This essay appears in Cars: Accelerating the Modern World (2019), the catalog for the exhibition on view at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London through April 19.
People can’t get around conveniently because they are far away from everything.
— André Gorz, The Ideology of the Motor Car (1973)
In continuing to look at the car as some magical conduit to a brighter future, we ignore what the automobile has wrought. When we’re so enamored with the way technology might transform the car — and, by extension, our lives — we fail to explore adequately how getting rid of cars might transform how and where we live. We’d do well to heed Gorz’s exhortation to "never make transportation an issue by itself."
What if we could rethink mobility to be not about the car but about people? What if we thought less about technological innovation and more about connection and community, equity and access? Might it be possible to imagine a move away from fossil fuels? From drivers? From cars?
As journalist Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic, "I have seen the future of the car. It looks like a minivan." Thompson was writing about a driverless minivan, but still. It is truly surprising to observe in the 21st century that the car of the future — driverless, electric, flying or otherwise — looks like … a car. What is radically different now is that the means to make that car drive autonomously have been figured out. Companies testing autonomous cars have logged millions of driving miles (though not without a few high-profile crashes). Many experts, from architects to automobile executives, predict the ascendancy of the autonomous vehicle within three generations. Insurance companies are now preparing actuarial tables for them; in an unusual shift towards long-term planning, Ford, BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan, among other car manufacturers, are seeing the writing on the wall and have developed working prototypes.
Yet these "futuristic" cars are often weirdly anachronistic. The CV-1, a prototype electric car developed by the Russian arms manufacturer Kalashnikov, is presented in a rendering as floating in space, evoking memories of the space race of 1960s. Indeed, the CV-1 harks back to that era, taking its aesthetic cues from the Izh, a boxy Soviet hatchback first introduced in 1973. Meanwhile in Silicon Valley, Google’s autonomous vehicle division, Waymo, went all in on the Chrysler Pacifica minivan, the most mundane car model imaginable. And upmarket car-maker Audi’s rendering of its luxury AV features a bearded millennial in sweater and slacks reclining in the back seat, engaged in that most analogue of activities: reading a hardcover novel.
As uninspiring as these cars are in their design, what is more egregious are the ways they increasingly chip away at social interaction. Russian inventor Semenov Dahir Kurmanbievich’s Patent #2428364 [i] is perhaps best described as "extreme drive-through" [ii]: the car isolates its driver from the world outside by design. A video illustration of Kurmanbievich’s concept shows a man driving into a mall, selecting his groceries from a conveyor belt while still in the front seat and, incongruously, presenting his credit card (no Apple Pay?) to a cashier, while his groceries somehow magically get into the boot. Flatpack furniture giant Ikea funds a think tank, SPACE10, which in 2018 prototyped seven public-service units that could be summoned to any location via an app. Ikea’s rationale was that these wheeled pods could deliver a suite of services to remote or underserved neighborhoods: "Healthcare on Wheels" would help doctors reach infirm patients who could not travel to clinics, while "Farm on Wheels" might deliver fresh produce to areas without access to it. But what does the city look like if everything is delivered directly to us? What does our community look like if we never leave the house?
Indeed, prototype after prototype espouses a future where we never have to be bothered by other people; where we are, in fact, shielded from them. Consider the rendering of Volvo’s 360c autonomous vehicle, featuring a man who appears almost hermetically sealed within it. The 360 not only looks like a first-class airplane suite, it intends to replace one. Actually, it could possibly replace a small apartment, albeit a luxury version: Its interior has been designed with a fridge, bar, sink and foldout bed. If life is a highway, why not live on one? Making car travel so effortless feels like a gracious invitation to endless suburban sprawl. If you can read your iPad, enjoy a cocktail or play a video game while commuting, time spent in the car becomes leisure time — something desirable. Long commutes are no longer a disincentive.
With this sort of amenity-rich cocoon, there is a relentless focus on the object, absent of any context or community. The future of mobility is assumed to be car-dependent, while a vision based more on public transportation is thought to be old-fashioned. But isn’t planning for the car the thing that is most out of date?
