The Future is Low-Car

Speech presented at “College of Complexes”, a weekly gathering “for People Who Think" (since 1951).
"Structured weekly free speech forum with quality lecturers and good American food and bar."
Saturday January 17th 2009, 3000th session!
Andrew Bedno speaking on: “Bicycling, Transportation Equity and Prospects of a Car-Free City”.

Intro

Hello, My Name is Andrew Bedno, and I'm here to speak on the subject of “Bicycling, Transportation Equity and Prospects of a Car-Free City”, or my simplified title, “The Future Is Low-Car”

Over the past few years I've gained increasing notoriety as something of a cycling and skating activist, primarily due to taking on the job of coordinating Chicago's running of the World Naked Bike Ride. (pause for titters) For the unfamiliar I'll explain. The World Naked Bike Ride is a fairly well known and respected international event now in its sixth year. It is primarily an anti-oil event, using the Lady Godiva method for attention, while also including and involving naturalist interests. The event's been around long enough that at this point it is not so much an anti-oil protest any more, as it is a celebration of the end of the oil era.

I'd like to open now with some on the asphalt reporting on the vigorous state of cycling in Chicago. This context will help you truly visualize what can be real, when I discuss the future later.

The Chicago Naked Ride is no dismissible novelty. In June 2008 we set the world's turnout record with a verifiable one thousand seven hundred riders. To me this is an undeniable example of the future manifesting. A future where cars are largely gone, and hotter summers have reduced clothes. Some typical taglines from the ride are "burns fat not oil", "no concealed weapons", "naked is how vulnerable I feel sharing the road with cars". Some other faves include "more ass less gas" and the classic "my bush would make a better president". My slogan of choice is "bikes fight terrorism", because you formerly couldn't go wrong using administration buzz words. For more info please visit chicagonakedride.com

Among cyclists, Chicago is also well known for the large monthly Critical Mass rides. Critical Mass has been held on the last Friday each month in hundreds of cities internationally for more than a decade. Chicago routinely draws several thousand riders each summer month. I personally was part of the 3000 person tenth anniversary Chicago mass. Rare European rides reportedly draw tens of thousands!
In Chicago this ride occupies Daley Plaza starting just after rush hour, and winds about a dozen miles through Chicago, in a largely unguided and organic manner. It may sound absurd that a mass of cyclists this large can function leaderlessly, but I've been part of it for years, and I assure you it's true. And as such is the most successful example of functional anarchy I've personally experienced.

Critical Mass is free of agenda, more like a fun ride. A happy hometown Friday upsized to massive urban scale. These rides completely fill the streets for miles, taking 10-15 minutes to fully pass a point. Cars caused to wait seem like sadly pathetic smoking steam engines or dumb doomed dinosaurs, which admittedly sometimes rage like cavemen. This friction makes them, I feel, effectively also a civil rights leading edge. Participants are demanding no more than what cars already enjoy, and persists despite angry and ignorant opposition, because it is the right thing to do. As such Critical Mass is both a wonderful biking event, and an unintentional cultural front line.

Chicago also boasts a number of world-class cycling events. The kinds that draw multi-nationally, and sell out tens of thousands of registrations months in advance. Finally, quickly lumping together some actually very major things, Chicago also has unparalleled bike path systems, lanes, working activists, and long term plans. This is your city, ranked one of the most bike friendly cities in the world, a city of the future.

Considering all this, already to some small percentage our city and others ARE car-free.

Going forward, growing unstoppable forces I will now detail are digging the automobile's overdue grave.

Hence, the notion of a low-car future becomes not a prospect, but a certainty.

Premise

Climate change. Rising fuel prices. Traffic deaths. Pollution. Road maintenance. The obesity epidemic. Industry bailouts. Terrorism. These are the formerly hidden incalculably massive costs WE ALL pay to subsidize the automobile era, whether car owner or not.
I’m not here to tell you that bikes are the answer, that they can merrily solve these problems, and to recommend that the sedentary suddenly change….
I’m here to tell you with absolute certainty that a large scale shift off of cars planet-wide
IS INEVITABLE!

One can debate how difficult cultural trend forecasting is. Yes there are unknown unknowns, but to ignore trends and data of the scale we're seeing would just be foolish. Identifying this, I consider it a duty to help ease mine and others' not just readiness for, but enjoyment of this journey through transitional times.

