I live in an environment completely dominated by the car. There is nowhere within the expansive boundaries of this city where the noise, pollution and ugly modifications to the urban landscape of automobiles are absent.
Though I live in the inner city, my neighbourhood is full of car-bound creatures; they do not leave their houses by any other means. On the rare occasions we cross each other’s paths, they are mystified that someone can function without a car. Literally, I am asked “how do you get around?”, as if humans descended from the trees straight into waiting automobiles.
We have based our lives and cities around our use of automobiles, and I want to make a case that this has been a mistake. We should reconsider the design of our urban spaces, and developing countries should avoid following our errant path. For reasons of environment, culture, physical and mental health, and simply beauty we should evolve beyond private mass ownership of the car.
The ubiquitous ownership of automobiles is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, yet today many could not fathom that advanced human society functioned for most of time without them.
During the 19th century, a motorised carriage was being pursued by inventors in Europe and North America. Initially based on steam, the emphasis eventually moved to gasoline-based internal combustion engines. The invention of the modern automobile in the late 19th century is generally credited to Karl Benz, and the company he founded, Mercedes Benz, is still in business today.
For the next two decades, the wealthy replaced horse-drawn carriages with cars. Horses had caused all sorts of problems in cities, so this was hailed as a good thing. It provided respite for the horses too, although they continued to be used by the less wealthy for decades to come. People who could afford cars usually didn’t drive them, employing drivers to shuttle them around. Steam, gasoline and electric cars all competed for this niche, luxury market. At one point it seemed electric cars might win the day: the first car ever to go over 100Kph was a French electric car in 1899, Thomas Edison built electric prototypes (one of which still exists today) and even Henry Ford experimented with an electric car. Gasoline would win out however aided by an already existing worldwide production and distribution network based on kerosene widely used at that time for home lighting.
The major barrier to mass automobile ownership was cost, though this was soon to change with modern production techniques. A number of manufacturers experimented with assembly lines in the early twentieth century, with Henry Ford’s Model T car released in 1908 being the first to break into the mass market. The Model T was durable, relatively easy to repair and was cheap enough that it brought the cost of an automobile into the realm of the working class. The average miles per gallon of the Model T was still above average for cars being manufactured in the USA a century later, an example of how little fuel efficiency and conservation has been prioritised.
In hindsight it is interesting how fundamental the bicycle was in the early years of the automobile; many of the initial inventors of automobiles owned or worked in bicycle shops. Karl Benz is reputed to have come up with many of his ideas for his first “horseless carriage” whilst riding his bicycle. The rise of the automobile was also helped by bicyclist pressure groups which pushed for more taxpayer funding for better roads. These pressure groups were quickly taken over by car drivers and companies.
The use of automobiles envisioned by the initial inventors and producers of automobiles was very different from the reality of our modern lives. Henry Ford had farms primarily in mind, not the creation of suburbia. Ford talked about people getting out and seeing “god’s earth”, a far cry from the miserable concrete shopping mall carparks in which they would spend far more time. Harkening seductively back to his naive vision are our present-day car advertisements with their drivers careering along empty roads surrounded by green spaces, contrasting with the reality of people who buy those cars and then spend much of their lives frustratedly battling traffic. The car has always tried to sell itself based on an idea of freedom; however, the daily commute is an example of how cars have led us in another direction. We see ourselves now as dependent upon them, protected by them, judged by what others think of them – things that have little to do with human freedom.
People are generally oblivious to just how dangerous cars are.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), accidents with motor vehicles are the leading cause of death for healthy people, by a large margin. This includes being the most common cause of death in children.
In the top ten causes of mortality published by the WHO, road traffic accidents are the only non-disease related cause of death to make the list. At the moment the ever-worsening number is 1.3 million deaths worldwide annually, with a large proportion of those being people not in cars, cyclists and pedestrians. Many times as many suffer reportable injuries, with estimates from 20 to 50 million. I looked up train passenger casualties in the state where I live; the last fatal accident that wasn’t someone in an automobile running into a train was over half a century ago.
Crashes are just the most obvious way cars kill but by no means the only one.
