A Future Without Cars


We're at a point in the US where auto-centric infrastructure has become too expensive to maintain and fund.  Coupled with the increasing individual expense of owning and operating a car, I think the question is not IF privately owned cars will disappear, but a matter of when - and what will eventually replace them.


Current front runner is old technology - the bicycle - cheap, efficient, low cost infrastructure, low impact... but not so good for longer distances.  Does anyone know of other technology that might come in to replace cars and it's infrastructure?  how might the bicycle and/or this unknown future technology end up changing our built environment?


(preemptive joke comment:  "they promised flying cars!")

Mar 11, 13 10:11 am

Dream on. SUVs (Satan's Unholy Vehicle) are designed to travel across the broken landscape that the public infrastructure has become.

The future of cars is ever more expensive, ever more ostentatious, and fuel efficient only as dictated by law because those who can afford to drive a Panzerwagon aren't concerned about gas prices (or the environment, or anything else beyond vanity).

The future for the rest of the world (i.e. the 99%) is salvaging whatever they can from the detritus the 1% leaves behind.

Mar 11, 13 10:22 am

how about less mad max and more optimism?

Mar 11, 13 10:28 am

Agree with Miles. Cars are worse than crack. Noone's giving up on them voluntarily. The best you can do is price people out of driving all over the place, but that isn't likely happening either. 

Oil and gas industry keep finding massive additional deposits of resources. It's all there waiting to be dug out. We won't stop until the atmosphere favors dinosaurs over humans again. 

Mar 11, 13 10:29 am

Forget electric cars as well. I did the math once and we would need either 18 Hoover dams or 36 nuclear plants to replace the kW that the USA uses now in gasoline alone. Factories and offices may start building apartments on site to save commuting. Light rail expansion and company busses may be another solution. Bicycles are too seasonal.

Mar 11, 13 10:40 am

Superconductors. Frictionless travel. In the future, personal transportation will be enhanced, not gone.

Mar 11, 13 10:57 am

I don't think transportation will be as necessary as it is today.  We will probably all work in virtual offices, shop for product codes and just print our goods in local 3-D fabricators.  Just plug in and we can transport into a virtual reality at light speed.  The need for Transit will be greatly limited because the need for physical places will be limited. 

Mar 11, 13 11:34 am

"Cars are worse than crack. No one's giving up on them voluntarily."

I disagree. I gave mine up voluntarily five years ago and have never looked back. Granted this was coupled with moving to a much more walkable city with a passable public transit system: Philadelphia. My wife and I sold both of our cars before we moved from Florida. Several factors played into our decision: 1) We wanted to see if we could do it. 2) Cars get broken into all the time in Philly and we didn't want to deal with the trouble. 3) Because of #2, car insurance is ridiculously expensive and we needed to decrease our expenses since I was leaving my job to go back to school.

I think (and hope) that car sharing is going to continue to grow in popularity. We are members of PhillyCarShare, which gives us access to a car in case we need it. We use it once or twice a month, but could certainly get by just fine without it. It just makes budgetary sense for us. We can get a car for a few hours to run errands on the weekend for $40-60 (which includes insurance and gas) depending on how long. If we do that twice a month we're still saving a couple hundred bucks a month over owning a single car.

Mar 11, 13 12:09 pm

"I disagree. I gave mine up voluntarily five years ago and have never looked back"

Oh yeah? Well I gave up on cars 11 years ago before it was even cool to give up on stuff.

You underestimate what a powerful status symbol car has been and always will be. Here is NYC the number of SUVs is just downright staggering. That type of car makes no sense in an urban setting (hard to maneuver in small streets, impossible to parallel park) Doesn't matter. People have spoken and they want tanks.

Yes, there will always be a creative class that will say no to car ownership, but number of dirty hippies like that is insignificant. 

Mar 11, 13 12:27 pm

Phillip, that's like saying people will give up bacon because you managed to go vegan.  Most people don't give a shit.  You may be more willing and able to give up a car, but  most people are greedy shits that think jesus rode a t-rex to papa johns.  The problem with  optimistic thinking is that it greatly underestimates the true nature and stupidity of people .  It's this mentality that leads to unrealistic utopian ideas rather than doable alternatives. 

Tap into lazyness, selfishness, greed, and ego, and only then will an idea become realistic.  When people can hang a sack of steel nuts from the back of their hybrid without feeling like the guy at the biker bar that orders the strawberry daiquiri, electric will take off. 

