A Social Problems Framework for the
Critical Appraisal of Automobility and
Sustainable Systems Innovation
MAURIE J. COHEN
New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, New Jersey, USA
ABSTRACT Over the past three decades, critical assessment of the automobile has evolved from
a focus on the technical inadequacies of the internal combustion engine to a more comprehensive
appraisal of the sociotechnical system for providing mobility. The following study charts the
evolution of this discourse by focusing in particular on the way in which the Worldwatch Institute
has interpreted the various problems of the motorcar during this timeframe. There are now
indications that a more thoroughgoing systems view of automobile dependency is developing
predicated upon three problem dimensions: fuel use, urban congestion and sedentary lifestyles.
The analysis presents a social-problems framework for beginning to conceptualize more
sustainable modes of mobility in the post-automobile era.
EY WORDS: Politics of mobility, sustainable mobility, Worldwatch Institute, automobile-
dependent lifestyles, mobility futures, transition management
The day will come when the notion of car ownership becomes antiquated. If
you live in a city, you don’t need to own a car. William Clay Ford, Jr., 2001
The publics of most developed countries have demonstrated over the past several
decades unbridled enthusiasm for the automobile (Rae, 1965; Hagman &
Tengstrom, 1991; Gartman, 1994; Kay, 1997; Brinkley, 2003). Despite this
extraordinary pattern of popular embrace, dissenting voices have regularly
sought to draw attention to one or another of the motorcar’s untoward qualities
(St Clair, 1986; McShane, 1994; Gutfreund, 2004). Critics of automobility have
also demonstrated how governmental largesse, advertising imagery and creative
Correspondence Address: Maurie J. Cohen, Graduate Program in Environmental Policy Studies, New
Jersey Institute of Technology, University Heights, Newark, NJ 07102, USA. Tel.: +1 973 596 5281. Email:
Vol. 1, No. 1, 23–38, March 2006
1745-0101 Print/1745-011X Online/06/010023–16 # 2006 Taylor & Francis
marketing inducements initially launched – and have continued to sustain – this
particular transport mode (Ling, 1990; Flink, 1990; Goddard, 1994; Volti, 2004).
Detractors of the first production models emphasized the nuisance created by
‘smoky exhaust’ and the hazards that the horseless carriage posed for other
travelers with whom it shared the right-of-way (McCarthy, 2001). These campaigns
marked the beginning of a process, one that has now lasted for more than a
century, of struggling in various ways to accommodate the automobile. The
difficulty of this task was multiplied severalfold during the years following World
War II when the motorcar experienced a period of unprecedented growth in the
United States and, after a short delay, in other developed countries. The sheer
number of these vehicles soon prompted the sponsors of other forms of mobility to
declare an unconditional surrender and to cede the public domain over to the
Ralph Nader’s international bestseller, Unsafe at Any Speed, first published in
1965, sought to offset popular exuberance for the motorcar by exposing some of the
more unscrupulous practices prevalent among manufacturers. This landmark book
is often recalled for the role it played in demonstrating General Motors’ cavalier
disregard for passenger safety, but a careful reading reveals a far more sweeping
indictment of automobility and the lifestyles that it engenders (see also Horowitz,
Numerous consumer and environmental groups took up Nader’s critique and
worked to foster an oppositional politics that could confront the automobile and its
attendant social problems (Jamison, 1995; Freund & Martin, 1993; Vigar, 2002).
Within this activist community, the Worldwatch Institute forged a widely venerated
reputation and garnered attention for its incisive appraisal of the motorcar. Founded
in 1974 by agronomist Lester Brown, the Washington, DC-based organization has
been an important fixture of the modern environmental movement and its studies of
population, natural resource depletion, food policy and industrial pollution have
been extremely influential in shaping the contemporary discourse of global
environmentalism. In fact, Worldwatch has come to serve, in many respects, as
the public education arm of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and
to fulfill many of the information dissemination functions originally envisaged for
the UN body.
This analysis reviews how critical consideration of automobility has evolved
over the past three decades and surveys the shifting conceptual frames that
Worldwatch has used to contest the appeal of popular motorization. This assessment
is based on a review of the major studies the organization has produced over the
years regarding the various travails associated with this transport mode. Following
this historical retrospective is a discussion of how social problematization of the
automobile is now beginning to move in new directions. A conceptual model is
formulated to suggest that several facets of the larger automobile problematique
are beginning to cohere in new ways and that these circumstances may lead to novel
opportunities for large-scale transformation of the contemporary mobility system.
