Despite increased concern about environmental damage and resource depletion, the private motor car, and associated automobility, are taken-for granted aspects of 21st century life. This paper makes the counterfactual assumption that private ownership of cars was severely restricted at the start of the twentieth century, and uses a range of historical data to examine the ways in which such a scenario might have impacted on transport infrastructure, personal mobility and urban life. It is argued that, even without the wholesale adoption of the motor car as a means of personal transport, patterns of everyday mobility would not have differed significantly from today so long as other forms of transport had remained or expanded to cope with this demand. However, such a scenario would probably have required journeys to be planned in different ways, and may have disadvantaged particular groups of the population, including some women. A landscape without cars would probably also have altered the form of cities, with services provided closer to where people live, and levels of air pollution substantially lower. The counterfactual historical analysis is used to argue that, although there is little likelihood of cars being banned in Britain, greater restrictions on private motor vehicles would not necessarily lead to the fundamental changes in everyday mobility that some might predict.
The final, definitive version of this article has been published in the Journal, Journal of Historical Geography 36 (3), 2010, © ELSEVIER.