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The predictive power of these futurist scenarios seems weak to me in at least one aspect.  The "great car culture" of which Maggie Thatcher was so fond is ultimately a self-defeating technology:  except in rural regions of low-density population, when the ratio of cars to eligible drivers gets anywhere close to 1:1 (i.e. universal motorist status), the result is a vast inefficiency of transport with millions of person-hours and billions of dollars and I don't know how many BTUs of energy wasted annually on gridlock, car crashes and attendant injury and mortality, etc.

The national and provincial economy gets locked into an endless tailspin of "predict and provide" construction of highways, freeways, expressways, parking structures, etc -- all heavily subsidised by the tax payer and diverting funds from other social services (cf Hart and Spivak, The Elephant in the Bedroom, on the distorting effects of the subsidised private-auto culture on US municipalities and their tax revenues and outlays).  The automobile also tends to displace more efficient people-movers (already Beijing officialdom is talking about banning cyclists from major streets -- banning bikes, in China!), reducing the mobility options of the less affluent and creating an overclass/underclass transport hierarchy.  (Auto-induced gridlock paralyses bus and taxi services as well, etc.)   There's also a trend towards decay and underfunding of existing public transport, curtailment of services, etc. as car ownership decreases ridership, leaving those who cannot afford car ownership stranded.  The end result is, in much of the US, "mandatory car ownership" as people of limited means find it impossible to get to their jobs without an automobile -- even if the expenses of owning and operating one eat a disproportionate amount of their take home pay (it has been estimated at 20 percent for some income levels).

Dedication of urban surface area to automobile transport forces light and heavy rail underground -- another form of displacement -- vastly increasing construction costs for new rail spurs and warping the CBA for such projects. And we haven't even started talking about air quality, though with notoriously poor air quality in many third world urban areas, the issue would be further incremental degradation rather than a transition from clean to dirty air.

Less obvious, more distant side effects include the annexation of lower-cost rural land into luxury exurbs as the affluent classes use their automobiles to flee urban areas:  the resulting lengthy commutes are insanely energy-inefficient, but there are worse knock-on effects.  These include the accelerated paving-over of productive farmland, converted into carburbs -- loss of essential agricultural capacity;  the decimation of wildlife (roadkill is the leading cause of mortality for many feral species in the US) and the disruption of wildlife migration corridors -- loss of biodiversity and prey/predator balance;  the "affordability" of large sprawling residences (due to remote greenfields development) which then require enormous amounts of energy to heat in winter -- increased fossil fuel dependency;  and the coring-out and decay of what were once thriving cities.  These trends are self-reinforcing:  the decay of cities increases the motivation for urban flight, the number of people commuting enormous distances tends to grow, and the distances themselves tend to grow.  

The shopping patterns of the carburb economy for example are weirdly inverted from a rational/efficient model:  instead of a few heavy goods vehicles carrying merchandise to shops and markets in a dense urban core where individual shoppers make fuel-efficient pedestrian, bike, or PT trips to purchase, thousands of consumers drive private "heavy goods vehicles" long distances to load them up with goods and return to widely dispersed homes.  The delivery activity has been decentralised and displaced onto the consumer, considerably increasing the fuel consumption.  Fuel economy advances made in the US in the 70's were almost immediately consumed by increases in average miles driven per person per annum.

An economy with a cash surplus and spare productivity, such as the US was after the war, can tolerate and absorb these inefficiencies (for a while) -- particularly with a fairly low population density and abundant cheap fossil fuel.  But can the economies of "emerging nations" with high population densities, in an era of rising fossil fuel costs, afford the grotesque wastefulness of vulgarised private auto transport and the enormous State subsidies required to make it "affordable"?  With barely enough land to feed existing population, can China for example afford to permit the insane land use patterns that result from "car culture"?

The Chinese skipped a generation of phone technology as they modernised:  they saw the inefficiency, resource hoggery and enormous installation cost of copper landlines and moved directly to cell phone technology.  It would seem short-sighted in them or any other emerging national power to reproduce the inefficiencies of the late American automophiliac society -- a hangover from the 40's and 50's, increasingly dysfunctional today.  So I wonder whether the Third World -- despite the consumer trance induced by sexy auto industry ads and the undisputable appeal of owning one's very own 'flying carpet' -- can afford to, or will be stupid enough to, try to retrace the auto-based development path of the US/UK/Japan.  If they do, I doubt whether their economies, their medical/health systems, or their already-stressed agricultural resources will take the strain.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Fri Jun 24th, 2005 at 01:34:27 PM EST
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This is a thought-provoking post, but I don't think that the Chinese have an either - or choice.  Take Japan for instance,  they don't have a carburb culture by any means, but they still have a lot more cars than China does today.  Even modest car ownership in China will cause tremendous demand for oil.
by corncam on Fri Jun 24th, 2005 at 07:40:22 PM EST
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