Sometimes, something comes along and makes you realize how recent this all is. By this, I mean the fossil-fuel powered society of roads and skyscrapers and airports that we all take for granted because it's all we've ever known. We live in a society (Americans, at least), where every adult is expected to own a 1-2,000 pound gasoline-powered chariot that they are dependent upon for everything, and our entire society is built around that assumption - where we live, our job situation, how we shop, etc. That's a lot of cars. In 2009 there were 246 million motor vehicles registered in the United States. A 10% reduction would be 221 million vehicles but that is how many vehicles there were in 2000 (source).
We just think of this as normal. But it's so recent. How recent? It turns out that the first stoplight was installed only 101 years ago this month!
The system installed in Cleveland wasn't the first we'd recognize as a traffic signal today. London's 1868 signal used semaphore arms combined with red and green gaslights during nighttime — colors that had long been used to mean "stop" and "go" by various sorts of industrial machinery. It exploded after about a month of use, though, injuring the operator.
Then, in 1912, police officer Lester Wire built and installed a device in Salt Lake City that "looked like a large birdhouse with lights dipped in green and red paint and placed into circular holes on each side," according to the Salt Lake Tribune — but it, too, was short-lived, and Wire seems to have gone off to World War I instead of securing a patent.
Finally, in 1914, at the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street — one of the busiest intersections in Cleveland — the city hired the American Traffic Signal Company to implement an enduring system that had been patented by Clevelander James Hoge a year earlier.
The American history of roads, more than anything, is the story of informal public spaces being transformed into tightly regulated conduits for traffic. In most places across the country, for better or worse, roads have been taken away from pedestrians and other non-drivers to allow cars to move as quickly as possible.
A huge range of inventions and policies — from the concept of jaywalking to the controlled-access highway — were crucial in this transformation. But the traffic signal came at a particularly pivotal time.
During the 1910s, when electric traffic lights first popped up, cars were still a plaything for the rich. When drivers ran over pedestrians, they were publicly portrayed as murderers. For a brief moment, many felt that automobiles were inherently deadly machines, with no place on city streets.
If police departments, engineers, and auto enthusiasts hadn't figured out a way to minimize the carnage, that might never have changed. But they managed to do so, by forcing pedestrians to use crosswalks, writing rules to standardize the flow of traffic, and, crucially, regulating activity at intersections, where a disproportionate amount of accidents occurred.
That's right, 101 years ago, cars were a plaything for the rich, and you would have seen a trafficlight. Compare that to today!
Why did life take 4 billion years to produce a gasoline-powered automobile but just over a century to fill roads with 800 million of them?
If you compress those 4 billion years into one year, oxygen-producing cyanobacteria set down their earliest traces early in the afternoon of April 30. The planet glazed into a snowball just as the newspaper came the morning of June 2. The Cambrian explosion ignited for a late lunch on November 12. Ginkgo biloba's oldest suspected relative fell over on December 7, just before the workday began. Hominin runner-scavengers used stones as cutting tools early evening on December 31. The Neolithic "Great Leap Forward" in Africa occurred six minutes and thirty-four seconds before midnight December 31. Just 1.1 seconds before midnight, there were no cars. When New Year strikes, there are 800 million.
No cars. Boom! Cars. It's not as if you put two cars in a garage you have to keep an eye on them all night.Eric Roston, The Carbon Age, p 117
David Suzuki points out how wasteful our dependence on automobiles for our every need is. No matter how efficient we make an automobile, it is 100 percent inefficient if we are using it for useless tasks, self-driving or not:
Technological developments [such as electric cars etc.] are welcome, but maybe it's time we started rethinking our car culture as whole. The average car in North America carries 1.5 people, which means that most cars on the road only have a driver in them. Is it really efficient to use more than 1,000 kilograms of metal to transport 100 kilograms of human?David Suzuki: Our Obsession With Private Automobiles is Unsustainable (Treehugger)
And, as an article on The Mark News argues: "Requiring about 90 square metres for home storage, 90 square metres for storage at destination, 180 square metres while traveling and another 60 square metres for repairs, servicing, or sale, an automobile occupies more than 400 square metres altogether - more space than most apartments."
We take our cars for granted, but really, they haven't been a part of our human culture for that long, and they needn't be an essential part forever.
Of course, more efficient cars does not mean we use less fuel, as David Owen explains in The Conundrum:
A modern driver, in other words, gets vastly more benefit from a gallon of gasoline—makes far more economical use of fuel—than any Model T owner ever did. But we have used those remarkable efficiency gains to increase our consumption, not to reduce it, and we now depend on our cars in ways that our grandparents and great-grandparents could never have imagined. Given that dependence, it shouldn't be surprising to us that our driving-related energy use has grown by mind boggling amounts. U.S. consumption of motor gasoline has risen from about 11.5 million gallons per day in 1920, to 43 million in 1930, to 110 million in 1950, to 243 million in 1970, to 304 million in 1990, to approximately 390 million today. As always, the problem with efficiency gains is that we inevitably reinvest them in additional consumption. Paving roads reduces rolling friction, thereby boosting miles per gallon, but it also makes distant destinations seem closer, making it easier for us to drive longer distances and enabling us to live in new, sprawling, energy-gobbling subdivisions far from where we work and shop. And the effect is self-reinforcing, because living in those subdivisions further increases our dependence on cars, and so pushes up the number of miles we drive in all our other activities. When efficiency advocates say that automotive efficiency initiatives lose only 10 percent of their fuel savings to rebound, they make it clear that they're not looking at the real issue.David Owen, The Conundrum. pp.147-148
Amory Lovins once wrote that, if Jevons's argument is correct, "we should mandate inetticient equipment to save energy." As Lovins intended, this seems laughably illogical—but is it? If the only motor vehicles available today were 1920 Model Ts, how many miles do you think you'd drive each year, and how far do you think you'd live from where you work? ...No one is going to mandate inefficient equipment, but unless we're willing to do the equivalent—by mandating costlier energy or finding other ways to dramatically reduce our total consumption—increased efficiency, as Jevons predicted, can only make our predicament worse.
And note that the entire world is now dependent upon them. All of modernity has been enabled by that car. Even in places we consider "poor" countries, the roads are choked with cars and traffic jams (and pollution). The above image is from Addis Ababa. In Beijing, air pollution kills 4,000 people a day. It's as if every man, woman and child smoked 1.5 cigarettes per hour (source). It is the very definition of unsustainable.
The Case for Dangerous Roads and Low-Tech Cars (NYMag)