The rise and fall of the personal car

“The replacement of the car is probably out there. We just don’t fully recognize it yet.” — a really interesting story on the historical patterns of technology adoption and decline, and how those patterns might apply to the things we think of as absolute and necessary as much as they applied to the steamship or the landline.


  1. I’m gonna be that guy: This was a shitty article.

    It started with a rambling, pointless introduction. It them moved to its central, bold-yet-vague assertion. From there, it just kept issuing vague generalities. “Something from China” will replace the car. Genius.

    Maybe I should write for The Atlantic?

  2. I love car share services SO MUCH since moving to a denser city. The US is filled with too much suburban sprawl that they won’t replace single-owners anytime, ever, but it certainly lessens my need for them.

    1.  I think that price pressure– on cars & on fuel– will shift that suburban sprawl model.  In other words, I think you are looking at the cause & effect backwards: personal car subsidy & culture are what created suburban sprawl, not vice versa.

      1.  Unfortunately it’ll take lifetimes to undo all the poorly planned existing suburban sprawl.

          1. Yes, you and a number of other units in the Automatonic K series.  But you will be recovered, and you will be reintegrated.

        1. Both of these kind of hit/kind of miss the point. Cheap private transportation let’s people live in the suburbs and commute to the cities, that’s true. But at the same time, all the grocery stores, strip malls, and other fill-in usually associated with sprawl arise from the fact most people don’t want to travel a large distance to get everywhere, even if they’re willing to commute a large distance to work. You need places that are “close enough” (say, a 10 minute drive).

          So you don’t get the dense cores of a city, nor the wide instances between villages as you might in rural areas.  If you invented a car-like transport today that never polluted and only had to be cheaply fueled once or twice in a lifetime, you would still not find people willing to take the 30 minutes to drive it to a far-off store. So long as people’s time is the limiting factor, you will still have sprawl.

          Of course, sprawl may be less of a problem if people don’t want to go to stores _at_all_. Brick and mortar stores are having a harder time completing with online stores every day. With long-distance car transportation pretty much a solved problem, you can leverage that into a model where pretty much everything specialized and non-perishable — books, movies, shoes, car parts — are expected to be delivered in the same day. At that point, you may as well bulldoze all those stripmall corpses, and closes the grocery stores that aren’t on the edge of true neighborhoods.

          Of course then, with cheap land and location increasingly not a problem you have to worry about, there’s increased opportunities for cheap new homes and neighborhoods, hence room to grow into an entirely different sort of sprawl (mostly homes instead of the mixed-use form we see now)…. So it goes.

          1.  I don’t really understand that argument, since strip malls and grocery stores require car travel precisely because they space everything so far apart and are not “close enough.” Those in more vibrant urban neighborhoods are able to save time by trip chaining (I can stop the grocery store on the way back from work or after stopping at the local cafe) while those in suburban areas must travel long distances in one direction to get to work, in another direction to drop the kids off at school, in a third to get groceries, and in a fourth for leisure activities. I would argue that the rise of strip malls signals that those people are, in fact, willing to travel long distances for basic needs.

        2. Hey man, cultures move at a slow pace, sure, but sometimes there are watershed moments, too. I’d prefer the latter in this case, but I think the former is inevitable if it doesn’t.

          1.  I envy your optimism. I think there are too many powers against it. It’ll happen, but very slooooooowwwlly.

        3. My guess? Less that one, and you can see an example of what it’ll look like when you look at the Las Vegas exurbs that were abandoned when the housing bubble collapsed, crossed with the banlieues of Paris, crossed with former-industrial suburbs of Detroit. If there comes a point where there are no jobs out there, and if the jobs in the city don’t pay enough to afford the gasoline to commute, and electric rail doesn’t go that far out, then anybody living out there will have to be subsidized heavily. When those subsides run out, the exurbs and most of the outer-ring suburbs will become near-ghost towns.

          Refugees, retirees, people on any kind of welfare who don’t have to work can live out there as long as groceries are somehow trucked to within walking/bicycling distance of them, but that few people across that big of an area will leave pretty much the same situation you can already see in places in Michigan where the jobs have left: block on block of decaying rubble, with an average of one occupied house per block. We won’t keep trucking produce to within walking distance of that one occupied house indefinitely, let alone continue providing one house per block with police and fire protection indefinitely.

