.
O

ne of the things I miss most about living in London was the sheer walkability and convenience of everything. It shaped pretty much everything about the way I lived and worked in the city. Grocery shopping was a breeze with a Marks & Spencer right around the corner. The Tube was a quick 10-minute walk from my flat, and from there the city was wide open to explore and enjoy. 

Returning to the United States was a study in contrasts. I landed in Alexandria, Virginia, part of the urban sprawl of the Washington, D.C., area. While I was able to use public transport into the office, getting anywhere else required a car and battling the ever growing, agony-inducing traffic that defines American semi-urban living. I couldn’t wait to move out of the area and back to a more walkable location and, thankfully, I was eventually able to do so, recapturing a small slice of convenience and civility.

Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About It | Daniel Knowles | Abrams Press

That study in contrasts is illustrative of Daniel Knowles central thesis of his new book “Carmageddon,” a polemical look at how the car has altered the way we live and work, and the landscape and climate around us. His manifesto is very much about reclaiming the urban environments for the people. Knowles, a Midwest correspondent for The Economist, makes a compelling case about what makes cities unique and attractive—the residents and community that they create—and how cars and the ecosystem that supports them have undermined this uniqueness. 

The emergence of the car was by no means guaranteed, as Knowles explores. Indeed, as he writes, the automobile was originally seen as a menace, putting pedestrian lives at risk for the benefit and enjoyment of the wealthy. Slowly, the car became increasingly ubiquitous, and an ecosystem emerged around the automobile to support and enable its operation. Knowles’ exploration of how roadways were used to pursue segregation is particularly interesting—city planners used the creation of new roadways into the cities to disrupt urban communities and restrict the mobility of lower-income, disadvantaged African-American and Hispanic-American populations. This also facilitated the exodus of wealthier white Americans to suburbia, creating a commuter culture and seeing the proliferation of overpriced garages and expansive parking lots. The paucity of public transportation in some communities and attendant issues of crime, poverty, and health are all directly linked to these urban planning decisions, even today. 

In the main, Knowles’ book is a call to arms for urban citizens to retake control of the urban planning of their communities and demand the prioritization of people over cars, the inverse of which is clearly the modus operandi of communities in the United States, but increasingly abroad. His exploration of Delhi and Lagos are fascinating, showing how the culture of the car is spreading—everyone wants a piece of the (not so) open road.  

Knowles’ passion is impressive but reflects a particularly urban focus. Had his focus been solely on tackling the challenges of urban planning and city design, it would have made for a far stronger book. The issue is when revisiting the issue of the automobile is taken from the micro-level and expanded to a macro-challenge. 

His urban focus ignores the reality of the suburban, exurban, and rural communities, particularly of the United States. It is all well and good to suggest that increased investment in public transportation is needed within cities, but it does little for the communities outside of those urban areas. Increased bus service or inter-city rail will not address the urban sprawl that has characterized so much of American development, and certainly not at a tax rate voters would be willing to accept. Try as governments may, there is no amount of investment that will change the negative perceptions of public transportation or erode the culture of the car.

That cultural element is something Knowles touches upon. Turn on any American television and you see cars speeding along the open road. Glamorous models driving the latest luxury car, or families cheerfully heading out to the mountains for glamping. There is this in-built expectation of personal freedom that comes with owning and driving an automobile. Even if Americans know that they won’t be traipsing off to the mountains on the weekends and, will almost certainly be spending the bulk of their hours commuting in a car, they still see that as a form of personal freedom—they may be in traffic, but they are still in their own self-contained bubble of “me time.”

The small-scale urban reclamation examples he highlights and models he references are certainly impressive and welcome, but not scalable or achievable beyond those limited examples. Shutting down one road in Paris or closing off a neighborhood to traffic in the United Kingdom has a demonstrable effect but doesn’t change the underlying or existing structure of the community itself. No amount of reinvigorated urban planning will be able to undo the urban sprawl of Houston or Dallas, or perhaps stop the sprawl of Lagos or Delhi. At best, communities can tweak the margins (and welcome tweaks those may be), but radical community redevelopment is a bridge too far.

Achieving a market shift in what people buy (e.g., electric vehicles over gas or diesel-powered cars) is decidedly easier than getting people to avoid using cars full stop (and something that is already underway). Car companies are responding to demand, but also driving and shaping demand. Elon Musk’s Tesla radically reshaped the electric vehicle market, and led an entire shift in what people want to buy. Even still, electric vehicles are not viable in every part of the United States. There are and will still be some places where combustion engines are still needed due to distances between charging stations and environmental considerations as batteries do not perform as well in cold conditions.

