The Modern Car is a Marvellous Waste

[A new car!]
A new 4-cylinder Honda Accord sedan has a top speed of 125 miles per hour.

When you think about it, this simple fact becomes ridiculous considering that  the average speed cars travel in US cities, without traffic, is around 30 miles per hour. Yes, I just wrote “without traffic.”

With traffic, of course, it’s worse.

This is to say that the 21st century automobile is extremely over-designed for the job that it is tasked with.

[Average traffic-free speeds, according to Google Maps data.]

[The bottleneck in 1937, when cars probably went at least as fast as today.]
The other day I was bicycling down Saint Paul’s Summit Avenue and got stuck at a stoplight for a minute or so. A car idled by my left elbow, waiting for the light to change, and for some reason the sound of the engine caught my ear. It sounded fancy, a complex chord of belts and metal, the air conditioner compressor whirring at a higher pitch, and the entire ensemble impressed me.

“What an amazing piece of technology,” I thought to myself, before the light changed and the machine accelerated from my gaze.

Compared to cars twenty, forty, or a hundred years ago, there are some things that haven’t changed, like the internal combustion engine, the rubber tire, or the tailpipe. But beyond that, even the most basic modern car is a marvel far surpassing anything dreamt in previous generations. Air conditioning, surround sound stereo systems, soundproofing, anti-lock brakes, almost magical airbags, rear-view cameras, automatic locks, windows, and doors, GPS displays, and things I probably don’t even know about that auto company engineers are coming up with constantly.

[A 2CV spotted during the '14 streets.mn picnic.]
That said, the modern car has offered diminishing returns for quite some time. The basic function of a car is to get you from point A to point B at reasonable costs of energy, money, and time,  and maybe carry some of your stuff. That equation hasn’t changed much in a century. 1960s VW Beetles got 25-30 miles per gallon, and the 1940s Citroen 2CV (the French “farmer’s car”) got over 60, and all of them could drive at 30 miles per hour, the average speed of traffic in Minneapolis today. No matter how nice they might be inside, especially considering the reality of urban traffic, the difference between today’s cars and those from 50 years ago is marginal. They might be shiny and comfortable, but they don’t really “get you there” much differently. 

It gets worse though, because on average, cars aren’t even used the vast majority of the time. There are all kinds of stats on this, but on average, cars are parked 95% of the time. The car just sits there not being used, like Donald Trump's teleprompter, the Vikings' trophy case, or almost everyone's home exercise equipment.

It seems to me that investing so much money into a machine that realizes only a fraction of its potential is a gigantic waste of our personal and collective resources. Driving a car around the city is a bit like having a deluxe chef-level kitchen — granite counter tops, stainless steel hoods, deluxe gas range, the nicest pots and knives — and cooking Kraft Mac and Cheese. It’s like going on vacation to Hawaii and spending the whole time watching TV. It’s like erecting a billion dollar stadium and using it for monster truck shows, like having a brand new souped-up gaming computer and only using it for email, like buying a ticket to the State Fair, schlepping yourself all the way there, eating a corn dog, and leaving after twenty minutes.

(I could go on like this all day. Maybe it's like having a super-expensive almost two-decade-long post-secondary education and spending your time blogging?)

The point is that nobody — not even me — can dispute that today’s cars are amazing machines. The problem isn’t with cars. It’s their sheer quantity and the way they’re used. The vast majority of the potential of the automobile is completely wasted in today’s cities. Some simple math: if the average American car sits 90% of the time, and even when it’s being used, urban cars are only used at 25% of their potential for movement, then 97.5% of the potential for movement is being wasted every day.

I’m all for respecting the glamorous amazing world-breaking technological marvel of the automobile. But looking down at I-94 at and seeing hundreds of amazing cars crawling at single-digit speeds, sitting on expensive space-hungry asphalt-and-steel freeways, baking in the sun, burning gas with isolated people strapped inside, should be a heartbreaking sight. What else could we be doing with our time, money, energy, and our collective powers of invention?

[A waste.]


Nick Morison said...

just gonna post this here since i feel like no blog entry on such a subject is complete without this comment, like a sundae without a cherry.


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