Ricky Lau’s “Automobility’s Essentialness” — ralbycs

Automobility’s Essentialness

Ricky Lau
CCT335H5 Technology and the City
2 April 2012

Since its advent, automobility is widespread due to its benefits, predominately the capacity to heighten convenience in transportation. Simultaneously, the topic of automobility is often noted for its drawbacks, such as environmental pollution as well as weakening social relations. The benefits of automobility are costly; however, automobility remains prominent, as it is not discardable in the perspective of humanity.

This essay aims to demonstrate the essentialness of automobility in three steps. Firstly, the advent of automobility, along with its effects, is considered. Secondly, the pros and cons of automobility are noted. Considering the multitudinous costs alongside the continued prominence of automobility, the paper aims to ultimately demonstrate the essentialness of automobility.

Since Henry Ford’s declaration of solving issues regarding the city by leaving it, and the mass production of his Ford Model T, there were over 26.5 million registered cars in United States during 1930; approximately “one car for every five people” (Baxandall 15). The prominence of automobility emphasized further between 1946 and 1960. With a prominent increase of 36 percent in gross national product (with inflation removed), 72 percent of American consumer units owned an automobile by 1960 (Bernstein 21). The production of automobile quickened around the country. In response to its prominence, theorists discuss the pros and cons of automobility.

As it embodies technology, automobility correlates with, as well as promoting the implementation of, technological innovations within the city. One instance of technology that is used alongside automobility is the viewshed analysis. Similar to the driver’s view of the road, the clarity of the road and the roadside environment are crucial to driving. Viewshed analysis is used to examine the environments that enclose roads (Thrift 46). Through considering the digital elevation model of a landscape, viewshed analysis allows the adequate design or redesign of roads in aims to heighten safety through giving drivers a wider range of vision with greater accuracy within the driving environment. Aside from heightening safety, the technological innovations that are implemented alongside automobility also enhance the overall driving experience. For instance, billboards are upgraded or constructed with real time geodemographics. Real time geodemographics allow an advertisement to change or adjust its message in aims to appeal to a specific population within the demography. The promotion of technological innovations is one positive aspect of automobility.

Regardless, automobility’s popularity is largely owing to its capacity to enhance movement by lengthening the distances that a person can travel within a given time. In other words, automobility is popular because it promotes convenience in travel. Simultaneously, automobility is often associated with the characteristic of freedom. Unlike public transportation, which visibly “requires a centralized administration,” ownership of an automobile, in the perspective of the individual owner, appears as “a personal choice and a personal expense, and provides a private and individualized mode of transport” (Talsma 7). Through automobility, a person may travel longer distances and thereby pursue more or greater desires. However, alongside these apparent benefits, automobility entails other pros and cons.

Automobile entails pros and cons in both the scope of individuals and the society as a whole. Possible costs that pertain to individual automobile owners include the automobile’s price, auto maintenance, depreciation, fine (for misuse such as speeding), fuel, injury from traffic collision, parking fee, repair, time spent on driving, and vehicle insurance (RACV 2012 n.p.). In contrast, individual owners may enjoy benefits including heightened convenience, mobility, and independence from on-demand access (Setright 2003 n.p.). The society as a whole is also burdened with costs of automobility. This includes health care, land use, pollution, public health, road maintenance, and finally the disposal of the automobile at the end of its service life. On the other hand, the society enjoys benefits including boost in revenue, tax, and the general economy, creation of jobs through automobile production and maintenance, transportation provision, and wellbeing from leisurely travels. Incidentally, the benefits correlate with the American desire for independence and individualism (Jakle and Sculle 135).

Intuitively, drivers prioritize the benefits of automobility over its costs. The popularity of automobility is evident as roads are often overrun with dynamic torrents of automobiles. In the case of U.S., while embodying a population of 301.6 million, U.S. had 255.9 million registered vehicles in 2008 (RITA 2011 n.p.). Drivers and passengers willingly take on the costs of automobility in aims to achieve heightened convenience, mobility, and independence. Automobility appears largely appealing, with its pros perceived as worthy of the cons.

Despite its prominence, automobility is widely viewed as negative. Many people consider “the negative externalities associated with the dominant culture of the car” (Talsma 5). For instance, American-Dutch urban sustainability theoretician J.H. Crawford states that automobility imposes pollution and faulty land use, which encumber lifestyles and social relations within the urban area (Crawford 2000 n.p.).

Automobility is a prominent cause of air pollution in most industrialized nations. Approximately half of all Americans, over 130 million people, reside in “unhealthy levels of air pollution” (Ernst, Corless, and Greene-Roesel 5). Air pollution increased in dozens of metropolitan areas from the decade before 2004. Metropolitan areas, including Charlotte metropolitan area (Charlotte, Gastonia, Rock Hill), North Carolina and South Carolina has annual pollutants and annual pollutants per capita of 491,648 tons and 694 pounds while demonstrating a 58.9 percent increase in the number of days with unhealthy ozone levels. Likewise, Detroit, Michigan has annual pollutants and annual pollutants per capita of 1,437,967 tons and 643 pounds while demonstrating a 39.2 percent increase in the number of days with unhealthy ozone levels; Orlando, Florida has 478,495 tons and 623 pounds while demonstrating a 78.6 percent increase (31; 29). Moreover, 44.9 percent of Charlotte’s pollutants, 52.7 percent of pollutants in Detroit, and 49.9 percent of pollutants in Orlando are caused by transportation (57). Automobility correlates with, if not causes, pollution.

