2120 Hindsight: The Automotive Age

28Apr08

The Automotive Age lingered until about 2040 in America, and even longer in other poor countries. Historians generally agree that the era drew to a close, in the U.S., after the passage of the Rail Transportation Affordability Act (RTAA) of 2037. Until then, annual mass transit passes had been relatively unaffordable, to the point that considerable numbers of ordinary people still had to rely on old individual means of transportation (IMOT) devices.

The RTAA was quite unusual for its time. It was, in essence, a throwback to 20th century concepts of federal government expenditure, of a type that international creditors had largely forced the U.S. to abandon after its “secret” insolvency of 2017. Specifically, federal funding for citizens’ purchases of mass transit passes was facilitated, through the Act, on the basis of an open-ended governmental commitment to make up the difference between what people could afford to pay and current market prices for transit passes.

Creditors allowed Congress to proceed with the Act primarily because, by 2037, the productive capacity of the United States had become competitively undervalued. Continued progress in neural implants, combined with recent liberalization in restrictive freedom-based jurisprudence, held the promise that Americans would soon be offering considerably enhanced productive cognitive and emotive resources to employers. At the same time, further developments in longevity and old-age productivity had justified two substantial increases in individuals’ permanent indebtedness ceilings within the past three years – in 2034 and again in 2036. It appeared, in short, that creditors’ fiscal leap of faith, grounded in solid anticipation of improved returns per person, would ultimately prove justified. Increased access to elevated rail transportation, it was believed, would enable American workers to provide sharply improved levels of profitability for their owners’ benefit.

The RTAA thus fostered a decisive resolution of the long competition between elevated rail transportation providers and IMOT manufacturers. Basically, by 2037, the war was over. IMOTs had been increasingly untenable since the Pavement Desuetude movement of the early 2020s. When the RTAA became law, it was quite clear that the nation and the world would not generally be going back to the land-intensive, agribusiness-disruptive, difficult-to-maintain world of pavement-based IMOT transit. Many vehicle-width roads and bridges, which IMOTs had required since the dawn of the Automotive Age, had already fallen into disrepair when the Desuetude movement began. Motorized IMOTs also suffered the drawbacks of having always been quite dangerous, and of relying upon varying forms of fuels that had become unaffordable, irregularly available, and/or environmentally unacceptable.

Yet several factors delayed the end of the Automotive Age. First, a sharp public and legislative reaction against oversized vehicles, beginning about 2010, set the stage for many years of small-IMOT transit, during which the rising costs of raw materials needed for vehicle construction were partially offset by the smaller quantities of such materials needed per vehicle, as well as by savings in fuel and road construction and maintenance expenses. Possession of an oversized (one-ton or larger) vehicle was not criminalized in most states until about 2021, and of course it was never criminalized for commercial vehicles; but by then numerous judicial decisions had upheld state laws imposing strict civil liability for operation of personal oversized vehicles in vehicular accidents. Because the nation held a substantial inventory of smaller vehicles in 2020, for which their owners had incurred considerable debts and which were then starting to be seen as unsalable, the transition to rail travel was slower than the proponents of rail had hoped. Only as those vehicles and their roads began to fall apart did elevated rail emerge as the unavoidable successor.

It also took many years for the elevated rail network and related features (e.g., various forms of people-movers and automated delivery systems) to develop, following the completion of America’s first citywide prototype in Minneapolis in 2019. It would be another 12 years before national transit passes would finally provide the primary means of transportation for the majority of Americans.

Automobiles and roads, as they had been known in the 20th century, had changed almost beyond recognition by 2030. The change was less dramatic but still profound for trucks, tractors, and other forms of service and commercial vehicles. Even as late as 2040, there were still a few pockets of industry and personal use in which non-rail transportation predominated. For the generation reaching adulthood in 2020 and thereafter, however, automobiles seemed increasingly irrelevant and impractical. There really was never any question that that generation’s children would rely upon rail transit. It may have been this attitudinal change, more even than the several practical considerations just discussed, that spelled the ultimate end of the Automotive Age in the United States.

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