Mar 11, 13 12:36 pm

I walk everywhere and or take BART - In Berkeley, people who drive get sounded - better to walk or ride a bike than get hassled by bike riders and peds - It discourages car driving

Mar 11, 13 12:46 pm

I am interested in how this is going to happen. There will be I think, a small electric car for local travel, in areas where despite better transit existing patterns will need it, but it will be cheap, small, probably electric & not especially fast, like a rickshaw of sorts (people will probably try all kinds of things, including sharing & other fuels to be resourceful).

I think smartcars will help, there will be "cartrains" & better congestion management in the US in particular, as land use patterns cannot be changed enough to do without them. More transit of course, land use change including abandoning some areas, densification, that's what I see.

Drones & flying cars for some loopy super-rich perhaps.

Mar 11, 13 1:06 pm
wurdan freo

I say we go back to the bike. Maybe you could even put a car engine on it. Put a side wagon on it. Connect them both with a bench. Put a roof and windows on it. Yeah, cause it rains and snows and my 1 year old and three year old can't ride a bike. 

Cars will evolve. Think Mr. Fusion.

Mar 11, 13 1:18 pm

L1, Electric cars are about 1/3 efficient as advertised because of the 60+ % loss rate of the electric grid. For every one kW you use, three kW are getting burned somewhere just to get it to you.

Mar 11, 13 3:39 pm
vado retro

can't hang truck nutz on a bike.

Mar 11, 13 3:44 pm

bike nutz

Mar 11, 13 4:09 pm

brought to you by the internetz:

Mar 11, 13 4:12 pm

i was ninjaed.  i wonder how many people read vado's comment and thought "no?  i'm going to get rich on etsy!"

Mar 11, 13 4:14 pm

jla-x, i realize that most people could give two shits... i'm just suggesting that car sharing programs like zipcar and phillycarshare are very viable options that allow you to only pay for the car when you're actually using it... it isn't a utopian solution at all... it works and it works well and would work even better with more people adopting it... obviously it wouldn't work for everyone... for instance, i would never have considered it back in florida where there is virtually no mass transit and the whole urban system is designed around automobility, but in certain locations it makes sense on a variety of levels... and it is a growth industry with all of the large rental car companies either developing their own car sharing brands or buying up the smaller companies... i certainly don't think that it is the best option in terms of eliminating cars, but it is a good first step in the right direction in locations that can successfully support it...

Mar 12, 13 3:56 am

A future without cars is a strange thought for me. A bicycle cannot be considered as the best replacement to cars, as it is not suitable for long distance traveling,  the same thing has been rightly mentioned by you. A bicycle can be a fuel-efficient option for short distance traveling, but it cannot meet our modern day transportation needs. 

Mar 12, 13 8:45 am

I suppose electric however inefficient may be an option as oil gets scarce..and carbon emissions are penalised, although I thought Mr. Jaffe that there are other ways to get it other than the grid? Central heat and power plants perhaps..That said I have reached the conclusion that in the US a future without cars -completely, is impossible, due to the way the country has been built.

Mar 12, 13 12:00 pm

Why would anybody want to live in a future without cars? Cars are cool.

Mar 12, 13 12:13 pm

move the source of electricity closer to it's destination and you'll reduce the inefficiency right?  so building a hoover dam in everyone's backyard would fix that.  building a hoover dam in every city or even every neighborhood will reduce the waste considerably.  having homes generate wind or photovoltaic or personal nuclear generators or little squirrels running on a wheel to supplement to grid would also go a long ways towards cutting down on the inefficiency.  also, smart grids to help manage output so it meets the demand a bit closer could help.

of course i'm going to want a car with a big block and a carburetor .  remember carburetors?  those required dead dinosaurs.  also, sometimes i travel to see family 600+ miles away.  the inconvenience of stopping to charge the car for a couple hours compared with filling up with gas in 15 minutes is considerable.

Mar 12, 13 12:41 pm

It's threads like this one that remind me how USA-centric this discussion forum is.

Mar 12, 13 12:59 pm

The reigning assumption here seems to be that transportation modes & trips will be the things to change, somehow eliminating the automobile.

It seems just as likely that innovations in energy production will come first, enabling more sustainable automobility.

Mar 12, 13 1:15 pm

It's threads like this one that remind me how USA-centric this discussion forum is.

China’s Auto Industry Responds to Record Growth

Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Company (BAIC): "in 2008, the automaker’s profits have increased 700 percent and annual production has more than doubled, to 1.5 million vehicles. By 2015, the company plans to manufacture 3.5 million to 4 million cars per year"

Automobile Industry in India

"India is being deemed as one of the world's fastest growing passenger car markets"

Where is the auto industry in Asia and Thailand heading?

