The North American urban model is intertwined with the history of the automobile. Mass production reduced costs while rising living standards for the masses in the 1950s and 1960s further increased automobile affordability. At the same time, interstate highways–designed to allow quick movement of military and civilians in the event of war–allowed families to sprawl into the suburbs and the income earner to commute back to the city. Mass produced houses helped make this lifestyle affordable as well.
American life became dependent not only on the automobile but on oil as well — and not only for gasoline. Building the thousands of miles of highways and roads required oil as a main ingredient.
Last week Ryan Avent on his Bellows blog commented on a recent discussion about what vehicle is the most eco-friendly. Others had argued either for the Toyota Prius, an expensive gas-electric hybrid, or for the much cheaper and highly fuel efficient Corolla, putting the savings into other ecological upgrades for your home (more efficient furnaces, lighting, etc.).
Avent suggested people consider “door number four” – no car, instead adopting a different lifestyle.
But maybe there’s yet another option! What if, instead of spending all that money on a car, you instead put it into buying or renting a home near transit.
And Avent was not blindly advocating everyone give up their cars, instead suggesting the whole auto-based paradigm needs a re-think.
Obviously, many people are going to continue to drive or have no choice but to drive….We really ought to be focusing, however, on the way that the structure of our urban areas and urban infrastructure perpetuates a costly dependence on automobiles.
His post got me thinking. Who benefits from our current urban design complete with its automobile-focused transportation method? The automotive and oil companies, of course.
There’s probably a good comic-tragic “conspiracy” movie in all this a la Michael Moore. The automotive and oil industries are profitable and involve millions of jobs directly and indirectly. They and their suppliers (including some workers groups, perhaps) may not wish to see society move away from the oil economy. Therefore, as society gets more concerned about the combustion economy, they introduce minor improvements like a hybrid car along with great volumes of talk about their “ecologically-minded” research. But you still need to drive on roads, and use (albeit smaller amounts) some petroleum fuel.
The auto companies could also produce pure electric cars, or hydrogen cars, or super-fuel-efficient cars but there isn’t the demand and/or infrastructure and/or regulations in North America to make some of these possible. Experts say the technology exists to create mass-produced, affordable alternative vehicles.
By talking a lot about their future ecologically sensitive cars (while at the same time releasing ridiculous-sized SUVs), the auto companies may be finding ways to prevent voters and governments from really thinking about the viability of an automotive culture and enacting corresponding legislative and lifestyle changes.
The movie would probably end with an Al-Gore graph showing emissions rising set against polar ice melting and a cute polar bear dying from the loss of her habitat. A tragedy that we cannot seem to avoid despite knowing it’s coming (in classical greek style).
In the non-cinematic version of the story, there is going to be some social and economic upheaval but I think some new government regulations and policy combined with market forces will gradually make North America’s cities more people-tropoli rather than car-troploli. More on how I predict this could happen in a subsequent post.