After the Car by Kingsley Dennis and John Urry

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Posted 2009-12-07

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

"... at some point the present fossil fuel car system will turn out to be a fossilized system." (p. 129).
Much has been written of the political influence that led to the dominance of the car in 20th century America (see: Asphalt Nation, Global City Blues, Suburban Nation, The Wealth of Cities, City-Building in America, Geography of Nowhere, and others). The authors of After the Car approaches the automobile from a systems viewpoint. That is, the authors examine the car as a transportation system existing within larger technological, economic, social, and geographical systems. Interested parties and agents (business, government, car makers, car sellers, car users) fostered the car's success and thus locked in a pattern of mobility that became self-perpetuating: massive building of roads and highways led to convenient car travel, which pushed out other travel modes, and which in turn required and rewarded still more car travel and roads. However, the main point of this book is that this self-perpetuating system may be destroying itself through burning up resources (petroleum), taking up space (traffic, parking), and clinging to a fuel-based combustion technology and model for transportation that is over a century old.

The authors set the stage of the book by reviewing a bit about climate change, automobile history, and a long (and somewhat obtuse) discussion of systems theory. The book then lays out its main points as follows:

  1. There are seeds of a "new mobility" in the 21st century that, taken together, may work to change the present car system (p. 63).
    1. A new fuel system may emerge from the set alternatives now being tried that displaces petroleum. The authors point out that it is difficult to tell which fuel system will emerge because of the complex ways the fuel system interacts with other components (p. 66).
    2. New materials can make cars significantly lighter, changing the engine sizes and car sizes required.
    3. Information technology can be applied to individual cars and overall traffic patterns for vehicle control.
  2. People and organizations are reducing the emphasis on individual ownership and moving away from car-only transportation policies (pp. 93-108).
    1. People are working together to share automobiles rather than own them for their exclusive use. Car-sharing networks of all kinds (, are allowing people to scale their expenditures to their needs and to reserve cars easily using online technologies and communication.
    2. Public authorities worldwide are recognizing that the policy of building roads in reaction to or anticipation of more car traffic is a pyramid scheme that has no end. Instead, policies are shifting to integrated public transport in which bicycling, pedestrians, and mass transit play a part in mobility (p. 98).
    3. People are choosing living arrangements that put them in proximity to other people and attractions, reducing their car dependence (p. 102).
  3. Models for life "after the car" show an orientation toward human mobility within people-oriented urban spaces (pp. 109-130).
    1. Many cities have implemented components of a "smart places, smart growth" (p. 114) paradigm: Zurich, Stockholm, Vauban in Freiburg German, Hong Kong, Singapore, Toronto, Portland in Oregon.
    2. Bremen, Germany's integrated transit system includes multi-modal transit hubs and links, a single-card payment system, and an integration of cars into this system (p. 119).
    3. The Beddington (United Kingdom) zero energy development is an environmentally-sustainable development with bicycling, pedestrian, and public transport. (p. 120).
    4. Transition Towns in the United Kingdom aim to reduce fossil fuel dependency (p. 121).
    5. Dongtan, China aims to have 500,000 people on an 86 square kilometer island with an integrated multi-modal transit plan (p. 125)
    6. Masdar, Abu Dhabi aims to be a city of 50,000 that is car-free and with 100% renewable energy (p. 128).
  4. The future may unfold in a variety of ways:
    1. Local, sustainable communities may develop which allow for low carbon forms of transport.
    2. Regional warlords may control areas where no viable transport is widely available.
    3. Digital networks may control vehicles and people in a digital nexus system (p. 161).

While I feel the last chapter about scenarious is somewhat sensationalistic in its forecasting (the "Mad Max" world of the warlords, for example), I think the cogent analysis earlier in this book is particularly strong. The authors' main accomplishment in this book is to bring together observations about what is happening now to impact the car system as it emerged from the 20th century.

This book shows how the automobile was not just a form of transit, but it became a locked-in way of life for much of the developed world in the 20th century. This brought resource dependencies and displacements of other transit forms. The cost of that dependency may eventually exceed the benefits that alternative forms of transportation are ready to provide now. In other words, the car, in its present system, will eventually kill itself through its own basis in unsustainable resource use, particularly in light of how the alternatives grow more and more attractive.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©