Aside from air pollution, automobility brings visual, auditorial, olfactive pollution upon the environment. Crawford believes that these pollutions discourage outdoor social interaction or ‘street life’ in the city. In the case of U.S., because of this, a large number of sidewalks are reduced to desolate grounds, containing from little to none pedestrians, rendering utilities such as warning lights for pedestrian crossing useless. Crawford contrasts the typical street and pedestrian in American cities with those of Venice, Italy. Unlike an American pedestrian, a Venetian pedestrian does not need to anxiously scan the road for automobiles as he walks because (Venice is largely a pedestrian zone, and that) Venetian roads rarely force automobiles and pedestrians to cross paths. Due to clever planning in land use, both Venetian drivers and pedestrians are relatively relaxed in contrast to their American counterparts. In the case of Venetian pedestrians, they are more willing to socialize throughout the city. Also, the little amount of automobiles in Venice allows the city to be rid of pollutions that originate from automobiles (Crawford 2000 n.p.). Akin to many theorists, Crawford believes that automobility is largely negative toward the city as well as life in it.

During 1960s of which automobile production quickened in the U.S., a notable population of Americans in urban areas such as Detroit moved from their condensed residences, such as the apartment, to the suburb. The prominence of automobility allowed breadwinners to maintain their occupation through commuting from the suburb, while the housewives and children remain at home (Sheller, and Urry 748). Automobility also “altered people's conceptions of spaces and leisure as remote country areas suddenly became accessible” (Baxandall 15). For instance, automobility increases the demand for the motel and vacation property. Automobility distances people physically.

Automobility also distances people socially. According to Historian Mark Baldassare, automobility heightens the desire for privacy and individualization. This is especially evident in suburban residents. Suburban residents often refrain from carpooling and using public transport. Also, they often refuse to support the construction of wider roads in aims to maximize privacy (Daynes 1). Incidentally, the vastness of the suburb allows suburban households to assume the standard of owning two automobiles. Geographer Donald Meinig states that automobility encourages the travelling of long distances. Consequently, formerly discrete neighbourhoods became scattered architectures that are merely linked by roads and highways. Meinig argues that automobility replaces housing as the most prominent “instrument and symbol of our basic values… expressing our individualism, status, freedom, love of mobility and change, as well as our search for security” (1–2). Automobility is often considered as a negative influence on the social relations. Despite this, automobility remains essential and not discardable to mankind.

The importance of automobility is clear in that automobility necessitates the suburb. Intuitively, without automobility, it will become strenuous and unconventional to sustain human life in the suburb. After all, the suburb is designed around automobility, with “widely dispersed housing tracts, curvilinear streets, residential driveways and garages, drive-in shopping and auto service strips, and high-speed highways” (Daynes 1). The importance of automobility is also evident on a global scale as a great portion of the world is exclusively accessible via automobiles. For instance, approximately a quarter of land in London, England and half of Los Angeles, U.S. are “car-only environments,” which are outside of urban, rural areas, local, or cosmopolitan areas that require automobiles to reach (Sheller and Urry 746). The motel solely linked to the highway is an example of such car-only environments.

Also, the lengthy history automobility and the suburb contribute to the current popularity of automobility. As drivers and passengers, especially those of the suburb, devote, or are accustomed to devoting, a significant portion of their time to travelling great distances, “the car remains the only viable means of highly flexibilized mobility” (Sheller and Urry 745). Automobility becomes the only method of which suburban residents can commute to distanced everyday locations such as school or office in a reasonable period of time. Incidentally, automobility remains the most widespread and convenient mode of transportation, with alternatives considered less convenient and flexible (745). While public transport is a greener alternative to automobility, it offers inferior services. For instance, a tram passenger is required to walk before and after riding the tram, as well as between stops for transferring, and be delayed on each stop that is not his destination. Alternatives to automobility encompass ‘structural holes,’ which causes “inconvenience, danger and uncertainty” (745).

Simultaneously, University of Toronto professor Matthew Talsma argues that automobility’s notable benefit of freedom is illusionary. According to Talsma, people are often unconscious of the government’s “involvement in the production, maintenance and securitization of the system of automobility,” as well as the “intervention in… the market economy” that is essential to the production of automobility (Talsma 8). Automobility can be further seen as negative, as its celebrated characteristic of freedom is fictitious.

Aside from the illusionary myth of freedom, automobility also assumes another level of falsity. Automobility’s essentialness, as opposed to being naturally owing to its capacity to provide convenience, is constructed. This is demonstrated through the General Motors streetcar conspiracy. From 1936 to 1950, General Motors Company, along with other companies including Chevron Corporation and Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, invested in National City Lines and Pacific City Lines, which “bought and dismantled electric tramway systems in order to make suburbs car-dependent” (Lindey; Sheller and Urry 746). Incidentally, the General Motors streetcar conspiracy shows that automobility represents the burdening of the city as an effective habitat for people, aside from burdening the natural environment. The existence of automobility weakens that of other, perhaps greener, modes of transportation. Regardless, unlike other modes of transportation, automobility is made to be dominant and essential.

Despite its many cons including pollution and the weakening of social relations, as well as the illusionary representation of freedom, automobility remains prominent for reasons aside from the obvious convenience in transport. Since its advent, automobility shapes the environment of which it is exposed to. Car-exclusive places like the suburb and motel exemplify the impact of automobility. The importance of automobility is made clear in that mankind choose to take on its costs in order to enjoy its benefits. As the world is continually reshaped to accommodate automobility, automobility is essential and will increasingly be so.


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