          We’ve been trying to find a technologically and economically plausible replacement for fossil fuels for transportation since the OPEC crisis of ’73. 40 years of heavily funded research, and the best we’ve come up with so far is lithium-based batteries, which are no solution at all because lithium’s even more rare than petroleum. We need to face up to the possibility that there may not be one.

          We can make electricity so many ways that we’ll never run out of electricity, but there may come a point, maybe soon, maybe not so soon, where we have to prioritize what petroleum we have left for agricultural use, trans-ocean flight (which will be super-expensive), and probably military use. We will have to price petroleum distillates for personal transportation out of the reach of all but a couple of percent of us to make sure that there is enough for farm equipment. We can run street cars and trolleys and passenger trains and even cargo trains on electrified rail; we are not likely to run tractors and combines off of glorified extension cords.

          If that happens (and I think it’s “when,” not if) we absolutely will have to go back to building cities around the economics of rail, and our remodeled central cities will resemble late 19th century cities, albeit with better HVAC, better plumbing, and wireless internet.

          And that world will record that the automobile was a 20th century fad. And within two generations after that, it will have been seen as an especially silly fad, at that.

  3. The 1973 classic car flick American Graffiti, Cohen points out, would never be made today.

    Maybe not, but Fast and Furious 6 is currently scheduled for release this May.

    1. Bikes are an excellent choice for transit in Amsterdam, but your city wasn’t built around automobile infrastructure in the first place. It also has the advantages of being relatively dense and having no hills to speak of.

        1. Unfortunately a very small percentage of Americans live in those cities, or at least in the parts of those cities that weren’t built (or rebuilt) around the automobile. We’ve got a lot of infrastructure to reorganize before cycling becomes a viable commute option for everybody.

          1. Really??? The residents of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC, and the many, many smaller cities in between may feel differently.

          2. Most of the people who live in those cities now live in areas that were either built or drastically reorganized after automobiles became ubiquitous.

          3. Well, I live in DC.  I just pulled up Google Earth and measured 45 miles from the farmlands to the west of DC to the farmlands to the east of DC.  That’s how sprawled the city is.  If you live in the central core, a bike could work, but if you live towards the edges, a bike is not an option.

          4. Kinda.  Speaking just on Boston, the weather discourages cycling for about 8 months of the year (we get more precipitation than the Pacific northwest) and the aggressive driving styles we’re noted for makes it rather dangerous to do so.  The roads are already narrow creating even more danger and less possibility for bike commuting and there aren’t very many bike lanes although Menino does seem to be working on that.

            Furthermore, much of the working population in Boston commutes from outside the immediate metro area which would be completely impossible by bicycle.  As much fun as it might be to imagine a long train of bicycles rolling down I-93 from NH it’s not very plausible.

            It seems to me the proportion of bike commuters in Boston is rather small but I don’t have any actual numbers.

          5. Navin_Johnson, Yes, DC has both commuter rail and a subway system, which I’ve been using every work day for the last 25 years.  In the outskirts, the spokes of the mass transit wheel are sufficiently far apart that the stations are not easily reachable by bike or on foot.  Plus, the trains are all currently running at capacity.The system could be expanded to replace automobiles, but then we’re talking about rebuilding infrastructure, which is what yoshua was arguing against.

      1. Amsterdam’s bike infrastructure was created out of nothing in the 70’s. Before that it was just as much a car clogged city as New York. 

      2. Just my opinion, but that isn’t really an argument that deserves to be used too often. US houses have a pretty short lifespan, and we’ve known about the end of fossil fuels for easily long enough to make a corresponding difference in the design of cities.

  4. Yes, the car is going away and will be replaced with…..

    Well, it can’t be the bike here in flyover country.  Can’t imagine bundling up the kiddies to drive them to school…or to their friend’s house….or to see the doctor.

    Walking…while quite healthy is probably not a great thing when you have to walk in sub-zero temperatures to get to the grocery store…with kids.  Or to work.  Because no matter how much we can work from home, someone needs to open the store or stock it or be available when something breaks.

