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The future of automobile society: A socio-technical transitions perspective

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Automobile society has been triumphant for a century. While this success is often ascribed to entrepreneurial tenacity and indefatigable demand, it is more correctly credited to auspicious political, economic and cultural trends. The macro-scale factors responsible for the entrenchment of automobility in developed countries are now moving in reverse direction. A socio-technical transitions perspective emphasises how declining industrial influence, stagnating wages, growing income inequality, increasing vehicle operating costs and changing sociodemographics are now undermining the foundations of automobile society. Three expressions of this process are considered: claims that transport planners are engaged in a ‘war’ against the automobile, emergent evidence that vehicle use is reaching saturation (the so-called ‘peak car’ phenomenon) and apparent disinclination of youth to embrace automobile-oriented lifestyles. Although these developments suggest some instability in the socio-technical system, the lock-in of key features and the paucity of practicable alternatives suggest that declarations of a pending transition are premature.
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The future of automobile society: a
socio-technical transitions perspective
Maurie J. Cohen
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New Jersey Institute of Technology, University Heights, Newark,
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Technology Analysis & Strategic Management
Vol. 24, No. 4, April 2012, 377–390
The future of automobile society: a
socio-technical transitions perspective
Maurie J. Cohen
New Jersey Institute of Technology, University Heights, Newark, NJ 07102, USA
Automobile society has been triumphant for a century. While this success is often ascribed
to entrepreneurial tenacity and indefatigable demand, it is more correctly credited to aus-
picious political, economic and cultural trends. The macro-scale factors responsible for the
entrenchment of automobility in developed countries are now moving in reverse direction.
A socio-technical transitions perspective emphasises how declining industrial influence, stag-
nating wages, growing income inequality, increasing vehicle operating costs and changing
sociodemographics are now undermining the foundations of automobile society. Three expres-
sions of this process are considered: claims that transport planners are engaged in a ‘war’
against the automobile, emergent evidence that vehicle use is reaching saturation (the so-called
‘peak car’ phenomenon) and apparent disinclination of youth to embrace automobile-oriented
lifestyles. Although these developments suggest some instability in the socio-technical system,
the lock-in of key features and the paucity of practicable alternatives suggest that declarations
of a pending transition are premature.
Keywords: mobility futures; transition management; Generation Y; Net Generation;
smartphone; iPhone; demotorisation
If we want to understand what doomed the American automobile, we should give up on economics
and turn to melodrama … . [T]he fate of Detroit isn’t a matter of financial crisis, foreign competition,
corporate greed, union intransigence, energy costs or measuring the shoe size of the footprints in
the carbon. It’s a tragic romance – unleashed passions, titanic clashes, lost love and wild horses
America’s romantic foolishness with cars is finished.
P.J. O’Rourke (2009)
1. Introduction
The aim of this article is to explore the future of the automobile and its prospective role in soci-
ety. After a century of increasing indomitability, the prevailing surface transport system is facing
several novel challenges. While the emergence of new sources of instability does not herald the
impending demise of the car, it does suggest that long-dormant opportunities for change may be
opening up. When considering possible transition pathways, it warrants recognising that history
Email: mcohen@adm.njit.edu
ISSN 0953-7325 print/ISSN 1465-3990 online
© 2012 Taylor & Francis
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378 M.J. Cohen
advises us of a paradox: the dissolution of large-scale and seemingly obdurate technical configu-
rations is not typically preceded by grandiloquent pronouncements. Instead, a more imponderable
process normally unfolds over an extended period of time. Accordingly, it is conceivable that in
due course automobile society will wind down with a long whimper rather than a powerful cata-
clysm. In short, we may wake up one day some decades hence and quietly wonder what happened
to all the cars.
Personal automobility has been a venerated mode of transport in most affluent nations for the
past century. While its achievements are often wrapped in pretense celebrating personal freedom
and autonomy, the rise of automobile society is more correctly credited to several auspicious
political, economic and cultural factors. Unifying these various domains have been the material-
intensive connections between vehicle production and key industrial sectors, as well as among a
large number of aligned activities such as road construction, vehicle repair, policing and insurance
underwriting that altogether comprise a vast socio-technical system. These extensive linkages
propelled a virtuous cycle in which mass production of cars contributed greatly to economic
growth and improvement in standards of living (Edsforth 1987; Cohen 2003; McCarthy 2007).
1
This dynamic also impelled consumerist lifestyles and enabled automobile manufacturers to
accumulate unrivalled political influence. This power was deployed to recruit and align other
stakeholders (most notably in oil and property development) behind the automobile and to anchor
it in society as a virtual household necessity.
2
In developed countries, the macro-scale factors responsible for the entrenchment of automobil-
ity during the twentieth century are now moving in reverse direction and people, without fanfare,
are duly adapting their social practices. The most tangible evidence of this shift is apparent in
the scuttling of proposals to expand vehicular infrastructure. A growing number of governments
in Europe, the USA, and elsewhere are dismantling existing roadways and reallocating public
space to other purposes, most notably bicycle lanes, pedestrian districts and other non-motorised
activities (Crawford 2000; Wray 2008; Mapes 2009).
