A Future Without Cars: Interview with John Urry

Illustration by Joris Yang

Illustration by Joris Yang

To explore the future and its limitless possible outcomes is a very challenging exercise. However difficult, it is the main aim of John Urry’s and Kingsley Dennis’ new book After the Car (Polity Press, 2009), which draws many interesting paths of what may be different shapes of the future. After reading the book, the Carbusters team couldn’t resist an interview with one of its authors, John Urry, a distinguished professor of sociology at Lancaster University. Below, he presents us with the ideas he developed in the book and shares his fears and hopes for the future “after the car”.

Do you consider the title of your book provoking?
Yes, it is meant to provoke. It is a kind of prediction that in this century cars as we know them will disappear. They could disappear in many ways, but two in particular are significant: either because there is the development of a post-car system or because of consequences of climate change, peak oil and so on, which could make current systems of transportation and communication difficult or impossible to sustain.
Do you think our societies are aware of this?
No, and I guess your readership would agree with that! There are a couple of reasons that explain this lack of awareness. First of all, it is because of the ways the car system was established: it became so taken for granted that it has passed under-examined. Another reason is that the kinds of changes that are proposed for the car system are generally a kind of technological fix. For example replacing the petroleum power-source of cars with another sort of power-source. This however leaves the system unchanged. It is a limited conception of futures.
Does this mean that electric cars or alternative fuels such as biofuel can’t save the car system?
These solutions would probably not change anything, but I obviously can’t be sure of my predictions. A part of the book is all about the difficulties of predictions and the significance of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” as well as “known unknowns.” In particular, tipping points can be provoked by relatively small changes. My research, observations and other people’s research indicate that simply thinking that we can save the whole system just by changing one of its elements seems a very limited conception of the possibility of change.
More than the car, your book studies the car system and the future of mobility in general. Could you shortly describe the main elements of the current car system?
It is based upon a car fuelled by petroleum, made of steel, weighing a ton or two, seating four people, and surrounded by the development of roads, motels and hotels, and a pervasive car culture, which reproduced its as relatively unchanging system during the last century.
There are also many wide features of the car system, like the problem of urban sprawl, due to the separation of home from work, home from leisure and so on. Homes are significantly based on commuting patterns and the car became necessary to enable family life, friendship and a lot of work life to be reproduced. We develop in the book the major differences between sprawl and the idea of a compact city. Sprawl is in many ways a key component of the car system.
At the end of the book, you describe three scenarios: “local sustainability”, “regional warlordism” and “digital networks of control”. Do you think citizens can have an impact on the evolution of the car system? If so, how?
Yes, citizens can do a lot of things. They can vote for parties that promote one model or another, sign petitions, write letters and a lot of other citizen acts. But I also want to insist on the significance of experimentation. Many people around the world develop alternatives concerning transport systems and express themselves through associations, carfree days and others things to reclaim streets. It is important to insist on things happening at a small scale, which could come to be combined with other elements and generate what we call a “post-car” system.
What are your expectations concerning this book?
I want to promote the idea that travel is a question of systems, much more than a question of individual choices. Secondly, I hope to get policy makers to think of things that might drive societies in one direction rather than another.
Therefore I will participate in conferences and various events. I will also have the occasion to speak to car manufacturers about some of these issues, although I think some will not be particularly interested. It may well be that a post-car system will emerge unexpectedly, from left field.
What is your personal view of the carfree movement?
The carfree movement is obviously very important and interesting. One of the main challenges to the carfree movement in this book is the argument that certain kinds of flexible, personalised travel systems would be a necessary part of future travel systems, something current cars seem to provide – at least for those sitting in them.
You develop upon many experiences (transition towns, new urbanism…) happening nowadays. It seems that potential “solutions” can work mostly at a small scale…
Yes, they indeed mainly seem to operate in neighbourhoods, small towns, smaller cities or probably also on islands. What is the most important here is the role of “prototypes” or experiments. I think the basis of new potential systems is emerging and may replace old systems, if there is a proliferation of experiments and models of alternative futures at a small scale – promoted and extended with, for instance, the use of media like the Internet.
Things done at a small scale can scale-up and there will be some societies at some point, which will come to eliminate the steel and petroleum car. That is the way alternative post-car systems will come to develop.
Do you think the current weight of neo-liberalism ideology over societies can be an obstacle to the development of potential alternatives?
It is interesting to mention that we wrote that book before the financial meltdown. We didn’t really envisage the astonishing scale of financial turmoil and the ways in which over-financialisation has caused so many serious and significant problems.
The question of finding finance for the development of some alternatives becomes therefore problematic. However one strong contemporary current idea is the so-called “green new deal”. It can be a possible basis of supporting, funding and encouraging different sets of development. I am not only thinking of Obama’s “green new deal”, but more of something that would happen in smaller countries. It would of course have to be a mixture of private and public funding, regulation and resources, and it would be for sure a clever way to put the large number of unemployed car workers back to work constructing and developing a post-car system.
Do you agree that your book is a little pessimistic at the end?
I think it is indeed quite a pessimistic book, because I suggest that the 20th century involved this incredible scale of movement based on oil consumption. Oil is running out and its use has a strong implication in climate change. The 21st century has a limited set of alternatives. None of the scenarios we set in the last chapter are great – they all have costs and may involve a reduction of personal freedom because of the way movements will be monitored, regulated and controlled. The 21st century’s challenge will be to make the best of a bad job.

Interview by Marko Thull

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