The End of the Automobile?

Is an end to this in sight?

I’m reading a lot of British transportation history these days in order to frame my research, and I have discovered in the process that many books on the subject are a bit antiquated. This can mean that they make hilarious predictions about the future (one proposed jetpacks as a plausible means of future transportation; another suggested hovercrafts), yet their datedness has a bit of value to me as a historian. While they may not reflect the most cutting-edge scholarship, these books can say a lot about the continuing history of the subject by revealing the author’s own prejudices. Such is the case with one 1975 book I am in the process of reading. Its author, Derek Howard Aldcroft, of the post-war era that “…in a period when passenger transport has expanded rapidly, the private road vehicle has swept all before it”. It makes sense that he would write that. In 1975, the growth rate in passenger-miles traveled by car had recovered from a small hiccup caused by the 1973 fuel crisis, and resumed the meteoric rate of increase that had persisted since the end of the Second World War. The use of trains and buses, meanwhile, had done nothing but stagnate and decline over the same period. From Aldcroft’s perspective, then, the long-term triumph of the passenger automobile may well have seemed a near-certainty.

Of course, this would have come as sad news to the fledgling environmental movement that existed in the 1970s, and similar assertions are frequently made today, much to the chagrin of climate activists. But must we agree with Aldcroft? Perhaps we have learned something about the fate of the private car in the last forty-odd-years that Aldcroft may not have anticipated. It’s too big a question to answer adequately in blog form, but I’m going to try and clarify some of the relevant issues a little bit. I’m not going to bring a whole lot of new information to the table-I think that most people reading this will already know the facts I am citing. I am just going to frame the situation in a way that I think is productive for thinking about the question.

First, it has to be noted that the automobile is a textbook example of a strongly entrenched socio-technical regime. There are strong cultural, economic, political, technological, scientific, and infrastructural forces that have become attached to the widespread use of the private automobile, and are not likely to allow it to decline without a fight. Existing sustainable transportation niches are constantly being frustrated by these forces. The fact that many roads were only designed with the safety of motorists in mind deters many people from taking up cycling. In many places, cultural norms strongly encourage the ownership of a car, and discourage the use of public transit. Train systems are unable to expand due to policymakers who are unwilling to allocate the necessary subsidies, while those same policymakers are often happy to spend millions on new highways. Massive urban sprawl makes it difficult to construct walkable communities. Meanwhile, niche-innovations designed to take advantage of existing infrastructure, such as the electric car, are hobbled by the fact that the internal combustion engine has a several-decade technological head-start, and a considerable cultural advantage.

That being said, we would be foolish to completely discount the possibility of a major transportation transition taking place during the next few decades. Strong regimes can be broken up with the appropriate landscape pressures, and there are some pretty important landscape pressures currently acting on the car regime. The most obvious one is political: a lot of people are getting pretty concerned about the environmental impact of cars. Increasing smog problems in major cities and concerns about the environmental costs of fuel extraction, as is the fact that the private automobile has become symbolic of the high-carbon lifestyle practiced in the industrial west. Rising fuel costs are making the private automobile less appealing from a financial perspective than it once was. Congestion is becoming increasingly problematic in urban environments, leading some local governments to apply measures like congestion charging and car-pool lanes, as well as enhancing public transit services. Lastly, the economic crisis means that many people simply cannot afford cars, meaning that they are developing lifestyles that do not require them-a development which is scaring many car manufacturers. All of these things taken together could potentially start to break up the strong socio-technical entrenchment of cars.

So what we have in the case of cars is a strongly entrenched regime holding strong against a few promising niches, but threatened by some important landscape events. This is exactly the kind of situation that has lead to major transitions in the past. The car itself seemed to many to be little more than a fad for rich people at the turn of the century, but as a niche-innovation it had a lot of potential, and when the world wars damaged the railroad regime and changed the industrial structure of Europe and North America, cars were well-positioned to capitalize on that change. This is not, however, a guaranteed outcome. It remains to be seen whether the existing pressures on the car regime will be enough to permit the development of a radically new transport system.

This may be cause for hope. (From The New Statesman)

I am not, of course, an entirely disinterested observer. I am concerned about the effect of cars on urban environments, air quality, and the global climate and I would like to see a more sustainable system replace them within my own lifetime. While I am not sure that this will happen, I can say that some recent evidence gives me reason for cautious optimism. A number of researchers have looked at transportation data from the last decade or so and noticed a surprising phenomenon: it seems as though the trend that Aldcroft noticed, in which car use was rapidly increasing over several decades, began to slow down some time in the 1990s, and may have even started to reverse itself in some places. The use of cars is still an order of magnitude higher than the use of trains, bicycles, and other alternatives, but we may be witnessing the beginning of a change. Whether these statistics truly represent a “peak car” moment leading to a major transition, or a mere blip, resulting from temporary economic conditions. I would ask skeptics to keep in mind, however, that firmly entrenched technologies can and have been brought low in the past. Before the car became popular, railroads were dominant for nearly a century. Before that, the millenia-long history of horse-drawn travel would have made the horse-drawn wagon seem as old and as resilient as time itself. And on the sea, steamships replaced sailing vessels after a comparable historical dominance. All of these systems became considerably entrenched over their long histories, and yet they were brought low in good time. Compared to them, the car’s sixty-year history makes it appear positively fragile. How much longer its history goes on, and how much more entrenched it becomes, remains to be seen.

Further Reading:

Aldcroft, D.H., 1975. “British Transport Since 1914: An Economic History”. London: David and Charles.

Fouquet, R., 2012. Trends in Income and Price Elasticities of Transport Demand (1850-2010). Basque Centre for Climate Change BC3 Working Paper Series 2012-01.

Newman, P., and Kenworthy, J., 2011. “Peak Car Use: Understanding the Demise of Automobile Dependence.” World Transport Policy and Practice 17.2. pp. 31-42.

Sheller, M., 2011. “The Emergence of New Cultures of Mobility: Stability, Openings, and Prospects”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 180-200.

Wells, P., Nieuwenhuis, P., and Orsato, R.J., 2011. “The Nature and Causes of Inertia in the Automobile Industry: Regime Stability and Non-Change”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 123-139.

Zijlstraand, T., and Avelino, F., 2011. “A Socio-Spatial Perspective on the Car Regime”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 166-179.

Ehret, O., and Dignum, M., 2011. “Introducing Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Vehicles in Germany”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 229-249.

Goodwin, P., 2011. “Providing Road Capacity for Automobility: The Continuting Transition”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 140-159.