy consumption for the fastest passenger, a worldwide class structure of speed capitalists is created. … High speed capitalizes a few people’s time at an enormous rate but, paradoxically, it does this at a high cost in time for all.” (page 29)

It was possible to estimate the total time a society devoted to the construction, maintenance, and operation of traffic. In doing so, Illich found that “high-speed” societies suck up much more time than “underdeveloped” societies: “In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people … allocate only three to eight percent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent.” (page 19)

On average, of course, the people in high-speed societies both need to and do travel much farther every day – but the averages conceal as much as they reveal. The well-to-do travel much greater distances than the average, but due to all the infrastructural barriers and regulations necessitated by high-speed travel, even impoverished pedestrians devote much extra time to their daily rounds. (And, just one small step up the ladder, those who need to ride buses in congested cities are held up daily while their buses crawl along behind private cars.)

The traffic-industrial complex not only restructures our cities, Illich said, but it also restructures our perceptions and our imaginations:

“The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. … Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. The passenger has come to identify territory with the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed.” (page 25)

Unfortunately, “All those who plan other people’s housing, transportation or education belong to the passenger class. Their claim to power is derived from the value their employers place on acceleration.” (page 53) The impetus for positive change, then, will need to come from those who still get around by the power of their own feet. In that respect, Illich argued, the bicycle is one of civilization’s greatest advances, on a par with just a few other developments:2 “Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. … The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion.” (page 60) 

Final bike-raising at the April 22, 2006 Critical Mass rally in Budapest, Hungary. From Wikimedia Commons.

Illich, it is important to note, was not a human-power absolutist. In his view, motored transport could be a very useful complement to foot-powered transit. The key, he said, was that when motorized transport remains relatively low-powered and low-speed, its advantages, for society as a whole, can outweigh the disadvantages:

“If beyond a certain threshold transport obstructs traffic, the inverse is also true: below some level of speed, motorized vehicles can complement or improve traffic by permitting people to do things they could not do on foot or on bicycle.” (page 68)

Where is that “certain threshold”? Regarding speed, Illich said that historically, the threshold was crossed when motorized speeds topped “±15 mph” (about 25 km/h). Regarding power, Illich summed it up this way:

“The per capita wattage that is critical for social well-being lies within an order of magnitude which is far above the horsepower known to four-fifths of humanity and far below the power commanded by any Volkswagen driver.” (page 8)3

For personal transportation, that “reasonable limit” on power use struck me as sensible in the 1980s, and even more so today. The VW Beetle engines of that time produced roughly 50 horsepower. Today, of course, automotive engineers know how to get far more efficient use out of engines, even though they mostly use that increased motive efficiency simply to push around a much bigger and much heavier car (increased efficiency, directed to the cause of decreased efficiency). Using lighter materials, with an electric drive-train, and more aerodynamic shaping, a car with less than half the horsepower of a 1980s VW Beetle would be entirely adequate for occasional personal transportation at speeds surpassing bicycle speed. Of critical importance, a limited number of cars powered by, for example, 10–20 hp engines, might be integrated in an equitable society without sucking up absurd quantities of materials or energies.4

Almost 50 years after the first edition of Energy and Equity, some of Illich’s ideas on traffic planning have moved beyond the fringe and almost into the mainstream. Fifty years of hard work in the Netherlands, and in cities such as Copenhagen, have proven that densely populated places function more smoothly, and populations are healthier, when people of every age can walk and cycle through their cities in safety – as long as people-powered transit, not motor-powered transport, is given priority. Even jurisdictions throughout North America are now making formal commitments to “Complete Streets” with safe access for walkers and bikers, though the follow-through is usually far behind the noble ideals.

But as to the amount of energy that average people should harness, and the desirability of “time-saving high-speed travel”, the spell that Illich tried to break has scarcely loosened its grip. Mainstream environmentalism, while advocating a swift and thorough transition to zero-carbon technologies, clings to the belief that we can, will, indeed, we absolutely must retain our high-speed cars and trains, along with the airliners which whisk us around the world at nearly the speed of sound. Nobody knows how we’ll manage some of the major parts of this transition, but nearly everyone “knows” that we’ll need to (and so we will) convert our entire traffic-industrial complex to green, clean, renewable energy.