Such an approach stands in stark contrast to prior initiatives pursued under
the rubric of ‘sustainable mobility’ that have simply sought to ease existing
constraints on travel and to promote a variety of incremental changes in societal
Worldwatching the Car
The Worldwatch Institute has been for more than three decades a highly visible critic
of dominant modes of mobility. The organization disseminates its work through a
variety of channels, but is probably best known for its State of the World reports that
offer an annual survey of topical environmental issues. In addition, the Institute
publishes a bimonthly magazine called World Watch, a statistical almanac entitled
Vital Signs, a scholarly paper series and a book collection. Its publications are
translated into all major languages and distributed to a global readership.
A review of the Worldwatch oeuvre on automobility provides an instructive
summary of recent efforts to challenge the hegemony of the motorcar. In contrast to
the stirring claims of some popular polemicists (e.g. Kunstler, 1993) and anti-
automobile activists (see Blickstein & Hanson, 2001), the organization subscribes to
a carefully measured course of how to reform the current surface transport system.
Nonetheless, some critics have accused Worldwatch of being overly technocratic and
for failing to develop a commensurate political strategy. Wallis (1997), for example,
charges that the Institute ‘pays scant attention to the political processes – private as
well as governmental – whereby environmental malpractice is institutionalized’.
He furthermore contends that Worldwatch has been captured by its corporate
patrons and has resisted impulses to contest the prerogatives of its well-heeled
donors (see also Sachs, 1988; Luke, 1994). This is not the place to take sides in this
debate, but rather to note that widespread admiration for the organization is offset
to some extent by an amorphous group of more circumspect observers who are
discomfited by the absence of a more vigorous commitment to overturning the status
Consistent with the raison d’eˆtre behind its original founding, Worldwatch
devoted the bulk of its attention during its early years to the environmental
consequences of nonrenewable energy, industrial agriculture and global population
growth. The 1979 Iranian Revolution prompted the price of oil to spike up to nearly
$25 a barrel and in the US long lines began to snake toward gas pumps. President
Carter proposed an ambitious synthetic fuels initiative and the federal government
developed a variety of schemes to ration available oil supplies. These circumstances
marked the second oil crisis of the decade and encouraged the Institute to move
beyond its initial ambit of expertise and to embark upon its first substantive
evaluation of the automobile (Brown et al., 1979).
Though not mentioned by name, this study was heavily informed by M. King
Hubbert’s controversial forecast that global oil production would peak during the
The policy recommendations that stem from this analysis emphasize
what has now become a familiar assemblage of strategies: increased automotive fuel
efficiency, enhanced support for public transportation, stepped up taxes on gasoline
and expanded opportunities for the safe use of bicycles. The report also extrapolates
certain short-term trends evident at the time – increased public transit ridership,
consumer preferences for more fuel-efficient vehicles, continuing increases in oil
prices and the growing importance of alternative fuels.
Like many others at the time, Worldwatch, however, failed to recognize the
ultimate transience of the situation and ended up offering an overly forbidding
portrayal of prospective outcomes. At the same time, this particular appraisal of the
A Critical Appraisal of Automobility 25
motorcar presaged a broad theme that would figure prominently in the organiza-
tion’s future studies – its propensity to exacerbate suburban sprawl.
Nearly a decade passed before the Institute again devoted concerted attention to
the consequences of automobile dependency (Renner, 1988). During the intervening
years, the price of oil declined to prior levels and supplies once more were adequate
to meet burgeoning demand. The energy constraints previously thought to confront
the surface transport system proved to be far less enduring and, in the face of
declining urgency, impassioned entreaties to abandon the motorcar lost much of
their relevance. As new pollution control and fuel efficiency standards came into
effect in most developed countries, the critique shifted to an emphasis on technical
improvements in vehicle design (see Graedel & Allenby, 1997). The Worldwatch
assessment prepared during this period reflects this outlook and disaggregates the
challenges into three more or less separable categories: the potential of alternative
fuels, the enhancement of automotive performance and the reduction of unhealthy
Embedded within this engineering treatment was a concurrent and palpable sense
of foreboding about the spread of a globalized car culture, especially in large rapidly
industrializing countries such as Brazil and Mexico. There is moreover a growing
appreciation that this exercise in vehicle reengineering needs to be balanced by a
complementary emphasis on urban design to dampen automobile dependency.
