Yesterday I did a nice, long, technical analysis of why the automobile is not enough for the future. There are other things I did not discuss (inefficiency of space, traffic deaths, pollution) that deserve technical discussion (and maybe I'll find time to return to those another day), but today I want to focus on the more abstract social foundations of our automobile lifestyles, and how this foundation is insufficient for the future that we want for ourselves, and our children.
When Henry Ford began mass producing the Model T in the 1908, he laid out the goal of bringing the automobile to people; He saw the car as the ultimate in expression of freedom, and the fact that only the wealthy could afford to live out this dream was unacceptable. As the Model T reached a saturation point in the 20's, thanks to its unmatched success, owning an automobile began to represent style, identity, and class. The number of options for automobiles increased as competitors embraced demand to fuel an explosion in design and production. GM saw an opportunity, and by the 1950s was churning out fin-clad Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles in the tens of thousands. For a world that was feeling smaller as war came the footsteps of every home again and again, with information no longer the stalling point but accelerating past our ability to comprehend, the automobile was a way to make the world a place to explore again. Suburbia meant running from the failures and fears of the city, with its nuclear targets, poverty, violent crime, and the accumulated grime of our industrial existence. It meant clean streets, picket fences, happy families, and the space to spread out and start anew. The car was the key to taking advantage of this, and we ate it up (we still do). It's useless to be critical of this; not only is it the past, but it's the result of a long line of events, that in turn created a social consciousness conducive to auto-mania. In addition, who can we blame for taking advantage of the ability to be mobile like we have only ever dreamt of? Consider that in one hundred years, we went from crossing the country in months to crossing the country in days. The commercialization of the airplane only exaggerated this, giving us a hyper-mobile populace that was eager to put the past behind them and embrace a brighter future.
So where does this leave us now? Well, it leaves us with a great deal of sprawl. This sprawl means that we cannot simply realize the foolishness of our auto-obsessed ways, and change. We have jobs to get to, shopping to get done, friends and family to visit, and activities to engage in. 50% of all trips are three miles or less, which is good, right? Well, yes...but it leaves 50% of trips which are longer, and the fact that those three mile trips are not covered pathways perfect for traveling by bike, but busy roadways. So any attempt to fix this problem must do two things: it must reduce the length of our trips (which means living closer to where we work, recreate, or do commerce), and it must provide better ways of covering the distance we are left with. Even the best public transit system will leave us some distance from home, and if that distance is nothing but four lane highways then we have still failed. But we love our cars still, don't we? We might have realized that they're problems, but like smoking, we can't give them up as a society. Just knowing that something is bad is not always enough to get us to stop. We just aren't that rational. However, like smoking, the car is not perfectly suited to our society; we have made ourselves perfectly suited to it (We built roads to drive them on, built superhighways to support our habit. Though amusingly, bicyclists were originally responsible for the roads projects of the early 20th century!).
I'm not suggesting that the automobile is a carcinogen that we must cast aside (I love Ferrari's too much to say that), but I am suggesting that it is not the carriage of our dreams that we have believed it is. Consider the way we act in our cars: we are boxed in, protected from a harsh world but unable to interact with anyone else. Road rage is not an indicator of the way that driving makes us considerate people. If anything, our tank-like conveyances have made us callous and cold to the people around us. People are always cutting us off, but when we jut in front of them we're "just trying to get in!" or "in a way bigger hurry than they are". These are gross generalizations, certainly, but they represent the way that cars have keep us enclosed in our own worlds. It would definitely be hard to argue that cars make us more social with strangers, especially compared to walking, cycling, or being passengers in a bus or train. And consider the ways that automobile-based neighborhoods separate people from interaction, make spaces less safe, and interfere with the other things we want from communities. Roads mean parking lots, instead of parks; pedestrians struck by motorists, and less density of land use. A typical city block is 100,000 square feet, which means around 316 feet to a block length. The width of a lane of roadway averages 12 feet, which means 24 feet for a two lane roadway. Since most city streets are four lanes, or two lanes plus parking, that's 48 feet that might be more intelligently managed (at least on some streets).
In a nutshell, the automobile is great; it's brilliant, and allows a level of freedom that (on paved roads) is unmatched. But it asks too much of us, without giving enough in return. Whatever the vehicle of the future is, we deserve better going into the future. Something equally intelligent, but armed with a 21st century mindset, and a social factor that is just too absent in the driver-only automobile. Is it the bicycle? Lightrail? High-speed rail? No. It may be pieces of all of these, and it might be none of them, but one thing won't be the answer (unless science gives us renewable energy-powered teleportation, which i'll admit might have benefits).
More to come!