Knowles’ rightly highlights the central challenge to both urban design and changing the culture of the car—politics—but it is an underappreciated issue. From bumper-to-bumper, every part of the car and its culture is driven by political considerations. The construction of new roads is a political and financial issue, as is the creation of new public transportation opportunities—NIMBYism is very real and will stand in the way of public transportation development or expansion. The incentives for expanding roads are much greater than those for the construction of light rail, subways, or the growth of bus services. Equally, the sheer dysfunction of many public transportation systems beggars’ belief, but also militates against expansion of those very systems.

Knowles is, however, right that municipal solutions to greater traffic is to increase the size and scale of roads, which merely creates more traffic. As anyone who has driven the “Beltway” which encircles Washington D.C. can attest, expanding the lanes has done very little to change traffic levels. The addition of tolls and congestion charges on certain roads has also done relatively little to change driving patterns—it simply has become an added cost of doing business.

The D.C. Metro is a prime example of the dysfunction of public transportation in the United States. It is inefficient at the best of times, prone to delays and fires (which happen so frequently it has spawned its own https://ismetroonfire.com/”), and shockingly unsafe. It experienced lengthy safety shutdowns that forced riders to drive or use ride-sharing services, and is only now approaching pre-COVID-19 levels of ridership with no concomitant increase in the quality of service. The long-planned, much-delayed, and over-budget expansion of the system out to Dulles Airport was only recently completed—there is no high-speed rail into the center of town, only local trains. Moreover, the construction of these new stations out into Virginia was not accompanied by increased public transport to the stations themselves, or parking around the new stations, severely undercutting their utility. 

The electric vehicle revolution is, as Knowles describes, not all it is cracked up to be. While removing gasoline and diesel-powered engines from the road is generally a good thing, it merely moves the fossil fuel consumption up the electric chain. This places greater strain on an already beleaguered energy grid and adds greater demand at a time when there is insufficient excess capacity. California recently asked residents not to charge their electric cars due to increased demand, which risks rolling brownouts. Wind and solar power alone cannot power this increased demand and the adamant reluctance to use nuclear power drives increased consumption of fossil fuels in the near term. Replacing the engines is one thing, but it also does little to address the particulates generated by tires and brakes, an often unacknowledged environmental and health risk.

The batteries themselves, while improving, have their own drawbacks in terms of production and efficiency. In the case of the former the mining of lithium and cobalt has its own drawbacks including corruption in the countries from which it is mined, but also environmental degradation from the mining itself—though it is worth noting that mining today is much more efficient and effective than previous generations. Moreover, there is simply not enough resources to achieve the electrification the most ambitious proponents aim to achieve. In the latter, batteries and the associated charging cannot yet meet the efficacy of fossil fuel powered engines. Hopes that long-haul trucking can be electrified are also, for example, misplaced. The weight of the batteries reduces the hauling capabilities of these trucks, necessitating even more trucks to be added to the road.

Washington’s ambitions of mass electrification, recently embodied by Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm’s commitment to see America’s military electrified, would see greater, not less, reliance on its most significant strategic competitor: China. Beijing controls the majority of critical mineral and rare earth refining capacity, and without substantial investment in domestic or allied production, China’s position will only increase as the West pursues its well-intentioned climate agenda.

Moreover, good luck tackling the automotive industry in Michigan or in Germany. Cars aren’t going anywhere even if fewer people are needed in their manufacturing. Even today, the contest over manufacturing facilities and the jobs that come with them animate many of debates at the state and local level of politics, with each offering more incentives to lure in car companies.

Concerns about “peak car” are perhaps overblown. My own sister, a member of the Gen Z cohort, was adamantly opposed to getting her driving license or a car. Her attitude was that she simply didn’t need it—she took the bus to secondary school and was ferried everywhere else by our parents. Despite my encouragement to get driving as soon as she could, she delayed doing so until it was necessary (both for convenience and image as who wants their parents driving them to university?). Cars simply aren’t going anywhere and while fewer teenagers may be getting their driving license, it seems more a delaying function than anything else. Here again, there is likely a shift in attitudes—Gen Z and its successors are likely to see electric vehicles as the norm, not the exception. But a change is not a rejection.

While Knowles makes interesting and compelling points, the reality is things are almost certainly unlikely to change at a macro-level of urban redevelopment, but may, at best, shift on the margins in terms of consumer demands. While this will create its own challenges, it is nonetheless a start and may make it less a “Carmageddon” and more of a milder “Cartastrophe.”