Visions of smart travel pods, free power and teleports are fun and may happen some century. Contemporary future-looking transportation designs like solar cars and ultra lights are useful research but have costs as well. Bio-fuel is a negative distraction. Hydrogen and other storage media solutions are beautiful, but secondary here to power acquisition and conversion. In the near term I guarantee that practical reality will have its way. The inevitable solutions to clean, safe, efficient, inexpensive, reliable, widespread on demand travel are simple, obvious solutions; not cars.

The automobile era, and by extension much heavy industry, are historically destined to be a massively important but finite period. When Henry Ford simply followed business logic to change an impossible luxury into a commodity, it was a different world. Resources and air were effectively infinite. But an arms race of sorts has given the monster a life of its own, and it feeds on what margin of irresponsibility we allow. For cars to exist as-is requires an enabling balance giving low price per mile. Fuel must be cheap and plentiful, and other costs low (or hidden). The passing of peak oil (varying estimates place the exact recent year of that) means that the oil energy value equation that fueled our species for over a century will right now begin changing. Inevitably, as extraction costs increase, oil WILL become a niche product in the distant future, or applied more appropriately to food and plastics where it is less replaceable. As true lifetime and ongoing costs effect the market, the automobile WILL become a luxury and specialty product. Where will that leave more and more drivers? On feet and bikes, or happily at home just a little more often.

Cars WILL gradually become a thing of the past for a suite of powerful reasons.
Not even counting current transient issues such as bailouts, import imbalance, the recession, and this oil tainted war... the persistent long term negatives of cars are too awful to tolerate any longer. These include:
Deaths, by accidents and pollution.
Environmental costs, gradually becoming widely recognized.
Societal costs, such as subsidized infrastructure.
Total ownership costs, increasing and finally sinking in.
Fuel cost, and all that procuring and securing oil entails.
And decreased quality of life, such as obesity and cardio/pulmonary illness.

These are not distant clouds or academic concepts; these are exploding issues. We are at a germinal point in the process of growing out of cars right now. Precipitated by a dramatic increase in car use over just the past few decades, and the passing of peak oil.

Now in case I sound overly dramatic, be aware I consider myself one of the most sane and balanced people you'll ever run across, though some ex girlfriends would dispute it. I acknowledge that moving off of cars will have massive ripples throughout society on a scale that's hard to imagine, but likely I assure you nonetheless. The future is not just bikes, but walking, skating, transit, not going anywhere (such as telecommuting), and possibly most of all, greatly changed expectations. Personally I like the idea, and see it as a healthy correction to a former imbalance; or a market over-valuation adjustment in capitalist terms.
But regardless of how sick I personally feel car culture is, I didn't choose this future. I'm simply reporting what predictably will be.
Frankly, I see a large scale conversion off of cars to be a best case scenario requiring some help, and I challenge anyone to show me a well reasoned cheerier alternate view. If we do not say no to cars, I fear the other path is darkness, though to some a future WITHOUT cars is the dystopian hell to be feared.

Now for numbers fans, I'll present some supporting data. Sadly I recently heard that an outrageous percentage of Americans do not know or do not believe that the Earth orbits the sun, much less in climate change. But if I reach just one person... well then I've failed miserably.

Reports

To start with, let's look at our own government's current surprisingly alarmist position using the 2007 National Surface Transportation Policy report.
It's worth noting that this is just one of several extremely major relevant and reputable reports to come out recently, including 2007's United Nations (4th) Global Environment Outlook Report which is 572 pages, 1993 U.S DOT report "The Environmental Benefits Of Bicycling And Walking", and the Lung Association ongoing report on auto pollution deaths, not to mention the slew of recent documentary films.

This report (over 260 pages) mentions bikes specifically very little. It is by nature based on the angle of maintaining an automotive highway system, and was produced under an oil friendly administration. But even so, it has reams of well supported interesting things to say about the current state of transportation affairs and recent history, and is significantly stern and serious about the severity of the approaching traffic support scalability challenges. On this subject, traffic news hounds have been hearing reports for many months of some U.S. cities recently reaching complete traffic and transit saturation maximums, including Washington DC.

