The End of Private Cars?

What can the history of transportation in America teach us about the future of private automobile ownership in America? Quite a bit, actually, according to Maurie Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Cohen reasons that the automobile is no different from other transportation technology that were deemed essential to its time but were eventually phased out over time, such as the sailboat, the steamship, the canal system, the carriage, and the streetcar, to name but a few.

In fact, he predicts, it will probably come from China, which would make for an ironic comeuppance by history. The car was largely developed in America to fit the American landscape, with our wide-open spaces and brand-new communities. And then the car was awkwardly grafted onto other places, like dense, old European cities and developing countries. If the car’s replacement comes out of China, it will be designed to fit the particular needs and conditions of China, and then it will spread from there. The result probably won’t work as well in the U.S., Cohen says, in the same way that the car never worked as well in Florence as it did in Detroit.

We’re not terribly well positioned right now to think about what this future will look like. Part of the challenge is that, culturally, we’re much more accustomed to celebrating new gadgets than thinking about how old technology decays.

“And people don’t have the perspective that extends beyond their own lives,” Cohen says. “They were born into a society and culture where cars were everywhere, and they can’t envision – with good reason – living their lives without a car.”

He worries that in the U.S., we’ve lost our “cultural capacity to envision alternative futures,” to envision the Futurama of the next century. More often, when we do picture the future, it looks either like a reproduced version of the present or like some apocalyptic landscape. But this exercise requires a lot more imagination: What will be the next carriage without a horse? The next car without an engine?

Cohen further goes on to argue that the automobile will be phased out similarly to what is currently happening with landlines. The technology is already obsolete and pointless for the most part, but still used by people who grew up with the technology.

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