Monday, March 18, 2013

The Death of the Car

The Atlantic Cities has a series of terrific articles up right now, and this one's getting a bit of attention: What the Steamship and the Landline Can Tell Us About the Decline of the Private Car. That's right, they are predicting the slow fading away of Happy Motoring:
This prediction sounds bold primarily for the fact that most of us don't think about technology – or the history of technology – in century-long increments: “We’re probably closer to the end of the automobility era than we are to its beginning,” says Maurie Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “If we’re 100 years into the automobile era, it seems pretty inconceivable that the car as we know it is going to be around for another 100 years.”

Cohen figures that we’re unlikely to maintain the deteriorating Interstate Highway System for the next century, or to perpetuate for generations to come the public policies and subsidies that have supported the car up until now. Sitting in the present, automobiles are so embedded in society that it’s hard to envision any future without them. But no technology – no matter how essential it seems in its own era – is ever permanent. Consider, just to borrow some examples from transportation history, the sailboat, the steamship, the canal system, the carriage, and the streetcar. All of those technologies rose, became ubiquitous, and were eventually replaced. And that process followed a pattern that can tell us much about the future of the automobile.
The article compares it to the coming of steamships and the switch from land lines to cell phones (something I'm not really comfortable with, BTW):
“There’s not going to be a cataclysmic moment,” Cohen says of what’s coming for the car. “Like any other technology that outlives its usefulness, it just sort of disappears into the background and we slowly forget about it.” The landline telephone is undergoing that process right now. Your grandmother probably still has one. But did you even bother to call the phone company the last time you moved into a new home? “It’s not as if we all wake up one morning and decide we’re going to get rid of our landlines,” Cohen says, “but they just kind of decay away.“I think cars will kind of disappear in much the same way.”
But here's may favorite part, reminding us that a car is essentially useless without all that goes with it, most of which is provided by the wider society:
We often think of the car as having arrived with a flourish from Henry Ford around the turn of the last century. But the history of the automobile actually dates back more than a hundred years earlier to steam-powered vehicles and the first internal combustion engine. Early prototypes of the car used to blow up, too. People were afraid of them. You had to acquire a special skill set just to operate them. And then there were all the networks we needed to develop – roads, gas stations, repair shops – to make cars feasible.

“We tend to focus on the car itself as the central element,” Cohen says, “and we fail to recognize that it’s not just the car.” Like any ubiquitous technology, the car is embedded in a whole social system. In this case, that system includes fuel supply lines, mechanisms for educating and licensing new drivers, companies to insure them, laws to govern how cars are used on common roads and police officers to enforce them. In the academic language of socio-technical transitions theory, all of that stuff is the regime around the car. “People who are part of that regime get up in the morning, put their shoes on and reproduce that system on a daily basis,” Cohen says. “So that system also has a profound ability to beat back any challenges to it.”
That's right, the internal combustion engine and horseless carriages were around for decades before we decided to base our entire society around them for every single man and woman. It took a long time for cars to become the society-shapers they have become. If capitalism is the largest government project in the history of the world, the automobile and suburbia is surely the largest component of that project (along with shipping containers). A lot of things had to happen for the car to become viable, and we forget all this. That's something to remember when alternatives to any sort of technology or energy-generation scheme are bandied about. This comment also emphasizes the point:
I just wanted to stress the importance of the automotive 'regime' mentioned by the author. There is nothing inherently convenient about an automobile until you remake the entire world to convenience it.

This was driven home to me, no pun intended, when I read about the history of the New York-Paris race of 1905. It remains the only around-the-world automobile race. Several books have been written about it.

The contestants didn't so much drive their cars as push them, dig them out of mud, drag them, and fix constant breakdowns. There were no paved roads outside of a few big cities, no road maps, no fuel stations, no car repair shops, no auto parts stores, no parking lots, no traffic laws, no driver ed. In 1905, the automobile was an expensive inconvenience.
And here's a passage sure to make Kunstler smile as he recovers from heart surgery:
...we can already start to see cracks in the regime. New automobile registrations have plateaued in the U.S, even as the population has continued to grow. Rising gas prices have made some housing patterns predicated on the car unsustainable. Twentysomethings are now less likely to own cars and say they’re less enamored of them.
It's pretty hard to imagine we'll have the wealth or resources to preserve the mind-boggling scale of the interstate highway system into the indefinite future. Already, more remote roads are being turned back into gravel by cash-strapped municipalities, and the current anti-tax fervor has meant that the revenue to maintain a first-world infrastructure of any sort has been disappearing. Imagine what a gallon of gas will cost one hundred years from now! See the top picture.

