On cars

Personally, I refuse to drive a car – I won’t have anything to do with any kind of transportation in which I can’t read.

Arthur C. Clarke, Report on Planet Three

The picture above is of Kathmandu. I mention this fact just because it could be a picture of almost any city that has been touched by the blessings of industrial civilisation. There are many, many cars in this picture, although of course there are not enough cars because the thing about industrial civilisation is that there’s never enough of anything.

Cars are the signature of our culture. If there’s a car, industrial civilisation is there, or at least it could get there if it wanted to, which amounts to the same thing. Hollywood shorthand for the end of the world is always a bunch of wrecked and abandoned cars. That’s our worst nightmare, apparently.

Oh no! The cars are all broken!

Somehow the car, which is really nothing more than a machine for moving a small number of people (often just one) and a small amount of goods from A to B, has become a cult object. It is a symbol of personhood: “You are what you drive.” That formula denies almost everything about what it is to be human. If it were true, almost everyone in human history and prehistory would not have existed, not to mention all the people alive today who don’t drive a car. Human beings are a subspecies of chimpanzee with delusions of grandeur. Driving a car doesn’t come into it.

The one nugget of humanity that is preserved by that saying is that we care what others in our group think of us. Hence people buy newer, shinier and faster cars, often with borrowed money, in the hope that other people will be impressed. This is good news for car manufacturers, and a triumph for the advertising industry, but not for anyone else.

Why do I think that? Isn’t it great that you can move a small number of people (often just one) and a small amount of goods from A to B? Well, for one thing cars have an enormous cost, and I’m not just talking about depreciation. This National Geographic article sets out the real cost, and notice that many of them don’t go away if your car is electric. Apart from the car itself, there’s all the supporting infrastructure. There’s a lot of concrete in that picture too, which is not the best thing for the environment either. Not to mention the street lighting, the signage… I could go on.

The techno-optimists have a solution to this, and like most of their solutions it’s heavy on technology and optimism and light on practicality. In the future™ there will be self-driving electric cars that we will summon to take us to where we want to go. Now I have more than once drawn attention to this presentation on the material limitations on manufacturing and powering electric vehicles, and as someone who used to build software for a living I would be more than a little reluctant to trust my life to it; it’s very easy to find articles such as this which go into the issues in more depth. Of course, there is something to be said for giving up your car and hiring one or getting a taxi if you need one, but that wouldn’t be Progress.

Importantly, though, what such a solution fails to address is the set of values that goes along with private car ownership. Cars are sold to us as tokens of personal freedom. Your average car commercial doesn’t show images like the one at the head of this post, even though that is the car’s natural habitat in most cases. You’re much more likely to see a single car taking hairpin bends along the Amalfi coast, or something equally picturesque. You’ll never see an oil well in a car commercial either, unless it’s for an electric car, in which case you won’t see a lithium mine.

People identify with their cars in a way that they don’t with their washing-machines or toasters. These are equally machines that perform useful tasks, but they lack the romance of the car. It seems unlikely that anyone ever slept with someone on the strength of the brand of microwave they had (although this may not happen with cars as often as car manufacturers would have you believe). Part of this romance may simply be due to the fact that there have been no real innovations in the car since the invention of the electric starter, and the marketing people have had to fall back on other ways to persuade us that brand X is better than brand Y.

Driving a car at speed along an empty road gives the illusion of freedom; but as Ivan Illich long ago pointed out, once you factor in the time spent earning the money to buy, fuel and maintain the thing, the average speed of a car works out at about 3.7 mph or just under 6 kph, which is a brisk walking pace. I don’t believe the cost of motoring has gone down dramatically since then (Illich published that figure in 1974). If anything, it has probably gone up. Nevertheless we find that illusion seductive, addictive even, despite – or because of – the fact that participating in industrial civilisation gives most of us less and less of the real thing.

That feeling bears much the same relationship to genuine freedom as refined sugar does to genuine nutrition. It is a fantasy. You are not going to be driving your car round hairpin bends along the Amalfi coast; you’re going to be on the school run or stuck in a queue or trying to find a parking spot. Yes, in theory you could drive your magic machine anywhere you like, but in practice you don’t, because you have stuff to do, in large part in order to meet the payments on your car. It’s completely appropriate that Walter Mitty dreams of his secret life at the wheel of his car.

Self-expression in our culture is nowadays accomplished by purchasing mass-produced consumer goods. (I appear to be one of the few people who sees any irony in this.) For most of us, the most expensive and certainly the most visible of these goods is the car. It is thus a proxy for how much money one has, which is itself a proxy for one’s standing in the social-primate hierarchy. In principle, any type of good could serve this purpose – historically, it has often been clothing – but it so happens we have fixated on cars. This makes us doubly reluctant to let go of the wretched things.

As with so much, it doesn’t have to be like this. Moving a small number of people and a small amount of goods from A to B was already a solved problem long before Gottlieb Daimler was born. Even in his day there were already steam locomotives and canal barges to move the heavy stuff. There were, and are, far more efficient solutions than the private car. It is a terrible way to get around London, for example.

When I wrote that the photo at the head of this post could be of almost any city, I had an exception in mind. Some years ago, the Spanish city of Pontevedra banned cars altogether from the city centre. Remarkably, they did not wait to be attacked by Godzilla, but did it voluntarily. By all accounts it seems to be working out pretty well for them. I grant you that Pontevedra isn’t Los Angeles, but a lot of other places aren’t Los Angeles either. Perhaps something similar to what they have done could work where you live.

It’s a thought, isn’t it?

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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