Michael has send in a piece on “What the Steamship and the Land line can tell us about the Decline of the Private Car.” You can read it here. Basically it says that all technology has a shelf life and just as the buggy whip, the sailboat, and the telephone land line, private cars will slowly fade away.
Let’s take a look at the article’s examples. The steamship replaced the sail boat because technology gave us something that would cross the seas faster and safer. However we didn’t stop crossing the seas, in fact I’m certain that the gross tonnage of freight carried by steamship has far outreached that carried by sail. Boats are still there, they provide the same service, but they do it with a different technology.
The telephone land line is similar. Cell phones replace a landline but they don’t replace people communicating with one another. We could say that landlines replace telegraph lines, or for that matter, smoke signals or the Pony Express. It didn’t replace communications, just the way we do it.
The difference between private cars and say mass transportation is related to freedom of choice. The car means that I can go anywhere I want any time I want. I’m not restricted by train schedules, bus schedules, or the like.
Much of the freedom we enjoy is related to the use of private vehicles. How I purchase food, where I work, when I work, what entertainment I enjoy, where I can spend time in recreation, are all related to the private vehicle. How much time I can spend arguing over a particular topic is directly related to whether I have to catch the last bus or train, or whether I can simply drive home when the discussion is completed.
The economics of my life is related to my ability to go shopping in big box stores and get the benefits of scale. I can pop down to the supermarket, maybe five miles away, and save on my purchases. A can of tuna fish costs a lot less at Ralph’s than at a 7-11.
So unless we see a paradigm shift in how society lives its life — which many social scientists are attempting as we speak – the need for private transportation will continue and the need for individuals to have places to park it.
That’s not to say that the private car won’t change. Compare a Model T to a Toyota Camry and you can see a huge difference. However the actual use of the vehicle has changed little.
Which begs the question, is the freedom that private vehicles give us a good thing. You will note that most people who want to do away with them live in urban centers. So they can easily walk to the market, the concert, or the ball game. Public transportation is ubiquitous and cheap.
However if I live 50 miles out of town and want to go to a concert, ball game, or even the supermarket, what now?
Will the private vehicle change — yep — it will become self driving, it will become less polluting, it will become more comfortable and safer. It may even fly. But just as the steamship and the cell phone, I’ll just bet that the reason for its existence will survive the technology shift.