I once wanted to run a calculation of how much fossil fuel goes into one cubic foot of concrete, find out how many cubic feet of concrete are in the road system, how much repair would be needed, and then calculate how much fossil fuel would be required just to keep the road system in its present state (no expansion). I was unable to find the numbers I needed, but those much more adept at statistics and mathematics than I are encouraged to make this calculation (I could not find anything on The Oil Drum).

Like the coming of the car, going of the car will be a long, slow, drawn-out process:
More often, when we do picture the future, it looks either like a reproduced version of the present or like some apocalyptic landscape. But this exercise requires a lot more imagination: What will be the next carriage without a horse? The next car without an engine?
Well, how about a bicycle for starters? There seems to be an awful lot of fat around the midsections of Americans that we can burn for fuel. This crazy-looking bike goes over a hundred miles an hour. Combine it with a recumbent bike or highly-efficient velomobile and you have a good start. Bicycles are already increasing in popularity and getting more technically sophisticated with every passing year. They can even haul cargo.

Ironically, the replacements often touted are those very technologies mentioned in the article that the car curtailed - steamships, canals, streetcars, trains, etc., And, of course, as Kunstler has been promoting for years, you can create and reactivate walkable neighborhoods where you don't need a car to get around because everything you need on a daily basis is close by, the way it was in the past when most people were far less mobile.

One thing that's likely to happen is that there will be less commuting to jobs, because there won't be any jobs. People might start to figure out ways to actually make money off the Internet and cell phones without leaving their house. Telecommuting from home would be a good start, but the widely-reported kibosh put on that by the Yahoo! CEO does not bode well. Apparently the boss checked the VPN records and found that employees were goldbricking and ordered them all back in. To my mind, this means that most of what they were doing during the average day was completely unnecessary anyway, but I digress.

So let's sketch out a few possibilities:
1. Less people working means less commuting - people just 'drop out' of the economy.
2. Bicycles and various forms of human-powered transport.
3. Telecommuting when there is no other option.
4. Car sharing in its various forms.
5. Less useless 'recreational' trips as gas prices increase.
6. Rapid transit buses where there is no rail infrastructure.
7. And finally, for those that can afford it, much smaller individual electric transport (perhaps self-driving).

But how will the landscape change? The car has led to so many collateral things in American society - the rise of the sunbelt, white flight, redlining, racial divisions, gated communities, decaying inner-cities, urban ghettos, reactionary suburbs and exurbs, "drive till you qualify," economic balkanization, shopping malls, big-box stores, the death of local commerce, etc. How will Americans cope if and when they have to (gasp) live next to their neighbors once again? Will people start to associate with people outside of their narrow socio-economic class? And how will that change Americans culturally and politically? When Americans actually talk to other people instead of getting all their news piped in via the filter of the corporate media, and actually see poor people and minorities face-to-face instead of just hearing about them as a demonized other, will more progressive policies come to the fore (a New-Yorkization)? Will car-sharing make people less fearful of socialism? Will the reactionary sunbelt cities become uninhabitable and shrink, as Kunstler has predicted? Will big-box stores surrounded by parking lots falter and go bankrupt? What will that do to jobs? If the rich are the only people able to afford cars, will they move even farther out to even more exclusive enclaves to escape the encroaching poverty caused by the redistribution of wealth to them? Will the rich start to be seen as distant overlords rather than job creators? Will that aggravate a new class consciousness? With the cars gone, will the formerly middle class finally stop thinking that they are still middle class?  Will support for public schools increase once you can no longer move to a distant exurb with a good school district? Will home sales decline and what will that do to the economy? The questions are pretty profound and go way beyond the technical questions. The car has shaped Americans culturally in the post-war period, so its decline seems likely to reshape them again. But the question is, into what?

What if everyone had a car? (BBC)

Cycling For Everyone (Dutch Cycling Embassy)


  1. If I read nothing each week except for this blog with its marvelous erudition and perspicacity, it alone would suffice to satisfy my need to understand the world around me. I simply don't comprehend how you manage this while holding down what I assume is a full-time job. Furthermore, you're an architect but your knowledge of various academic subjects is so deep: I am rendered speechless in admiration.

    1. Wow, thanks! Comments like that make writing this blog worth it to me.

  2. The car needs to die, sooner rather than later. They contaminate our landscape and our lives. Check out:

  3. I'm comforted reading anything that questions the rational of the car is king culture we have suffered through for the last six decades. A lot of ink is spilt waxing over the wonders of technology what we over look is the opportunity and social costs.

    Ultimately when future historians write about the twentieth century I expect they will not be kind to the short sited greed that accompanied consumerism and suberbia. We wasted a trillion barrels of oil. The end of the car will take decades to unfold. I don't think this generation has the stomach to confront the damage it inflicted on millions of people and the plant at large.