    Look, you can wish away everyone into a wonderful urban utopia where everything you want to do is a doorstep away.  Except lots of people (including me) want nothing to do with living in urban blight.  I loved growing up in Chicago, but would never live there now.  

    Cars in urban areas probably will become too expensive to own (just like they are now) and more people will go with car services in order to get around.  But that’s not going to mean the end of safe, reliable, warm personal transportation.

    Steamships died because airplane could do the same job but much faster.  Landline died because cell phones could do their jobs, but much cheaper and everywhere we want to go.  The replacement for the car will either be faster, better, or cheaper and still deliver the same basic service.

    1. Suburban sprawl is a population model borne up by the subsidization of personal cars.  As the car becomes increasingly (& I’d argue inevitably) less optimal for that suburban sprawl culture, population patterns will shift out of them.

      1. But, that’s really not the case.  Especially in rural areas…

        Suburban sprawl occurred because of cheap private transportation.  I’m not suer what subsidization you are referring to (could be roads, or oil, or evil high school drivers ed teachers) but all of those were not part of a master plan but a plan to supply what society demanded.

        The only way the cars are going to phase off the roads is when there isn’t a need for a road anymore.  Remember when I said “faster, better, cheaper and still deliver the same basic service”.  Steamships and landlines didn’t die off because people stopped wanting to go places or talk to people….it’s because better alternatives came along.  The thing that will replace cars will be some sort of ubiquitous and easy to use PTP transportation that is as available as a car in your garage is today.

        1. The interstate highway system was most certainly a master plan. It had little to do with existing civilian demand.

          1. Hmmm…and how did people get around in cars before the Interstate system?  Oh yeah, they drove on state highways and slept in cheap hotels.

            Remember, there were cars (and a whole industry of motels) before the highway system (which was designed to efficiently transport items between large cities as opposed to tying up local roads).

          2.  Actually it was designed to allow US armed forces to easily traverse the continental US.

            Compare the number of cars on the road per capita and the average amount of driving a person did before the interstate system and after.  To imply that the interstate system had no effect on consumer behavior in terms of buying or driving cars is simply absurd.

        2.  The only way the cars are going to phase off the roads is when there isn’t a need for a road anymore.

          Roads weren’t originally built for cars, not even here in the U.S.

        3. Cheaper and faster personal transportation was definitely a factor, but subsidization of suburban growth really does seem to have played a larger role in the explosion of American suburbs.

          The interstate highway system was a huge investment and driving force in this process, but larger still was the direct subsidization of suburban development by the Federal Housing Authority and Veterans Administration following WWII. FHA and VA loans favored large, homogenous developments since approval of one home also applied to all similarly built homes, a model not suited for heterogeneous urban properties.

          Demand for more housing had been pent up by the lack of home construction during the depression and WWII, but the federally funded freeways and subsidized loans really pushed the cost to consumers of suburban housing below its theoretical true market rate.

          The urban blight you mention wasn’t as big a problem at that time, and largely grew from a loss of the tax base as people left for the suburbs, as well as the inability of cities to annex neighboring suburbs benefiting from urban infrastructure and jobs without contributing to that tax base.

          Even though polling data showed that most Americans preferred suburban homes, particularly those with children, the actual movement of people to the suburbs probably would not have happened on such a large scale without massive government subsidies.

          Nowadays, this subsidization is fairly diverse, from oil and manufacturing subsidies/tax breaks to the lack of market-rate pricing for parking, though I imagine much of this may shift in the near future as constraints on budgets and natural resources force us to change our cost-benefit analysis of moving to the suburbs.

          1. my WW2 vet grandpa got a little postage-stamp home off 12-Mile road (8-Mile is the northern border of Detroit) where he and his wife raised their kids and ultimately retired.

            your post connects all the dots.  five-star post, man.  brilliant.

        4. Roads, oil, the automotive industry, the “grey” subsidization of not taking pollution, sure, take your pick. The fact that it is so ingrained that there are all these options to choose from sort of underscores the point.

          I mean, it also WAS an evil master plan– the “General Motors streetcar conspiracy”– but that is neither here nor there. I’m not talking about Evil Overlords, I’m talking about a necessary & inevitable shift in consumer trends & culture.