Worldwatch displays a discerning appreciation for the fact that the construction of
new highways leads to the dispersal of population and the segregation of otherwise
interrelated land uses. This situation, because it induces so much travel,
paradoxically results in to the creation of chronic congestion. Also notable is that
by the 1980s the Institute had, in its own work, begun to move the issue of global
climate change toward a more central position in discussions of fossil fuel utilization.
During the early 1990s, Worldwatch turned its attention away from the technical
shortcomings of the combustion engine and refocused on the infrastructure that
permits the automobile to operate (Lowe, 1990). This updated critique stressed the
need to formulate physical design principles that accommodate public transport,
cycling and walking. The report justifiably celebrates cities such as Go¨teborg
(Sweden) and Groningen (The Netherlands) that have disciplined the motorcar by
restructuring their streetscapes to reduce travel speed and, in certain districts, to ban
driving altogether. This appraisal is accompanied by familiar recommendations
including encouraging car pooling, eliminating ‘free’ parking, imposing onerous
taxes on gasoline, and prorating vehicle registration fees based on fuel efficiency or
The Institute, however, concedes that these kinds of strategies will have little
appreciable impact unless they are coupled with a fundamental reconsideration of
land use and transport planning priorities. In particular, local officials are
encouraged to work harder to make the case that higher densities are necessary to
reduce automobile dependency.
By the start of the new millennium, the Worldwatch account had matured into a
comprehensive political economy of sprawl (Sheehan, 2001). The various technical
challenges of improving fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions common three decades
earlier disappeared largely from view. The emphasis shifted instead toward the social
and economic impacts of land use regulations that encourage – indeed mandate –
low-density development. One consequence of this prevalent practice is the creation
of vast distances separating residential and commercial districts.
In the absence of
viable public transport, such configurations make heavy automobile use an absolute
necessity of everyday life. In the US, the regulation of land use has been motivated
by a variety of public policy objectives. In some cases, such as segregating residences
from polluting industries, these measures were prompted by virtuous intentions.
However, with the passage of time, economic restructuring and the globalization of
manufacturing have outpaced these textbook planning prescriptions. Other
practices, such as the use of large-lot zoning to promote social exclusion, have
been underpinned by far less benevolent aims from the start.
This analysis provides Worldwatch with a platform for advancing, from the
standpoint of the politics of mobility, a series of novel ‘smart growth’ strategies such
as mortgages predicated upon the relative ‘location efficiency’ of the underlying
property. This policy measure would allow homebuyers to exceed conventional
income-expense ratios when purchasing a house in a more densely populated
neighborhood under the supposition that transport costs will comprise a smaller
share of the household budget. Also included in the assortment of recommendations
are more familiar offerings such as renewed emphasis on public transit, higher
gasoline taxes and better regional coordination.
Looking back over this nearly three-decade period it is interesting to note how the
Worldwatch critique of automobility has evolved away from its earlier emphasis on
technical issues pertaining to vehicular performance to a broader appraisal of the
politics and infrastructure that enable the motorcar to operate. It is curious though
that the organization continues to focus the preponderant share of its attention on
modest changes in the extant policy and planning context rather than on
opportunities to more ambitiously reconfigure the prevailing mobility system (see
also Fine et al., 1996; Spaargaren & van Vliet, 2000; Guthman, 2002; Shove, 2004). It
is not immediately clear why this should be the case; after all, few commentators
would reproach Worldwatch for being diffident about the potential of technological
inventiveness. Indeed, many of the organization’s sharpest critics have asserted that
it relies too heavily on a distinctive brand of techno-fix optimism. However, the
technology card in the Institute’s hands is more likely to be played to support specific
incremental goals rather than larger-scale transformations.
This lack of attention to more speculative topics may signal an organizational
predisposition to avoid accusations of being unduly Panglossian and of endorsing
untested, futuristic wizardry.
If one wants to be taken seriously in elite circles it is
probably more efficacious to talk about real-cost pricing, light rail and pedestrian-
friendly urban design. Even if such pragmatic recommendations often receive short
shrift in actual policy debates, they constitute what most people would construe as
sensible efforts to alter the current ‘automobilescape’. The implicit Worldwatch
approach seems to be one of airing constructive examples in the hope that disclosure
will create some impetus for change. The organization offers little guidance beyond
this ‘daylighting’ strategy and, barring a calamity, it seems quite fanciful to presume
that this way forward will overcome the inertia embodied in the contemporary
surface transport system.