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Avoiding Going ‘On the Road Again’

May 6, 2023

Urbanization has meant more reliance on cars and urban landscapes reflect this reliance. Daniel Knowles' recently published "Carmageddon" argues urban residents should recapture control of urban planning to make cities more people friendly, but misses some important points, writes Joshua Huminski.

O

ne of the things I miss most about living in London was the sheer walkability and convenience of everything. It shaped pretty much everything about the way I lived and worked in the city. Grocery shopping was a breeze with a Marks & Spencer right around the corner. The Tube was a quick 10-minute walk from my flat, and from there the city was wide open to explore and enjoy. 

Returning to the United States was a study in contrasts. I landed in Alexandria, Virginia, part of the urban sprawl of the Washington, D.C., area. While I was able to use public transport into the office, getting anywhere else required a car and battling the ever growing, agony-inducing traffic that defines American semi-urban living. I couldn’t wait to move out of the area and back to a more walkable location and, thankfully, I was eventually able to do so, recapturing a small slice of convenience and civility.

Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About It | Daniel Knowles | Abrams Press

That study in contrasts is illustrative of Daniel Knowles central thesis of his new book “Carmageddon,” a polemical look at how the car has altered the way we live and work, and the landscape and climate around us. His manifesto is very much about reclaiming the urban environments for the people. Knowles, a Midwest correspondent for The Economist, makes a compelling case about what makes cities unique and attractive—the residents and community that they create—and how cars and the ecosystem that supports them have undermined this uniqueness. 

The emergence of the car was by no means guaranteed, as Knowles explores. Indeed, as he writes, the automobile was originally seen as a menace, putting pedestrian lives at risk for the benefit and enjoyment of the wealthy. Slowly, the car became increasingly ubiquitous, and an ecosystem emerged around the automobile to support and enable its operation. Knowles’ exploration of how roadways were used to pursue segregation is particularly interesting—city planners used the creation of new roadways into the cities to disrupt urban communities and restrict the mobility of lower-income, disadvantaged African-American and Hispanic-American populations. This also facilitated the exodus of wealthier white Americans to suburbia, creating a commuter culture and seeing the proliferation of overpriced garages and expansive parking lots. The paucity of public transportation in some communities and attendant issues of crime, poverty, and health are all directly linked to these urban planning decisions, even today. 

In the main, Knowles’ book is a call to arms for urban citizens to retake control of the urban planning of their communities and demand the prioritization of people over cars, the inverse of which is clearly the modus operandi of communities in the United States, but increasingly abroad. His exploration of Delhi and Lagos are fascinating, showing how the culture of the car is spreading—everyone wants a piece of the (not so) open road.  

Knowles’ passion is impressive but reflects a particularly urban focus. Had his focus been solely on tackling the challenges of urban planning and city design, it would have made for a far stronger book. The issue is when revisiting the issue of the automobile is taken from the micro-level and expanded to a macro-challenge. 

His urban focus ignores the reality of the suburban, exurban, and rural communities, particularly of the United States. It is all well and good to suggest that increased investment in public transportation is needed within cities, but it does little for the communities outside of those urban areas. Increased bus service or inter-city rail will not address the urban sprawl that has characterized so much of American development, and certainly not at a tax rate voters would be willing to accept. Try as governments may, there is no amount of investment that will change the negative perceptions of public transportation or erode the culture of the car.

That cultural element is something Knowles touches upon. Turn on any American television and you see cars speeding along the open road. Glamorous models driving the latest luxury car, or families cheerfully heading out to the mountains for glamping. There is this in-built expectation of personal freedom that comes with owning and driving an automobile. Even if Americans know that they won’t be traipsing off to the mountains on the weekends and, will almost certainly be spending the bulk of their hours commuting in a car, they still see that as a form of personal freedom—they may be in traffic, but they are still in their own self-contained bubble of “me time.”

The small-scale urban reclamation examples he highlights and models he references are certainly impressive and welcome, but not scalable or achievable beyond those limited examples. Shutting down one road in Paris or closing off a neighborhood to traffic in the United Kingdom has a demonstrable effect but doesn’t change the underlying or existing structure of the community itself. No amount of reinvigorated urban planning will be able to undo the urban sprawl of Houston or Dallas, or perhaps stop the sprawl of Lagos or Delhi. At best, communities can tweak the margins (and welcome tweaks those may be), but radical community redevelopment is a bridge too far.

Achieving a market shift in what people buy (e.g., electric vehicles over gas or diesel-powered cars) is decidedly easier than getting people to avoid using cars full stop (and something that is already underway). Car companies are responding to demand, but also driving and shaping demand. Elon Musk’s Tesla radically reshaped the electric vehicle market, and led an entire shift in what people want to buy. Even still, electric vehicles are not viable in every part of the United States. There are and will still be some places where combustion engines are still needed due to distances between charging stations and environmental considerations as batteries do not perform as well in cold conditions.

