Book review: After the Car - Kingsley Dennis and John Urry

May 22
2010

This short book offers a broad brush discussion of the future of the complex socio-technical system that has emerged around the automobile. The basic idea underpinning the book is that the car system is ripe for tipping into another regime because of crucial developments such as global warming, peak oil, rapid urbanization and the pervasive digitization of many aspects of economic and social life. However, the fact that it might tip does not mean that the car system will move into a very different form of mass mechanized mobility. Whilst the current regime is under pressure, it has proved to be very resilient over a period of more than a century by locking itself into a key position in the leading economic sectors and social practices of twentieth century capitalism. But the potential for change has never been greater and, if it happens, it will arguably have huge impact on our way of life.

So in trying to paint a picture of where this massive change might go, Dennis and Urry discuss a range of technological and institutional developments that might contribute to the emerging post-car regime: new propulsion mechanisms and materials, `smart’ technologies, new mobility policies, alternative living and leisure practices, new ownership and usage patterns. A number of contemporary avant garde models are showcased to make the future of personal mobility more tangible. These models range from Bremen’s clever transport system to the Transition Town Movement to Norman Foster’s Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

In a final chapter a set of three scenarios is offered to explore the shape of the post-car regime in a more distant future: 1) an `eco-communalist’ future based on a network of downscaled, self-reliant communities under the aegis of `small is beautiful’. Mobility is severely restricted because of resource scarcity, 2) an apocalyptic future of `regional warlordism’ where society fragments in violent factions resisting an autocratic elite. Mobility is restricted to the `happy few’, and 3) a future in which personal mobility will be meshed with pervasive digital networks of control. The ability to move will be constrained at it will come at the cost of a significant loss of privacy.

Whilst the book offers a concise and informative traverse of a fascinating subject area, it has a number of shortcomings. Its brevity is a boon for time-constrained readers but it comes at the cost of both depth and comprehensiveness. There are important developments - such as the introduction of ultra-cheap mass-produced vehicles (Tata Nano) or the economics of personal carbon allowances - that receive very short shrift. Also, the argument is developed from a social sciences, not from an engineering perspective. The authors describe but do not critically assess the relative merits of various technological options. Furthermore, I appreciate the complex systems perspective that underpins the narrative but there is a lot of relatively recent research on the dynamics governing system-wide transitions that would allow for a more nuanced discussion. Now the argument basically boils down to the rather generic `system in a self-critical state + disruptive innovation = new mobility regime’. Finally, I was disappointed by the final scenarios chapter which connects awkwardly to the discussion that precedes it. Suddenly the security implications of global climate change move in as a dominant driver and one wonders why this hasn’t been broached earlier. The scenarios are also rather stereotypical: the `catastrophe if we do nothing’, the `command and control’ and the `self-organization’ stories have been turning up in various guises in many scenario exercises over the last 15 years. As a whole the book provides an interesting scaffolding for an imaginative and systemic reflection on the future of personal mobility but this is something that is left to the reader to complete.

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