from the bike to the car, and getting back

We in North America are not far away in time from all being poor and rural.

In that world, people used to walk (or sometime run) everywhere.  Even having a bike was rare.

In such a world, a car is a revelation.  A car really is freedom.  Hours of walking turned into minutes of driving.  And even in the most extensively train-connected environment, for example even in France, a car is still hugely convenient for getting around rural areas.  We’re never going to run train tracks to everyone’s doorstep.  The car is a fantastic rural technology.  It wipes out distance constraints that are incredibly painful in time and effort.

Read any story or history of Europe or North America anywhere outside a city, from 1800 up to the end of WWII.  Circa 1850 people used to walk across the entire United States to get to California.  We’re only 160 years away from that.

People in Africa walking miles to school or days to a hospital is not some weird alien world.  It’s just us, before we could afford cars and mostly moved into cities.  Which is very very recent.  Say 60 years ago.

So you can see how hard it is to make the argument to go slower.  If you said to someone who has to walk two hours to their fields or to school, if you said “the car sucks, isn’t it great being a pedestrian?” they would think you were out of your mind.

What happened was that for the rural people, for whom the car was both an incredible status symbol but much more importantly a huge convenience, and for the people living downtown who could finally go and see the surrounding countryside upon a Sunday, for them the car was amazing.

We didn’t understand that it was a completely inappropriate technology for cities.

All of this to say, watch Gapminder’s Don’t Panic about population and wealth, and remember we’re looking down from the top of a very recent, very high income and very high urbanisation peak, down on people who live on a dollar a day in rural villages.  It’s for us with the information and wealth we have now to use appropriate technologies (like walking, cycling and transit in cities).  It’s not for us to tell everyone they should deny themselves a step up in life.  Watch the guy buy his first bike.  Think how much better his life would be with a car.  It’s not that the car was a mistake.  It’s the car in the city that’s the mistake.  See his excitement and understand how we got from North American rural poverty to a North American obsession with the car.  The car really was wealth and freedom.  For a time.

The good news: we’re already rich.  Now we just have to be rich and smart.