It is prudent then to consider the very real possibility that continued emphasis on
public transport, cycling, walking and the host of other purposeful ideas that
A Critical Appraisal of Automobility 27
Worldwatch discusses will ultimately be insufficient in stanching the growing
incidence of automobile dependence. Especially in the rapidly diffusing American
cities of Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas there is little
evidence of change in the offing, despite the high level of mobility-related distress
evinced in these vast conurbations. Even if sufficient political commitment were to
become manifest in such places, it is not at all clear how one might proceed to reduce
such entrenched reliance on the personal motorcar.
Toward a Systems-Oriented View of Mobility
The critique of automobility advanced by the Worldwatch Institute and numerous
others over the past few decades has focused on three relatively discrete categories of
issues: safety, environmental impact and operability/equitable access (see Table 1).
The popular salience of each of these constituent elements of the overall
‘automobility problematique’ has inevitably varied over time and particular concerns
have moved in and out of public view. Despite this general pattern, two problems –
crash worthiness and fuel use – have been more or less constant subjects of popular
interest and policymaking attention. Each of these issues is discussed in further detail
Despite persistent efforts to improve the safety of car travel, it has proven
exceedingly difficult to reduce the perilousness of the automobile. In the US alone,
more than 40,000 people – in excess of 100 individuals per day – are killed each year
on the nation’s roadways. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(2002) estimates the annual medical costs of automobile accidents at more than
$32 billion and the need to deploy legions of police officers to prevent the carnage
from spinning completely out of control adds another extraordinary layer of
Table 1. Automobility Problematique
Fuel use (composition and exhaust)
Raw material appropriation
Though such data make it difficult to overestimate the extent of the
problem, automobile safety remains a strangely indecorous subject for public
discussion and most car manufacturers – Volvo being the obvious exception –
demonstrate an unconditional aversion to speaking out about it (Ferguson et al.,
2003). This political climate has, for example, enabled the industry to successfully
stifle discussion of the hazardousness of sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) (Bradsher,
The environmental consequences of mass motorization have been more amenable
to energetic public debate and over the past four or five decades elaborate policy
programs have been developed to reduce vehicular air pollution. Even in the face of
this vast mobilization of resources and expertise, air quality in many metropolitan
areas remains at unhealthy levels. Part of the reason for this situation is the steady
growth in the overall number of cars on the road. At the same time, because the
automobile is both a sacrosanct icon of popular culture and an essential requirement
of everyday life, strategies to manage its adverse effects have always been tentative
and partial. The motorcar has also been the beneficiary of a long series of favorable
public policies that have offset environmental gains and buttressed the dominant
position that it enjoys today. As we begin to encroach upon the foreseeable limits of
the contemporary surface transport system, it is difficult to envision how the
prevailing approach will prevent the quality of service that exists in many urban and
suburban areas from declining even further (Tukker & Cohen, 2004; Wright &
In accordance with this social problems perspective, the most salient failings of the
contemporary mobility system can then be expressed in terms of three major
dimensions (Figure 1).
Two of these issue sets – fuel use and urban congestion –
have been intermittent concerns for some time, while the third category, involving
the role of the car in contributing to sprawling settlement patterns and sedentary
lifestyles, is of more recent vintage. Arrayed around these primary problems is a
constellation of secondary issues that, for various reasons, do not display the same
degree of social and political prominence.
First, most developed nations, motivated by conjoint concerns about oil scarcity
and air quality, have devised policies to improve automotive fuel efficiency by
encouraging the production of cars that can travel greater distances per unit of
gasoline. In the US, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE
implemented in response to the first oil crisis during the 1970s, requires automobile
manufacturers to meet annually prescribed fleet-wide efficiency standards on their
new car sales. This mandate slowed to some degree the rate of increasing fuel
consumption and prevented air quality from deteriorating to dangerously
unacceptable levels. Related to the general issue of fuel use is more recent concern
regarding global climate change and the fact that automobiles operating in urban
areas are responsible for upwards of one-third of locally generated greenhouse gases
(e.g. Winkelman & Dierkers, 2001). Efforts by the Kyoto Protocol’s signatory
countries to meet their targets will necessarily require significant reductions in the
carbon dioxide releases associated with transport.