Illich has been gone for nearly 20 years, but I think he’d say “Wake up from your high-speed dream – it’s a killer!”

* * *

At the outset of this series, I discussed my personal, winding journey to an appreciation of biophysical economics. Ivan Illich is not considered a biophysical economist, or an economist of any stripe, but he played an important role for me in focusing my attention on very simple facts of physics – simple facts that have profound implications for our social organization. In the next installment, we’ll look at energy issues in a different light by examining the way European colonizers embarked on a systematic, centuries-long extraction of rich energy sources from around the world – well before the fossil fuel age kicked energy use into hyperdrive.


If in 2021 I were to replay the cyclist’s game of racing cars from a standing start through intersections, I’d have a lot more difficulty. Age is one factor: I’m a good bit closer to being a centenarian than a teenager. But it’s not only that: the average horsepower ratings of car engines have more than doubled since 19805, though speed limits have not changed substantially and city streets are generally just as congested. A big selling-point of these twice-as-powerful cars, however, is their increased ability to accelerate. Whereas the average car in 1980 took 13 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph (96.6 km/hr), by 2010 the average car could do it in just under 9 seconds – a savings of over 4 seconds! Think of the time saved on your daily commute! Or, in busy city traffic, think of the joy of having extra seconds to wait behind the line of traffic at every stop-light. Think, in other words, of the marginal utility you’ve gained by doubling the horsepower in your car. But is your life twice as fast, twice as rich, do you have twice as much free time, as a result?

As a part-owner of a car today, I can readily see that the joke of the marginal utility of big-horsepower engines is on car buyers, and the car-makers are laughing all the way to the bank.

But as Illich saw so clearly, back in 1973, the joke of high power consumption is also a tragedy. The hyper-powered cars of today (mostly in the shape of SUVs or four-door, five-passenger “trucks”) are even more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists than were the sedans of the 1960s.6 Energy use goes up – and equity goes down.

Photo at top of page: Mansory at Geneva International Motor Show 2019, Le Grand-Saconnex, photo by Matti Blume, from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Figures given for maximum power of a human vary widely, as do figures for the horsepower output of an average human. The website Energy Education says that an extreme athlete may output a bit more than 1 hp – but only for a burst of about 15 seconds – while a Tour de France cyclist might output just under 1 hp for up to a minute. Over periods of an hour or a few hours, power output of even top athletes would be much less.
  2. The other three great advances, in Illich’s view, were 1) the invention of the wheel and barrow in antiquity; 2) the combined application of the stirrup, shoulder harness and horseshoe during the European Middle Ages, which dramatically increased the thermodynamic efficiency of work horses; 3) the development of ocean-going sailing vessels in the 15th century. In his recent work Energy and Civilization, Vaclav Smil also provides good analysis of the second and third great transportation advances cited by Illich.
  3. Whether Illich’s estimations of these power and speed thresholds are correct is a complex issue which I won’t try to tackle here, but I think he was posing the essential questions. It does strike me that in a society in which the per capita wattage available for transport was considerably below that of a 1970s-era Volkswagen, that power could still propel a sensibly designed vehicle at speeds well beyond 25 km/hr.
  4. A car just coming to market provides an interesting case study of what might be possible in a society with different values. The two-passenger Aptera is billed as being far more energy-efficient than a Tesla, and the company claims that with a 25 kWh battery it can travel 250 miles (400 km) on a charge. (Specs here.) The base model Aptera has a maximum power output of 100 kW (about 130 hp). This power output allows the Aptera to accelerate from 0–100 km/h in 5.5 seconds and reach speeds of over 160 km/hr (100 mph). Such characteristics make a deep impression on the psyche of American male car buyers, but neither this acceleration nor this top speed have the slightest practical use in the day-to-day commuting for which the Aptera is most suited.
  5. AutoBlog, in an article from 2010, provides information not only about the horsepower of the average car on the road, but also some specific examples of how within a model line horsepower has also increased. The overall conclusion is that between 1980 and 1910, the average automobile horsepower increased 112%. Since cars have continued to get bigger, I expect that in 2021 the statement “horsepower has more than doubled since 1980” understates the case.
  6. Angie Schmitt’s 2020 book Right of Way includes extensive information on the increased danger posed by today’s larger, higher passenger vehicles to any road users not armoured inside similar or even larger vehicles. Reviewed here.