          Sort of in what I was saying upthread; we seem to be disagreeing on cause & effect. I don’t think the car became ubiquitous because of suburban sprawl; I think suburban sprawl became ubiquitous because of cars.

    2. I commute by bike every day and all year round in Chicago. I think a lot of us are probably living more healthy and fulfilling lives in “urban blight” than a lot of you out in the exurbs… Also, when your car’s stuck at home during the massive snow storm we can just walk down to the corner store and buy some whiskey, TP, and snacks…

      1. And when I had five kids and my house payment in a 2400sqft house in Indiana was $1300/month….how much would my rent/mortgage have been in a condo downtown?  I’m guessing $4k easily.

        What pushes people OUT of downtown is the cost of living there with a family.  I don’t see too many new families wanting to get out of their suburban home and rush into a downtown condo with no yard.

        1. You know this is a massive city of vast neighborhoods? I think I have one friend who lives in a condo downtown. If limiting yourself to family living in a skyscraper downtown is your only (absurd) option, then yes, I would stay in Indiana. Meanwhile out in the rest of the city we’ll be enjoying backyard BBQs, huge parks, as well as being able to walk to the markets, schools etc.

          1. OK….lets take one of your beloved neighborhoods in Chicago (Roseland or Mount Greenwood) and compare it to some suburban sprawl (Oak Lawn or Oak Forest).  Please point out the differences in between the happy neighborhoods of Roseland or Mount Greenwood as opposed to the evil that is suburbia.  

            Answer:  There isn’t (besides higher taxes and crime in Chicago, etc). You realize people LEFT those area on their own choice because they wanted better/cheaper housing than what they could find in Chicago.  

            I do have memories of my neighbors in Chicago, but my kids have similar memories here in rural Indiana with my neighbors.  None of them can cross a six lane major road at the age of eight like I could, but that’s not a survival skill needed.

            (if you want to compare north side neighborhoods, by all means do so as well…same findings apply)

          2. “Mount Greenwood”

            Haha. I’m not a white cop trying to fulfill my residency requirement …….

            Why did you deliberately choose the neighborhoods that are as far away from downtown as you can possibly be while still residing in city limits?

            Answer:  There isn’t (besides higher taxes and crime in Chicago, etc). You realize people LEFT those area on their own choice because they wanted better/cheaper housing than what they could find in Chicago. 

            A good portion of them originally left because brown folks started moving in their neighborhoods despite their elaborate efforts to keep them out. Good riddance to them.  I wouldn’t crow about the safety of the burbs either. Crime seems to be rising out there while declining in the city, furthermore if you want to go to real crime ridden areas you should visit more mid sized cities and rural areas. There are *per capita* the worst places for crime.

            None of them can cross a six lane major road at the age of eight like I could, but that’s not a survival skill needed.

            Sounds like you actually lived in the suburbs….

          3. What’s the point of asking for instructions on how to do blockquotes if you’re not going to use them?

          4. You realize people LEFT those area on their own choice because they wanted better/cheaper housing than what they could find in Chicago. 

            You realize the urban areas have a rather high population because many people did not leave those areas on their own choice?

          5. Is it coincidental that all the neighborhoods that you’ve mentioned sound like mega-cemeteries?

          6. @Antinous_Moderator:disqus 

            Yeesh, slipped my mind tbh. Holding a grudge over the Chavez thread that you quickly torpedoed?

          7. Mind you, there are ways to solve the housing costs problem – they largely involve incentivizing the development of high density property to replace existing low density property.

          8. But what would be the point? Have you seen what happens to high-density property when you put people in that don’t want to live there (but have no choice)?

          9. Which is why you do everything you can to make the area nice to live in despite the density (but you keep the density high enough to keep housing costs low, even if that means having excess housing). That way it doesn’t become an urban wasteland.

            And, people are just going to have to learn to live with high density, or get into farming (which means they’d be living at work, reducing resource usage that way).

          10. People are just going to have to learn to live with high density, or get into farming

            Isn’t that sort of Orwellian/1984 in nature? I’m not sure how or why people should have the government force them into living a certain environment that is clearly acceptable now (I don’t see living in a two story home on .33 acre to be a crime against humanity as opposed to living in a condo).