3
In addition, urban transit use is on the rise
in many cities and car sales are faltering. As outlined below, it would be inaccurate to regard these
developments as transitory or to ascribe them exclusively to financial stresses associated with the
post-2008 economic downturn.
This article investigates three manifestations of a purported changing relationship between
the automobile and society. The following section situates the discussion in research on socio-
technical transitions and outlines the methodological context for the inquiry. The third section
looks at the situation from a political standpoint by visiting the battlefield on which an alleged
‘war’ on cars is being contested. The fourth section highlights economic evidence that several
countries have reached ‘peak car’, the point of maximum vehicle ownership and use. The fifth
section examines the automobile as a cultural fixture of contemporary youth lifestyles. The
conclusion offers some summarising views on the future of automobile society and reflects
on the use of a socio-technical transitions perspective to study transformation of the surface
transport system.
2. Socio-technical transitions and the automobile
The study of systems innovation from a socio-technical transitions perspective encompasses sev-
eral areas of activity and includes research on strategic niche management, constructive technology
assessment, transition management, sectoral systems of innovation and deployment of methods
such as technology roadmapping, backcasting and bounded socio-technical experimentation (see
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The future of automobile society: a socio-technical transitions perspective 379
Elzen, Geels, and Green 2004). Common to all of this work is an understanding that systems of
provision are configurations of political interests, economic determinants, cultural values, physi-
cal infrastructures and technological capacities (Rohracher 2001; Verbong and Geels 2007; Kern
and Smith 2008; Hekkert and Negro 2009; Voß, Smith, and Grin 2009; Paredis 2011; Spath and
Rohracher 2010). On one hand, a socio-technical transitions perspective provides a corrective to
theories of innovation predicated mainly on engineering breakthroughs. On the other hand, such
a view augments customary social scientific understandings of societal change that frequently
evince little appreciation for the disruptive role of novel technologies.
The multi-level perspective (MLP) is an important conceptual lens for work on socio-technical
transitions, especially for scholars looking to identify so-called sustainability pathways (Geels
2002, 2005a, 2010; Geels and Schot 2007; Schot and Geels 2008; Genus and Coles 2008; Scrase
and Smith 2009; Foxon, Hammond, and Pearson 2010; Verbong and Geels 2010; Cohen 2010;
Hodson and Marvin 2010; Lauridsen and Jorgensen 2010; van Bree, Verbong, and Kramer 2010).
The MLP consists of three hierarchical tiers: the macro-level landscape, the meso-level regime,
and the micro-level niches.
First, the landscape constitutes the highest order scale of a socio-technical system. This is the
realm of governmental institutions, sociodemographic trends, and durable investments and it is
normally very rigid and characterised by slow processes of evolutionary adjustment. At times,
though, concealed tensions can accumulate across the landscape, much like seismic pressure builds
along a geologic fault line, and the socio-technical system can experience abrupt realignment.
Second, the meso-level regime comprises the multifarious elements of the incumbent arrange-
ment for delivering a specific good or service. The capabilities of the regime generally develop
over time and its constituent components (e.g. manufacturing firms, financing institutions, reg-
ulators) demonstrate a high measure of resilience. Indeed, this adaptiveness is the chief source
of stability for a prevailing socio-technical configuration as a well-established regime is able to
deftly absorb or deflect threats to its primacy. This capacity for resilience derives from a variety
of sources including economies of scale, barriers to entry, and ability to manipulate regulatory
processes to favourable advantage.
Finally, the micro-level niches are where entrepreneurs incubate experimental alternatives and
look to challenge the dominant means of provision (or an aspect of it). The insurgent niches are
generally ill-equipped, poorly organised and inadequately financed, but sometimes spawn options
(occasionally quite radical) that attract attention. Either on their own or in joined-up assemblages,
the niches can mature to a point where they can disrupt the incumbent arrangement and, in the
presence of supportive changes at the meso- and macro-levels, come to supplant it.
In recent years, scholars have employed a socio-technical transitions perspective to study var-
ious facets of the contemporary transport system as well as specific features of the predominant
automobile (Rosen 2001; Brown et al. 2003; Geels 2004; Vergragt and Brown 2007; Nykvist
and Whitmarsh 2008; Hillman and Sanden 2008; Bergek, Jacobsson, and Sanden 2008; Sovacool
and Hirsh 2009; Cohen 2009a, 2010; van Bree, Verbong, and Kramer 2010; de Bruijne et al.
2010; Schreuer, Ornetzeder, and Rohracher 2010; Sovacool and Brossmann 2010; Tuominen and
Ahlqvist 2010; Sanden and Hillman 2011). In conjunction with this work, historical analyses
of prior mobility transformations have exposed factors that have ‘locked-in’ (and ‘locked-out’)
specific innovations and revealed the contingent qualities of past conversions (Geels 2005b,c;
Carolan 2009; Ivory and Genus 2010). This research though has tended to prioritise insurgent
niche-based activities and to treat incumbents as relatively inert actors. It has been the workings
at the micro-level infused with exciting ideas and new possibilities that have received pride
of place.
