Do automakers really want to help save our cities from the car?

The recent dust-up between Tesla founder Elon Musk and humans who believe that urban transit isn’t a dystopian nightmare highlighted a broader question: Do automakers really care about our cities?

It’s not just Musk’s comments that have sparked this conversation. In recent years, leaders of the American automobile industry giants have been musing about how to better integrate their products into our cities. Check out Ford’s latest public statements and marketing efforts, such as this video:

See that? Yes, a bicycle. A real human-powered machine portrayed as a viable transportation option. It wasn’t long ago that automakers were actively mocking those who rode bikes with ads like this:

Things go even deeper than a couple of ads. Ford now operates a bike-sharing program in San Francisco. GM is pouring billions into the car-sharing program company Maven.

Driving this change is the new automobile futurism. Young urbanites are buying fewer automobiles and tech-driven companies such as Uber and Car2go are pushing a future in which driverless short-term rental cars get us around cities.

This is, of course, a danger to companies that have generated billions selling automobiles. So rather than pull a Blockbuster Video, they are talking about new ideas.

Which all begs the question: Do you believe them? Do you believe that an automobile company really wants to help build a future in which cycling, walking and transit are viable transportation options?

There are reasons to be skeptical. GM hasn’t been shy about revealing the reason it has been getting into the car-sharing game, and it’s not to improve our cities. “This is a business opportunity for us,” Peter Kosak, executive director of urban mobility for Maven, told NPR. “You’re in that perfect case, and maybe later you will want to own a car.” 

And some of the ideas coming from them are, plainly, bizarre.

Add to this Musk’s recent disparaging comments about transit and his latest idea of unlocking gridlock through a series of tunnels for single passenger vehicles, without any mention of how the vehicles will get to the tunnels, or what happens when they inevitable fill up.

Some automakers like Audi are even trying out things like loading an electric scooter into the trunk of their cars.

What’s bizarre, and what that video only touches on at the end, is that all of these automaker solutions are still being motivated by the thing that caused the problem in the first place: Selling more cars into cities that are already choking on an oversupply of them. Simply put: There are too many cars on our roads.

It’s a concept a toddler can understand — when roads are full, stop adding vehicles — yet automakers are twisting themselves into knots finding solutions to a problem they continue to perpetuate. The number of cars on the road is what’s made our transportation inefficient, expensive and slow. There’s only one way to fix it. Car reduction comes from enabling fast, affordable and efficient transit, cycling and walking, not changing the type of single-passenger vehicle we use, or building tunnels to accommodate more cars or selling more cars with build-in skateboards.

Perhaps what struck me most about that Ford ad above was the use of Nina Simone’s song I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. The original coup of automakers was successfully selling the idea that owning a car was a type of freedom. Seeing such an achingly beautiful song about personal freedom used in an ad like this was an attempt to flip the script — somehow, this new system being peddled is true freedom: freedom from the burden of car ownership, freedom of choice, freedom of movement. But the reality is our current transportation system lacks all three, and it’s largely because we’ve built it almost exclusively around the single-passenger automobile. For our cities, true freedom includes other aspect: Freedom from the car.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Also published on Medium.


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1 Comment

  1. Too bad Nina Simone’s estate allowed that song to be used, not only as a pean to the car, but to the legacy of the founder of that corporation who was a vicious racist, in particular with respect to African-American and Jewish people, who was behind the Dearborn Independent and the hate leaflets titled “The International Jew” and received honours from Hitler before the war. Black people were not only forbidden to live in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, they were forbidden to stay there after sundown, even servants of wealthy residents. Others who weren’t quite WASP, such as southern Europeans and Lebanese, had to endure a “point system” even if they had the assets needed to buy property in the area. Racial and anti-semitic discrimination was also rife at the Ford Hospital.

    Nina Simone was signing about systemic racist and sexist discrimination and violence. She had a hard life (and wasn’t always an easy character, due to struggles with mental problems) but she devoted her life to emancipation and fighting racial and social discrimination and oppression, in the US and elsewhere.

    Nina without Ford:

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