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Off the Road?

Updated Wednesday 24th December 2008

Writing a time when the US car industry was on its knees, Engin Isin argued that the impact of the automobile has been to change our lives for the worse.

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Who would have thought? The three big Detroit automakers (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) and European carmakers are on the brink and need billions of dollars and euros to stay afloat. The debate in America and Europe is massive and divisive. There are as many people who think these companies should be rescued as those who think it is a bad idea to bail them out. The numbers mobilized for or against these arguments are so big that they (numbers) are barely comprehensible. The number of workers who would be made redundant is talked about in millions (of people). The money that would be required to keep them afloat is talked about in billions (of dollars). Yet, the automobile is so entrenched in global culture that it is impossible to measure the impact of what’s happening in quantitative terms alone.

Model T Ford Creative commons image Icon me'nthedogs under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license
Model T Ford

Between the time when Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908 and Jack Kerouac wrote his classic On the Road in 1951 (published in 1957) the automobile became the most ubiquitous technology that affected every aspect of American and European cultures in the twentieth century. While the computer and Internet generation may not see it that way, the automobile is the technology that had the biggest impact on the twentieth century. (Perhaps nuclear fission and the moving image are the other two.) Again, the numbers that one can cite about this impact are mind numbing: annual road deaths (thousands), average commute times (hours), carbon dioxide emissions (tonnes), suburban sprawl (acres), oil dependency (barrels), and social isolation (priceless). The automobile has altered the character of the city in the twentieth century like no other technology and like no other time. The walkable city has now either disappeared or is consigned to the central areas of a few cities with outrageous house prices (since there is so little left of it) that persist despite the credit crunch. As both Steffen Böhm and Brian Ladd argue in their recently published books even for those who’d rather not drive to work there is very little choice left. Has this all been worth it?

I think not. The automobile has been amongst the most destructive technologies deployed to remake the modern city and its countryside. There was nothing inexorable about the rise of the automobile and the way in which it destroyed the city. Automakers aggressively pushed train companies out the market and bullied governments into building roads rather than investing in green public transportation systems. Generations of people have been saying these things since at least the 1920s with much more eloquence and knowledge than I can here. But automakers (just like tobacco companies) have invested billions of dollars in marketing and advertising to seduce people into thinking that the automobile and driving are ‘cool’ and ‘fun’. By changing the city and countryside so radically the automakers made the automobile necessary — at an enourmous cost.

Perhaps we should shed no tears for automakers (at least no more than we shed for bankers) if not for the workers and their families. Could we not find a way to employ all those workers in productive (rather than destructive) industries? Can we not invest all those bailout billions in rebuilding cities and creating new public transportation systems? It is conceivable that one day automakers (if they survive) will be treated like tobacco companies. If there is a clever lawyer out there who wants to get the ball rolling with a class-action lawsuit against all automakers (for all the destruction they have caused), I am sure there are people who are ready to sign up. Given that oil production has reached its peak, the break in oil prices is only fleeting and is estimated to dramatically increase. Will we then see the automobile off the road?

Find out More

  • Against Automobility. By Steffen Böhm. Published by Blackwell.
  • Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age. By Brian Ladd. Published by University of Chicago Press.
  • Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America. By Cotton Seiler. Published by University of Chicago Press.
  • Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). By Tom Vanderbilt. Published by Alfred A. Knopf.
 

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