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380 M.J. Cohen
The focus here is rather on the ostensible insuperability of the extent automobile regime. While
the outlook for once mighty industrial hubs (Detroit) or particular firms (General Motors) might
be problematical, the prospects of the car have been widely regarded as secure for the foreseeable
future.
4
In fact, to contend otherwise has been regarded as the height of folly.
5
Questions about the fate of the prevailing surface transport system are no longer quite so quixotic
(see e.g. Sachs 1992; Safdie 1997; Nieuwenhuis and Wells 1998; Tukker and Cohen 2004; Cohen
2006; Moriarty and Honnery 2008; Urry 2008; Dennis and Urry 2009; Mees 2010; Furness 2010).
While a transition is by no means impending, weak signals of instability are emergent after more
than a century of expanding automotive entrenchment. There are indications in several developed
countries that a more delimited role for the car may be evolving.
Getting to grips with these changes raises challenges for conventional research practice. As
Phil Goodwin (2010b) argues, when seeking to identify nascent transport tendencies there is little
value in focusing on global or national averages. Even statistical means for cities and metropolitan
areas may fail to capture incipient trends and, thus, it is necessary to set aside most of the
standard quantitative toolkit. One must instead be attentive to more impressionistic evidence
at the leading edge of change and this process entails particular focus on young urbanites, elderly
empty nesters and so-called cultural creatives. To be sure, millions of people are locked into
suboptimal mobility systems owing to inadequate political vision, will, or capacity to contemplate
new alternatives, but from a socio-technical transitions perspective these individuals are largely
irrelevant.
As Schumpeter (1976) and numerous others (see e.g. Green et al. 2002; Dewick 2006) have
noted, socio-technical transitions can be unsettling. There are inevitably winners and losers, and
this is especially the case for transport innovations that often reorganise settlement patterns,
recalibrate comparative economic advantages and reorder socioeconomic hierarchies. Many sus-
tainability proponents, with their resolute emphasis on ‘win–win’ outcomes, sacrifice candor on
the altar of political expediency when they assert that effective planning will mitigate resultant
dislocations. Let us be honest here. Foresighted communities will gain, while others will find
themselves bereft because of their inability to envisage a future beyond the automobile.
While the intent of this discussion is not to elevate one dimension of the MLP to a superior
position, the following sections primarily discuss developments at the landscape scale. This orien-
tation stems from the fact that it is at the uppermost tier of the model that socio-technical disruption
is presently most evident. Three expressions of nascent instability are considered: political, eco-
nomic and cultural. It warrants noting that clear demarcation among these domains is necessarily
difficult and overlap is inevitable. Secondary consideration is given to tensions and fractures at
the level of the extent regime, as well as to interactions between landscape and regime.
3. The ‘war’ against the automobile
Given popular predisposition to interpret complex policy issues in metaphorical terms (see e.g.
Lakoff and Johnson 2003), it is understandable that governments frequently rely on military
rhetoric to signal intent and to galvanise support for new initiatives.
6
Over the years, we have
been summoned to fight wars on poverty, cancer, drugs and, most recently, terrorism and debt.
With respect to transport policy, offensives of varying success have been waged on high gasoline
prices, automobile pollution, highway congestion and more.
There is a second variant of this discursive technique. Invoked by policy entrepreneurs looking
to stir up partisan passions, outward accusations of warmongering can be an effective way to
create binary categories and to vilify political opponents.
7
Such hyperbolic rhetoric is meant to
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The future of automobile society: a socio-technical transitions perspective 381
foster a divisive politics of difference that, when used in a transport policy context, pits cities
against suburbs, automobile-oriented regions against transit-based communities and car drivers
against other travellers.
8
London became the first flashpoint in the current round of putative war against the automobile
when the city adopted a congestion-pricing scheme in 2003. In subsequent years, declarations
of massing anti-car legionaries surfaced in Toronto, Seattle, New York City and elsewhere.
9
In
the USA, publication of the report Washington’s War on Cars and the Suburbs by Wendell Cox
(2010) gave salience to these allegations.
10
The point of departure for the document was a 2009 statement by Transportation Secretary
Ray LaHood about the economic benefits of transit operations, the favourable energy efficiency
of transit facilities in comparison with automobiles, and the cost savings engendered by transit.
11
Washington’s War accused LaHood of ‘parroting lobbyist hype’, misconstruing established def-
initional categories, relying on outdated data and disregarding research by relevant government
agencies. Among other contentions, the report was critical of public subsidies for transit oper-
ations and the rise in transit costs over time.
