Thu 1 Mar 2018
The age of the automobile may be over. But, largely thanks to capitalist China, the age of the automobile 2.0 is just beginning
These, a chorus of voices tells us, are the bittersweet, waning days of our long love affair with the car. In Los Angeles, the most congested city in the world, the average motorist was stuck in peak-time congestion for 102 hours last year. In London, drivers lost the equivalent of three days sitting in traffic jams.
Americans’ rates of car ownership and number of annual miles driven peaked some 15 years ago, and are unlikely to rebound. Young people, for whom cars once served as indispensable tools for independence, identity formation, adventure, self-display and connection (often sexual), have opted for an alternative freedom machine: the smartphone. The proportion of young Americans with driving licences stood at about 92% in 1984; since then it has plunged 15 percentage points. In the UK too, the number of younger drivers has fallen dramatically.
And young people aren’t the only ones. In tones ranging from concerned to dystopian, commentators over the past two decades have described the global crisis caused by our devotion to internal combustion engine vehicles, which belch forth nearly a quarter of the world’s CO2 emissions and take about 1.3 million lives each year. Environmentalists and progressives hail the death of the car, while in the corporate headquarters of Detroit, Tokyo and Wolfsburg, anxiety reigns.
This week one of Germany’s highest courts ruled that heavily polluting diesel vehicles can be banned from the centres of Stuttgart and Dusseldorf. They are far from the only cities attempting to restrict traffic and the air pollution it causes. But it would be rash to write off cars, which still shape most aspects of everyday life in many countries. In the US, above all, “automobility” has been a way of life ever since cars began to roll off assembly lines.
Although automobility developed early in Germany, Britain, France and Japan, the wide-open landscapes, sparse transport infrastructure and individualistic orientation of America made it the ideal kingdom of the car. The building of the interstate highway system in the 1950s was a monumental public works project that effectively subsidised the oil, automobile, rubber, construction, cement and insurance industries. Over the four decades it took to complete, automobility permeated the built environment and dictated patterns of work and leisure.