Posterity will affirm it: “Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake?”


“When it came my turn to present, the solution I proposed for trips of less than a mile — and more than half of urban trips are this short — was shoes, available since 1600 BC.”
— Samuel I. Schwartz

I’ve heard it said that drugs rewire the brain. This may or may not be true, but to me, driving definitely does. We become something different when we’re behind the wheel, and for the most part the difference is unpleasant.

Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake? by Nathan Heller (The New Yorker)

For a century, we’ve loved our cars. They haven’t loved us back.

In America today, there are more cars than drivers. Yet our investment in these vehicles has yielded dubious returns. Since 1899, more than 3.6 million people have died in traffic accidents in the United States, and more than eighty million have been injured; pedestrian fatalities have risen in the past few years. The road has emerged as the setting for our most violent illustrations of systemic racism, combustion engines have helped create a climate crisis, and the quest for oil has led our soldiers into war.

Every technology has costs, but lately we’ve had reason to question even cars’ putative benefits. Free men and women on the open road have turned out to be such disastrous drivers that carmakers are developing computers to replace them. When the people of the future look back at our century of auto life, will they regard it as a useful stage of forward motion or as a wrong turn? Is it possible that, a hundred years from now, the age of gassing up and driving will be seen as just a cul-de-sac in transportation history, a trip we never should have taken?

And this.

It is odd, then, that we still look to the mid-century for evidence that cars proved their necessity and worth. Tell someone that you cannot drive, and they respond as if you had confessed an intimate eccentricity, like needing to be walked on with high heels before bed. “Re-e-eally! ” the reply goes. “How do you . . . ?”

The answer is planes, trains, buses, ferries, cabs, bikes, feet, and the occasional shared ride: almost anywhere in the world can be reached this way for less than the amortized cost of a car and its expenses.

And this.

The original sin of cars, the problem from which other problems emerged, was commercial pressure for private ownership—for the car to be a personal vehicle in your garage rather than a shared technology woven into the transportation network, as early electric cars would have been. The costs of this decision can be seen on every curb: the typical American vehicle spends ninety-five per cent of its life parked.

It appears this 95% of a car’s time parked is spent by its owners bitching and moaning about the period of 5% movement.