What is perhaps most notable about these renderings, sketches, videos and the like is what they leave out. We don’t see pollution or smog, traffic jams or gas stations, sprawling surface parking areas or collisions. No people of color. Or old people or homeless people. Indeed, these visions deliberately exclude anything that might be perceived as an obstacle or that seem outside a very narrow norm, from regulatory impediments to the inconvenience of other people. This characterizes the worldview of those who can only see a future that continues to be designed for the car. At its most extreme is perhaps Tesla CEO’s, Elon Musk. His company might be pushing electric, but in the end, it’s still pushing the car:
I think public transport is painful. It sucks. Why do you want to get on something with a lot of other people, that doesn’t leave where you want it to leave, doesn’t start where you want it to start, doesn’t end where you want it to end? … It’s a pain in the ass. That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great. And so that’s why people like individualized transport, that goes where you want, when you want. [iii]
It’s little wonder the American billionaires focus their energies on private cars and/or away from public transit. There is no end to the public-transit workarounds that Musk has proposed, from digging personal car tunnels under Los Angeles to lauding the speed and superiority of the as-yet-unbuilt Hyperloop — a pneumatic tube that hurls passengers through a tube at 400 mph. Similarly the Koch Brothers have been quietly paying for massive mobilization efforts to defund or derail public transit projects across the United States. Like Musk, the Koch Brothers see public options as antithetical to a free market — and, by extension, to liberty. As a spokeswoman from the Koch-funded advocacy group known as Americans for Prosperity put it, "If someone has the freedom to go where they want, they’re not going to choose public transit."
Among the many challenges in a capitalist society, it’s hard to imagine a way to profit from a car-free future. Governments don’t profit from providing public transportation to citizens. It’s a service, a reflection of our commitment to the social good. Private transportation — cars — are a different animal: hundreds of industries profit from it, from oil companies to media conglomerates. A less car-dependent society necessitates a rethinking of this system.
In the meantime could this continual disdain for, and de-funding of, public transit take us to something out of Mad Max, the classic film of 1979 in which survival is predicated on the ability to move — and move fast. In this dystopian scenario, the depletion of resources (natural and otherwise) has not only led to extreme hoarding but has utterly erased the public realm. There is no built environment but the car.
Mad Max’s script drew heavily on the effects of the 1973 oil crisis on Australian motorists, its screenwriters basing their script on the thesis that "people would do almost anything to keep vehicles moving and the assumption that nations would not consider the huge costs of providing infrastructure for alternative energy until it was too late." In this, they were highly prescient: The world’s collective apathy in the face of increasing temperatures, catastrophic weather events and climate refugees — not to mention the inevitable gas shortages, which might very well feel tame in comparison to those experienced by the Mad Max hooligans — is staggering.
Today "doing just about anything is an environmental question," writes philosopher of the Anthropocene Timothy Morton. "That wasn’t true 60 years ago — or at least people weren’t aware that it was true. Tragically, it is only by despoiling the planet that we have realized just how much a part of it we are … There you are, turning the ignition of your car. And it creeps up on you." Every time you fire up your engine you don’t mean to harm the Earth, "let alone cause the Sixth Mass Extinction Event" [iv], but "harm to Earth is precisely what is happening." [v]
Automobiles harm the Earth. Cars are the single largest contributor to air pollution in the United States and — short of a full-scale switch to electric, which seems unlikely, given the troubled history of electric (and healthy cadre of lobbyists) — will continue to be. Yet almost all urban land has been, and continues to be, designed to accommodate cars. But what if it no longer was? What if we didn't let the car determine the design of our cities and the pattern of our daily lives?
From Ford’s Model T to Waldo Waterman’s Whatsit (a flying car prototype designed in 1932), and from the quintessential nuclear family in The Jetsons to Google’s 21st-century "Opener [vi] (a flying car concept now described as eVTOL, or "electric vertical takeoff and landing"), the car has been seen as enabling the path to progress. Futurists, technologists, engineers, film directors, science-fiction writers, automobile execs, transportation planners, venture capitalists — almost all are majority white males, almost to a fault. And this is one of the primary reasons our collective visions of the "future" feel so limited. They’re not collective at all, because so few have been empowered to imagine the future, let alone unleash their vision of it on a broader public.
What if we let more people imagine the future concerning how we move about? What if more people could have a say or offer a vision? And what if instead of always focusing on how to get somewhere else, we focused on where we are?
Cities and towns would need to rethink land use, and their housing and transportation policies. Governments — local, national and regional — would need to reprioritize their investments, from roads and bridges to transit and walkability. But above and beyond these pragmatic considerations, such shifts would require a rethinking of the American Dream (and the Quarter-Acre Dream and similar variants) — of the notion that success is embodied only in the form of a single-family home and a two-car garage. It would be a massive cultural and behavioral shift to radically recast the automobile as a symbol not of freedom, but of restriction.