Second, automobile congestion has long been an inexorable source of aggravation
in cities with pre-twentieth-century infrastructure. Despite a century of investment in
new roadways, the metropolitan circulation network in many places has never been
A Critical Appraisal of Automobility 29
able to accommodate mass motorization. However, the pace of automobile travel
has now begun to decline even in newer cities such as those found in the American
southeast and southwest (Schrank & Lomax, 2005). In these cities, new vehicle
registrations and per capita kilometers traveled began during the 1990s to overwhelm
the ability of local officials to appreciably expand their surface transport systems. To
cope with this situation, efforts have instead turned to strategies such as congestion
charges and variable tolls that ration road capacity based on willingness-to-pay (see,
e.g. Burris et al., 2004; Henderson, 2004).
Finally, public health researchers have started to demonstrate that car-reliant
lifestyles are contributing to an unprecedented increase in obesity in several countries
(Nestle & Jacobson, 2000; Ewing et al., 2003; Lopez, 2003; Vandegrift & Yoked,
2004; Frank et al., 2004; Handy, 2005; Hinde & Dixon, 2005). Automobile
dependence – in conjunction with nutritionally deficient diets, excessive viewing of
electronic media, insufficient physical exercise and changing cultural norms – is
leading to growing incidences of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and other
weight-related health disorders among both children and adults. This work sheds
light on the relationship between the built environment and personal decisions about
physical activity and demonstrates why it is often difficult for people living in
sprawling communities to incorporate healthy practices into their daily routines
(Jackson, 2003; Hayne et al., 2004; Moudon, 2005; Sallis et al., 2005; Cohen, 2005).
In fact, Olshansky et al. (2005) recently reported that the growing rate of obesity
among Americans is likely to lead to a historically significant reversal in average life
Figure 1. Three Primary Problem Dimensions of the Current Mobility System.
In the face of this grave situation, public health recommendations typically
encourage overweight people to burn larger numbers of calories by increasing their
physical activity levels. As a practical matter, this lifestyle change often entails the
purchase of a healthclub membership and the growing number of these establish-
ments in many communities is ample evidence of the current popularity of this
prescriptive approach. The popularization of such commodified forms of recreation
has the occasional tendency to create some bizarre situations – for instance when one
drives to the gym (occasionally with valet parking!) to jog on a treadmill or takes the
elevator to an upper floor to use a stair-climbing machine. This recommendation,
regardless of how well intended, is a prophylactic that merely disguises the degree to
which widespread automobility contributes to ill health in the first instance (Freund
& Martin, 2004).
The pattern over time has been, in keeping with standard professional
commitments, for each of these problem dimensions to fall within the ambit of its
own distinct expert community (Figure 2). In other words, automotive engineers
have managed the various issues related to fuel use; transport planner-economists
have primarily handled urban congestion; and public health specialists have sought
to overcome the obstacles that contribute to sedentary lifestyles. The strategies
customarily championed by these discrete professional groups can be fitted into the
trivariate solution space. Such reductionistic segmentation often has perverse effects
because narrowly circumscribed interventions (those deeply embedded within the
respective corners of the triangle) prompt unanticipated rebound effects (see, e.g.
Tenner, 1996; Binswanger, 2001). For example, excessive fuel use has customarily
been treated as a vehicle-design problem and this division of labor has led to such
outcomes as lower body weight and more efficient fuel combustion. This
engineering-led approach, however, has ultimately resulted in increased aggregate
fuel use as drivers have used their energy savings to travel longer distances and to
purchase larger-sized vehicles (Goldberg, 1998).
Of interest for current purposes is that we are beginning to see the emergence of
some activities that begin, albeit hesitantly, to move beyond this manner of routine
thinking and to develop opportunities for more systemic innovation (Van der Stoep
Figure 2. Professional Responses to the Contemporary Mobility Problematique.
A Critical Appraisal of Automobility 31
& Kee, 2004; Van Geenhuizen et al., 2003; van den Bosch et al., 2005). The sides of
the triangular solution space depicted in Figure 3 are meant to suggest that certain
dualistic collaborations are becoming apparent. For instance, partnerships between
automotive engineers and transport planner-economists are bringing ‘intelligent’
vehicles and roadways closer to reality.
