After the Car

July 30, 2009

As I was completing this review, I chanced upon a New York Times blog entitled "Car-Free in America", in which four prominent American scholars discussed the same topic as Kingsley Dennis and John Urry. All agreed that being carless was a practical way of life for a growing number of Americans but not for a majority.

This issue is hardly new. Back in 1975, American auto historian James Flink published The Car Culture - a book surprisingly not mentioned in After the Car - in which he argued that the "age of automobility" had come to an end. Flink was grateful for that development, for he associated cars with "self-interest, greed and waste" in support of "the superstate serving the supercorporation".

After the Car is happily devoid of Flink's romanticised critique and is a straightforward analysis of the next few decades as cars increase in number in some societies - in China and India, above all - and become more high-tech and "smarter" almost everywhere.

Also unlike Flink, Dennis and Urry have no illusions about the literal demise of cars. Far from it: as they note, there are roughly 650 million cars currently in use, and there may soon be a billion as those two nations, and many others, embrace cars. Even many European countries with excellent public transport systems are experiencing marked increases.

Wisely, Dennis and Urry reject "technological determinism", the shallow and pseudo-historical assumption that technology has always shaped society and culture. Instead, they offer three scenarios as to what could occur in the coming decades: "local sustainability", "regional warlordism" (a "Hobbesian war of all against all") and "digital networks of control" (distressingly patterned after George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four).

Back in 1900, they observe, the car system was established upon 19th-century technologies - steel bodies and internal combustion engines - and assumed an unlimited supply of oil. They repeat the familiar story that in many US states the auto industry and its allies created dummy corporations that in turn purchased and then eliminated competitors to privately owned cars, particularly streetcars and the tracks carrying them.

Barely mentioned, though, is the male domination of the industry and the historic marginalisation of women drivers - as detailed by Virginia Scharff's Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age (1991), a book the authors also overlooked.

Most of After the Car is, alas, pedestrian (no pun intended) and familiar. If the authors sensibly refrain from the kind of simplistic predictions that undermined Flink's book, they frequently appear caught between the acknowledged grip of the international car culture and the material forces they simultaneously want us to believe will soon unlock that grip around the world. They discuss prospective new fuel systems (biofuels, hybrids, hydrogen and electric batteries), materials (polymers, aluminium, carbon-based fibres and nanotechnology), transportation policies (shared rather than strictly privately owned vehicles and greater access for pedestrians and cyclists), and work and leisure practices (such as working in or near one's home), plus "smarter" (automatic voice and text messaging) and smaller (micro-size) vehicles.

They readily acknowledge that these innovations will be disruptive, but they also concede that a century ago the world's pioneering cars had similar effects on their landscapes and cityscapes. However, "smart growth" may reduce such upheavals, as detailed in their summaries of developments taking place in Bremen (Germany), Beddington and "transition towns" in the UK, Dongtan (China) and Masdar (Abu Dhabi).

Nevertheless, After the Car ends on a rather pessimistic note: "There are, we might suggest, no good outcomes" likely for the 21st century. Twentieth-century conditions, the authors admit, will probably continue to limit most socially progressive and environmentally friendly alternatives to the international car culture. Ironically, this pessimism may become the book's foremost contribution to public policy.

After the Car

By Kingsley Dennis and John Urry. Polity, 180pp, £45.00 and £14.99. ISBN 9780745644219 and 44226. Published 8 May 2009

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