After the Car

By Kingsley Dennis and John Urry
Polity Press, 2009, 180 pp
ISBN 9780745644219

When we take a moment to look at our traffic-saturated cities, with cars parked everywhere, roads and freeways spreading like the arms of an octopus, and the government’s blind support for the car industry, we are justified in asking how long can this situation last. It is high time to realise that we are closer and closer to radical changes in the car system. Kingsley Dennis and John Urry explore in their book what changes may occur, and develop potential paths for future transportation. According to them, the days of spontaneous “car get away” are counted.

The 20th century was the “century of the car”, instead of its “massive environmental resource use and an extraordinary scale of death and injuries”. After explaining how “such a monster came to take over the world during the last century”, Dennis and Urry demonstrate how, by necessity, the car system will sooner or later be “re-designed” and “re-engineered”.

This unavoidable shift, they argue, is spurred by the current context of climate change, peak oil and the development of virtual worlds; it is the pressure they create that will modify the ways transport and energy systems evolve. In their book, “what is the key is not the car, but its system of connections.” Dennis and Urry present different elements of this system and their relation, before focusing on new technologies, their perspectives and their dangers.

One great aspect of this book is that it manages to build some possible and realistic view of the future without neglecting its unpredictability. Its authors aim to “enact certain futures through developing particular kinds of analysis and not others”.

Indeed, this well-documented demonstration leads Dennis and Urry to develop three different scenarios of what could happen: “local sustainability” (inspired by the model of “local sustainability” from E.F. Schumacher), “regional warlordism”(with over-protected rich enclaves and “wild zones”) and “digital networks of control” (a scenario close to Orwells’ 1984). For the authors, “it is a limited set of choices that confronts societies in the early twenty-first century. And the reason for this constrained set of alternatives is, we argue, the twentieth century.”

The book keeps a very realistic look (tending to pessimism) at potential evolutions, but manages to keep a door open for brighter and more optimistic perspectives. It demonstrates potential benefits of a shift “from sprawl to small” (cf. New Urbanism in CB #38) and presents various innovative examples of urbanism like the Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in the UK or the future city of Dongtan, China…)

“After the Car” is a very inspiring book that we would recommend to all people interested in the future of transportation systems – especially those convinced by the importance of carfree perspectives in building it.

Review by Marko Thull

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