We need to show how liberating not having a car can be. Architects, planners and developers of both cities and suburbia have advocated, and continue to advocate, what the real-estate development company Gerding Edlen calls "20-minute living" or "being able to do all of the necessary and enjoyable things that make life great within 20 minutes of your home … twenty minutes on foot is ideal but 20 minutes by transit, bike or even auto is a reasonable goal." There are practical ways to achieve this goal, from creating a retail main street for every neighborhood, to providing quick, safe and reliable public transportation. And it may be true that reversing the course of car-centered mobility could best be achieved in some measure by a return to many of the conditions of pre-car culture.
It feels nearly impossible to imagine what that might look like, but what we shouldn’t do is feel paralyzed by FOBO (fear of better options). An emphasis on the local, on smaller, walkable neighborhoods and more central job and amenity centers is a good place to start. It’s not just tiny villages that can reap the benefits of this spatial reconsideration; even the quintessential car city, Los Angeles, has been redefining itself as a city of neighborhoods, investing millions in public transportation, including a "subway to the sea."
A subway to the sea sounds like something straight out of Birnin Zana, the city at the center of the 2017 box-office hit Black Panther. Designers, wrote Brentin Mock, who covers social justice and equity for City Lab, "have been wowed by [the nation of] Wakanda’s mechanical marvels of hyperloop rapid transit, maglev trains, dragonfly-shaped spaceships, hoverbikes, skyscrapers orchestrated from chords of stone, wood and metal, and other innovative spectacles." In conjuring this place, he continues, its creators explored "what the ideal model for equitable development looks like; how to preserve the traditions and culture of a place while embracing innovation and technology; how transit can co-mingle with walkability; and the role of design in facilitating spaces that protect vulnerable populations from oppressive forces." [vii] And, most notably, what a future without private transportation might look like. There are no cars in Wakanda.
Wakanda is the stuff of fiction — but it doesn’t have to be. The success of Black Panther revealed a hunger for experiencing other narratives; cities need to tell new and different stories, and that will occur only when more people get to tell them.
So much public dialogue about cities, as the urbanism writer Alissa Walker has reminded us in "Mansplaining the City" [viii], "is largely unchanged since [activist Jane] Jacobs’s era, when her adversary Robert Moses dismissed the group of mostly female activists working to save [New York’s] Washington Square Park as 'a bunch of mothers.'" [ix] Walker, who’s been a force in the aforementioned shift towards a more walkable LA, observes that while those activists may finally be emerging from behind the scenes to take on leadership positions, "the shift towards just and equitable cities will only happen when a more diverse group of Americans are in positions to make policy decisions that shape our neighborhoods."
This shift may prove most difficult in America, which is so inextricably linked to the car. Yet elsewhere around the world, car-free cities are becoming a real thing. Since 1974 Bogotá in Colombia has closed 75 miles of roads to vehicles one day every week, in an event known as Ciclovía; several other cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, now have their own version (albeit less frequently). Copenhagen in Denmark is building a bike superhighway; more than half of its residents bike to work or school every day. Oslo in Norway is set to ban cars from its city centre by 2019; Madrid in Spain will do the same by 2020. Paris is banning diesel cars (as is London) and instituted car-free Sundays in 2016. Only 50% of the roads in Chengdu in China will allow vehicles, and the city was designed so that people can walk where they need to go within 15 minutes. Hamburg in Germany is creating a "green network" of connected spaces that can be accessed without cars. Berlin has a 34-square-mile low-emission zone in its city center, which bans all gas and diesel vehicles that fail to meet national emission standards. And the list goes on.
For decades, the automobile provided a pathway to economic opportunity and upward mobility. But now the negative consequences — including a reliance on fossil fuels and increased emissions of greenhouse gases; a dramatic increase in the rate of deaths caused by cars [x]; the disconnection of local community and weakening of local economies; the rise of obesity and heart disease; congestion and sprawl; a lack of investment in non-car infrastructure; and increasing social segregation and isolation — seem to overwhelmingly outweigh the positives.
The challenge is not a technological one really, though ride-sharing apps, electric bikes and such all have their place. There are policies to change, zonings to reform and dollars to reallocate, but ultimately the real obstacle is a psychic one. We need to hear from a "bunch of mothers" — and a bunch of other folks, too. We’ve imagined our futures behind the wheel for so long; the challenge now is to set out on our own two feet.
[iii] Elon Musk, Tesla at the Neural Information Processing Systems Conference in 2017: https://www.wired.com/story/elon-musk-awkward-dislike-mass-transit/
[iv] The “sixth extinction” refers to the current worldwide loss of biodiversity: the sixth time in world history that a large number of species have disappeared in unusually rapid succession. This extinction is caused not by asteroids or ice ages but by humans.