After the CarAfter the Car

Ingsley Dennis and John Urry: After the Car, 2009, Polity Press, ISBN 978-0-7456-4422-6, 212 pages.

This book describes the 20th century as the century of the car – with the car system dominating our lives. The authors predict that the 21st century will be a post-car century, mainly because of climate change (which will force us to limit our CO2 emissions), peak oil (and gas) with no easy fuel to replace oil and population growth worldwide. With the majority of the world population already living in cities and a 50% increase in world population from 2000 to 2050 our cities and road systems cannot accommodate unlimited growth in the number of cars.

So how will the world look in 2050? What will our transport system be? The book looks at the car as part of a bigger integrated system, which makes it impossible to look at the car culture in isolation. Only by providing an alternative system that includes all the benefits of the present car system plus some additional benefits will the car system be replaced.

'After the car' looks at possible technological solutions, like alternative fuel for cars (biofuel, hybrid, electric and hydrogen) and calls them all post-car where the right label perhaps should be post-oil. Cars can also be made a lot lighter by not using steel and iron and thereby use a lot less fuel. However, the book does not look into whether electrical cars using electricity produced solely by renewable technologies could replace all petrol cars. It correctly shows how the battery technology is improving very fast but does not ask if enough green electricity can be produced for a growing car usage or if this is even a preferable alternative to a good public transport system. The book does rule out biofuels as it competes with food production and leads to deforestation. And it does rule out hydrogen as it will take too long to develop for commercial use in a mass market to be able to solve the climate change problem.

'After the car' also looks at alternative schemes around the world aimed at reducing car use – from car sharing to housing environments encouraging walking and cycling with shops and workplaces close to residential homes, to whole cities being built to be (nearly) carbon neutral. These alternative schemes can be an inspiration for alternative lifestyles but will not solve the car problem for the billions of people living outside these eco bubbles.

The book finishes with a look at three possible scenarios for 2050: 1) local sustainability, where we all live in more or less self-contained and self-sufficient eco communities with very little mobility between these communities, with a much lower standard of living in terms of owning stuff (but perhaps a better quality of life!). The authors write off this scenario in a single sentence: “It is hard to see that the events necessary for its development will take place.” Peak oil and climate change are more likely to lead to 2) local warlordism which is 'barbarisation', breakdown of a civilised state and the survival of armed groups fighting for scare resources.

The third scenario is digital networks of control, where all our transport moves (but presumably not walking and cycling) are monitored electronically in huge databases through our use of a smartcard every time we travel, billing us to use limited transport, only allowing us to travel at certain times and routes. Such a 'big brother' society will have huge civil liberties implications but the authors do not write off such a scenario as unacceptable but seem fascinated by the digital potentials.

The implicit view of the authors is that there are no other possible scenarios for 2050 than these three. This shows a lack of imagination and creativity. ' After the car' was published in 2009. At that time there were already plenty of possible scenarios described. I would have liked to see an analysis of how much it would cost to make a good and free public transport – and if that could be combined with a carbon tax to pay for it – to encourage the vast majority of car drivers to switch to public transport. This would also save millions of pounds in imported oil.

What is lacking in 'After the car' is any assessment of how political action can change our options – in other words it is not the 'system' that has to decide how we live in 2050 but ultimately people (voters, campaigners, politicians, etc) deciding. The starting point should be what type of society do we want in 2050 (or 2030) and then decide on the options to get there. The authors of 'After the car' put the carriage before the horse!

Another main weakness of the book is that it only analyses the rich north (the developed world). As if it is even possible to solve climate change, peak oil, etc without having global actions. In fact the poor south (the developing world) will be hit by rising oil (and gas) prices hardest, where the rich countries can – at least for some time – pay the higher prices for fossil fuels and (literally) starve the poor countries. Just as with climate change, peak oil will hit the poorest countries first and hardest.

Even if all the rich countries stopped using fossil fuel from today this will not be enough to stop catastrophic climate change if the poor countries do not reduce their use of fossil fuels as well. In other words: we are all in this together. We in the rich countries have to help the poor countries to achieve a sharp reduction in fossil fuels – partly because we can afford to, we have the technology and partly because the climate change problem has been created by the rich world.

The chapters in 'After the car' do not 'hang together' very well – perhaps because they are written by different authors. The structure of the book does not have a clear focus. It does contain some interesting facts but as an inspiration or a guide for meeting some big challenges it falls short of what is needed.