Such strategies recognize the mutuality
between fuel use and congestion and seek to generate co-beneficial solutions.
A similar confluence is now evident in urban planning between the previously
distinct professional pursuits of transport planning-economics and public health in
the form of novel initiatives to reduce automobile dependency while simultaneously
seeking to improve community vitality. The most familiar example of this
phenomenon is the current design emphasis on ‘new urbanism’ among planners
and architects that gives preference to walking and other alternative modes of
transport (see, e.g. Calthorpe, 1993).
The third side of the triangular solution space connotes a reinvigorated alliance
between automotive engineers and public health specialists. These two fields actually
have a long history of tacit collaboration predicated upon reducing fatalities and
injuries from automobile accidents and gauging the effects of air pollution on human
wellbeing (Watson et al., 1988; Dewey, 2000; Woodward et al., 2002). However, it
has become common now for automobile manufacturers to incorporate explicit
health themes into both their vehicle designs and marketing inducements
(Freudenberg, 2005). For instance, the car industry regularly promotes SUVs as
indispensable accessories of a robust lifestyle, as emblems of an outdoor identity and
as a means of traveling to rugged and otherwise inaccessible destinations.
The automobile industry has also begun to counter allegations that their products
foster sedentary lifestyles. For instance, some retailers have devised promotions that
bundle a bicycle with the purchase of a new car. Travel racks for bicycles, kayaks
and skis have also taken on new prominence in both vehicle design and advertising.
Consistent with this trend, Hyundai has introduced a production model that it calls
an Outdoor Lifestyle Vehicle (OLV) that has three detachable roof panels and the
Jeep Treo is a three-seat concept car powered by a fuel cell that the company
describes as an ‘urban mobility vehicle’.
Figure 3. Dualistic Responses to the Contemporary Mobility Problematique.
These initiatives can be construed as nascent efforts to apply more holistic
thinking to current mobility dilemmas and to induce more systemic – yet practicable
– transition away from the customary surface-transport configuration (see also e.g.
Rotmans et al., 2001; Geels, 2002; Berkhout et al., 2003; Elzen & Wieczorek, 2005).
Future activities, however, will require collaboration that involves not just two
dimensions of the automobile dependency problematique; rather it will be necessary
to integrate across all three issue sets (Figure 4). At this locus, it becomes
conceptually possible to simultaneously address problems associated with fuel use,
urban congestion and sedentary lifestyles. Such solutions fuse the entire span of
professional competencies currently engaged in ameliorating the most socially and
politically conspicuous flaws in the contemporary mobility system – transport
economists, urban planners, public health specialists, physical educators, outdoor
recreation experts, automotive designers and transportation engineers.
What might such optimal synthesizing solutions actually look like? While it is
presently difficult to get a grasp of specific prototypes, it is possible to point to a few
characteristics of the envisioned solution space.
First, the Internet and other electronic technologies will likely continue to have
profound effects in facilitating ‘virtual accessibility and mobility’ by enabling social
interaction without the need for physical transport (Reggiani & Janic, 2000; Golob &
Regan, 2001; Lyons, 2002; Kenyon et al., 2002).
Second, teleshopping and other forms of electronic commerce, new logistical
arrangements for handling freight, and videoconferencing all represent new ways of
operationalizing accessibility in ways that potentially entail less actual movement
(Lenz, 2003; Ferrell, 2004; Mokhtarian, 2004).
Third, settlement patterns that favor relatively high population densities and offer
proximate access to outdoor recreation and environmental amenities are also likely
to enjoy a comparative advantage (e.g. Scholl & Schwartz, 2005).
Finally, the advent of personal mobility devices such as the Segway Human
Transporter show signs of prompting a wave of transport innovation based on
advanced robotics (Marshall, 2003; Schrage, 2003; Fox, 2005).
A concomitant observation is that the current emphasis on gas-electric hybrids
and hydrogen-powered vehicles will probably prove to be misplaced. While
Figure 4. The Future of Mobility.
A Critical Appraisal of Automobility 33
conferring some advantages in terms of fuel use, these highly vaunted mobility
technologies promote sustainability in only the shallowest and most delimited sense.
In particular, they hold no promise of reducing urban congestion or overcoming the
barriers that contribute to sedentary lifestyles. The history of automotive technology
moreover suggests that embedded in these alternative fuel vehicles is the prospect for
readily anticipated rebound effects. There is ample evidence that improvements in
fuel economy, absent alternations in the broader sociotechnical system, only lead to
increases in aggregate travel miles and congestion.