Now let's hear some example "Did You Know?" bottom lines from the report, some relevant, some just interesting:

Costs

That current state and trends is to me and others one that demands attention. Such reports accurately reflect a system that grew largely unthrottled over such a short span that we are only now getting to the question of just because we could, doesn't mean we should have.

But those grave reports aside, my further case here is that the true societal and personal costs of automobiles are incalculably massively negative when one actually looks unflinching. As a human, my gravest enemy is death. And unbelievably enough in America today, especially for certain age groups, as we've all heard, death MOST often comes in a car. Doesn't that inherently make cars any living human American's greatest enemy? Let's examine more data.

Costs:

Safety:

Deaths:

Pollution:

Changes

The changing economy of fuel expense is driving many people out of ownership. New car purchases have recently completely collapsed! Bike sales meanwhile have surged wildly. As cars can no longer be afforded, or are retired, or even simply usage reduced, the ratio of bikes and other people powered travel (as well as trains and busses) will increase.

It is not unreasonable to imagine that last year alone saw at least a 1% conversion from car to bike traffic. I've heard numerous news stories relating specific observations in bike sales increases and reduced car traffic growth. I've seen I would guess a tripling of the number of bike related stories in local print including The Reader, New City, and Red Eye. And of course there was the record setting 2008 Chicago Naked Ride, which TRIPLED prior year turnout

I'm not enough of a futurist to predict the exact time table, but for comparison I'll point out that numerous experts beyond reproach have converging estimates of extraordinary climatic changes possibly leading to complete loss of ice caps literally within 50 years. We're talking chunks the size of small New England states falling off every year or two. These are unprecedented times. How trivial in comparison (though chicken vs. egg) will be the passing of the brief auto epoch over the same period.

As a Cassandra I expect blithe dismissal of this vision, but I know what will be and am often right on such meta topics. Over decades of awareness, I've seen countless trends and technologies appear, on the horizon ignored by most, come over years to be norm. From microwaves to multi-touch I've watched the science of such things from academic demos, to in everyone's kitchen and pocket.
With such certainty I now assure you, after thousands of hours of consideration on this specific topic, that IF the species survives (yes, I went there), bikes as well as walking, skates, mass transit, telecommuting and changed expectations will become the new norm. I now take this as a given.
As surely as electricity and radio, computers and satellites, plastics and antibiotics, flight and cars, the seemingly outrageous, absurd, and far fringe has a way of becoming reality quite suddenly. As surely as shoe sizing x-ray machines, smoking and trans-fats the down side of the car fad has become gravely visible. As surely as polio, horse traffic, and even slavery (yes I went there), the norms of now will be absurd memories a hundred years hence.

As individual gasoline powered vehicles increasingly become a personal economic impossibility, I think it's not unreasonable to expect a 1% change per year minimum continuing, hopefully accelerating. Let's imagine the transition over coming decades. Imagine a 10% changeover in ten years. Literally one in ten less cars and many many more happy cyclists. You can imagine that right? Looks like a typical spring/summer day here near the lakefront, and ten years is a while. What's happened to the drivers? They're walking, or biking, or busses, or just staying put, hanging with friends, enjoying on demand videos, and CALLING their parents out of state.
Now imagine a 25% changeover. Not only could it happen, it MUST happen. 20 years is a serious chunk of dynamic urban time. Fully one quarter less drivers, and maybe a simple doubling or tripling of happy cyclists, in 20 years? Easy. Looks like a pleasant European scene, with cleaner air and friendly people. Where are the drivers? They've joined the trend. Vastly changed expectations are everywhere, reinforced in media, pop culture, government programs and youth awareness, and on viral mobile 3d vids.
Now imagine a 99% reduction in internal combustion engine powered vehicles… in under 50 years! Too much? OK, you seem nice, for you, a 75% reduction in 50 years, and the remainder are low emission. THINK how much happens here every decade. In fact, incredibly by the statistics that's actually just a roll-back to a mere 40 years ago. Just give it some enabling changes like improved bikes, free and rental systems, and street use conversions, and geometric growth WILL happen. As responsibility becomes a core human value world-wide, humility will be the new ostentation.
Looking back, the overall rate of conversion TO nearly 90% cars is a modern phenomenum. Remember, the product is only a smidgen over 100. Now IMAGINE 100 years hence... Why not 90% less cars? Aim for perfection, achieve excellence I always say.