12
A more public version of this drama transpired
a year later when LaHood remarked, ‘What Americans want is to get out of their cars many
communities want opportunity on the weekends and during the week to have the chance to bike
to work, to bike to the store, to spend time with their family on a bike’ (Vestel 2010). Trade asso-
ciation representatives, automobile industry lobbyists and bloggers of various stripes instantly
sprang into action to castigate LaHood for his reputedly intemperate remarks.
What might we make of these allegations of ‘war’ on the car? The accusation seems to stem
from indignation that the perquisites long granted to drivers are gradually being scaled back.
This reversal is further along in Europe, but similar developments are now taking hold in the
USA. The usual rules of the game, where automobile interests effortlessly dictate public planning
priorities, no longer hold as other claimants – bicyclists, pedestrians, transit users – successfully
exert new-found influence on the allocation of resources.
The durability of the established surface transport regime can be attributed to a powerful iron
triangle comprising automobile manufacturers (and allied industries), construction/real estate
development interests, and transport policy makers and planners. The sway of this triune has been
due in no small part to public willingness to countenance this complicit arrangement and the
contemporary mobility system is the tangible manifestation of its influence. However, changing
political priorities have begun to reconstitute this long-standing relationship. In particular, the
larger body politic has over the last three decades come to privilege private consumption over the
kinds of public investment required to maintain an effectively functioning automobile society.
Under these circumstances, the tacit alliance has been unable to deliver system improvements
especially in metropolitan areas at a pace sufficient to maintain adequate service quality.
Moreover, the emergence of public health concerns about obesity and physical inactivity has
opened up space in transport policy debates for new actors and weakened customary governmental
resolve to the iron triangle.
In sum, once unreservedly celebrated as the icon of modernity, the car is increasingly regarded
as little more than an ordinary piece of household equipment. Moreover, the public regards
automobile assembly as a bygone activity hamstrung by ineffectual managers who owe their
livelihoods to timely government intervention (Sanchez, Kopp, and Sanzari 2010; Rattner 2010).
13
According to a recent national survey, more than 70% of American youth indicated that they
would not consider working for a car company.
14
While Detroit remains the symbolic capital of
the automobile, after years of deindustrialisation the shattered Motor City is a poor contrast to
the sparkling office parks of Silicon Valley or the frenzied bustle of the world’s global cities.
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382 M.J. Cohen
Figure 1. Population and automobile registrations, USA, 1905–2005.
Source: United States Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration.
4. Have we reached ‘peak car’?
With the exclusion of the World War II years, virtually all of the developed countries have experi-
enced continuous annual growth in automobility over the past century. The trend in registrations
for the USA is depicted in Figure 1.
A close look at Figure 1 reveals that during the past decade there has been a heretofore underre-
ported levelling off in the size of the American vehicle fleet and comparable trends are observable
in Europe and elsewhere (Brown 2010; see also Voorhees 2010). Recognition of this trend has
begun to prompt speculation among transport planners about automobile saturation (Metz 2010).
The debate has gathered momentum over the past year as several research teams have turned their
attention to the concept of ‘peak car’ (Goodwin 2010a–d, 2011a; Millard-Ball and Schipper 2011;
Newman and Kenworthy 2011; see also Puentes and Tomer 2008; International Transport Forum
2011). The issue has also received consideration in the popular press (e.g. Witchalls 2011; Pendle-
ton 2011) and on websites catering to automotive enthusiasts, urban sustainability proponents and
close followers of economic trends.
15
The notion of peak car draws on the idea of ‘peak oil’ which is the moment in time when
oil extraction reaches its maximum and production volume enters a period of terminal decline.
The geologist M. King Hubbert expounded the peak oil hypothesis in 1956 which asserted that
exploitation in the USA would reach its apogee in the early 1970s. He was ridiculed for years,
but with the passage of time it became apparent that extraction in the lower 48 states eventually
crested as Hubbert had predicted. A controversy currently centres on the peak of global petroleum
production with estimates ranging from claims that the climax has already occurred to projections
that it will not arrive until 2020 or beyond.
16
Peak car captures several facets of automobile saturation: car sales (and registrations), vehicle
trips, distance travelled and driving licenses issued.
17
Phil Goodwin (2010c) has assessed the
data for the UK and concludes that the phenomenon began to emerge in the early 1990s (well
in advance of the post-2008 economic slowdown) and between 1999 and 2009 annual per capita
travel distance by automobile in the country declined by 500 miles.
18
Kiron Chatterjee and Geoff
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The future of automobile society: a socio-technical transitions perspective 383
Dudley report on a related development – between 1992 and 2007 the proportion of 17–20 year
olds in the UK with drivers’ licenses dropped from 48% to 38%. A similar decrease (from 75%
to 66%) was evident for individuals in the 21–29 year-old cohort (see Goodwin 2010a, 2011b).
