The Problem of the Car is simple: our lives are built around a technology that destroys the environment and has buried any sense of human-scaled urban planning under a mountain of asphalt.
The Problem of the supposed car-free “utopia” is even more simple: how can you possibly eliminate cars when the entire world is built around them?
If we wish to provide a meaningful solution to this pair of problems, we need to investigate why the Car has been such a potent symbol in our societies and how the car radically transforms network dynamics. Then we can understand how a new technology associated with freedom can generate a new set of constraints on our “free choices,” and what eliminating those restraints might require.
The Car as an Engine of Freedom
The Car in the American Consciousness has historically been a potent symbol of freedom. To this day, a large majority of Americans report taking drives to get some alone time. I do this fairly regularly when I am not in a city.
The Car in this sense is a literal engine of Freedom. The ability to leave responsibilities behind as you accelerate away, the wind blowing in your face removing any worries...at least for the moment.
But this does not seem to be a satisfactory explanation for why the Car became more popular than bikes or had the particular salience it did with regards to freedom. It also does not explain why cars and driving have become less popular amongst young people today. I am certain some boomers will say it’s because the young people are just dirty communists, but the youth of the 60s were probably far closer to genuine communism than the youth today and held a far greater fascination with cars.
So what is the mechanism that explains why Cars had such power in our world?
How Speed obliterates Space (or, The Car as World-Breaker)
When I say The World, I am not referring to the universe or "all that there is" per se. Instead, I am referring to our conception of existence. What we are aware of. Ibn Khaldun had an analogous concept called "umran" that is more literally translated as "cooperation" or "civilization," but makes more sense to describe it as "the extent of society." What we describe with The World is not the extent of all that there is. Christopher Columbus discovering the New World did not *create* two continents out of nothingness. The World is the extent of our conception of what is, and, perhaps more importantly, our map of the connections between the entities that comprise the World.
One of the defining avenues of progress in modernity is in the realm of speed: new technologies allow for the collapse of distance, of Space itself, both physically and virtually, by accelerating the speed at which information, goods, and people travel. I do not mean that modernity is somehow literally shrinking distances. But when we say that “the world is getting smaller,” we do mean that in a very real sense.
The Car plays a pivotal role in unlocking a far greater swath of the world to the average individual. In this manner, we can see the emotional appeal of the car. Of why it is associated with freedom. The world is now open to you in a way that it wasn't before. Where there were constraints, there is now possibility. Is it any surprise the car was situated in such an important part of the American psyche? And as with any new technology, it was subsumed into status games, etc., further cementing its dominant role in American culture.
But understanding the root of the car's appeal, of its claim to providing freedom, as coming from its ability to effectively shrink the World via speed grants us an analytical tool to understand why the rise of the internet appears to coincide with a decline of the centrality of the Car.
Virtual space, the realm of the internet, collapses distance in a way no physical technology short of sci-fi or teleportation can. I can have near instantaneous communication with someone on the other side of the world. The Car simply cannot compete. Beyond the economics of owning a car, I see the internet as presenting a significant structural replacement to a core appeal of the automobile: expanding the boundaries of the World. Of umran. Allowing you and civilization both to spread further than would have otherwise been possible.
How Freedom Becomes Constraint (or, How the Car Became a Prison)
What happens when a new technology becomes “centered” in society? Surely, society begins to shape itself around that technology. Our society is now designed around cars. Suburbia, strip malls, endless parking lots, etc. All built around the car. And so we don’t just see distance collapsing, but also expanding.
Yes, the car made it faster to move from point A to point B. And yet, commutes appear to keep hitting new record highs.
The problem that we face is that the Car is now seen as normal. It is expected that one possesses a vehicle. And so society is built around them. What used to be 20 minutes away by foot can now be placed 20 minutes away by car, because who walks anywhere anymore? The car is no longer a way to explode boundaries: it has become the boundary-setter itself.
This dynamic of a new technology promising (and legitimately delivering) freedom before being “centered” by society and becoming the standard (a.k.a. the new constraints) is neither new nor uncommon. So often it seems that when we attempt to collapse the space-time continuum with a new technology (communication at the speed of light, travel at 500kmh+, etc.), the continuum pushes back savagely. And so commutes get longer as urban sprawl, impossible to conceive of without personal transportation (that doesn’t rely on human energy), proliferates. We are slaves to our inboxes, being expected to instantly respond to any request from a boss or a client, because their whole worlds are built around speed as well. And how many of us truly consented to this? Or were we simply thrust into a world where these were the rules and we just have to go along with it?
What we now have are towns where it is impossible for many people to walk to a grocery store and get groceries for your family. Where individuals live further and further from their workplace and spend more and more of their lives inside a box on four wheels, wondering why they feel disconnected from those around them. Where workers must be constantly ready to deal with any kinds of requests, even if their industry is no more productive than it was 50 years ago, but just does the same crap at a faster rate (*stares at Wall Street*). All the while spewing huge amounts of pollutants into our atmosphere, causing significant amounts of damage to our physical environment alongside our social environment.
And so I leave you with this lesson: be wary of so-called “freedoms.” Freedom is but one side of a coin; the other side has always been, is always, and will always be constraint.
The Challenge for a Post-Car “Utopia”
The central pragmatic challenge of a “post-car” utopia will be building towns and cities that do not require cars. Mandating that all new developments are within walking distance of grocery stores and clinics/hospitals and schools. “Unrealistic!” you may cry. Sure. So is every ideology other than rainbow neoliberalism today, but somehow you still took the time out of your day to read this little blog. Zoning laws can be affected on a local level, where organization is both more salient and more impactful (given the incredibly low participation rates locally versus nationally). Public transportation is somewhat more difficult given America’s…less than stellar record with it recently, but that remains an option elsewhere.
The central ideological (for lack of a better word) challenge of a post-car “utopia” will be figuring out how to balance the desire for the freedom that speed provides with the limitation of the constraints that centering speedy technologies creates. This is where, for instance, the new zoning laws I described above might come into play: at no point should personal car ownership be outlawed, nor does it need to be; instead, you have simply eliminated the need for cars (and one might imagine that parking lots would no longer be required to cover so much land since cars are no longer necessary).
You cannot demand people change their lives while giving them no feasible pathways to doing so. Even the best people will struggle to survive, and will very reasonably reject such ridiculous demands in order to make sure their families and selves do not suffer. This does not make them selfish. It makes them sane. If you want to build a world without cars, you must build a world that does not need cars. And THAT can only happen through institutional avenues.
I know the challenges that face us are immense. But do not forget:
There is no despair. There is only the work that must be done. Godspeed to us all.