WASHINGTON – Can America end its perverse love affair with the automobile? No doubt, when the automobile was invented, more than a century, ago it represented progress. A vehicle –as opposed to one’s legs or a horse– that can give its owner the freedom to move around relatively easily, at will, and at a relatively modest cost. People always wanted the freedom to go places for business or for exploration. Trains, of course, had come along in the 1800s and they had shortened travel time. But the automobile was the personal train: leaving when one wants and going where one wishes. So, progress across the board.
Yes, except that now, a full century into the age of the private automobile, there are just too many cars. In regions with high population density (in America but also across the globe) what might have been a bit of a problem a few decades ago, has now become a sheer calamity. Perennial traffic, gridlock, longer and longer commutes, pollution, noise and bad air quality. All this exacts a toll, both economic and human. Simply stated: there is a point beyond which too many cars on the road paradoxically end up denying drivers the fundamental benefit initially brought about by cars: freedom of movement. The millions who, on a daily basis, get into their cars only to be stuck in traffic, move; but they move very, very slowly.
At some point one should take stock of this situation and determine that we have reached and indeed passed the point of diminishing returns. The car, once touted as the indispensable tool for personal mobility, is now a problem. Simply because too many of us have one and want to use it when all the others want to do the same. Some large cities, like London, have adopted partial remedies, such as a congestion charge, in order to discourage people from driving into the central areas that tend to be easily saturated. While this is not the ultimate solution, the congestion charge at least established the policy principle of creating a strong disincentive to drive a private vehicle, simply because too many vehicles make circulation virtually impossible. (More recently, New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to adopt a similar approach; but it failed).
The traffic crisis in large cities indicates that it is time to think creatively about alternatives to the private car. Given the global recession that has hit car manufacturing the hardest, it could be argued that this is not the appropriate time to plan to do away with cars. Right now policy makers hardly worry about congestion; they fret about the fact that cars collect dust in dealers’ lots. Unsold cars mean major troubles for the industry worldwide and especially here in America where General Motors, once the symbol of industrial America is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. In this nasty situation, we are reminded that the auto industry is an icon, that it is the symbol of our industrial prowess. Indeed, if auto goes down it will bring down a huge chunk of the economy, a real catastrophe for the US. And all this may very well be true.
But, leaving aside immediate concerns about the underperforming management at GM or Ford, we have a strategic challenge ahead of us. The real problem is that we have allowed the car industry to have become so central in the US because of our lack of fantasy about transportation modalities, notwithstanding the well known and growing problems caused by too many cars in more and more congested cities.
Let’s try and reframe the issue. Americans, just as the Europeans or the Asians do not need “cars” per se; they need functional, comfortable, affordable systems that allow freedom of movement. The car happens to be one modality. The fact that it has become dominant is due to both its happy beginnings and to our lack of fantasy in thinking about alternatives, even after the disadvantages of the semi-exclusive focus on the car became apparent.
We do understand that, in this emergency mode, at present the chief concern is to save the auto industry because of all the millions of jobs that it creates. And this is fine. But we should not allow the current economic slump and its disastrous impact on the car industry to overshadow the need for fresh approaches to mobility in large urban areas. Present crisis notwithstanding, it would be wise to start thinking about a way to transition away from an industry that produces a tool that is no longer optimal for the fulfillment of personal mobility needs.
The economic consequences of Detroit’s collapse are urgent and real. Still, pressed by the need to reverse this calamity, once more we do not seem to have the opportunity to examine strategic alternatives, some of which would question the wisdom of assuming that the car industry should continue to be the center of our economy because it produces goods that we absolutely need.
The truth of the matter is that, if we leave out the urgency of the present sitaution, at least in principle, it is quite possible to think of a new model in which the personal mobility needs of most Americans can be fulfilled through means other than a private vehicle. If this were indeed so, then the need for a vast industry justified on the basis of a customers base of millions of people eager to buy, trade and upgrade cars would vanish. The industry would not disappear, as there would still be a need for vehicles; but it would become far less significant, at least less important than what it is today. The auto industry would become just another component of our manufacturing, as opposed to being its backbone, the sector that sustains almost everything else because of its sheer size, supply chains and reach.
If we take a step back, away from the current crisis, there are many arguments against the continued dominance of the private automobile as the primary means that allows individuals to get around as they please. The rising price of fuel should be one reason. But we are not there yet. Of course, last year most Americans experienced the gasoline price shock. But, unfortunately it was all too brief to cause a real transformation. For a while at least, the price scare will stay in the collective memory; but it did not last long enough to cause a deep reflection on the cost effectiveness of the private automobile. And now, gasoline prices being lower, we are back to business as usual. Of course, we should be mindful that current lower prices are temporary, the result of the worldwide recession. There is no indication that low prices are here to stay. Unless there are some gigantic new oil discoveries that would substantially add to supply, as the world economy will recover, global demand will go up again and so will prices. We may not get to oil at over $ 140 a barrel very soon; but it is unlikely to stay at $ 40.
But, while a likely gasoline price increase should be considered as a powerful factor against the (future) cost effectiveness of the private automobile, it is not the main one. We could imagine future automobiles magically running on a cheap and non polluting substance. And yet a strong case against the automobile could still be made.