A couple of comparative analyses have recently appeared that begin to extend the geographic
scope of the peak car thesis. Newman and Kenworthy (2011) report on declining per capita
automobile use (measured in travel distance) in a number of cities including London, Stockholm,
Vienna and Zurich. The pattern is even apparent in highly car-dependent cities in the USA such as
Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles. Millard-Ball and Schipper (2011) evaluate data for Canada,
Australia, France, Sweden, Germany, Japan, the UK and the USA and find that ‘since 2003,
motorised travel demand by all modes has levelled out or even declined in most of the countries
studied, and that travel in private vehicles has declined’.
From a socio-technical transitions perspective, several factors may be responsible for this
apparent saturation: declining industry influence, stagnating wages, growing income inequality,
increasing vehicle operating costs and aging populations. (Another factor declining interest
in automobiles among youth is addressed in greater detail in the next section.) If confirmed
by further analysis, the peak car trend could have sweeping impacts on several policy domains
including land-use planning, public finance and climate change mitigation.
5. Generation Y and the automobile
A few years ago, Martin Zimmerman (2009), the automotive correspondent for the Los Angeles
Times, inquired, ‘Is the love affair between cars and young people starting to cool?’ More recently,
Lester Brown (2010) similarly opined that ‘perhaps the most fundamental social trend affecting the
future of the automobile is the declining interest in cars among young people’. Such observations
bring into view the cultural facets of the socio-technical landscape.
As discussed above, the expense of acquiring and operating a vehicle is likely becoming a
limiting factor and such constraints are especially relevant for the 75 million Generation Y-ers
of driving age in the USA because of their generally weak post-2008 employment prospects.
However, of at least equal importance is the automobile’s ostensible loss of appeal among members
of the generation born during the 1980s and early 1990s. The captivating allure of the car seems to
be dissipating and this numinous quality, probably more than anything else, has been behind the
entrenchment of automobile society (Frank 1997; Foster 2003; Seiler 2008). Over the last couple
of decades, during an era of congested roadways and expanding interest in urban lifestyles, youth
culture has gradually come to regard a personal vehicle as a necessary, but by no means compelling,
accoutrement.
19
To some degree, Mini, Scion and Smart have bucked this trend, but these brands
cannot on their own reanimate the mania that once enveloped the automobile.
Critical to this shift in sensibilities has been the advent of smartphones and electronic social
media (Davis 2011; Bilton 2011). The rapid uptake of handheld devices to access the Internet is a
reminder that beneath all of the marketing artifice, the most celebrated use of the automobile over
the years has been as a social networking tool for youth. Today, however, it is no longer necessary
to drive a two-ton vehicle across town to meet up with friends or parade down the main drag. An
iPhone allows participation in these same activities; the fact that the experience occurs on a virtual
basis does not seem to be a constraint, at least most of the time.
20
Sociability, as technological
visionary Buckminster Fuller long ago anticipated, has largely been ephemeralised (see Luke
2010). In addition, one does not need to be of legal driving age to engage in this new mode
of interaction; smartphones can preempt driving as a social practice and become ‘locked-into’
youth lifestyles years before a car becomes a practicable option.
21
While members of this cohort
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384 M.J. Cohen
will probably acquire a personal vehicle as they get older in part because of the paucity of
practicable alternatives and the persistence of countervailing commitments – they are unlikely to
become enthusiastic about spending long hours behind the wheel.
22
For the time being, though,
automobile manufacturers are hitting up against this barrier. Anecdotal evidence from the USA
suggests that dealers are having considerable difficulty selling cars to Gen Y-ers (see e.g. Ostroff
2010).
23
The marketing response thus far has been to integrate Internet functionality into the cars
themselves, a design strategy that Ford has pioneered with the introduction of its Sync system.
Daimler and Peugeot are separately experimenting with car-sharing and other schemes that sever
the link between ownership and use.
6. Conclusion
Allegations of ‘war’ against the automobile, declines in vehicle ownership and use, and apparent
diminished appeal among youth are indications of emergent instability in the contemporary surface
transport system. In terms of the MLP, change is developing at the landscape scale and starting to
reverberate at the regime level. It remains to be seen, however, whether niche-based champions
of insurgent alternatives will be able to exploit this incipient volatility. For the time being, inertia
as a result of the lock-in of key features of the prevailing socio-technical system will likely enable
the automobile to retain its incumbent position in the short- to medium-range future.
Despite important cross-national variations, automobile society in the developed countries is
the manifest outcome of several interlocking and coevolving developments at the landscape level
of the MLP: political potency deriving from geographically concentrated industrial economies,
expansion of the middle class, oil-supply arrangements that ensured low prices and adequate
throughput volumes, public finance structures that guaranteed ample resources for infrastructure
investment and relatively youthful populations. Several other favourable factors more directly
associated with the creation of a consumer society have also contributed to the entrenchment of
the prevailing socio-technical regime.
First, automobile society has been both cause and consequence of a widely celebrated process
of population dispersal that gave rise to new settlement patterns and reformed consumption and
production geographies most notably the establishment of suburban housing developments,
employment centres and shopping facilities. Second, mass marketisation of the car led to the
creation of readily recognisable brands that during the twentieth century became emblematic
signifiers of social status. Third, the individualising of lifestyles over the last several decades
has favoured privatised modes of travel over public alternatives. Finally, the diffusion of easy-to-
access consumer credit made automobility a relatively affordable means of transport regardless
of socioeconomic standing.