            Here’s the thing…even with a commute I would still live in the house I live in, even with gas at $10/gal. I want to live out in the woods, and for government to come in and purposefully make my life more expensive in the name of politics….that’s pretty crappy to do to a vast majority of people.

          11. But, when it’s a critical resource usage issue…

            Also, $10/gal is probably too cheap, once you consider all the negative externalities of fuel usage, as well as the fact that it’s critical that it be saved for uses where it really must be used, unnecessary personal transport not being one of them.

            $20-50/gal may be more accurate, to make sure we have enough petroleum to last us for the foreseeable future. (Although, using a straight fuel price increase to reduce fuel usage is rather regressive.)

            And, it doesn’t necessarily make your life more expensive – for rented property, rent caps combined with high property tax can help here (because it strongly incentivizes people moving into the downtown core, while also incentivizing maximum population density). For purchased individual property, property taxes inversely indexed to population density, with purchase price controls, might be the ticket, to incentivize living in higher density buildings.

            That way, your life being cheaper in terms of resource use can be reflected in lower actual costs.

          12. Seriously, where did you get your numbers from? The only way we hit $20/gal is through taxation…pure and simple.

            You realize at $20/gal, all essential transportation stops. No ambulances, no trucks, no rail or ship. All the creature comforts that you hold dear (plus imports such as coffee, computers, organic foods) will just not exist anymore at your local store. They will be far too expensive to bring into the country. Hope you like milk, cow, and possibly deer with whatever fruits and veggies that are grown up the road. Transportation will move from being 20% of the cost of an item to well over 60%+.

            For purchased individual property, property taxes inversely indexed to population density, with purchase price controls, might be the ticket, to incentivize living in higher density buildings.

            Price controls? Seriously? Have you ever seen what price controls do to an economy?

            We as a society/species/etc don’t need bureaucrats to tell us how to live. Seriously. As much as you think the world is completely going to shit, the reality is we as a species (and as a steward to other species) are doing a far better job than we were fifty years ago. A good chunk of that came from the environmental movement which unfortunately has morphed into an ideal of living in high-density apartments (harkening back to the days of Communism and central planning) with us walking to work in a glorious workers paradise.

          13. To be fair, if something is desirable enough, and production of it can work in the climate, production will move as needed, and isn’t local production a good thing. Sure, that doesn’t help coffee, but it sure as hell helps computers – hell, it wasn’t that long ago that everything needed to mass-produce low-cost computers in the US was in one place, even!

            And, even at $20/gal, emergency services can function, I think. You’ll have to use technology to make ambulances more efficient, sure, but there’s no reason that an ambulance has to be an F-650 that gets 10 mpg (especially in a dense city), it could be something like a plug-in hybrid Transit Connect-like vehicle getting 50-70 mpg equivalent – combine that with shorter distances for the ambulance to travel, and the energy usage falls even more. And even in rural areas, give that vehicle a diesel through an efficient gearbox (not a torque converter automatic), and it’ll get 30 mpg.

            As far as trains and such, they’ll still roll – trucking will be reduced, putting more burden on the rail system. Costs will go up, but not by the full amount that they would if long-haul trucking were still being used. And, technology can improve things here, too – right now, most trains are diesel/electric, using dynamic braking – that is, braking energy is dumped into a resistor bank, and shed as heat. Energy usage could be reduced some if that energy were instead stored (and light rail systems already use technology like that – flywheels at points where trains often stop and start, to collect electricity), and then reused to accelerate the train again.

            Also, I’m not convinced that a safe (not nice, but safe) standard of living – reliable food supply, low crime, safe housing, quality healthcare, and even communications – requires the majority of the population to work, given the advances we’ve made in automation. (It obviously requires some human labor, but I think you could just use those that were highly motivated to work as it is (and reward them for their work, which would be the source of money into the economy above and beyond sustenance living, which could also be spent to run private enterprise), and almost all manual labor could be replaced.) In fact, I wonder if we have to figure out how to solve the social problems that make communism difficult to implement, due to the fact that we’re running into the limits of Earth’s carrying capacity of humans, and as we approach those limits, the need to work together becomes even more critical.

