October 1 marks the anniversary of the first Model T Ford rolling off an assembly line (although the assembly line itself was a work in progress at the time.)
Cars of one sort or another had been around for almost 30 years, but the Model T – in its production, its price, and its availability to the middle class – marked a sharp division between past and future. From then on, we’d live in a world increasingly dominated by personal automobiles, for both better and worse.
More than a century later, we’ve not reconsidered that shift. It’s time to reconsider the positives and negatives of the car, and to decide if we still want our cities, our infrastructure, and the rhythms of our lives, to be built around cars.
The environmental considerations of mass car ownership are huge. That doesn’t just mean CO2 emissions, air pollution, or particulates. Even if we replaced every car and truck on the roads with electric vehicles tomorrow, we’d still have to deal with an environment that has been paved over, with oil-based asphalt or CO2-producing concrete, to provide room for all these cars to drive and park.
If you’ve ever flown at low altitude over a community you know, it can be surprising to see that malls and shopping centres almost always allocate more space to parking than to the actual stores. The impression you get is of a vast asphalt plain surrounding lonely buildings.
Finally, there’s the human toll.
Car crashes in Canada kill just under 2,000 people a year, which is actually a significant improvement over 20 years ago, when the total was closer to 2,500 annually. Serious injuries total close to 10,000 a year.
It is possible that sometime in the next 10 or 20 years, some clever programmers will solve the last few intractable problems with self-driving cars (like driving in the snow, and navigating around road construction) but in the meantime, we’re pretty much okay with a couple thousand Canadians dying every year, and five times that number being seriously injured, some with life-altering injuries.
The thing is, none of this was intended. Henry Ford and the other pioneers of auto manufacturing didn’t know any of this would happen. Cars were just obviously useful – they didn’t need rest or food like horses, they could carry more people, farther, faster. As with almost every technological innovation of the last century, from TV to nuclear power to Facebook, no one foresaw the long-term consequences of widespread adoption.
But we should consider, even now, whether the cost is worth the benefit, and if there are ways to unwind ourselves from the grip of the car and its vast web of infrastructure.
What would a world look like, what would our cities look like, if we had to give up cars? What would we put in their place? How would that change our lives, for better and for worse?
I don’t pretend there are easy answers for this. But I think considering the question deeply is a valuable exercise. What kind of a city do we want? And how does the car fit, or not fit, into that vision?
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