Many of these macro-scale factors are now moving in reverse direction and undermining the
foundations on which automobile society has been constructed. While these changes have been
unfolding slowly over the last few decades, they are now becoming mutually reinforcing and
starting to reshape both the socio-technical landscape and the landscape-regime interface. The
pace of realignment inevitably varies across countries (and within them) and divining a better
understanding of these differences will be an important research task for coming years.
24
As
these new circumstances become apparent there will no doubt be exultation from some quarters
and anguish from others. Indeed, we are already beginning to see the early expression of these
reactions and they will surely become more dramatic in coming years. To understand this process
of transition, it will be helpful to assume a vantage point that acknowledges the historical lessons
of the sailing ship, steamship, canal boat and railroad. While the automobile has over the arc
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The future of automobile society: a socio-technical transitions perspective 385
of its distinguished run been a source of immense personal enjoyment, a powerhouse for the
accumulation of vast industrial fortunes and an important medium for demonstrating national
pride, it will not be with us forever. The demise of the car is not imminent, but it is probably safe
to say that we are now closer to the end of automobile society than we are to its inception.
Acknowledgements
I am grateful to two anonymous referees for their cogent comments on a prior version of this article.
Notes
1. Early entrenchment of the automobile is partly (and ironically) attributable to the support it received from proto-
sustainability advocates in the field of public health. Reform-minded sanitary professionals championed the car
during the early years of the twentieth century because it promised to make horses for urban transport obsolete. It
was, of course, at the time unthinkable that in due course households would outfit themselves with two and more
vehicles.
2. The personal car has also served as an important source of public revenue through the collection of vehicle and
gasoline taxes and other licensing and operational fees. In short, numerous political and economic stakeholders have
had an interest in an expanding system of automobility.
3. The New York Times architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman (2011), recently captured the changing situation in the
following terms: All around the world, highways are being torn down and waterfronts reclaimed; decades of thinking
about cars and cities reversed; new public spaces created’.
4. This is not to say that the automobile has not over the years attracted critics motivated by pollution, safety, or other
harms, but they were typically seen as malcontents who failed to adequately appreciate the benefits of automobility.
See Ladd (2008) for a comprehensive account.
5. The advent of battery-electric vehicles and the longer-range commercial potential of hydrogen-fuel cells both represent
highly partial interventions for addressing the range of problems that beset the automobile.
6. I have elsewhere detailed the political use of military metaphors in public policy controversies (Cohen 2009b).
7. An early salvo was launched by the American political commentator B. Bruce-Briggs in a 1973 book entitled The
War Against the Automobile. The volume was a response to publications such as Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed
(published in 1965), as well as more belligerently titled writings such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1966 essay ‘The
War Against the Automobile’ (The Public Interest) and Lewis Mumford’s article ‘The American Way of Death’ (New
York Review of Books) from the same year.
8. The warrant of this distinction is largely unfounded. Let me take myself as an example. I own a car (actually two)
and normally use it on a daily basis. I also walk, run, bicycle and use public transit. Sometimes the car is useful and
sometimes it is not. I am grateful for not having to rely on it for all trips. Strategies to divide the world into pro- and
anti-automobile coalitions may be polemically powerful, but they are ultimately based on artificial distinctions.
9. De Place (2011) provides a useful media analysis of the Toronto and Seattle cases. See Shaer (2011) on the NewYork
City situation where an alleged ‘bike-lane war’ has been taking place.
10. Cox is a transport policy consultant who previously served on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission
and several federal committees and working groups. He is associated with a number of conservative think tanks and
writes frequently about transport affairs for publications in the USA and UK. Cox drafted the document as a visiting
fellow at the Heritage Foundation and it was published as a ‘special report’ by the Foundation.
11. Cox charged that the primary source for these observations was a ‘flawed’ report prepared for American Public
Transportation Association by the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, a research and consultancy organisation
based in British Columbia.
12. See Litman (2011) for a more comprehensive critique.
13. A November 2010 Harris Poll found that in the USA the automobile industry (along with oil, pharmaceuti-
cals, health insurance, tobacco and telecommunications) was one of the least likely economic sectors to be
thought of as honest and trustworthy. Only 8% of respondents answered the following question in the affir-
mative: ‘Which of these industries do you think are generally honest and trustworthy so that you normally
believe a statement by a company in that industry?’ For further details on the survey and its results, see
http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/mid/1508/articleId/648/ctl/ReadCustom%20
Default/Default.aspx
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386 M.J. Cohen
14. The observation appears in Deloitte & Touche’s 2009 report, ‘Gen-Y: America’sYouth Weighs in on Making Cars Cool
Again’, available at http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedStates/Local%20Assets/Documents/automotive_
gen_y_event_release_final1(1).pdf
15. For example, see Grist, Fast Company, The Daily Green, The Bellows, Felix Salmon, Autoblog and CleanMPG.
16. See Heinberg (2007) for a discussion of the more general concept of ‘peak everything’ and Goodall (2011) for a
treatment of the related notion of ‘peak stuff’.