Obesity is now a global health epidemic, and it comes as little surprise that according to Professor Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, one of the strongest correlations with obesity is per capita spending on motor vehicle fuel. Sheldon H. Jacobson, a researcher at the University of Illinois, looked at obesity and car use in the US, and discovered that “vehicle use correlated ‘in the 99-percent range’ with national annual obesity rates”. The WHO state, “Overweight and obesity are the fifth leading risk for global deaths. At least 2.8 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese. In addition, 44% of the diabetes burden, 23% of the ischaemic heart disease burden and between 7% and 41% of certain cancer burdens are attributable to overweight and obesity”. It’s not just walking and cycling that would tackle this; the University of Philadelphia published a paper showing public transport usage was highly correlated with lower body mass index. Walking a few minutes to the bus each day would seem to give you extra time if your whole life is considered, though more on that later.
Pollution takes many forms in our world, and a study by Cornell professor David Pimentel suggested that it could contribute to up to 40% of deaths worldwide. Cars cause pollution in a number of ways, in their manufacture, their disposal, in the refining and resourcing of their fuel, in the creation of the massive infrastructure they require, the trees removed for roads, the detritus they leave behind, and in the emissions they produce every moment their engine is turned on. The US Environmental Protection Agency lists vehicle exhausts as containing substances such as soot, metals, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide. These chemicals are implicated in a range of human health issues: asthma and other respiratory disorders, cancers, disturbances in the body’s vital blood and oxygen flow, birth defects and lowering the body’s resistance to infections such as pneumonia and influenza. Diesel emissions are perhaps even worse, with the WHO classifying them as a known cause of lung cancer. In regard to automobiles’ contribution to air pollution, which the WHO state kills up to 2.4 million people every year, the Union of Concerned Scientists states, “Transportation is the largest single source of air pollution”. Unlike obesity, pollution is something which affects everyone whether they choose to drive or not. Studies have shown pollution levels inside cars are much higher than outside, but as with the effects of passive smoking, this is of little comfort for those who suffer terrible diseases for the lifestyle choices others make.
Thus far we have only dealt with humans, but studies in Europe and the US show that other animals are also killed on our roads, in numbers an order of magnitude greater than humans. When I was a child being driven along the roads of Tasmania, it was just taken for granted that every journey we would regularly drive past the corpses of native animals: wombats, possums, wallabies, kangaroos, reptiles and birds of all descriptions. One might imagine the steps we would take to avoid this if they were human corpses littering our roadsides. Tasmania is one of the few places “road-kill” has been studied in any depth and the toll is staggering. Dr Alastair Hobday from the University of Tasmania's School of Zoology estimated that 113,000 native animals died on their roads each year, in a state with only 400,000 or so registered drivers, and the death toll is a conservative estimate which only includes animals they find on the roads, not ones who make it off the road to die or are otherwise removed. I’m unable to find nationwide studies from any country that try to estimate the scale of this problem, but extrapolating the statistics from Tasmania, we can guess that the number probably lies somewhere in the hundreds of millions globally. What other patchy studies have been done in the US and Europe confirm this.
Cars also don’t just kill non-human animals directly. Roads dissect territories, reducing the area available for habitat, and separating breeding populations. Pollution discussed earlier doesn’t only poison humans either, it affects all living things. Again, I was unable to find a countrywide effort to estimate the total casualties, but if we extrapolate from studies done on humans the number is likely to be millions as well.
Lots of numbers, with too many zeros – humans, other animals – start adding them together, multiplying them by years…
It is almost quaint to look back on the early days of the car when a child being run over in a New York street could cause a riot. In Baltimore in the 1920s an obelisk was erected to children killed by the car to try to draw attention to the issue; now when so many more children are killed we wordlessly accept it.
Much use of the automobile revolves around our fear of each other, the sense that we are not safe travelling out on foot and need motorised armour to protect us. The sense of security people feel in their cars pervades despite every statistic revealing how much safer we would be without them. There are so many things we irrationally fear, and then we have the omnipresent car, something we apparently irrationally do not fear.
Oil corporations have been the most continuously profitable and powerful businesses in the modern world. Already a lucrative commodity when it was primarily sold in the form of kerosene to light homes, the growing use of oil in the transport sector elevated the profits of oil corporations to another realm.
As we wander down the list of the world’s largest corporations, two industries have consistently dominated: finance, and the oil and gas industry, known as “Big Oil”. The first great oil magnate, John D. Rockefeller, was the richest American and one of the richest people who have ever lived. The company he founded, Standard Oil, controlled oil markets throughout the world. It was dismembered by the US government due to monopolistic practices, but to this day the companies created from this break up are huge. The Forbes 2020 list of the world’s largest corporations shows Exxonmobil, just one of the companies resulting from the Standard Oil split, to be the third-largest company in the world, with revenues bigger than the majority of countries.
