The Death of Cars

The population of the world was well under a million in the 17th Century. A horse was the fastest means of travel. China was the most populous nation. The Celestial Kingdom was ruled by the Qing Dynasty. Europeans sought favor with the Manchu court and a Flemish Jesuit supposedly presented the Chinese Emperor with a 65 cm-long steam-powered vehicle. It was the first car.

Today over 800 million cars and trucks travel over roads on every continent in all weather. Most are powered by carbon-based fuels. Oil companies suck oil and gas from the earth to feed Man’s need to travel on wheels. Global economies are dominated by the demand for gas and politics are designed to control the sources spread across the planet.

Last night Richie Boy and I decided to have a drink at a nearby hotel. The bar is deco. The crowd consists mostly of businessmen and their clients. The room was designed to throttle the noise level and we spoke about our plans for the future. Diamonds are increasingly difficult to find. The Chinese and Indians are cornering the market. They pay top dollar for the goods. The cartel couldn’t be happy with their new partners and everyone on 47th Street is feeling the pressure of the increasing costs of diamonds.

“At least we’re making money.” Richie Boy raised his glass to toast a successful week. We have completed a 30-inch chain of gem 40-point round-brilliants for a discerning hedge fund operator. The necklace was a work of art.

“That we are.” I had sold a diamond eternity band of certified oval diamonds to an NBA basketball player. We worked hard five days a week. Richie Boy put in extra hours over the weekend. His phone never stopped ringing. He had rich friends. Mine were struggling to keep their jobs.

The man next to us ordered a Negroni. I was drinking a gin-tonic. My tastes are very simple. The 50 year-old was in the oil business.

“Things couldn’t be better.” The upstate native had switched from Wall Street to analyzing the oil industry in the mid-90s. “Back then the business was dying in the USA. Now we’re extracting oil off-shore and fracking gas out of shale in North Dakota.”

“I’m one of your best customers.” Richie Boy liked luxury SUVs. He had forsaken a Land-Rover for a Mercedes GL 450 with a 4.6-liter V-8 engine. “I figure that I’m being green by burning up all the gas I can, so there’ll be none in 20 years.”

“We aren’t running out of gas soon. There’s enough reserves in the USA to last the century.” The analyst lambasted President Obama for opening the Strategic Oil Reserves. “Government should never determine prices.”

“I agree, the price should react to demand.” I had majored in economics at college. Some of that knowledge stuck in my head, also a good part of the politics of the early-70s. “Except when the industry is price setting for profit. There is no shortage of gas, yet prices have hit $4 a gallon thanks to speculation. Not that it matters to me. I don’t have a car.”

“Neither do I.” The analyst lived on the Upper West Side. My apartment was in Fort Greene. Both of us traveled by subway or taxi. “No parking tickets, no garage fees, no car insurance.”

“Freedom from the car and I foresee the day when the car will no longer be part of our lives.”

“There will always be cars.” Richie Boy loved his cars. They hauled his skis to Vermont and his surfboards to Montauk.

“There were cars a little over 100 years ago. Everything comes to an end.” Trolleys and trains once connected cities to towns and towns to farms. “People rode horse an buggies. In 1919 the future president Eisenhower accompanied a convoy of WWI army trucks from Washington to San Francisco in 1919. The main route was the Lincoln Highway. 3000 miles of dirt roads. The trip took 62 days.”

“And that trip impressed on Ike the need for highways. He had seen the autobahn in Germany and he created the Interstate Highway System.” The balding analyst knew his history. Oil and cars went hand in hand. “New highways, suburbs, shopping malls, fast food.”

“America at its best.” The golden era of the car ended with the 1974 Gas Embargo. GTOs were replaced by Pinto, but the cheap gas of the 90s brought back big; trucks and SUVs.

“Cars aren’t going anywhere.” Richie was a member of the faithful.

“Twenty years from now cars will have disappeared from the planet.”

“And what will replaced them?” Richie Boy didn’t share my vision of a carless society.

“Nothing will replaced them.” I envisioned a world population of one billion. Cities across the planet would disappear or shrink to a fraction of their size.

“And what do you base this claim on?” asked the analyst. He was used to hard facts and sheets of numbers.

“Just a hunch.” I would miss the cars. Motorcycles too. I wasn’t a very good horseman.

“That’s not very scientific.” Richie Boy signaled for another round of drinks.

“No, I’m no scientist.” I has been born with the placenta around my head. The Irish considered that a sign of foresight. Seeing the future was no gift. I took my drink and clinked glasses with Richie Boy and the analyst. “Here’s to the car. GTOs, jeeps, Porsches, and the VW Bug. I love them all.”

“So what are you trying to say?” The analyst was perplexed by my flip-flopping and Richie Boy explained, “He’s a Gemini. They change their opinions like a weather vane. According to their moods.”

We drank up and spoke about Troy, New York. It was the analyst’s hometown. Richie Boy drove through on the way to Vermont. He knew most of its restaurants. None of them were good. I had hitchhiked through Troy in 1974. It was rundown then and it’s rundown now. Someplace to drive through on your way to somewhere else.

And that remains the beauty of the car.

It gives people escape.

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