|June 12-14, 2013|
Clark University, Worcester, MA, USA
The future of the car is in doubt. It might shrink away, replaced by the old—bicycles, transit, and walkable communities—and the new—high-tech communications that allow instant communication and that empower transit. Or it might be here to stay, offering a unique personal empowerment that is hard to resist, and locked in place by a vast supporting infrastructure and political interests. Such were the conclusions, or lack thereof, of the “Mobility Futures” panel at the recent conference of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI).
Reducing car use is regarded as a major environmental objective, since cars are tremendous polluters and use vast quantities of materials, spurring sprawling, unhealthy land use. Yet future car use will be determined not so much by environmental concerns, or even technology, as by social factors.
Two of the papers dealt with the emerging post-automobility society. Philipp Späth discussed the Vauban District, in Freiberg, Germany, in which some 5,500 people began an experiment in minimal-car living in 1999. The district center is thus a network of transit, biking, and walking options and many residents have agreed not to own cars in exchange for exemption from parking costs. Two parking lots on the district’s edge provide space for those who do want to own vehicles. Car share is available, but Späth described this as partly a psychological cushion for those who feel uncomfortable without car access. Interestingly, many people eventually leave car use altogether.
The Vauban District is an excellent example of a sociotechnical transition niche that demonstrates the possibility of comfortable car-free living, but applying it on a broader scale is a whole other problem. Kakee Scott described a project to begin to do so, in which students collaborated on a plan to encourage such changes. The idea is to create bottom-up transit hubs empowered by technology and education campaigns, a self-styled navigation system called We-swarm. In this model, hubs form from below and spread, a bottom-up approach to change. In some ways, this is already happening in the “real world,” as activists, technology geeks, and city planners collaborate to use existing transit better and to get new transit built. For instance, the Washington, DC region, where I live, has powerful tools for finding the best transit route, along with citizen-activists, as exemplified by the website Greater Greater Washington. The bottom-up works to strengthen the top-down, as activists support politicians who improve transit networks and walkable communities. Of course this would do no good if large numbers of people were not happy to take advantage of these opportunities. A transition to a post-automobile society—or, more realistically, one with significantly reduced automobile use—must be intentional and requires a lot of hard work.
Change is difficult because the physical infrastructure for automobiles is already largely locked in and can only be altered gradually. Furthermore, the car has the unique ability to deliver individuals from point to point, with many of the costs invisible to the driver. Post-automobility scholar Peter Wells described how cars have evolved to further isolate individuals from their costs. As congestion has increased, automobile designers have designed for the “safety and security” of a “cocooning world,” so that drivers can better endure long, slow-moving commutes.
Petter Törnberg’s presentation dealt with the lock-in of car culture from a much broader perspective, through systems theory based on biological models. Recent biological theory describes a pyramid in which minor changes at the top are possible, but the whole depends upon a complex layer at the base, creating a kind of technological lock-in, or entrenchment. So, the move to more efficient engines, or electric engines, is relatively easy, but “further down in the value chain, it is more difficult to change.” Our road system, then, is a massive infrastructure codependent on cars, an entrenched system resisting change.
My reaction to these more pessimistic presentations is that change is beginning, but we still have a long way to go. To work around lock-in, we can repurpose existing infrastructure to new uses, as in a proposed bus rapid transit system in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live. The proposal to take some existing lanes and give them over to buses (to be called “rapid transit vehicles” to avoid the pejorative associated with buses) is sure to engender a political struggle, as opponents ask how taking away car lanes will ease our already congested system. The answer, of course, is that you can move far more people in a lane of rapid buses than in a lane of cars, but convincing people that this will happen requires a change in social mentality.
My other lingering question is why the “tragedy of the commons” model has not been applied to cars (perhaps it has, and I will find out in the reaction to this blog). Once the roads and parking lots have been paid for, and if one ignores the greater social cost of respiratory diseases from polluted air, greenhouse-gas emissions, automobile accidents, obstructed pedestrian and bike mobility, impaired social spheres, and fragmented landscapes, it makes perfect sense for the individual driver to employ a car to get around. He or she does not appear to pay these costs, at least on an individual-trip basis. The problem is largely a social one rather than a technological one.