17. Millard-Ball and Schipper (2011) use the term ‘peak travel’ which captures a more diverse array of transport modes.
It is also interesting to note that the peak car hypothesis has its own sage-like forerunner in the person of Denys
Lawrence Munby (1919–1976), an Oxford-based transport economist who identified the peaks of several transport
modes using an unprecedented dataset assembled over his career (Crabtree 2011).
18. A complementary (though not comparable) increase in non-motorised and public transport was noted for the same
period.
19. According to Hartwell (2010), the experience of buying a car for many Gen Y-ers is tantamount to a visit to the dentist.
20. The author-poet Frederick Seidel (2011) recently considered the extent to which smartphones and similar devices
are coming to replace motorcycles. He asks forlornly, ‘Are motorcycles passé? Are they sort of over? … The iPhone,
4S, the iPad 2, the 11-inch and 12-inch thin, light MacBook Air computers – these are the sleek gorgeousness young
people go on about, have to have, and do have in the millions … . It’s their operating speeds that thrill. Young people
cut a bella figura on their electronic devices’ (italics in original).
21. Japan is likely the most prominent exemplar of this trend of declining interest in automobility among youth. The
Japanese use the term kuruma banare – which translates roughly into ‘demotorisation’ – to describe this cultural shift
(Kashiwagi 2008; Kageyama 2009).
22. See Sheller (2004) for detailed consideration of the persistence of automobile-oriented commitments.
23. For instance, Deloitte & Touche has been conducting an annual Automotive Generation Y Survey’. The 2011 instal-
ment is entitled ‘Gaining Speed: Gen Y in the Driver’s Seat’. An indication of the magnitude of the research challenge
is signalled by the report’s observation that ‘what is most important to Gen Y has changed each year Deloitte has
fielded this survey [3000 respondents in 2011]. In 2009, a premium was placed on safety. In 2010, more emphasis was
devoted to value. According to 2011 survey results, “cockpit” technology and the shopping experience have emerged
as the leading differentiators for Gen Y when considering and purchasing an automobile’.
24. The case of the UK provides an interesting contrasting example. In a joint statement issued in January
2011, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced removal of
national planning restrictions established in 2001 requiring local councils to limit the number of parking
spaces in new residential developments and to set high parking charges. The policy revision was prompted
by a desire on the part of ‘the Government [to call] off Whitehall’s war on the motorist by scrapping the
national policy restricting residential parking spaces and instructing councils to push up charges’ (my italics).
See http://conservativehome.blogs.com/localgovernment/2011/01/parking-space-limits-for-new-homes-and-higher-
parking-charges-guidance-scrapped.html
Notes on contributor
Maurie J. Cohen is Associate Fellow at the Tellus Institute and Associate Professor at the New Jersey Institute of Tech-
nology where he is Director of the Program in Environmental Policy Studies and the Program in Science, Technology
and Society. He has held prior academic positions at the University of Leeds, Binghamton University (State University of
New York), Mansfield College (Oxford University) and Indiana University. Dr Cohen is the co-founder and co-convener
of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI), an international knowledge network compris-
ing academics, policy makers and practitioners working at the interface of material consumption, sustainable systems
innovation and economic transition. He also serves as the editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy, an open-
access e-journal dedicated to the wide dissemination of scholarly research and professional insights on sustainability
and is a Board Member of the Princeton School Gardens Cooperative. Dr Cohen’s books include Exploring Sustainable
Consumption: Environmental Policy and the Social Sciences (with Joseph Murphy), Risk in the Modern Age: Social
Theory, Science, and Environmental Decision Making, and The Exxon Valdez Disaster: Readings on a Social Prob-
lem (with J. Steven Picou and Duane Gill). Dr Cohen received his PhD in Regional Science from the University of
Pennsylvania.
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The future of automobile society: a socio-technical transitions perspective 387
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... Sozialer Wandel ist jedoch keineswegs auf lineare Fortführungen von beobachtbaren Trends oder die Entwicklung von neuen Technologien zu reduzieren. Vielmehr zeigt die Geschichte immer wieder, dass sozialer Wandel in überraschender Weise aus unerwarteten disruptiven Umbrüchen in anderen Feldern der Gesellschaft oder aus schon lange bestehenden alternativen Entwicklungssträngen entstehen kann (Cohen 2012;Dennis/Urry 2009: 133ff.;Foucault 2003b;Gertenbach 2008;Kemp et al. 2012 ...
