Book Club XIV

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. deathoftheautomobileJerome 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. corinthianleatherHere 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. deathoftheautomobile1Jerome 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. deathoftheautomobile3Technological 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 [1971], 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. deathoftheautomobile2“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. deathrace2000We 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

The Death Of The Automobile — Part 5


(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

The Death Of The Automobile — Part 4


(OK, OK. Last excerpt, with a Book Club review coming soon. As I said earlier, back in the late-60s and early-70s, I think the book’s author, John Jerome, might’ve underestimated the auto industry’s hold on so many facets of North American life — the economy, culturally, how we designed neighbourhoods and cities — and overestimated our rational response to the adverse effects on our lives that car dependence had. 40+ years on, private vehicle use still rules, bowed for sure but unbroken.

I thought this segment was pertinent in light of the recent VW corporate fuck. Profits before people. What’s good for the auto industry isn’t good for the country or planet. Plus ça change… etc., etc.)

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The Desperate Men

It is not that these men don’t like the cars they build; they simply are not particularly interested in them. Cars are not, to them, engineering or even styling achievements; they are units of inventory. It is not that these men don’t understand their market. They perhaps understand it too well, to the extent its vagaries and whimsicalities can be known. They understand the bulk nature of the need, the base upon which they can rely, and, dismissing that, they focus in compulsively on the manipulable fringe, the margin where reputations are made and lost. In so doing they come to know as much as can be known about the market, and nothing of the people, of the nation that makes it up. It is not that these are evil men. They are aggressive, achievement-oriented, enormously competitive. And they are, in a pressure-ridden industry, desperate.

The desperation is endemic, fixed, irreducible; it flows naturally out of the multi-million-dollar fractions of percentage points, out of billions of capital investment risking idleness at the slightest waver in the economic construct. An ore train is an hour late to the mill, and 6000 workers go idle 700 miles away, at $4.50 an hour (and up) per man. A day’s wildcat strike and $60 million a day in gross receipts is irrevocably – in the eyes of the industry – lost.

The desperation surfaced early in the industry; it is well-documented in such curiosities as the celebrated exchange between Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., President of General Motors, and Lammot du Pont, President of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, in 1929, on the subject of safety glass. The invention was established, proven, making its way into American car windshields. Du Pont produced it, and was pushing its adoption from the comfortable position of making a profit on a demonstrably humanitarian product. He wanted GM to adopt the new glass immediately.

No, said Sloan, not yet; although “non-shatterable glass is bound to come,” GM was not to lead the way in making driving safer. To do so would “materially offset our profits.” General Motors leadership in the area would pull the competition into the same expense: “Our gain would be a purely temporary one and the net result would be that both competition and ourselves would have reduced the return on our capital and the public would have obtained still more value per dollar expended.” (Emphasis supplied. — by the author, not us…except for this part… these are our italics.)

Although the correspondence in question didn’t surface until 1952, other exposures and embarrassments kept the industry leaders blushing. From Charles F. “Boss” Kettering’s “It isn’t that we build such bad cars, it’s that they are such lousy customers,” to “Engine Charlie” Wilson’s infamous misquote, “What’s good for GM is good for the country,”* the leaders of the industry have demonstrated a consistent inability to conceal the industry’s own greed.

The accepted public stance of the industry is one of lip service to social responsibility. Internally, however, the mood is compounded of private agony at the business’ uncertainties, and vituperation at any interference with the ongoing profitability of the enterprise. Pressure builds; the manufacturers ricochet between the disasters of business downturns and the heady but nervous triumphs of the years of maximum production and matching sales. The captains who guide the industry are drawn wire-thin by the pressure. Slips are made; private intent becomes public outrage.

The most recent, most eloquent example is the case of James M. Roche. Roche was elevated to the presidency of General Motors in 1962, and ascended to the chairmanship in 1967. He led the corporation through more than half of the golden decade-and-a-half, presiding over the largest corporation in the world during the most profitable years in that corporation’s history. It is a bit difficult to grasp the size of General Motors and the size of its profits:

Its annual revenue is greater than that of any foreign government except the United Kingdom and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and greater, as well, than the gross national product of Brazil or Sweden. In 1965 GM’s sales of $20.7 billion “exceeded the combined general revenues of the state and local governments of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware, and the six New England states.” This figures out to $2.3 million per hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (by 1969 it was $2.8 million). On the same hourly basis, its profit after taxes was $242,649.

Although a corporation presidency may be the most limited sort of monarchy, it was to a kind of kingship that Roche was named in 1962. His position in automotive history is secure, but not for his leadership. His reign will not be remembered for the size of its profits, nor for any of the products with which it flooded the American scene. James Roche will go down in the history of the industry as the man who was at the helm when the corporation hired private detectives to look for scandal in the private life of Ralph Nader. Roche was the man who was asked for, and made a public apology to Nader and to the U.S. Senate.

And if there was man-of-the-decade in the car business, a single figure who symbolizes the significance of the automotive sixties, it was Roche’s nemesis, Nader. No creative financier, no imaginative salesman, certainly no brilliant automotive designer emerged as the central figure of the automobile’s most prolific decade. The most important figure was not a member of the industry at all, but its most persistent critic. Ralph Nader discovered, with his book and its response – and with his subsequent leadership as the guiding intelligence behind the rise of consumer advocacy – a broad vein of public rage against the automobile industry and all it stood for. Nader forecast accurately, if perhaps inadvertently, the death of the automobile. He and he alone breached the insulation of Detroit.


(* What Wilson actually said was, “For years I have thought that what was good for the country was for General Motors, and vice versa.” The press leaped on the “vice versa” and there was no Spiro Agnew around to defend GM’s good name at the time.)

excerptly submitted by Cityslikr