Though these visions of low-car decades may seem optimistic, they're reasonable if car retirement begins now, which it has. And I have observed that though humans are poor at long term risk management, people do change when actually nose to nose with crisis.
By a mere half century speculation becomes hazy, BUT I'll tell you this, if we haven't transitioned on the 99% scale off of burning ancient blood of the sun at the altar of wanderlust, than we will have committed species suicide (yes, I went there).

Frankly, I consider it not unreasonable to see the automobile as the largest big business rape of the people in history. A multi-fronted profit maximization cancer, which so knowingly gained from irresponsibility and manipulation, that I don't see it unreasonable to hold the industry accountable for crimes on a global scale. Bailout my ass. But that's another story.

Closing

It's said that bottom line, consumer market forces will determine the car's endurance, and I agree. That renders most of my hidden cost postulations irrelevant, but useful scare tactics nonetheless. That aside, it's the passing of peak oil plain and simple that dooms this industry. That, plus a fabric of financial forces, and just let me dream, an increasing sense of responsibility to the future.
Market-wise, it could be said that the auto industry absolutely already has collapsed, and should not be resuscitated. An industry that was not only subsidized but endlessly fought regulation, cannot rationally later ask for bailout, or it is just a welfare system for the rich.

Fortunately Chicago is extremely well positioned and aimed for this transition. In fact, the mayor has specific percentage automotive to bike traffic transition targets well in the works, a trend whose reversal I cannot readily imagine. Further, as Homer Simpson articulated the Japanese concept, the market demands of the future are a "Probletunity" where Chicago and surrounding could be a future LEADER in Made In America bike and train components and assemblies, as well as a freight rail crossroads.

But let's not become a Gary. Bikes, walking, skates, transit, but most of all flexible expectations are core components of the beauty of Amsterdam, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Portland (which now complains of too many cyclists). Chicago in particular I can see remaining an urban garden jewel if we make the right choices, frankly as sea levels erase more coastal cities. Words of wisdom from Cuba years ago, after surviving loss of half their oil imports overnight during the breakup of the Soviet Union "we now have better food, health, air quality and community, why wait for peak oil?"

For now, just hear that the future will be low-car, and I for one am working to hasten, and to some degree am already living, that Utopian time.
Each of us can, neigh must minimize our complicity in the ongoing accidental hijacking of human destiny that was the automobile era.
At very least, being now enlightened, first off ask yourself, is this trip really necessary? And if after that you absolutely must drive then be patient, and give the greatest of caution and deference to cyclists absolutely whenever you see them, for they are as children to be nurtured.

Paraphrasing Star Trek:
The illogic of waste, Mr. Car Consumer,
the waste of lives, potential, resources, time.
I submit to you that your Empire is illogical
because it cannot endure.
I submit that you are illogical
to be a willing part of it.
If change is inevitable, predictable, beneficial,
doesn't logic demand that you be a part of it?

In closing I refer you to these photos, and ask in which future you’d rather be…

Illustrations

AttachmentSize
Lake Shore Drive: Cars22.65 KB
Lake Shore Drive: Bikes53.83 KB
Traffic Space Requirements Comparison99.8 KB

Links

Useful links:

Revisions/Additions

Recommended next revisions/additions:

Determine funding equity:
Get specific metrics for travel forms: fly, train, car, busses, local rail, bike, walk, other.
Recent annually each: Passenger miles. Operational costs: infrastructure, equpment, fuel, labor. Comprehensive other costs. Individual Spending. Subsidies breakdown. % subsidized.
Some samples of same from various past decades.
Assess useful metrics for comparison.
Maybe a job for someone good at this particular topic?

Realistically address winter biking.

Realistically address special needs: medical/emergency, senior/disabled, trash/cargo.
Note that senior/disabled are already reportedly primarily served by public transit.

Assess all chief oil consuming sectors. Get some basic breakdown. What percentage actually is personal travel?
What are the environmental impact costs of plastic and agricultural uses?

Do some reading about cargo transport issues.
Cost per pound/mile? Air, rail, truck, ship, other?
What percentage overall transportation fuel use is cargo?
Compare efficiencies, environmental impact, trues costs by mode.
Maybe a job for someone good at this particular topic?

Mention Go/shared cars? Also electric?
Is delivery any more efficient that driving?

Identify some specific future potential profit areas.