It’s odd reading John Jerome’s 1972 book, The Death of the Automobile, and knowing that nearly 50 years later no such thing has happened, not even close. Jerome never lived to see it. He died in 2002. There’s no reason to think the death of the car will happen in my lifetime.
The Death of the Automobile is like reading a murder mystery novel where you know the eponymous victim is still alive and well at the end, barely a scratch on him.
The confident prediction of the automobile’s demise Jerome makes throughout the book is based on what should be firm grounds: the eventual rational decision made by consumers. Cars are expensive, to own, to operate, to facilitate, to design a society around. Eventually, Jerome assumed, there’d be a critical mass of people realizing all that and insisting on fundamental changes in mobility.
“We stopped building roads to places,” he writes. “We began building roads for automobiles.”
It is a view that is really only gaining traction in some places here in North America now, more than 4 decades after Jerome expressed it. And that may be overly optimistic on my part. Here in Toronto, where the conversation about car-dependency is long overdue, capital spending on road works is projected to surpass that of public transit building. In 2015!
The death of the automobile indeed.
Jerome misread the public’s attachment to their cars and the industry’s ability to persuade them of that attachment. Watch a car commercial now and see exactly how it’s done. Freedom, open roads, the thrill of the ride. No congestion. No roadside breakdowns and repair bills. No horrific high speed collisions. Just fun, fun, fun, until her daddy takes the T-bird away. The loss of which would be truly catastrophic.
This underestimation on Jerome’s part is notable since he was something of an automotive insider. A non-fiction author and journalist, he wrote for such car oriented publications as Sports Car Digest and Car and Driver where he eventually became managing editor. Jerome even went on to a job as an advertising copywriter where he worked on car campaigns.
But Jerome wrote confidently that what he rationally saw as the private automobile’s destructive nature on people, the environment, cities, everyone else would too, sooner rather than later. You can fool some of the people, some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people, all of the time. Eventually, the gig would be up.
It turns out people are more resistant to change than John Jerome figured. Cars got a lot safer to drive than when he was writing the book. The carnage on the roads he was witnessing, due mostly in his view to manufacturer aversion to safety measures, much like that of cigarette makers, if you promote new and improved safety features, you’re tacitly admitting your product was unsafe to begin with, dropped significantly. Traffic deaths in the U.S. hit their peak the year The Death of the Automobile was published, at over 54,000. In 2013, 41 years later, that number sat at just under 33,000 despite a population increase of over 100 million and a doubling of vehicle miles travelled.
Safety for you and your family has now become a selling feature. Bigger vehicles provide more protection. Technological gadgetry enhances a driver’s navigational abilities. It’s not just luxury on sale anymore. It’s an oasis of calm in the turbulent and troubled seas of modern life.
Driving has become more entrenched since Jerome’s book was published. “The car makes the suburb possible,” he wrote and that’s still true today. Suburban population growth continued to explode through the last 3 decades of the 20th-century, outpacing that of the inner city, urban areas until very recently. Driving remains the only real option in many of these areas. You can’t not drive. Otherwise, you can’t get anywhere.
It is really this aspect of car-dependency and its unsustainability that has changed the conversation ever so slightly.
Nowhere does the sense of the destructiveness of automobiles grip harder than in the cities. “I can tell you one thing, the cities are finished,” said the elder Henry Ford, back in the twenties. Possibly he had in mind a gentler automotive effect, but he was a prophet indeed when he uttered those words. Stewart Alsop used the same quote to head a deeply pessimistic Newsweek column , in which he ran through the elements which spell doom to the cities in the near future.
Jerome was writing during a time when the future of cities did really seem bleak. Not just the ruinous trajectories of the industrial, Midwest rust belt places epitomized by Detroit but back then even New York City sat on the brink of bankruptcy. “Go to hell!” the president of the United States flipped the Big Apple off.
Yet, we continued to urbanize, and the clash with the cult of the car intensified, slowly for sure, too slow for many, but it is intensifying. The mistakes of the past are now staring us right in the face, affecting our daily lives. Those concerns Jerome had back in the 70s are now front and centre in the city building conversations we’re having. Little by little, bit by bit, the supremacy of private vehicle use is being challenged.
It can be a little dispiriting to read The Death of the Automobile and realize that we’ve been aware of the incompatibility of people and cars for a couple generations now, that they operate at cross-purposes. But Jerome is such a solid writer with an extensive insider knowledge of the industry – Did you know that one of the Ford Company’s biggest and best sellers, the Mustang, was originally just an extras decked out Ford Falcon? Same body, same design, just a flashier image. – the book is a great read. We as a society may have taken longer to see the things Jerome was seeing but, it does appear that we’re getting to that point now, ready to have that conversation about, if not the death of the automobile, the severe containment of it as the primary… a-hem, a-hem… driver of the way we go about getting about our lives.
— bookishly submitted by Cityslikr