The car, after centuries of undisputed dominance of the horse, has been the instrument par excellence capable of responding to the natural desire for freedom of movement. Throughout the twentieth century it has gained a special place among the means of transport thanks to its ability to go anywhere, anytime and being able to easily transport people, without stops or interchanges, from point A to point B.
With a pleasant sense of freedom, the car has combined an intoxicating feeling of independence and leadership, often accompanied by the pride of ownership. This is testified by the magnificent TV spots that over the decades have stimulated the passion for this status symbol and the desire, joined in many cases to the need, to own a four-wheeled friend.
It can be said that the car was unquestionably the king of twentieth-century mobility. But will it always be this way?
This is a pertinent and necessary question. More and more individual freedom must be related to collective freedom. It is not granted that what the individual wants to do is in line with the “global optimum”, or, to simplify, the best thing for everyone. In many cases, even, the freedom of personal movement without limits can be harmful not only for the community, but also, with a view to physical coexistence between people, for the activity of the individual. Sustainability must be assessed in an overall context, even if it depends on everyone’s choices and has direct influence on the life of each individual.
A clear example of this is the problem of traffic and road congestion: it is precisely the personal desire of each individual to move as quickly as possible which in many cases creates dramatic situations regarding travel times. Congestions are the striking example of how we could all move better by agreeing to cooperate as allies. If we all moved neatly together, albeit slowly, we could avoid some traffic jams that could completely paralyze the circulation of individual travel. With a spirit of collaboration it would be possible to allow everyone, given the boundary conditions, to reach their destination in the most efficient way. In this example, the global optimum is also the optimum for individuals.
In the fast-paced world of our cities, it is essential that there is a broader gaze on mobility in search of the global optimum. In other words, a holistic view of mobility is necessary because individual needs and possibilities are part of a whole so interconnected that it cannot be tackled piece by piece, but only as part of a single big problem.
The car allows an optimization of individual transport, but perhaps this is no longer enough. Maybe we need to find more efficient and sustainable solutions. This need is even more pressing in urban contexts, where the car appears increasingly clumsy and almost out of place. The reasons for this inadequacy are manifold, from practical ones (such as the saturation of spaces due to the growth trends of cities, the economic convenience of alternative transport services such as public transport) to those deriving from precise ideological choices (such as the healthy will of urban planning to give back urban spaces to citizens).
In speaking about the current and future state of cars, it is impossible not to consider its ecological footprint. Attention to pollution is increasingly evident and essential in the face of climate change. Consumers have conquered a new and more careful level of perception and digestion of these issues. It is no coincidence that the automotive world is gradually closing the curtain on heat engines and fossil fuels and at the same time is heavily investing in new forms or paradigms of mobility, including MaaS (Mobility as a Service).
Shall we demonize the car then? No, it is wrong to make only accusations against the automobile, the cross and delight of twentieth-century mobility: it has been and will remain a precious – sometimes irreplaceable – tool for personal mobility. What is important to consider is that, in search of the global optimum in mobility, the car must be considered only as one of the possibilities within a truly intermodal ecosystem of means of transport. And very often, perhaps more than our habits allow us to see, the private car is simply disadvantageous compared to other means or shared transport services able to constitute the optimal choice not only for us, but also for others and our planet.