Towards the post-automobile society

What are the levers to pull to get away from the all-automobile? Weaning ourselves from the car requires new modes of transport (bicycle, train, bus) and a “mobility permit” offering greater agility.

As the climate crisis enters a critical phase that makes the negative externalities of our way of life increasingly visible, social science work focusing on the place taken by the automobile in our societies is multiplying. Sociologists, most often in conjunction with other disciplines such as geography, philosophy, history or psychology, seek to understand the individual and collective mechanisms that have led us to become an automobile society.

Following John Urry’s work on mobility, they note that

Automobility is coercive. It can be thought of as one of the most powerful structures that individuals face. (…) (The automobile) is perhaps the best example of how the desire for flexibility and freedom on the part of individuals or households unintentionally produces systematic consequences.

Faced with these consequences, researchers have made pessimistic observations on the overall failure of incentive or injunctive policies aimed at reducing the place of the automobile. The geographer Jacques Lévy explains this failure: “In fact, a post-automobile society would be a different society from the one in which we live.”

Why do we evolve so little?

Sociologist Alexandre Rigal, trained in Lausanne (EPF) and Berkeley, is among those who want to go further, exploring possible paths towards a post-automobile society. As part of his thesis atEPFhe participated in the interdisciplinary research program PostCarWorld. As early as 2015, in a review of Thomas Buhler’s work on Lyon, he regretted that researchers did not go further than the observation of a paradox.

In his illustrated book resulting from his research, he sums up this paradox with a question: “How is it that after having been confronted with repeated injunctions to change, after having become aware of the issues linked to global warming, individuals seem to evolve so little?” (p. 9)

It is the mechanism of this paradox that he decided to investigate. The attempts at “green” taxation, to take just one example, have often encountered fierce resistance from a section of the population whose lifestyle and production or mobility are highly dependent on the automobile. In this respect, one of the weaknesses of the survey is that it focuses on urban areas, at the risk of neglecting the geographical dimension. Indeed, the problems are not always the same depending on the type of area (urban, suburban, peri-urban, rural, isolated rural). And the density of transport networks allowing “soft” mobility is also variable.

Furthermore, the survey was conducted in a country where the average standard of living makes it easier to free oneself from financial constraints. The sociologist is aware of this weakness, since he says of Switzerland that it is a “territory more favorable than others to the absence of car use, particularly in cities” (p. 35).

Through his work, Rigal wants to get out of pessimism. He begins an exploration of ways to “weaken automobile habits” by suggesting avenues. Some of them acquire a new resonance thanks to the covid pandemic and its consequences on mobility.

Getting used to the car

Alexandre Rigal offers a stimulating reflection on the question of habits and habituation. Following Berger and Luckmann, he defines it as a process whose suffix marks the unfinished nature of learning, even if it is omitted (to forget that one is moving). He distinguishes the initial phase, that of training, from the reinforcement phase which is that of habituation itself.

Even though he can rely on quantitative surveys, the author favors a qualitative approach that allows us to identify the levers to be activated to get away from the all-automobile. He offers an engaged sociology, even if he strives, during the fifty or so interviews conducted, not to reveal everything about his intentions and not to be too directive. This aspect is fundamental to allow us to understand what leads individuals, social beings, to develop a strong habituation to the automobile.

For the survey, giving a voice to intensive and uninhibited car users is as important as giving a voice to those who have learned to do without them. The constitution of the sample by the “step by step” method nevertheless raises the question of representativeness. Rigal assumes this bias, as well as the fact of not adopting a quantitative approach insofar as he is interested in the mechanisms of habituation that are difficult to perceive by statistics.

Many excerpts from the answers are given in the book. The concern for authenticity in the transcription can be disconcerting, the hesitant syntax of the oral being poorly adapted to the written word.

The mobility permit

Alexandre Rigal starts from a simple premise. If one can get used to the automobile, one can also get unaccustomed to it. He proposes a detailed analysis of the habituation processes in order to identify possible weaknesses that could, in reverse, constitute a path to unaccustomation.

This process seems doomed to failure if it is conceived only as the loss of an object valued on a symbolic and practical level and associated with freedom. It is sometimes necessary to go through the experience of the senses to disrupt this habituation, because it is often omitted, that is to say largely unconscious and internalized. But the perception of nuisances is not always sufficient. The privileged moments during which the individual is most likely to change mode of transport (thanks to “malleability”) are youth and moving.

Along with accidents or family breakups, they logically constitute shocks conducive to possible dishabituation, which involves training in new modes of travel (bicycle, train, bus) leading to new habits and greater “agility” (switching from one mode to another for the same journey). In other words, the author suggests that, to get out of this harmful cycle, it is necessary to set up other gears towards new habits.

One suggested path is to weaken the symbolic and ritual value of the driving license by replacing it with a broader mobility license, formalizing learning about active and soft mobility: “Thus, it would be access to mobility and not access to the car that would mark the passage to adulthood” (p. 142). In his investigation, Rigal also explores the links between mobility choices and political or ideological choices, seeking to distinguish practices from values.

The victory of the bicycle

In any case, the singularity of individual trajectories makes systems imposed from above ineffective. The factors of change are therefore multiple and different depending on the individuals, their trajectories and the space in which they evolve. The sociologist also proposes, among other things, to reduce the size of cars, to promote travel as a physical activity, to propose anti-models in order to get away from the injunction, to develop places for learning mobility within the framework of the social and solidarity economy (self-repair workshops).

The paths are ultimately not so numerous, but the book makes you think, allowing you to identify the levers. All the more so since the strength of habituation to the automobile has contributed to anchoring it deeply in practices and imaginations as much as in space. For years, it was adapted to the use of the automobile, before ecological awareness came to challenge this paradigm. But the dishabituation proves to be very complex and will probably take as long as the century of habituation…

A key point of the book, which resonates strongly with the current situation, is the realization, through a forced change, of the possible and positive effects of a dishabituation of the automobile. Alexandre Rigal evokes the moments in the past when traffic decreased due to a crisis (in 1956 during the Suez crisis, in 1973 with the oil shock) and notes the importance of the car-free days organized regularly here and there.

In urban areas, the first lockdown in spring 2020 allowed many city dwellers to realize the change in their sound and olfactory universe at the same time as cars stopped circulating. The rise of teleworking and the development of alternative forms of distribution could contribute to weaning people off the car, although it is still too early to tell.

A study conducted by the consulting firm Capgemini in June 2020 reveals the paradoxical effects of confinement (decrease in carpooling and the use of public transport by some). On the other hand, the bicycle, well studied by Rigal, will undoubtedly be one of the winners of the “after”. In Paris, for example, bicycle traffic increased by 50% between May 2019 and May 2020. The continuation of the temporary arrangements made during the first lockdown has reopened the debate on the respective place of the automobile and the bicycle in the city.

The situation could ultimately be favourable to soft mobility which, although growing, still faces multiple obstacles. Among the proposals of the Citizens’ Convention for the Climate, there are many measures aimed at reducing the place and use of automobiles.