The end of car dominance?

The panic over the imminent collapse of the US motor industry demonstrates the importance of car manufacturing to the economy.  If, as expected , one or more of the Big Three goes bust next year, the knock-on effects will be horrendous. Every job in a car factory supports half a dozen or more outside.

Henry Ford claimed that the success of his company was the catalyst for the enormous growth in the US economy that saw the country become the world’s greatest power. Similarly, in China, the car industry is seen by the country’s rulers as the driving force underpinning the economy. Much of the growth in the economy is down to the ability of relatively ordinary Chinese people to be able to buy their cars.

Of course, as the recent Chinese experience shows all too well – Beijing has seven ring roads – the unrestrained growth of car use is a disaster from virtually every point of view – except, at least in the short term, economic.  The increased mobility may initially seem like a boon but it soon becomes a myth as traffic jams replace empty roads. We all know that the environmental consequences are dreadful, ranging from the loss of sense of community as traffic makes life unberable to increases in respiratory and other diseases caused by pollution. But as the motor industry creates millions of jobs, ranging from car showroom sales staff to the guy at the end of the road with his little garage to fix cars.  But while this has created jobs in the short term, ultimately the depletion of resources and the degradation of the atmosphere will have a huge negative effect on the economy

Therefore, it seems like schadenfreude to rejoice at the problems of the car industry. So many people will suffer from its collapse that it appears cruel to cheer. But I’m afraid I do. The motor industry has been at the heart of transport policy for far too long. The driving force has been a desire by politicians to increase mobility and therefore encourage all of us to travel more and more. If the collapse of the car industry leads to just the tiniest bit of  rethinking over this policy, then it is worth it.

In any case, most cars are sold not because anyone particularly needs a new one, but they just want a bigger/faster/brighter/shinier one. If the downturn makes even a few people rethink their attitude towards their ever growing consumption, and, say, keep their cars for five years rather than three, then surely we should all cheer.

It is easy to be cynical and suggest that once the economy returns to normal, then all these wider considerations will be quickly forgotten. I remain optimistic. The downturn and consequent recession will be so strong that it will be impossible to go back to where were before. Whether we use this opportunity to create a more sustainable way of life is the greatest challenge.