Oh, By The Way? The Era Of The Private Car Is Over

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1931 Studebaker commemorating U.S. Route 66 in Arizona (via user Finetooth on Wikimedia)

1931 Studebaker commemorating U.S. Route 66 in Arizona (via user Finetooth on Wikimedia)

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As a reader of this blog -- a blog about cars -- chances are good that you own a car yourself. That's not unusual: today, many Americans depend on automobiles to get to work, to run errands, to see friends and loved ones.

But as Emily Badger at The Atlantic points out, tomorrow will likely be a very different story.


Pretend for a moment that you're a farmer at the dawn of the 20th century. You've got all the seeds you need for the next growing season, all the plows, hoes, and other accessories, too. You'd be out in the fields now, except for one problem: you've got no horse.

That's a major catastrophe. How can you run a farm without a horse -- or at least a mule -- to do the heavy lifting?

A hundred years ago, that would've been a real head-scratcher. Today, however, the answer is obvious: head down to John Deere and buy a tractor.

From our perspective in 2013, the transition from horses to horsepower seems seamless, but it didn't happen overnight, nor was it accidental. It was a complex process that leveraged emerging technologies to address rapidly changing needs in the farming sector.

Put another way: farmers didn't just switch to tractors because tractors were more efficient than horses. Farmers switched to tractors because those farmers had to produce exponentially larger amounts of food for a population that was abandoning rural life for bustling cities, thanks to the Industrial Revolution. And because the farmers' plan worked, increasing numbers of people could leave farming altogether, which forced tractors to become bigger and faster, fueling a vicious circle of dependence.

Something similar is happening to the car as we speak.


Technological shifts often seem to come about simply because newer, better technology emerges. But technology doesn't just happen; it evolves to meet civilization's ever-changing needs. Badger offers a timely example:

Look at how the cell phone has evolved to replace the landline. Our need for cell phones didn’t arise in a vacuum. Work practices changed. Commuting times got longer, creating the need for communication inside cars. Batteries got smaller. Cell phone towers proliferated.

And so it is with cars. 

In the late 19th and early 20th century, cars were underused, undervalued. They were something of an oddity, and more than a little feared. 

It's no surprise that when they really took off, they did so in the U.S. -- a new country spanning an entire continent, with vast distances separating population centers and a rail system that couldn't feasibly serve every corner of the nation. Nor is it a coincidence that much of the auto boom came around the same time as World War I, when the U.S. military needed technological advantages like motor vehicles to stay ahead of the enemy.

(Many of the technological innovations and inventions we take for granted were first spearheaded by the military. In fact, you're using one right now: the Internet.)

A century later, the private car is dying. Older Americans may still appreciate the vehicles parked in their driveways, but as we've seen time and time and time again, young people just don't care.  

But there's more to it than that: young people aren't blase about cars simply because it's harder to get a license nowadays, or because they can't afford them (although those are contributing factors). It's because cars are no longer necessary.

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