And the case is very simple and before our very eyes. There are just too many of us trying to exercise at the same time our individual right to move around as we please, when we please, with our own vehicle. The net result is road congestion, longer and longer commute time and gridlock. (Commuting is the result of people moving to larger yet affordable houses in suburbs. The trade off of a bigger house was a long drive to the work place. That seemed fine when roads could accomodate that traffic. Nowadays, millions of commuters jam the highways, thus lengthening commuting time for all). This is not just a bit of inconvenience every now and then. This is a systemic crisis that has reached gigantic proportions in most large metropolitan areas, in the US and around the world. However, strangely enough, there is no general perception that this indeed an urgent problem.
Just like the proverbial frog swimming in the pot of progressively warmer water, we end up being cooked without even realizing it. Indeed, it is mind boggling that we have become so used to the diminishing returns caused by too many automobiles on the road that we do not even notice the contradiction between the purpose of the car and the reality of gridlock caused by having too many of them jamming the roads. The very tool that we have chosen to make life easier for us is actually making it more difficult.
Of course congestion does not occur everywhere; and a strong case can easily be made for private vehicles in sparsely populated rural areas. But congestion is common place in most large urban areas and in the highways connecting them. And large urban areas are where most people live.
Until now the only answer to congestion has been to build new roads or to add lanes to the existing ones. We have also come up with other gimmicks. As people need their cars to go shopping, we have created shopping centers and we have moved them away from city centers, so that we can have the indispensable large parking lots that shoppers need. But none of this solves the problem. Congestion grows and mobility is reduced.
As long as the private automobile will remain the default, dominant component of any transportation concept, there is no way out. The only way is in changing the approach. And this would include shifting the focus to the real objective of the transportation conundrum. Again, people do not need cars, they need systems that would allow them to get from here to there when they want, in a comfortable way, at a reasonable speed and cost.
Already quite a while ago, it was thought that underground mass transit systems could provide an efficient and reliable transportation modality and thus a possible alternative to private cars. And, in principle, this may be true. Except for the fact that building and maintaining large underground systems is extremely expensive. Furthermore, there are other structural problems. Precisely because of the increased mobility made possible by the private car, many American cities have spread out. Millions of people live in wider and wider, low density suburbs. It is just not cost effective to build a large network of underground rail aimed at scooping up people scattered in very large areas.
But there are perfectly viable, lower cost alternatives to building underground systems. And they can be achieved through fast, reliable interconnected bus systems that would function pretty much in the same way as underground lines, except that they would run on the existing roads, thus avoiding the tremendous cost of constructing dedicated underground systems. The major problem in achieving this solution is the availability of dedicated bus lanes that would allow buses to run essentially like trains. In present circumstances this would be impossible, as buses would compete with private automobiles for limited road space. And without dedicated bus lanes, there goes the convenience and higher speed that would make public transport more desirable. If you are going be stuck in traffic; you may as well do so in the privacy of your own car.
And here is where the shift in thinking should take place, as difficult as it may be. Would you give up the right to use your car if this would mean allowing an interconnected network of fast, reliable buses taking its place? The main objection against the bus nowadays is that buses are late, often overcrowded and slower than a car. They move at the same speed of the rest of the traffic; while, in addition, they have to make all those stops.
But imagine a future world with a lot more buses that can go more places and that do not get stuck in traffic, as they will no longer compete against all those cars. Again imagine the ability to change buses in really functional interconnected stations where you easily exit bus A and within a covered, practical, sheltered space, you get into bus B without the inconvenience of waiting endlessly in the cold or in the rain. This is actually not a fantasy. Go to Curitiba, In Brazil and you shall see a system built along those lines in operation. it took a while; but original thinking and experimentation created a viable, reliable alternative to the private car.
Alright. So this shift to a network of fast buses is doable. Except that in order to get there we would need a real revolution. No more private cars in large metropolitan areas. Build the bus inter-connectors. Design and manufacture the new, customer friendly buses of different shapes and sizes, depending on the routing and the load expected. Fine tune the whole mix so that service is seamless and reliable. And there you have it: a bus stop just next to your home and a bus service that takes you virtually anywhere with a few easy changes through station that are covered and practical.
But is it even remotely conceivable to have such a revolution in our thinking about mobility in a society so profundly dominated by the private automobile? In truth, the very inconvenience caused by car congestion should spur people to think about something else. But assuming that it is difficult to quickly change a long established mind set, let alone all the huge, entrenched economic interest that would be hurt by dramatic changes, let’s not have a revolution. Knowing that a transformation of this magnitude, touching upon everything: our personal habits, the industrial base, the make up of cities etc. etc. cannot be mandated, let alone achieved quickly, let’s think about a reasonable transition period in which we can phase in all these changes. Still, even with well planned transitions it will not be easy.
But if we resist these changes because of their intimidating magnitude, then the alternative is more of the same. We shall be condemned to live with the diminishing returns caused by congestion and gridlock, (not to mention pollution and greenhouse gases, at least until we use gasoline as the default fuel), with the ensuing waste of billions of dollars, because people wasting hours and hours in cars burn fuel while sitting idle in an unproductive way. If we think that we have to endure the ill effects of this automobile dominated environment because “this is the way it is”, we are not only unimaginative, we are also quite dumb.