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Wie sieht der Verkehr von heute und die Mobilität von morgen aus? Elektroautos sind auf dem Vormarsch und werden für viele Verkehrsprobleme als zentrale Lösung angepriesen. Allerdings greift dieser Wechsel der Antriebstechnologie zu kurz, denn er bringt neue soziale und ökologische Probleme für die Rohstoffpolitik und die globale Wertschöpfungskette mit sich. Aber auch Mobilitätskonzepte wie Carsharing, Ridepooling oder autonomes Fahren werfen viele Fragen auf und sind verknüpft mit gesellschaftlichen Konflikten. Die aus verschiedenen Disziplinen kommenden Autor*innen beschäftigen sich mit diesen hochaktuellen Entwicklungen und liefern Orientierung in der Auseinandersetzung mit der Transformation und Zukunft der (Auto-)Mobilität.
... In the recent years, research on sustainability transition in the transport sector is burgeoning. Topics include socio-technical analysis of transitions towards low-carbon mobility using various frameworks such as multi-level perspective (Geels, 2012;Whitmarsh, 2012;Cohen, 2012;Moradi and Vagnoni, 2018;Geels, 2018), systems of practice approach (Watson, 2012), institutional innovation (Bakker and Konings, 2018), and transitions management (Upham et al, 2015). Other studies consider pathways and catalysts of regime change in transport systems (Rosenbloom, 2017;Kent, Dowling and Maalsen, 2017;Canitez, 2019;Sunio et al., 2020a). ...
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This paper uncovers the (in)justices that arise from the three cases of ongoing transport system transition in the Philippines, namely the (non–)legitimation of motorcycle taxis, the formalization of jeepney and the implementation of high-priority bus system. These three cases are touted as potential transition pathways to sustainable mobility in the Philippines. Originally a method developed for the appraisal of contested visions, multi-criteria mapping (MCM) is used in this study to analyze interview data elicited from 17 stakeholders/specialists, representing a diversity of perspectives, through the five lenses of (in)justice (distributive, procedural, recognition, cosmopolitan and restorative). Just transition is understudied in the transportation literature, and this research identifies the equitable outcomes the three transition initiatives aim to achieve and the historical inequities they seek to remedy, but also, and more importantly, unpack injustice issues implicated in them which, being sources of tension, conflict and discontent, may powerfully resist the hoped-for sustainable transitions. The article ends with some policies, drawn from the cases that may ensure just transition for all.
... Moreover, although the abolition of private cars should be rather a very long process, due to consolidated new settlement patterns and reformed consumption and production geographies [105], many press publications see the time of a mass abandon of car society as approaching: By expressing a positive argumentation for this objective, especially about inner-city areas; by pointing out the proliferation of car-free lifestyle by wealthy people [96,101,106] and of the enactment of restrictions for cars in several city centers and inner-city areas [107] implying that emancipation from private cars is feasible; and by the speculation that autonomous cars are going to change the way people feel about car ownership [101]. A prospect of AVs spread and of car ownership abolition also leads probably to the elimination of on-street parking (parking lots), liberating an important amount of public space [103,108]. ...
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Smart city", driven by digital technology is not only a technological but also a social, cultural and political project. A socially and culturally significant new urban ideal is born. This research paper is based on the narrative that the city appears as a palimpsest of interventions of all natures. History and shared memory, composition and superimposition, coherence and divergence are fundamental for its evolution. It is thus evident that "Smart city" as a rather new urban ideal, but also as a disruptive innovation process, cannot be conceived nor implemented all at once; it must follow analogous processes of buildup and stratification. On the other hand, sounds are part of cities, of their sensory landscape, of their identity. They are one of the urban markers, along with the visual landscape. In this context, the paper focuses on the sound identity of the inner-city areas of the Mediterranean metropolis, posing the following research question: What are the transformations that "Smart city" can cause to the sound identity of a city? In dense urban fabric with high-rise buildings, high rates of exploitation, frequent transgressions of the legal construction and least free space in private plots, what can be the prospects of using "smart transport", for enriching the city with positive soundscapes, thus improving its environmental quality? Following the metaphor of urban and acoustic palimpsest, we examine narratives of replacement of conventional cars with autonomous vehicles (AVs) and of private cars with car-pooling systems. The article concludes that spatialized intelligence can substantially and positively transform the sound identity of the Medi-terranean metropolis and be the spearhead for an increase in bio-cultural sonic diversity. At least during the era when the city still appears as a palimpsest of interpositions, evoking the historic time.
... According to Geels and Schot (2007), TT can take place in four different pathways: transformation, reconfiguration, technological substitution, and de-alignment, re-alignment. Looking at the applications of MLP in transport literature, e.g. the TT towards low-carbon mobility (Köhler et al., 2018;Lin et al., 2018), towards multimodal urban mobility (Spickermann et al., 2014), towards mobility as a service , towards automotive sustainability (Cohen, 2012;Geels et al., 2012;Nykvist & Whitmarsh, 2008) and towards electro-mobility (Berkeley et al., 2017;Mazur et al., 2015), we can reflect that the AV is one of several transition processes currently taking place in the "automobility" regime. In this context, the AV is one technology option of the regime that is fostered in order to cope with the pressures of the landscape (e.g. ...
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