          14. I think all of the pieces that you bring up subscribe to the ideal that we are within a century of the collapse of the climate. And I think that assumption is completely wrong, that is where our views diverge. We have already pass “Earth’s carrying capacity” at least three times in my life (5, 6, and now 7 billion) and overall we still are finding

            I also think any government that wants to rule how we live, will gladly expand its powers to the point of cutting off discourse to cut off discourse (in the name of the greater “good”). Fuel efficiencies and other improvements in technology will be market driven, pure and simple.

            The reality is the Earth isn’t in the dire straits that you see. Technology is addressing the ecological damage we are doing to the environment, and animals are evolving to live with us. Out here in flyover country I don’t think I’ve seen as many predatory birds and animals like I have in the past decade. If the predators are doing well (and not getting large from eating teacup Chihuahuas), I think the environment in this part of the world is recovering. There is still much work to do, but I don’t see us reaching max carrying capacity for a long time.

        2.  That would be because the parents who want to live in the city never bothered to buy the house in the suburbs in the first place.  May I give you a tip?  Sarcasm does not make arguments by assertion any more convincing.

      2. Plus, the whole “urban blight” thing is out of the 1970s. These days the cities are being gentrified and the *suburbs* are getting blighty  

    3. Please refer to Minneapolis’s astronomical (by American standards) bike commuter rate before you give up on bicycle commuting in the cold.

      1. I’m not giving up on it…I’m saying it’s ridiculous to use your model of life on a population as a whole.  

        In thirty years lets come back to this thread and see who was right.  I think my points stand pretty clear, unless something comes along that can deliver the car’s basic points (personal transportation wherever you want, whenever you want), it will never survive (unless you plan to legislate cars out of existence….)

        1. Hopefully awful and unhealthy suburban planning can eventually be legislated against and cars will be more confined to rural usage. I don’t think cars will or should ever be eliminated though. But our current car-centric planning needs to be stopped.

          1. Legislators design legislation.  Civil engineers design roads.

            Sarcasm still isn’t improving your arguments.

          2. See you an a lot of people are confusing “suburban”, and specifically sprawly suburbs with rural areas. When you’re two miles from your nearest neighbor, when its an hours drive to the nearest movie theater. That isn’t in anyway the same  as a sprawl filled with strip malls and mcmansions on golf courses. You’re not going to ride a bike 50 miles to a super market and use it to bring home a week or more’s worth of groceries. When you live in a place that’s only acceccable by boat or plane, its not likely your going to use a bike to travel over hard terraine to reach that access point. And frankly you can’t plow a field with a bike.

          3. Yeah I’m attempting to figure out exactly what I did here, because yours was not at all the comment I intended to reply to. I suspect trickery.

          4. @boingboing-0dd4332bc8f0e9692eaa585b1b20c712:disqus
            Fair dues. I was confused certainly. If you type an “at sign”, and then the first letter of who you intend to respond to a drop down menu of users in the thread should show up. Just click on the user.

          5. Thanks. I really think it might be the laptop I’m on, its better than 10 years old, slow as balls and I’ve got a nasty habit of brushing its overly sensative touch pad when I type. The combination can send the cursor/browser window all the hell over the place.

          6. Less than one percent of our population lives like that. The rest are either urban or playing farmer like Marie Antoinette. 

        2.  Or unless liquid fuel becomes prohibitively expensive.  Which is not implausible on a 30 year timescale (though this page still being here 30 years from now would be incredibly implausible).

    4. Well, the US can mostly transfer away from cars but still have them. There may be cases where cars remain the most appropriate tool for a long time, for example in more rural areas.

      Since most people do live in urban areas , that’s where the attention goes.

      I grew up rural. Not urban, not suburban, but need-a-car-to-go-trick-or-treating rural. (I though it was suburban at the time, because I wasn’t living on a farm!) Now that I do live in what most people consider a suburb I can understand why people criticize suburbs. From a commuting standpoint, they make driving impractical (bad traffic, long commutes, insufficient parking) without offering a compelling alternative (poor public transit, lack of foot-accessible businesses). For me, the solution would be to move further out into the country (I’ve never gotten used to there being lights on outside at night, or sub-meter personal spaces) but I understand that cities could be more energy efficient.

      I’m still waiting for it to be less expensive, though. For all that is written about the practicality of city living, it seems that real estate and food prices have yet to reconcile with that.

