The Boomers’ Love of the Motor Car has Enslaved Us All. Autonomous Vehicles could free us.
The Automobile, as with all innovation is first conceived as a replacement for an existing technology. The Horseless Carriage. And at first, it did: the Motor car was the transport of the kind of people who had carriages and staff to drive them.
Then aristocratic youngsters got their hands on their parents’ cars and started to drive themselves. The Car became the aspirational badge of success.
By the 1960s anyone with a middle-class job could have a car. And by the 1980s cars were in the price range of more-or-less everyone.
The Baby-boomers dug up the 1930s cycleways as they built an environment around the motor car. Town centres were demolished, and rebuilt with inner ring-roads during the 60s and 70s. The bicycle was despised as a poor-man’s transport, or the toy of eccentrics, and so not really considered as an option. Nor were pedestrians, who were relegated to dank subterranean holes of rain-soaked concrete filled with ranting, smack-addled derelicts, begging for small change in puddles of cheap lager piss. Walking to the town centre from residential districts became unpleasant. Cycling was effectively banned. Real people who had to do things, drove cars.
Unfortunately, driving into a town or city centre was little better, however many urban expressways were built. Too many people wanted to take too many cars into too little space. So businesses moved out of the centre, to the urban edge, next to vast, windswept car-parks. The result is urban sprawl as suburbs without amenities forced people to travel beyond human distances. As car ownership expanded, the buses disappeared through lack of use, and kids lost their freedom. Town centres decayed through lack of use. Cycling became a terrifying ordeal of close-passes by tons of angry metal and walking to anything simply took too long.
The Boomers mostly do not go anywhere except by car, and cannot conceive of it being any other way, despite the fact they may have visited Copenhagen or Amsterdam. There are sufficient cars even there for these cities to not cause the Boomers cognitive dissonance.
The result of the world the boomers built is a world which will be utterly miserable for them as they decay into senescence. The boomers’ kids live a long way from them. As do their friends. There is no local shop. Once their eyesight goes and their kids take their car keys away, they will be marooned, day after day as the clock ticks away on their lives, trapped in their homes by the very world they built.
LOL @ the Boomers.
The Netherlands was going the same way in the 1970s, but thanks to a spate of children being killed by motor cars, they decided to change course and design all urban spaces around people, not cars. The result is residential neighbourhoods still have shops even coffin-dodgers can walk to, and thanks to a lifetime of practice, cloggy pensioners can do this:
It’s hard to imagine a british octogenarian mixing it with the lorries on a bicycle on the way to see his grandkids. Thankfully for the Netherlanders’ baby-boomers, unlike the UK’s, built a world that isn’t oppressively hostile to the elderly, something they are enjoying today.
The absurd british fear of the cyclist is something of a stockholm syndrome. Because it is fear. Deep-seated fear of someone who rejects all their society’s assumptions. Fear that their car, and their precious parking space will become worthless. Fear of the freedom, of the lack of regulation, and resentment of someone who is free* of the frustrations of traffic.
Hence the belief that cyclists are scofflaws, who pose a danger to pedestrians. Cyclists do pose a danger to pedestrians. But it is dwarfed by that involving cars. There were no deaths caused by cyclists in the UK between the collision between Kim Briggs and Charlie Alliston, and his conviction and imprisonment for wanton and furious cycling. Of course, had Kim Briggs stepped back into the path of a car doing 12-18 mph, and died, it wouldn’t have made local news, and there wouldn’t have been an arrest, let alone a conviction. There were dozens of incidents where a car killed a person in those 18 months, and the drivers mostly went unpunished; these are near-daily events. Cyclist hurting pedestrians happen in the UK at a perfect frequency: scarce enough to be remarkable, but frequent enough for recall. Availability heuristics reinforce a belief that cyclists are inherently reckless and dangerous.
This is why all the demands of the motoring lobby are to impose all the same frustrations endured by motorists, entirely unnecessarily, onto cyclists. Licensing, testing, taxing and compulsory insurance. Compulsory high visibility clothing, helmets and demands to follow the same, unnecessary and counterproductive rules.
These frustrations do not occur to citizens of Northern Europe, where cycling is natural, comfortable and universal. It’s not the weather: the Netherlands is every bit as dank, windy and wet as the UK. It’s not hills: Germany and Scandinavia are not any less hilly than the UK. It’s that the pedestrian, bicycle and motorcar are considered as different, but equal in the design of roads and urban spaces. Road engineers design out the conflicts and frustrations to both cyclists and motorists by keeping the two parties apart where possible. The netherlands isn’t anti-car, but it is pro-cyclist. I’ve driven in Sweden. It’s far, far more pleasant than doing so in the UK. Why? Because anyone who wants to cycle their journey, can. As a result, there’s less congestion, and parking is easy. Cycling and driving in Northern Europe is, of course vastly more pleasant than it is in the UK. It isn’t a zero-sum game.
Thankfully, there’s a solution: driverless cars, as you can tell by the name, are conceived as a replacement for the car, except you can read a book while being driven by a robot chauffeur, exactly analogous to the attitude of the early car owners to their horseless carriages. But they will not be a pari-passu replacement. People won’t have their driverless car sitting outside their houses, the passenger footwell full of empty twix wrappers, because autonomous vehicles will, at least initially, be very expensive. Instead of spending 95% of their time stationary, they will be collectively owned. Smartphone technology will allow people to summon a taxi appropriate to any journey from a pool of vehicles. Uber treats its drivers so dismissively because they are openly planning for the day they can dismiss all their drivers. Because people hiring such a vehicle will pay the full, rather than the marginal cost, at the time of the journey, of each journey, the incentive to not call the taxi, and walk or cycle will be greater. Because the cost of such a journey will be lower because you’re not paying a driver, there may be more such journeys. Fewer incompetent drivers will reduce both the subjective and objective risk of cycling. Time becomes less important, as people can work or read or relax, so commutes may become longer. How these competing pressures resolve themselves will be fascinating to watch.
Autonomous technology could therefore result in the car becoming the servant of humanity, rather than its master. Transport should be about facilitating people coming together, allowing people to move at the human scale, where possible, not privileging one form of transport over all the others, as now. The driverless car could allow the bicycle, the car and the pedestrian to get on, as multiple clubs in a golf-bag full of ways to get about, as they do rather well in the Netherlands, rather than competing angrily as they do here.
In the meantime, let’s just build some cycle roads and safe urban infrastructure for people on foot, and on bicycles. Everyone will benefit. Especially the boomers whose mistakes have caused us all so much misery.
*Almost all cyclists in the UK also own a car. It’s just we choose to not use it sometimes.
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