Rethink or Obit?

Here is a draft preface to Overcoming Global Gridlock, my 2011 book on why it is necessary to replace fuel taxes with universal road tolls and how to make them acceptable.

We have reached a crisis point with cars and trucks. We face mounting congestion. We need to reduce both emissions and oil consumption pretty much everywhere. In many countries funding for road building and maintenance is becoming ever harder to sustain.  All the while, demand for personal mobility and goods movement continues to expand. And there is little to indicate many people are willing to give up the private vehicle.

If the autonomous vehicle has so many problems stacked against it, but demand for it is increasing, you can see that something has to give. This is predicted for the coming decade or two.

Cars are important to us. Judging by their use and abuse, the mile-for-mile preference we have for them over other forms of mobility, the growth in their numbers[i], the increasing number of vehicle miles traveled each year[ii] and a hundred other indicators, it is the car we are addicted to rather than oil[iii].  Oil is just one symptom. Most of the sustainability problem as it is now will survive the end of oil.

We can list a lot of bad things about our cars, but there are also a lot of good things.  Perhaps the good outweighs the bad – I, for one, think that it does. There are a lot of reasons we have so many cars and there are many solutions offered to deal with their overwhelming ubiquity. We needn’t review those things here. You already have an opinion. You already like or dislike cars. I am probably unable to change your mind. You already have a car (or two) or wish you had one. Or perhaps you have even managed to get rid of yours. Or not yet.

Here is what you cannot argue with – the relationship between our species and the car is in some trouble. Our roadways scar our planet and drain our treasuries. Our cars clog these roadways; they are ravenous for fuel and clean air, and for space to park. They directly kill more people every year than all the wars on the planet; they indirectly shorten the lives of many more. And sooner or later we will have to wean the entire fleet off of oil – likely 2 billion of them by the time that happens. If you have a car and you don’t think you are addicted to it, lend it to me for a month.

How did it get to this? Where is it going? And how much longer can we let it play out before we engage in a concerted effort to rescue the beloved private vehicle?

When my grandfathers were youths there were no cars. The streets of large cities like Paris, Moscow and Chicago teamed with horses. Manhattan had 5mph speed limits that were routinely ignored and 200 pedestrians were trampled to death each year.[iv] The London Strand was described with streets flooded “with churnings of ‘pea soup’ (a euphemism for a slurry of horseshit and urine) that at times collected in pools over-brimming the kerbs, and others covered the road surface as with axel grease or bran-laden dust to the distraction of the wayfarer.”[v] Horse-drawn vehicle congestion was a normal condition.
Chicago, 19th Century
By the time my mother’s father, a blacksmith who shoed horses, entered the Great Depression he had 13 children but no work thanks to the automobile. The decades leading up to the second war saw the end of the horse and the entrenchment of the autonomous vehicle. When my father’s father reached his middle years in the ‘20s, he owned a Model-T and maintained it himself. The congestion in our great cities switched from horse to car. We could fit more vehicles on the same streets and we breathed the pollution instead of walking in it.
New York 1929
After the Second War, the car entered our sex-lives and our song lexicon – spilling out of our radios.

I'll buy you a Ford Mustang, I'll buy you a Ford Mustang,
I'll buy you a Ford Mustang if you'll just give me some of your love now
Yeah, give me some of your love girl, yeah, you know what I want.[vi]

When I was 13 I knew I’d drive when I was 16.  Neither of my parents nor any of theirs thought that as a teenager. A new entitlement had locked in.

The automobile has had a good ride since the 1950’s. Road building, urban form, transport policy and automotive innovation have deepened the entitlement to the point that we have now collectively forgotten what non-automotive transport and sex-before-cars was like. For many of us, not owning a car is little like being caught naked in public.

This entitlement, if not the car itself, is endangered. The reputation of the private vehicle is tarnished and declining.  In some circles drivers are looked on as if they still smoked cigarettes. The utility of the private vehicle is diminished by congestion. Parking has turned from minor nuisance to dreaded chore. The gap between the promise of car ads and the experience of owning one widens more each year. My fourteen-year old daughter guffaws at car ads. She looks at me funny, when I say she will be driving soon.

In the 2010s era of peak-oil, a century after peak-horse, most big cities have speed limits of 25-35 mph, and average speeds that are far lower. Pedestrians may be a little safer in these cities than they were under horses hoofs, but now we waste time and fuel. We pollute, text co-workers that we will be late, and use GPS to find alternative routes. In my city, Toronto, resigned complaints about congestion dominate morning greetings in place of innocuous comments about the weather. Our morning and afternoon rush-hours now bleed into a single 12-hour peak.

This trend will not self-reverse.  Left as it is tending, the utility of the autonomous vehicle is threatened. And with it we will lose what remains of the convenience, effectiveness, autonomy, pleasure and sexiness of private commuting and travel.

This book is not anti-car. In fact it is pro-car – but in a balanced way. It is true that many drivers continue to be rude to transit, aggressive toward bikes, and threatening toward pedestrians – and like blowing smoke in the face non-smokers, drivers do that to the detriment of the way of travel they prefer.  Unless we consider new ways of thinking about the use of fuel-powered, multi-thousand-pound, autonomous, private vehicles, we risk writing the obituary of freedom that the automobile came to symbolize in the last half of the twentieth century.

This book describes the way out.

[i] Sperling, Two Billion Cars
[ii] FHWA, Our Nation’s Highways 2008.
[iii] Quote from Bush.
[iv] Vanderbilt, Traffic
[v] Jacobs, Death and Life page 444
[vi] The Animals

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