It is no surprise then that in wielding political influence, the oil and gas industry is a dominant force.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a US organisation which specialises in following the trail of money in politics, Big Oil spent over a hundred million dollars lobbying politicians during 2013, making them the third-highest spending industry. In the 202 US election cycle, oil and gas corporations spent sixty million dollars supporting candidates. Amongst the campaign contributors by industry sector, they are the most strongly conservative, with over 90% of their funding going to Republican candidates. Coupled with the fact that over ninety percent of congressional races in the US are won by the candidate who spends the most money, we can see this is a massive distortion of democracy. Big Oil expects to reap many times the dollars they spend in favourable policies from the politicians they influence and finance, in order to “keep reporting record profits while increasing emissions or more cancer-causing chemicals from their refineries” according to a report by former lawyers for the Environmental Protection Agency.
How effective Big Oil has been in subverting the agenda of the US government is not easy to say, as the lobbying system works in part on nods, winks and plausible deniability. It is clear that in the struggle to combat global warming, the fossil fuel industry sees a threat to its corporate profits. One of their responses to the reports of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was to fund the “Global Climate Coalition”. Receiving money from companies like British Petroleum, Texaco, Exxon, Shell and The American Highway Users Association, they were trying to spread uncertainty and doubt about climate change, even as their own scientific advisers were telling them the science of climate change could not be refuted. The coalition was disbanded as companies withdrew, concerned about their public image, but the coalition certainly believed that whilst it existed it had a pivotal role in pushing the Republican administration to refuse to ratify treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol and to look for technological solutions to global warming rather than any concrete solutions available in the present.
Much of Big Oil has retreated from openly funding climate change opposition, but that could be as a result of their success. The climate change denial movement has taken on a life of its own amongst political conservatives. There is currently little support for wide-ranging climate change-focused legislation in any major country. If that reality changes and our societies look like they might seriously move to renewable energy and energy use reduction, it will be interesting to see how quickly Big Oil and its vast reserves of money return to the fray.
The curse of oil
Being the basis of revenue for many of the richest corporations in the world, one would expect that any poor country which has significant oil reserves could also look forward to a prosperous future. Not only is there little evidence to support this assumption, in recent decades underdeveloped countries with large mineral reserves are more likely to suffer civil wars and authoritarian regimes. What about economics though, and pulling people out of poverty? Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Sachs co-authored a paper where he observed, “One of the surprising features of modern economic growth is that economies with abundant natural resources have tended to grow less rapidly than natural-resource-scarce economies”. In his article “Blood Barrels” Michael Ross, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, goes on to explain, “Oil wealth often wreaks havoc on a country’s economy and politics, helps fund insurgents, and aggravates ethnic grievances”.
The story of Nigeria is an illustrative and cautionary tale to any poor nation who believes the discovery of oil will inevitably lead to an improvement in the lives of its people.
Oil was discovered in Nigeria in the 1950s, just a few years before the country’s official independence from Britain in 1960. According to a former vice-president of the World Bank for Africa, Oby Ezekwesili, since that time up to 400 billion dollars of oil revenue has been stolen or misspent. In 2011, out of 197 nations in the UN’s International Human Development Index, oil-drenched Nigeria still ranked 156th.
It is not only the misappropriation of oil revenues but the incentive it has given the central Nigerian government to oppress ethnic groups living in the oil-rich areas and suppress their desire for self-government. The case of non-violent activist Ken Saro-Wiwa is illustrative. Saro-Wiwa was the son of a chieftain of the Ogoni people, an ethnic minority in the oil-rich Niger Delta. He was a poet, author and businessman, and had advocated for the rights of the Ogoni people for twenty years, until the early 1990s when he helped form MOSOP, The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. They came together to agitate for autonomy, to resist the environmental destruction of their land caused by oil production, and to seek a fairer share of the billions of dollars being extracted from their traditional homeland.
A report by the United Nations Environment Programme into the environmental consequences of oil production in Ogoniland makes statements such as “air pollution-related to oil industry operations is all-pervasive, affecting the quality of life of close to one million people” and “The environmental restoration of Ogoniland could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken”.
