A Thought Experiment

What if there were no cars? What if we’d invented the internal combustion engine, but then realized that it spewed too much toxic bullshit to put into regular use? What if we’d gamed it all out and decided, on balance, the planet, and by extension our lives, would be better with other solutions to personal mobility challenges?

Now before I go any further, don’t misunderstand this little game. I’m not car shaming anyone. I drive all the time, just like everyone else. I’m just thinking through an improbable scenario, wondering what interesting results might pop out.

For a time, cars shared the roads with horses. The roads were for horse-drawn wagons mainly. We’d have more horses if we didn’t have cars, and that might have perpetuated the deforestation that began in colonial times as farmers cleared land for farming. Not many people are aware that, at least in New England where I live, there are more trees right now than there were 200 years ago. When we (mostly) gave up farming, the forests came back.

Shopping for wheels? Shop these.

The bicycle (Ah! There it is!) was invented in the middle 19th century but came online as a popular piece of equipment in the 1880s. Cyclists of that age made do with some pretty challenging terrain, dirt roads and cobblestone, and few of the rules of the road that keep us safe today. Imagine, instead of plowing time, energy and gazillions of dollars into automotive infrastructure, we’d made the same investments in equine and cycling infrastructure. Riding would be safer, easier, faster, and the air would be cleaner.

Would we have fought fewer and less deadly wars? I think so. Would global warming not have become an issue? Maybe.

Of course, the US economy wouldn’t have grown at the same rate. There has likely been a direct correlation between how much carbon a country produces and how quickly its GDP grows. But growth isn’t everything, and anyway, this is a resource rich place. If there were no cars anywhere, the playing field would still likely have skewed to the countries that are wealthy now.

It seems probable that the mass suburbanization of the population might not have happened. Or, that communities would have developed that were sufficient unto themselves, rather than attaching themselves to larger cities. This seems like quite possibly a good thing, strong community being a hallmark of life satisfaction for most people. More of us would, by necessity, be eating local, seasonal food.

More root vegetables anyone?

Would we be healthier? I like to think so. Less heart disease. Less diabetes. Less general anxiety and depression. These benefits alone might justify the retroactive elimination of the car.

Bikes would likely be better, faster, more efficient. Don’t ask me how, but given more research and more need, I feel certain we’d be much further along the innovation curve, perhaps whole families moving themselves around by bike at a reasonable speed. More cargo bikes. More everything bikes.

When I squint, I can just about see it all, and I don’t hate it. Remember too, we wouldn’t know what we were missing. We’d smell more like ourselves and not be bothered about it.

But then, why do this? What’s the point, if not to vilify the automobile? I think it’s good to evaluate our choices, for starters, and if it’s true that internal combustion was a misstep, then maybe there’s a future without it, a future we don’t need to fear. Inertia is a powerful force, and we have this habit of making a decision and following it through to the end, even when we can the end isn’t nearly what we’d hoped it would be. Can we course correct? Do we even want to?

What am I missing? Fill in the blanks, below in the comments.

Join the conversation
  1. jlaudolff says

    I’m really enjoying your writing lately.

    Regarding wagon roads, seems there are some in Oregon that have long sections that have never been engineered or improved. I had the pleasure of biking some sections this past week. Super rugged!

    It’s interesting to ponder what our land use would be like if roads were engineered primarily for bikes and not cars.

  2. khal spencer says

    Interesting thought experiment.
    Many European cities had a chance to re-think their urban planning courtesy of the RAF and U.S. 8th Air Force. Some of them tried to stay compact so that cars are not the universal problem solver to getting around. In part because during the war, Germany realized how dependent it was on other people’s oil. I was in Bremen for about a week or so and never missed having a car, as using the tram, feet, and bicycle were so appropriate to the scale of the city. I rambled on about that trip here:

    My Ph.D. advisor spent a sabbatical in Muenster, Germany, and penned this: “Muenster did not become a bicycle friendly (fahrradfreundliche) city by accident. During World War II the city center was almost completely destroyed. In the reconstruction of the city after the war it was decided that bicycles and buses should be an important part of city traffic. For the past 50 years the city has continually worked on increasing bicycle use….” Unfortunately, someone took down his full blog post when he retired from SUNY.

    Here in the U.S. we went to suburbia when gas and land were both cheap abundant and not to mention, there were half again as many of us. Unfortunately, what worked in 1960 isn’t working so well now and politics being what it is, we wanted what worked at the time we were living it. See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet; remember that?

    My concern is that now with climate change upon us, our leaders and followers want silver bullets so we can continue to live lives of conspicuous consumption but without the carbon price tag. What that of course will lead to is raping, pillaging, and burning our way through other people’s land in search of lithium, cobalt, rare-earth elements, and other goodies that will let a third of a billion of us live “sustainably” and I deliberately put that in air quotes.

    Maybe we shoulda stuck with horses and bicycles. I guess I’d rather dodge horseshit than an SUV.

  3. alanm9 says

    I read that the scourge of horse carcases in cities was a major health hazard in the late 1800’s; literally mountains of them grew in vacant lots. Burning coal, then oil, brought us the industrial revolution, which brought us all the technological options we now have. Then WWII showed us the vulnerability of rail lines for nationel defense, which begat the highway system, and a reliance on cars and trucks, cemented in place by industry lobbyists and our own sense of entitlement. So I think it was somewhat inevitable, but I also think its running its course. We’ll eventually realize that the private car is an unsustainable transportation model, no matter how they’re powered. People don’t realize yet the scale of the massive new resource extraction and infrastructure changes that will be required to sustain electric cars. Entire ecosystems covered by solar panels, millions of trees cut down for windmills and power lines, marine life all along the coasts disrupted by offshore wind farms. I think that will take another generation at least, though, so don’t expect a micro-mobility revolution anytime soon, methinks.

Leave A Reply

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More