"A rising middle class and growing economies have driven tremendous growth in the Asian auto industry in the last 10 years. Vehicle sales in Asia Pacific reached 30 million units in 2011, with sales growing nearly 13% annually between 2000 and 2011."

FYI a 15% growth rate triples in 10 years.

Mar 12, 13 1:24 pm

citizen, I tried to bring up superconductors, but it seems that if an idea isn't an architectural solution, it cannot be part of the discussion. I love how you used the word automobility, by the way.

Mar 12, 13 1:42 pm

Yes, TINT, that's because the thread is (mostly) about hating cars and one kind of urban form, not primarily about innovation and transport...

Mar 12, 13 1:49 pm

Thanks, citizen. Sometimes I need the obvious stated.

Mar 12, 13 1:52 pm

Hey, the obvious is my specialty!

Mar 12, 13 1:58 pm

It's threads like this one that remind me how USA-centric this discussion forum is.


this is already a problem in other developed countries (which have already begun grappling with it) - and in a few decades, the same issues will face countries like china and india once they realize just how expensive it is to maintain all this new infrastructure - and they'll run up against space issues much faster.  I agree with the article I linked to - that the next technology will likely originate in places like china or india to deal with their specific problems.


I see a couple problems - cars are great for a certain level of autonomy and control - you can go a lot of places and travel long distances pretty quickly - but in dense urban centers they can be a tremendous hassle.  if the world is increasingly becoming urbanized, car ownership in all these new hyper-dense cities won't make a lot of sense - I keep thinking something different is going to come along - maybe the car will morph into something else? instead of heavier and larger, they'll get lighter and smaller...

Mar 12, 13 2:57 pm

 instead of heavier and larger, they'll get lighter and smaller...

So. Opposite of your mom?

Mar 12, 13 3:09 pm

sorry, I read "tighter and smaller" at first.

Mar 12, 13 4:16 pm

I recently spent a week in Belgium and traveled all over the country as well as to every corner of Brussels, all without a car at all. Man it was nice. It was like living in Philly but better food.

My dream for my own city would be bus service on virtually every road, every 5-10 minutes. We could keep the road infrastructure but replace every fifty cars with one bus. What I like about this solution is it's low investment in infrastructure, though it requires more buses and more drivers. Even so I can't imagine it would cost more than light rail.

Mar 12, 13 11:23 pm

A couple of things:

1) Electric cars have a dangerous dimensions, unless they've "fixed" it.  They are quiet when using the electric motor (if hybrid), and a pedestrian may not sense them.

2) I think they've studied transit use, and found that "suits" won't use a bus, but will use rail.  Moreover, I think the study indicated that they would use heavy rail, on a dedicated subway or elevated line, before using a light-rail, at grade system.

Interesting that smaller Miami metro went with a dedicated rail system and burgeoning Houston metro went with light rail, which I think passes in front of Rice U. ... at grade.

Mar 12, 13 11:37 pm

pedal powered airplanes.

Mar 13, 13 1:38 pm

I think now it's impossible to run without cars specially in USA where you can find the a huge number of cars. I think electric cars are more expensive and useful.

Mar 14, 13 6:10 am

@kingston250 If you do the math on the kWh needed to charge millions of electric cars you will find the grid and power output is far below what is needed to replace gasoline. Calculate consumption of gasoline for any country, convert to kWh and you will see how much we need. Shorter commutes, less driving, and mass transit will probably be the best solutions.

Mar 15, 13 5:21 pm

the mayor of bogata had a great solution.  He simply stopped providing for/ planning for parking.  It became so annoying to drive that people stopped driving.  Along with that he built bike lanes and a state of the art bus system. 

Mar 15, 13 8:45 pm
boy in a well

A very good start to a solution. The problem in the US and other countries is that bike lanes and transit budgets lose more votes from car owners.

Mar 16, 13 6:33 pm

This is going to sound like a tangent, but a key to eliminating dependence upon cars is increasing middle-class density in urban areas. The key to that is making it affordable. A lot of younger people are moving back to the cities only to be forced back into the suburbs (and thereby needing a car) by real estate and school costs. I would contend that schools are the bigger problem because most inner-city school systems are just bad, and private schools can easily eat up about 1/2 year's worth of middle-class income.

Mar 17, 13 12:23 pm

@Spike, nice interlude!

Mar 18, 13 11:04 pm

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