Knowles’ rightly highlights the central challenge to both urban design and changing the culture of the car—politics—but it is an underappreciated issue. From bumper-to-bumper, every part of the car and its culture is driven by political considerations. The construction of new roads is a political and financial issue, as is the creation of new public transportation opportunities—NIMBYism is very real and will stand in the way of public transportation development or expansion. The incentives for expanding roads are much greater than those for the construction of light rail, subways, or the growth of bus services. Equally, the sheer dysfunction of many public transportation systems beggars’ belief, but also militates against expansion of those very systems.

Knowles is, however, right that municipal solutions to greater traffic is to increase the size and scale of roads, which merely creates more traffic. As anyone who has driven the “Beltway” which encircles Washington D.C. can attest, expanding the lanes has done very little to change traffic levels. The addition of tolls and congestion charges on certain roads has also done relatively little to change driving patterns—it simply has become an added cost of doing business.

The D.C. Metro is a prime example of the dysfunction of public transportation in the United States. It is inefficient at the best of times, prone to delays and fires (which happen so frequently it has spawned its own https://ismetroonfire.com/”), and shockingly unsafe. It experienced lengthy safety shutdowns that forced riders to drive or use ride-sharing services, and is only now approaching pre-COVID-19 levels of ridership with no concomitant increase in the quality of service. The long-planned, much-delayed, and over-budget expansion of the system out to Dulles Airport was only recently completed—there is no high-speed rail into the center of town, only local trains. Moreover, the construction of these new stations out into Virginia was not accompanied by increased public transport to the stations themselves, or parking around the new stations, severely undercutting their utility. 

The electric vehicle revolution is, as Knowles describes, not all it is cracked up to be. While removing gasoline and diesel-powered engines from the road is generally a good thing, it merely moves the fossil fuel consumption up the electric chain. This places greater strain on an already beleaguered energy grid and adds greater demand at a time when there is insufficient excess capacity. California recently asked residents not to charge their electric cars due to increased demand, which risks rolling brownouts. Wind and solar power alone cannot power this increased demand and the adamant reluctance to use nuclear power drives increased consumption of fossil fuels in the near term. Replacing the engines is one thing, but it also does little to address the particulates generated by tires and brakes, an often unacknowledged environmental and health risk.

The batteries themselves, while improving, have their own drawbacks in terms of production and efficiency. In the case of the former the mining of lithium and cobalt has its own drawbacks including corruption in the countries from which it is mined, but also environmental degradation from the mining itself—though it is worth noting that mining today is much more efficient and effective than previous generations. Moreover, there is simply not enough resources to achieve the electrification the most ambitious proponents aim to achieve. In the latter, batteries and the associated charging cannot yet meet the efficacy of fossil fuel powered engines. Hopes that long-haul trucking can be electrified are also, for example, misplaced. The weight of the batteries reduces the hauling capabilities of these trucks, necessitating even more trucks to be added to the road.

Washington’s ambitions of mass electrification, recently embodied by Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm’s commitment to see America’s military electrified, would see greater, not less, reliance on its most significant strategic competitor: China. Beijing controls the majority of critical mineral and rare earth refining capacity, and without substantial investment in domestic or allied production, China’s position will only increase as the West pursues its well-intentioned climate agenda.

Moreover, good luck tackling the automotive industry in Michigan or in Germany. Cars aren’t going anywhere even if fewer people are needed in their manufacturing. Even today, the contest over manufacturing facilities and the jobs that come with them animate many of debates at the state and local level of politics, with each offering more incentives to lure in car companies.

Concerns about “peak car” are perhaps overblown. My own sister, a member of the Gen Z cohort, was adamantly opposed to getting her driving license or a car. Her attitude was that she simply didn’t need it—she took the bus to secondary school and was ferried everywhere else by our parents. Despite my encouragement to get driving as soon as she could, she delayed doing so until it was necessary (both for convenience and image as who wants their parents driving them to university?). Cars simply aren’t going anywhere and while fewer teenagers may be getting their driving license, it seems more a delaying function than anything else. Here again, there is likely a shift in attitudes—Gen Z and its successors are likely to see electric vehicles as the norm, not the exception. But a change is not a rejection.

While Knowles makes interesting and compelling points, the reality is things are almost certainly unlikely to change at a macro-level of urban redevelopment, but may, at best, shift on the margins in terms of consumer demands. While this will create its own challenges, it is nonetheless a start and may make it less a “Carmageddon” and more of a milder “Cartastrophe.”

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.