(I know, I know. I said the last excerpt would be the final excerpt but as I finished up John Jerome’s 1972 book, The Death Of the Automobile, seemed like its last segment would be the best last excerpt here.
It’s fun to look back from your perch, 40+ years on, to assess how predictions worked out. No one’s going to get it exactly right. That’s not possible.
Jerome clearly underestimated just how stuck on cars we were. ‘Gadgets’ have continued to captivate us (Heated steering wheels anyone?). Car makers did eventually respond to safety concerns about their products. Road death numbers dropped significantly, certainly on a per capita basis. And, oh my, was he soft on our tax tolerance.
Ultimately, a pattern, once firmly in place, is incredibly difficult to change. Jerome, I think (and here’s my prediction) wasn’t incorrect in thinking our car dependence would be eventually broken. He just got the timeline wrong. Automobile use hasn’t yet become ‘unbearable’ although, in some places, it feels like the moment’s incredibly close.)
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The Death of the Trip
The force that will finally finish off the automobile as the basis of our transportation system still lies unrevealed in the future, of course, and I have few clues to its identity, although some educated guesses are possible. It could well be a ponderous technological overcomplexity that will drive prices totally out of reach, forcing the private citizen, already staggered by the Nader Tax, to reevaluate his own transportation needs in new terms. More conventional taxation is due to increase markedly in the immediate future. We will surely recognize, shortly, that the automobile was responsible for the total decline of public transportation, and represents one of the few remaining sources of revenue substantial enough to pay for bringing that institution back to functioning life. European gasoline prices are boosted by taxation to circa sixty cents a gallon (and public transit is uniformly excellent). Japan taxes engine size so severely that over-180-cubic-inch engines add 40 percent to the cost of a car in taxes alone.
The automobile seems to represent an endless source of revenue generation, a role that could contribute to its own demise. The foreign nations are behind us in automobile-centered problems because they taxed early, limiting the growth of private automobiles. It seems likely that we will soon find it necessary to attempt to tax ourselves back away from the problem. The solution sounds a bit elitist for our democratic blood, but it fits our style better than anything so drastic as the outright ban that probably represents a more desirable solution. Use-taxes for city streets sound unreasonable? The parking bandits in New York City are already getting seventy-five dollars a month and up, which is exactly the same mechanism except for where the money goes, what it accomplishes.
Changing consumer habits may be enough to revise radically our patterns of automobile ownership and use, if not to wipe out the machine entirely. One such change Alvin Toffler calls “rentalism.” Many city residents are finding they can avoid car ownership entirely, simply renting when the extended need arises. The savings in out-of-pocket expense, on a long-term basis, is immense. An interesting side effect of the rental phenomenon, originally surfacing in the computer industry, is that it dumps squarely back on the manufacturer the problem of product longevity and serviceability. There is absolutely no need for the customer to put up with any kind of unsatisfactory original condition or service when he can simply turn in the product and rent another for the same cost. Rental-car owners will be less inclined to sucker for psychological trimming, keenly interested in reliability, and absolutely immune to the emotionality of product loyalty. The effect could even bring back product engineering.
For the foreseeable future, the likelihood that the automobile will simply be replaced by some other new transportation technology seems dim indeed. We’ve had our fingers burned on not a few new technologies in the past, and can be expected to move slowly and suspiciously toward a commitment to a new gadget on a scale that will represent a total replacement of our hundred million vehicles.
We already have, however, the technology to supplant most of the automobile’s function – and have it manufactured, distributed, installed, paid for. Personal communication can and perhaps will supplant the automobile eventually, not by superior performance of the automobile’s function, but by diverting us away from that function. In the face of the clearly insurmountable problems that an ever-expanding automobile population presents, our futurists are beginning to see that it is mobility itself – that simple original notion that we so quickly mastered and then went on to other things – that is the enemy. The range of spokesmen who are mulling over the idea in public print is remarkably wide. Sociologist Paul Goodman perhaps represents the reputable anti-establishment extreme: “The first question about transportation is not private cars and highways versus public transportation, but why the trip altogether. I have not heard this question asked either in Congress or in City Hall. Why must the workman live so far from his job? Could that be remedied? Why do I travel 2,000 miles to give a lecture for an hour…?
For the other side of the abyss between anti- and pro-establishment forces, nobody could be a better spokesman than the director of research for General Motors, Paul Chenea: “When you stop to think of how much traveling you do which you wouldn’t really do if you could accomplish the job some other way. Just think of how much travel you could avoid if you could look at a guy when you talk to him on the telephone. I’m not really convinced that everybody’s got to go everywhere all the time. There must be a better way than this…”
When the director of research for the largest transportation company in the world says perhaps we shouldn’t move around so much, it is mobility itself that is clearly identified as the culprit. Dr. Chenea will be joined in the near future by what will amount to a world-wide chorus – the same kind of swelling organ tones of piousness and moral exhortation that have unfortunately characterized a great deal of the environmental protection movement. Don’t go, the voices will say. Stop. Consider alternatives. Stay home. Phone instead of going. (The phone service shows signs of collapsing already. We have yet to discover the communication equivalent of exhaust emissions, but it is hardly cynical to suggest that we probably will.) Okay, we are a buzzing, jittery, flighty human race; maybe we can spin off some portion of those jitters in increased – dare we hope for improved? – communication. Talk, don’t drive.
Visual phones, access to data banks and computers, transmission via phone of graphic materials – these will increase slightly the effectiveness of electronic rather than mechanical travel. As we have created a new class of the technologically unemployable in the recent past, we might well profit by creating a class of professionally unmobile in the future. It is unlikely that such a sea change in American custom will spring lightly from the public-spiritedness of the citizenry. During one of New York’s subway strikes, Mayor Lindsay issued a public plea that all Manhattan workers not “absolutely essential” please stay home; the result was an historic traffic jam, as every citizen rushed to the office by car to prove his indispensability.
Neither new gadgets nor new social economic classes are sufficient, really, to break the pattern. Nor will we give up our cars for moralistic reasons, no matter who or what would thereby be saved. It has been suggested that the automobile must be abandoned if we are to survive. Yes, of course – just as we must stop having wars in order to avoid killing so many people. We will not exhort ourselves out of the automotive trap any more successfully than we stopped highway crashes with moral imperatives. No appeal to our reasonableness or our humanity will finally demobilize us.
The automobile will die when its use becomes unbearable. It would be comforting to end on a positive note, to suggest some new attraction that will pull us from our cars by increasing human possibilities, but we’ve run out of room – and, perhaps, time – for that. When the moment comes – as it will, as surely as tomorrow’s polluted dawn – when movement threatens, when to go carries a greater psychic cost than to stay, then we will stop. The automobile has made a powerful beginning in the creation of an environment in which such a threat is integral. Every day new elements click into place: the risk, the cost, the delay, the bother, the crowding and congestion. The rage. When the destination diminishes as the task of getting there grows, when the endless prospect of unrelieved blight conquers the remaining vistas, when no conceivable place holds any hope of being different from any other – when all of America becomes Woodward Avenue – then we will stay home. What new toys – surrogate sports cars – will fill our time is beyond imagining. But there will be time to fill, a great deal of it, when none of it is spent in automobiles.
One possibility lies waiting in the wings for our discovery, if we have the wit to seek it out. When Alan S. Boyd became the first Secretary of Transportation, one of his first official acts was to decorate his new chambers. On one wall, he hung a large photomural: it showed a pair of well-shod feet. It’s a transportation solution that hasn’t had a great deal of technological support in recent years, but it might be the salvation of us yet.
Franconia, N.H., January, 1972.
— excerptly submitted by Cityslikr