    5. Being a european from a mid-sized city i don’t understand this argument. Abolish malls, bring back neighborhood stores and you have perfect bike country – even in the us suburbia. Replace a certain percentage of “housing units” with mini-shopping/market/service areas, preferably run and owned by locals . Essentially decentralize goods and services like it used to be even in america before ford’s suburbanization program. This way the only place you’d need to commute to is your job – and that is easily taken care of with public transport. Personally, I’d rather travel to my place of work via quality train service (catch up on my newspapers or boingboing while I travel rather than worry I’ll be late locked up in my wheeled monkey-box.) Huge pre-automobile cities like London or Paris functioned quite well, and with sprawling suburbs, without everybody and their dog having to own a car.
      Ironically, most of the reasons for owning a car in a modern industrial society have evaporated with the internet revolution – if you can do most of your chores/specialist shopping and even work from home or wherever you happen to be at the moment, then what is the point of traveling tens of miles every day?

      1. Replace a certain percentage of “housing units” with mini-shopping/market/service areas, preferably run and owned by locals.

        How is that going to happen when the food chain is owned by the Waltons and people like them?

    6. “Well, it can’t be the bike here in flyover country.  Can’t imagine bundling up the kiddies to drive them to school…or to their friend’s house….or to see the doctor.”

      So basically you’re saying that your kids can’t get to school, or a friend’s house, without you chauffeuring them, until they get their licenses. As someone living near Boston, I have a hard time picturing that as an acceptable state of affairs. I’m in a suburban house, with a car, but the stores are a short walk from here, as is the library, When it snows, the car is the LAST thing that gets dug out. And my kids will be learning to manage independently long before they can ask for a driver’s permit. 

    7. Driving kids to school? Even in the 1980’s this was not all that common, so a revival of school busing is not out of the question.

      I think the talk about commuter rail and bikes ignores the other options out there of more vehicle sharing, either through car sharing programs in areas where a pool of cars can handle peak demand, more busing on demand where you can have the bus drop you off close to home or come pick you up when you book it, and also a revival of home delivery – the milkman now delivers your online grocery order. 

      Considering how rapid suburban communities appeared, it is not inconceivable that they reshape into something more pedestrian-friendly just as quickly. We may look back on the suburbs and exurbs with their huge sprawls and lack of anything in walking distance as quaint, laugh at how large parking lots had to be to accomodate all of those oversized gas guzzlers.

      1. Unlikely…seriously. People move farther out because they want to have more home for a better price. Yes, people do move back in when the commute is stupid or unbearable. But the reality is that a good chunk of white collar jobs don’t need to be done inside of an office. Yes, of course people will still go from point A to point B and commute and decided that spending two hours of their lives in a vehicle form A-B is not worth it. So are people going to stack themselves atop one another OR are they going to move to where they have control over their homes and

        But some people don’t have a choice and some people can’t afford to live in metro areas (or gasp….don’t want to). Yes, I do think there will be an increase in the number of delivery services (possibly driven by the drone revolution….yeah, put that together and the thoughts of dozens of drones whizzing over your head every minute).

        I think the future depends on what we want from our government. A number of the replies have been geared towards “well, when the government finally bans/taxes/kills this type of planning THEN it will work”. But I don’t see that happening. Making millions of homes suddenly worthless due to government interference….is probably not going to be popular with politicians since their voters will gladly remove their asses from office.

        1. I don’t agree with your assumptions, mainly because of my experience living both in the USA and in Europe. One of the things I have noticed is that people will willingly trade acreage for community, choosing a smaller house in exchange for good commuter transit or nearness to a popular park. Granted, this is based on personal observation and is anecdotal and not statistical, but I do think that the USA is not all that set on the personal car as we might think.

          After all, if there is one trait that I would say defines Americans more than any other nation, it is that we are more flexible, more open to change.

          1. If you look at my original post, I know that the “car” will eventually go away.

            But it’s not going to be replaced with the bicycle or walking. The two examples given were technologies that were replaced with something that did their basic core function (transportation and communication) better and cheaper that still delivers its core function (personal transportation to any location). Now will that be a vehicle with an internal combustion engine? Possibly, but I do think the Volt model (electric with a generator backup) is probably the most likely solution in twenty years or so. How Chevy and the others are building these cars (and the incentives to do so) are entirely suspect.

