Are Cars Driving Into the Sunset?

Our love affair with automobiles is changing in the face of climate change and denser urban living

In the future, what role will cars play in our lives? (© Robert Landau/Corbis)
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In this Round Table, four experts, brought together by Zócalo Public Square, weigh in on the future of cars.

On a typical Saturday night in the 1970s, Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. would have been thumping with lowriders—those lacquered, richly colored sedans with chassis that could bounce up and down with the flip of a switch. Slow cruising in a Chevy Impala was perfect for people watching and showing off your glorious Frankenstein handiwork.

Cars have long defined who Americans are, how we socialize, where we live, and where we work. They still have a hold over us—just look at how many Fast and Furious movies keep coming at us—but the world we drive in is changing. It’s now been about a century since we were introduced to cars. Gas prices are on the rise while wages stay flat. We’re increasingly aware of how burning fossil fuels harms the environment. And commutes into downtown from the ever-expanding suburbs can take two hours or longer. So, in an age of climate change and dense urban living, what role will cars play in our lives? 

Geoff Wardle: Who says 'mass transit' can't include cars?

(Zócalo Public Square)

This may be shocking coming from someone who supports cycling for mobility—but I would argue that cars could become the mass transit of the future.

As we contemplate future cars and other road vehicles that drive themselves, there is an opportunity for huge paradigm shifts in the way that we as individuals access cars, which will radically alter the nature of the automobile industry. Indeed, if automated road vehicles can fulfill their promise of creating an efficient, self-organizing streaming of vehicles along our infrastructure with a significant reduction in vehicular, pedestrian and other road-related accidents; and if those vehicles can become highly energy efficient and matched precisely to our individual journey needs, then cars could provide much more efficient, convenient and sustainable mobility than buses, trains and subways.

Geoff Wardle is executive director, graduate Transportation Systems and Design, Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

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