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The End of the Automobile Era?

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

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The End of the Automobile Era?

Bill Crittenden
December 21, 2013
Reprinted at Drivewrite.co.uk on December 29, 2013


Sometimes, people appreciate things beyond their useful scope, to the point of considering what some see as a want as a need by all.  Not everybody needs or even wants a V8 muscle car, or old-school body-on-frame construction, plenty of people are just fine and happy in their Honda CR-Vs.  A lot of "car guys" have a hard time grasping that our appreciation for fast or artistic cars just isn't universal.  But, as I've mentioned before, we have the fuel-efficient masses to thank for keeping classic cars and their fossil fuels affordable.  Just as the automobile saved the horse for recreation, so too will fuel cells save the internal combustion engine and its limited fuel resources for the recreation of those who can really appreciate it.

So perhaps it's not too outside the realm of possibility to consider a life, for many, without a car at all.  Or, using for transportation something that we wouldn't even consider a roadworthy automobile today.

Outside the Chicago Auto Show one year were a group of "carfree" protesters saying that the deaths and pollution and costs of automotive transportation weren't justified.  I still have their handouts.

While I doubt such a public-transportation-based existence would work in small town America (how would you get that 150 lb. load of hay back to the farm?) I can understand it working in a major city like Chicago, Los Angeles, or traffic-choked New York.

Outside the major cities, asphalt roads and forty miles per gallon of gasoline seems about as efficient as we can do given current technology.  Incremental increases in road construction and vehicle design, which have been going on for years, will continue, but I doubt major game-changing alterations in the basic principle of cars on open roads is coming anytime soon.  But for the cities, where more cars are packed into far fewer square feet, what would happen if we just brought the cars inside?

I don't mean a city where everybody is like Jeremy Clarkson puttering about the BBC offices in his Peel P50, but it's not exactly too far off from that, either.

I first heard of an "arcology" in the SimCity series of city planning games, but since it's appeared in other media.  Despite the similar sound to archaeology, it's actually a portmanteau of "architecture" and "ecology," and in its most basic form is a multi-use building that combines most aspects of living under one roof.

The difference between the traditional multi-use building, with retail at street level, commercial offices above, and residential penthouses near the top, and an arcology, is the government services.  Schools, police, all the necessary services for living under one roof so that one could spend a significant portion of their life in the one huge structure without needing to leave on a frequent basis.  That requires a much bigger building, of course.

The advantages of the arcology, especially in cold weather climates (hello Chicago and New York!) is that commuting occurs internally.  No coat needed.  Just like moving about a huge airport, with moving walkways and electric carts in place of roads and snowy sidewalks.  Montreal already has a section of their city underground, and from the pictures their main thoroughfare looks a little like the middle of Woodfield Mall near where I grew up.

That's still a bit sci-fi for America.  But think of this possibility: what if in the future downtown buildings are built above the roadways, effectively moving the transportation, once downtown, indoors?  This would increase the available square footage available in Chicago's Loop or New York's Manhattan by a huge amount, and since much of the increase in population would be offset by commuting on foot or by elevator indoors, it wouldn't result in overcrowding transportation resources.

How is this possible?  How can we possibly drive around inside without huge problems with carbon monoxide and ventilation?  Because electric cars don't have direct emissions and fuel cell vehicles emit water vapor.

Oh, and with all of the open space between structures closed in, far less heat energy would be lost to the wind, further reducing our reliance on fossil fuel energy (speaking of malls, the Mall of America doesn't need heating for the winter, even in Minnesota - very energy efficient).

Perhaps someday, with the concentration of population in urban areas, the average American won't even own a car as we know them now. Maybe their future car will resemble an electric Smart car or Scion iQ.  Or one of those little LSV cars that's barely more than a golf cart with doors.  Unless you were driving outside of the indoor city center, you wouldn't need much more than what are currently special-purpose Low Speed Vehicles...basically a big golf cart with a body that resembles that of a small car.  No heater, little need for air conditioning, a limited range more than enough for almost any trip.  That's okay, because we don't have to make everybody drive a Dodge Challenger everywhere they go to appreciate them for ourselves.

The horse has, for purposes of enjoyment (racing, recreational riding), thrived in the age of the automobile.  They've been reduced in numbers but dramatically increased in quality.  It's not beyond reason to see that the automobile, even the gasoline-powered internal combustion automobile, for purposes of enjoyment, will survive the post-automobile cityscape.  What is lost in vast numbers of Corollas won't impact the classic collector cars.

Of course, all the carfree activists that Chicago can hold won't change the fact that if you live in what snobby New Yorkers call "flyover country," the only alternative to four self-propelled rubber tires is a return to the horse and wagon, and I'm pretty sure that's never going to happen, even without considering that there are a heckuva lot more PETA people than carfree people.  You may someday see farmers in electric Tesla pickup trucks, but there will always be a need for privately-owned self-propelled vehicles driven by individuals, so there will always be an open road waiting for those of us who seek it.

The lack of shared experience with the city folk won't diminish the automobile's appeal.  Perhaps, just as the horse has become less associated with feces-filled streets and more associated with summer camp rides and the Kentucky Derby, the automobile will become less associated with rush hour traffic, drunk driving body counts and road rage and more associated with pleasant country drives, history, and motorsport.

The basic point is simple: just because we enjoy cars doesn't mean we have to make everybody else enjoy them.  And maybe, just maybe, the less the rest of the country has to drive them, the more they'll want to drive them.



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