            Moving into the suburbia topic now….I think the trend has clearly been the opposite (and for people with families it’s been well documented). Most people WANT a detached house with properly to call their own. While there is a subset of people that want to live in exceptionally close proximity, there are simply far more that don’t, especially here in the States.

            While the trend in Europe may be different, why is it that people moved out of the cities and into their own suburbs (London comes to mind…same with Sydney, and a host of other cities) that have their own suburban sprawl because of the same mitigating factors. People wanted a cheaper place to live with the benefits of having their own property.

  5. The bicycle is out there, in fact, it actually predates the automobile by a decade or so, go figure! We just don’t fully recognize it yet because, you know, petroideological reasons and whatnot, ’cause money.

    Fixed that for you, Atlantic!

  6. its a moot point…  as soon as Spacely Sprockets releases their first generation flying car, EVERYONE will want one!  :)

  7. Comfortable, immediately available transportation that’s  climate controlled, playing me the music and videos I want, that I can cook out of and sleep in in a pinch, and empty of the people I’d rather not be with at the moment. Pretty much one of the greatest inventions of all time. Inconvenient, and inferior to other surface transport only in highly congested areas, or where there’s a bullet train. People love them.They’ll always be around, but need a less destructive power source to run them, and soon. 

    1.  Sounds like you’d be a lot better off with a prairie schooner.  Dress warm and get a solar charger for your iPad and you’ve got it all, plus pets!

  8. This article makes the a lot of the same mistakes most of the “future of cars” articles lately seem to be making. It confuses the idea of personal transport with the idea of internal combustion, and personal automobiles with the whole idea of transport as a whole. They also make some assumptions about personal transport being synonymous with cars.

    The history of the automobile dates back a hell of a lot further in this context than just the time of their creation as do roads and large highway like arterials. Basically the car is just taking the place of horses and various waggons and buggies which date back pretty well to the beginings of culture. The idea of  a personal transport isn’t going to disapear with the car just like it didn’t disapear with horse drawn sleighs. Likewise the idea of high volume marine shipping via large powerful ships didn’t disapear with the end of steam ships. In fact most of the very largest ships are still “steam driven” in the sense that they use electric motors powered by steam driven generators.

    Effectively the same mistake made when people discuss electric cars like the Tesla. Sure a practical electric vehicle like the Tesla could (at some point) replace the personal car. But its unlikely (and seldom intended to) provide viable, cost efficient power for over land trucking, any sort of marine applications, or aircraft. So when you talk about personal electric cars “killing” internal combustion or fossil fuels your most often wrong. The assumption is that “transport” means just “my personal means of getting from a to be” when it entials a whole hell of a lot more.

  9. Why do these kinds of articles often articles seem to assume one mode of transportation?

    I live somewhere where I can walk to a grocery store and some restaurants and a few other stores; take a bus, train, bike, or electric bike to work, school, or retail stores; have access to a car (own or rent within walking distance) for day trips; and take a train or flight for longer trips. I spend, in total, about $200/month on transportation (public transit + zipcar use + and I’ve never been unable to conveniently get somewhere I want to go.
    For groceries, except for fresh produce (which I buy at a farm stand on my walk home from work) I usually use peapod and once a month or so I go to Costco.

    1.  I’m always wary of these oft repeated false choices too. They seem like excuses to do nothing and maintain the status quo.

      Cars vs. no cars
      Only urban farming vs. only rural farming
      Only green energy vs. only dirty energy
      etc. etc..

      1. Agreed. Every roof should eventually be green, white, or solar, and collect rainwater, and there’s no reason not to grow food in (some of the) urban green space, but you don’t have to go completely off-grid for every individual home or block or town or whatever.

        OTOH, you *do* need to replace all dirty energy on a timescale of decades, or at least reduce it drastically. That doesn’t mean you need to eliminate the burning of hydrocarbons, just the burning of fossil hydrocarbons.

  10. I will tell you what will replace cars. Pestilence, disease, famine, plague, more famine, disease again, and finally squalor with more of all of the above. Progress is not guaranteed.

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