A century ago, the automobile was an expensive and oftentimes dangerous curiosity.
Except in the minds of a handful of visionary entrepreneurs, it was inconceivable
that mass motorization would become a ubiquitous form of personal conveyance in
virtually all developed countries (and an expanding number of developing nations).
Adopting a perspective that gives credence to the long dure´e suggests that the car,
like the horse-drawn trolley and the omnibus before it, will in due course be
consigned to the museums. Despite current indications that the motorcar is more
entrenched today as a societal artefact than it ever was, it is useful to keep in mind
that this particular transport mode will not prove to be indomitable and will
eventually pass from the scene. The pressing question involves how this transition
will play out. Major automobile manufacturers – most notably Toyota and the
BMW Group – are actively involved in long-term research programs to envision
alternative mobility paradigms (see e.g. IFMO, 2002; Patton, 2005). Other sponsors
are working on a variety of new technologies including personal rapid transit,
computer-aided paratransit and self-piloted vehicles.
Predictions of large-scale technological transformation are always fraught with
risk. Nonetheless, it is probably safe to aver that we are closer to the automobile’s
obsolescence than we are from its initial mass commercialization. In other words, it
is highly unlikely that anything even remotely related to the current motorcar will
endure into the next century. At the same time, historians of technology and scholars
of transition management advise us that sociotechnical changes have a tendency to
sneak up in disparate form and then to coalesce rapidly once the basic parameters
for system change have fallen into place. Early prototypes kicked around for more
than 60 years before the horseless carriage entered public consciousness. It is
therefore not unreasonable to begin to anticipate what the post-automobile era will
bring. Such a planning posture is actually vital due to the extended timeframe
required to commission and construct new transport infrastructure and its
exceedingly long lifespan once it becomes operational.
The eventual obsolescence of the contemporary surface transport system makes it
necessary to actively stimulate innovations that have the capacity to facilitate this
transition. We no longer have the luxury of dwelling on single problem dimensions.
This customary approach entails a profoundly inefficient usage of resources. It also
creates the prospect of locking in tragically inferior alternatives and of chocking off
future opportunities to pursue more optimal outcomes.
The author would like to thank Kenneth Carr, William Davis, Jaime Marcrina,
Roinnachai Tiyarattanachai, Jennifer Wolfenden for locating some of the statistical
data presented in this paper.
1. According to an estimate offered by Brown (2000), the Worldwatch Institute is cited in
approximately 40 news or magazine articles every day.
2. This Worldwatch paper was subsequently released as a book entitled Running on Empty: The Future
of the Automobile in an Oil-Short World.
3. Many analysts consider Hubbert’s Peak to be an indisputable tenet of energy forecasting. The
deviation between Hubbert’s conjecture and current claims that the crest in oil production/
consumption will be reached by 2008 is often attributed to the effectiveness of energy conservation
measures put in place during the years since the original calculation (Deffeyes, 2003).
4. Critics of automobility have long decried the spatial separation between residences and employment
centers, a situation that makes long car-based commuting journeys an unavoidable necessity.
Reflecting the ascendancy of consumption relative to production, American households now make
more shopping trips each year than commuting trips (496 trips per household in 2001, up from 341
in 1990) (Hakim & Peters, 2005).
5. For instance, Sheehan (2001) devotes only a single paragraph to the potential of emerging
information and communications technologies to substitute for conventional modes of mobility.
Futuristic technologies such as personal rapid transit, an innovative system in which pod-like cars
ride on a computer-controlled guideway, is treated briefly in an endnote.
6. The National Safety Council calculates the total (direct and indirect) costs of automobile accidents
in the US for 2003 at $240.7 billion ($82.4 billion for lost wages and productivity, $31.5 billion for
medical expenses, $75.8 billion for administrative expenses, $48.8 billion for automobile damage,
and $2.2 billion to uninsured employer costs). While it is surely inadequate to express the loss of life
in purely economic terms, such metrics do offer a preliminary means with which to appreciate the
overall scale of the situation.
7. With the exception of Gusfield (1981) and the research of Freund & Martin (e.g. 1993, 1997, 2004),
social scientists working from a social-problems perspective have largely ignored the automobile.
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