Auto Nation: Re-Thinking the Future of the Car

by Richard Carson

The popular New Urbanist press reaks with an amazing xenophobia about the car. Jane Holtz Kay (1) , in Asphalt Nation, claims that the "automobile has ravaged America's cities and landscape." The promotional material for Suburban Nation, by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (2) , calls for an "end to suburban sprawl and to replace the automobile-based settlement patterns of the past fifty years." James Howard Kunstler (3) says of his book, The Geography of Nowhere, "a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside." Even an old guard urbanist like Anthony Downs can't resist taking a cheap shot to get a laugh. He says "In Houston, a person walking is someone on his way to his car."

Of course it is always popular to be against convention in order to sell books. But there are limits to such ridiculous rhetoric. America is the most powerful nation on earth, with one of the highest standards of living, and with an amazing amount of personal independence and mobility. Much of this is so precisely because of the car.

The good news is that this auto-phobic, psychobabble is in for a head-on-collision with technological reality. I came to this conclusion a few years ago after I read an article by Amory Lovins, the co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (4). Lovins says that there is now the technology available to build a new ultra light hybrid automobile -- the hypercar (5). Lovins says that this technology will re-invent the automobile as a powerful American institution well into the next millennium, though it "cannot solve the problem of too many people driving too many miles; indeed they could intensify, by making driving even more attractive, cheaper, and nearly free per extra mile driven." He explains that the only limit is that "drivers would no longer run out of oil or air but would surely run out of roads, time and patience."

There are two reasons this is such a powerful statement. First, the Institute's environmental mission is to "foster the efficient and sustainable use of resources." So they are hardly in the automobile industry's pocket. Second, the public-private partnership behindthis evolutionary mission is the combined forces of the federal government and the big three Detroit automakers.

The new technology's benefits are hard to resist:

· New composite materials will be 50 percent to 85 percent cheaper than using steel, so such vehicles can retail for around $15,000.
· The new vehicles are environmentally cleaner since at 100-to 300-mpg they will use very little oil and will produce cleaner air and climatic protection.
· They will improve our quality of life through quieter streets and neighborhoods.

This kind of evolutionary technological change is comparable to replacing 8-track tapes with CDs, mainframe computers with PCs or the slide rule with the pocket calculator. Lovins claims that the new automobiles will "carry a family coast to coast on one tank of fuel, more safely and comfortably than they can travel now, and more cleanly."

So what's the problem? Many current government planning policies are being driven by a desire on the part of environmentalists and some sympathetic elected officials to change the American automobile culture. The anti-automobile sales pitch is designed to radically change our lifestyles, limit our mobility by getting us out of the car, and to have us walk, ride a bike or use transit.

We are told that we must stop driving the automobile and use transit because the auto uses a finite fuel resource and pollutes the air. But what if this were no longer a concern?

Edward Deming's theory on total quality management, and Osborne and Gaebler's writing about re-inventing government tell us that the basic tenant of private and public sector organizations today should be to give the customer what they want in terms of product and quality. Conversely, the authors believe we must stop trying to sell something that customers don't want to buy. Worldwide annual automobile production has increased almost exponentially from about 5 million cars in 1910 to 40 million in 2000 (6). The total number of vehicles currently in use and on the road today is around 500 million. That works out to an amazing one vehicle per 12 people. "People want the automobile."

Some state and local governments are promoting the idea of "neo-traditional planning," which promotes design that makes neighborhoods more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, creates "skinny streets," and orients houses to the front yard. "We have government agencies trying to rearrange how commercial developments orient building and not parking to streets." Their bottom line is to make it more "pedestrian friendly" and less "automobile friendly." The problem with such a public-policy miscalculation is that it could have tremendous long-term social and economic repercussions. It is one thing for a private company to bet-the-farm on technological change -- or the lack of it. It is quite another for government to gamble the taxpayers' money on an outdated and wrong-headed conviction that government should convince us to do something we don't want to do.

So what is the prognosis for the automobile? The freedom of mobility is what makes Americans different. We go where we want, when we want. It will remain the transportation choice for the overwhelming majority of Americans well into the next millennium.

It is time for those who would be king to end the denial about the automobile. It is here to stay and will only get more popular. The automobile will be here long after New Urbanism becomes yesterday's architectural news. Only when a person can step into the Star Trek transporter at home and say "Beam me up Mr. Scott" will the car end its technological usefulness. Let us not be so myopic or hypocritical. Almost everyone who reads this article either drives or wishes they could drive.

I am not suggesting that we abandon the quest for a more multi-modal transportation system. However, we should build the system people want. It is clear most people prefer the automobile to mass transportation. It is clear that those who need or want mass transit want light rail over buses. The also says a lot about us as a society, that we would give people -- who are too young, too old, too disabled or too environmental sensitive to drive -- a quieter, cleaner form of transportation. But much of what is being done today to offer us transportation alternatives will not address the real issue that infuriates most of us -- traffic congestion.

However, the only real hope to traffic congestion and oil dependency is technology. Telecommuting is becoming more of a reality every day. This is where government needs to invest it precious dollars. Indeed, if there is any good news to be found in the 911 tragedy, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is that we are more interested in telecommuting and we have rekindled the dependency on oil debate. Certainly the best alternative is less oil consumption for geo-political and environmental reasons. But demonizing the automobile in order to reduce oil consumption is pursuing a false doctrine.

In fairness to the Rocky Mountain Institute, Lovins says that, "Whether we will have the wisdom to build a society worth driving around in -- one build around people, not cars -- remains a greater challenge." But as T.S. Elliott warned, "A thousand policemen directing traffic cannot tell you why you come or where you go." I would say that this also nicely describes a thousand New Urbanists.

(1) http://www.janeholtzkay.com/AsphaltNation/index.html
(2) http://www.fsbassociates.com/fsg/suburbannation.htm#reviews
(3) http://www.kunstler.com/bio.html
(4) http://www.rmi.org/
(5) http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid386.php
(6) http://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch1en/conc1en/carprod1950-1999.html