A friend recently pointed out this 1973 essay on cars – The social ideology of the motorcar. It’s a little bit socialist but if you ignore those bits, the points it makes about cars are even more relevant today than they were back in 1973.
The author André Gorz, starts by explaining how cars are luxury goods that were never designed for mass use. Let me explain. Some goods gain utility from mass adoption – like Facebook and telephones. If you’re the only person with a telephone then it’s pretty pointless because you can’t ring anyone. Same for Facebook. For the car the opposite is true. If you’re the only person with a car then it can truly be enjoyed because you don’t have to contend with other cars – with traffic. You can park wherever you want and you don’t have to inhale the pollution from other motorists. As soon as everyone has a car their utility is lost because more time is spent wasted in traffic and looking for parking spaces.
People rushed to buy cars until, as the working class began to buy them as well, defrauded motorists realized they had been had. They had been promised a bourgeois privilege, they had gone into debt to acquire it, and now they saw that everyone else could also get one. What good is a privilege if everyone can have it? It’s a fool’s game. Worse, it pits everyone against everyone else. General paralysis is brought on by a general clash. For when everyone claims the right to drive at the privileged speed of the bourgeoisie, everything comes to a halt, and the speed of city traffic plummets—in Boston as in Paris, Rome, or London—to below that of the horsecar; at rush hours the average speed on the open road falls below the speed of a bicyclist.
With cars came the development of urban sprawl where cities are stretched out beside motorways in suburbs. These suburbs are so far from everything that cars are a necessity for the people who live there. There’s no choice for those people. They are utterly and completely dependent on cars.
The next bit is the best bit. The author describes how the suburbs are necessary to escape the city. But why do we want to escape the city? Because of cars!
The car has made the big city uninhabitable. It has made it stinking, noisy, suffocating, dusty, so congested that nobody wants to go out in the evening anymore. Thus, since cars have killed the city, we need faster cars to escape on superhighways to suburbs that are even farther away. What an impeccable circular argument: give us more cars so that we can escape the destruction caused by cars.
It’s striking to me that this was written in 1973 and little has changed in English-speaking cities since then. If anything, we are even more beholden to the car now than we were then. It’s not going to be easy to give up because with all the investment in roads for cars over the decades other modes of transport have languished and many people simply do not have any other option. I am hopeful things are changing. Young people are increasingly abandoning cars, governments are finally starting to recognise the economic and health benefits of investing in cycling infrastructure, and the toxic air produced by motor vehicles is starting to make headlines. I dream of a time where I can go outside and hear birds chirping and children playing instead of the constant hum of the internal combustion engine.