The basic elements of subsistence that our grandparents learned in childhood – food, water, shelter – were missing a critical category: travel. People have a basic need to go places, and the way we move profoundly affects almost every system we can imagine: tectonic, atmospheric, metabolic, social, ecological, economic and even metaphysical. At the start of the last century, each of these systems was responding with extreme and hazardous feedback to our poor transportation decisions.
Luckily, around the same time, new tools and networks sparked a renaissance of creative, enlightened endeavor. People energetically sought solutions to many of the world’s greatest challenges. Intractable problems suddenly became addressable and their solutions marketable. Humans developed better models, better designs, and better ways of organizing around important questions, all of which led to rapid and dramatic improvements in human-created systems.
So it came to pass that a dozen new electric vehicles appeared one after another in the market. They came in lots of different shapes and sizes. They steered themselves and ran on sunlight. They never endangered pedestrians, bikes, or animals.
These new vehicles were accompanied by well-organized advocacy and their appearance coincided with several powerful political movements. Legislators and traffic planners and corporate titans had no choice: They had to accommodate a world of better transportation alternatives.
Notwithstanding the remarkable features of these new vehicles, many individuals nowadays don’t bother with the expense and bother of owning one. Moving large metal-and-plastic bodies still requires a lot of energy. Energy is still expensive. Due to shifting geopolitical conditions, first-world economies have mostly stopped hiding the cost of energy from consumers. Consumers have changed their behavior as a result. Individuals these days are much more deliberate about the geographic impacts of their choices.
Walking is so much more pleasant than it used to be when roads were hazardous and filled with noxious smoke. Short trips are also easy to take on a variety of electric conveyances, so people tend to stay closer to home most days. As you would expect, many businesses have come to recognize the value of proximity, too. Now most of us have easy neighborhood access to groceries, hardware and household goods. A robot-driven jitney is always close by if one needs to travel far in the rain.
Compared with a century ago, people today have cleaner air, cleaner water, more cohesive neighborhoods, more aesthetically pleasing public spaces, more resilient cities, more reasons to go outside, more games of kickball in the street, and more time for reflection or creation from the back seat of a self-steering car.
We simply shake our heads when we see old accounts of 20th-century drivers. They seem utterly ridiculous. Their transportation systems promised freedom but delivered economic servitude, ecological travesty, public health crises, social unraveling and a daily dose of helplessness and rage.
Since those times, many elements have combined to make things better. Someone else might argue that another factor was the fulcrum of change – solar cell or battery improvements, say, or the simultaneous rise of local governments and benevolent global institutions. But I believe life is immeasurably better now because we finally reconsidered how to get from here to there.