[Viewpoint] Is the auto age nearing its end?

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[Viewpoint] Is the auto age nearing its end?

In the modern world, we cherish our freedom and individuality. And as automobile advertisers have long understood, few experiences make us feel more liberated than a fast ride on the open road.

To be modern is to be mobile. Our economy depends on the free and rapid circulation of people and goods, and we have developed transportation technologies that suit our needs. First, railroads moved people and goods at previously unimaginable speeds, while steamships circled the globe. Then, in the twentieth century, airplanes began to move us further and faster.

For most people though, mobility means automobiles. Cars allow rural people to escape isolation, and they gave city dwellers access to the countryside. Middle class car ownership has ballooned, while the world’s poor view car ownership as a token and a tool of advancement.

But is our modern mobility sustainable? We are facing an energy crisis, a climate crisis and an economic crisis - and perhaps a mobility crisis as well.

Sometime during the past two years, according to United Nations estimates, the world’s population became more than 50 percent urban. For the first time, a majority of us now live in cities, and that ratio will grow rapidly. But urban life poses a challenge to our automotive mobility. In cities, cars offer easy transportation, but only when traffic isn’t too bad. They also free drivers from the delays and stress of buses, trains and sidewalks. In other words, a car furnishes a steel cocoon that shields motorists from their fellow citizens.

The sanctity of the car comes at a price though: if not a loss of civility, then certainly of urban mobility, as cars clog the roads. Many people still find it worthwhile to drive through the city, but for the community as a whole, making enough room for all the cars means devoting a large part of the city to a costly network of highways and parking lots - which still can’t seem to keep up with the growing fleet of cars.

Amid road construction and honking horns, the vaunted freedom of the open road has long since vanished in the rear-view mirror. If we continue to fill our cities - not just London and Los Angeles, but also Mumbai and Shanghai - with cars, we will be left with diminishing mobility and barely functioning cities.

Which brings us to the current state of the auto industry. Although the crisis facing American automobile manufacturers has many causes, its solution depends on the crisis of mobility.

The United States has always been the model of a mobile society, where people are willing to pull up stakes and go someplace new - if not to a new territory out west, then at least to a distant suburb, a long commute away from their old home. The U.S. became the envy of the world not least of all because it was the first country where ordinary people owned cars, but because it is still the land where people drive really big cars. It led the way in modeling its cities around cars and highways.

Even as the automobile business went global, U.S. car companies remained a breed apart. Although Ford and General Motors build small cars in Europe, they made their money at home by persuading urban dwellers to buy gas-guzzling behemoths that promised mastery of the open road. Detroit owes its century of remarkable success to the carmakers’ skill in packaging practical mobility with improbable fantasy.

Those days may be over. The global economic crisis came on the heels of the 2008 oil-price explosion, which proved to be short-lived, but is likely to return as global oil supplies are again stretched to the limit. New technologies like lithium batteries and hydrogen cars promise to free us from dependence on fossil fuels without separating us from our cars, but even the most remarkable breakthroughs cannot replace our automotive fleet anytime soon. By the time something comes along to supplant the cars that we know - and something will, eventually - we may have already lost the chance to rethink our dependence on them.

Few of us will voluntarily renounce our modern mobility. Yet the end of cheap oil, along with the current recession, invite us to escape the burdens of car loans, sell the second car, drive less, car-share, choose smaller vehicles, opt for mass transit, bicycles, or our feet, or move to walkable, transit-linked neighborhoods.

Economists who blithely assume that pre-2008 automobile sales are “normal,” because Americans “need” their cars, misunderstand the nature of the automobile market. Enormous cars, long commutes and vast parking lots do have their advantages, but we could manage to live without them.

And yet other countries’ growing middle classes want to emulate the American dream - to be able to drive to the country and seal themselves off from city streets, just like Westerners. Most governments, too, are eagerly building highways and promoting domestic car industries.

Still, if trendsetting Westerners are increasingly bicycling, walking and riding trains, perhaps wealthy Asians will follow suit, and their governments will in turn begin to doubt that more cars are the way of the future.

It is difficult to imagine a world in which cars and driving are out of fashion, but it is bound to happen someday, and perhaps that day is not far off.

*The writer is author of “Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age.”
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

By Brian Ladd
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