Though most large oil corporations are present in the Niger Delta, it was Shell, in particular, that was most active in Ogoniland, and became a focus for protest. The early nineties saw Ken Saro-Wiwa arrested and imprisoned without trial. He was then instrumental in organising a protest march of 300,000 members of the Ogoni, as a consequence of which Shell pulled out of the region, an event which was quickly followed by the military occupation of Ogoniland. In the ensuing unrest, four members of the Ogoni leadership were murdered and the military blamed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other members of the MOSOP leadership, who they rounded up and arrested. They were brought to a trial which was condemned by governments around the world, the defending lawyers resigned in protest at the court proceedings and many of the witnesses for the prosecution later claimed they had been bribed or coerced into their testimony.
On November the 10th, 1995, all nine Ogoni activists were hanged by the military, an event which saw Nigeria’s expulsion from the Commonwealth, and various other token diplomatic sanctions by governments around the world. The oil kept flowing however, the oil companies remained, and extraction in the region continues unabated to this day, as does the degradation of the environment and the political disenfranchisement of the region’s inhabitants.
Nigeria is just one of the many places in the world afflicted by the oil curse – corruption and instability paid for by consumers in wealthy nations. To their story, we must add the unique stories of many other countries, following this general theme. Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Libya, Angola, Burma, Chad, Kazakhstan, Sudan, Colombia. The list goes on, and when one wanders down the list of oil-producing developing countries, their populations have often not benefited from the oil wealth and have instead suffered war and oppression.
Once I saw Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian activist, speaking about the struggle of his people. He asked those of us in wealthy nations to think of the oil they put into our cars as the blood of the Nigerian people. So it is that we vote for democratic regimes in our own countries, but by thoughtless consumption, we vote for war, civil conflict, environmental destruction and authoritarianism in others.
Our friend, the car
Perhaps nothing has dramatically changed the way we interact with our urban landscapes as much as the automobile. Local streets were once places where, by law, all were considered equal. They were places to play for children, with pedestrians crossing when and where they wanted, sharing the space with bicycles, horses and the odd slow-moving carriage. Before the car, large city roads could become congested with carriages, especially after a movement away from walking to horses as transport in the 19th century, but this congestion paled in comparison to what was to come.
At first, cars were generally considered a dangerous menace and a public nuisance. We have come to accept the public road as the exclusive domain of the automobile, but that didn’t happen without some effort from the car lobby. As the car came to dominate the streets, children, pedestrians and other users were banished by new laws and fear to speed its passage. In Australia, our greatest ever sportsman, cricketer Sir Donald Bradman, was brought in for a short film telling children the streets were for cars. After nearly running over a group of children playing a game of cricket on the road, he admonishes them and tells them to head to a park for their game. The idea that cars should be limited to a safe speed for residential streets was apparently untenable to people who had more important things to worry about than the safety of others.
People didn’t just silently accept it, there were protests such as in Pittsburgh 1921 where children walked holding aloft a flower for each child struck down by a car, and a march of mothers who had lost children in 1920s New York. The magazines and newspapers of the time depicted the wealthy people who primarily drove at the time as a menace on the public streets. The car lobby responded with a successful campaign to place the blame on pedestrians. They lampooned those who didn’t look carefully enough as they crossed the street, even to the extent of hiring clowns to walk the streets and play errant pedestrians. They hired groups like the boy scouts to hand out cards to passers-by as public service announcements, telling people that the way they had been crossing streets for thousands of years was now over, and they were now to cross only when cars weren’t using them, or at new things called pedestrian crossings and traffic lights.
Motorists weren’t happy only making other forms of transport second class citizens on existing roads, they wanted their own exclusive roads too. In the post-war period, massive public funding was put into highways crisscrossing many developed countries. In the USA the expenditure was one of the many things justified by fear of the USSR: in the case of a Soviet nuclear attack, they wanted evacuation routes. Arterial roads were also built, often six or more lane asphalt expanses connecting outer suburbs to the inner cities. This frenzied road-building coincided with a rapid decline in public transport users. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics public transport use fell from 60% of all miles travelled in the 1940s to 10% in the 1970s. This was helped by a combination of political lobbying, propaganda and subterfuge.
In the United States a conglomerate of truck, tyre and oil companies called “National City Lines” bought up over a hundred street-car operations between 1936 and 1950 and shut them down, ripping up the tracks to make way for more cars. They replaced the light rail with buses, ensuring that the replacement would have to contend in the same traffic as the automobiles, removing any advantage public transport had over private. The companies involved were eventually brought to trial and convicted of conspiracy. However, they were given token fines for an endeavour from which they had reaped tremendous profits. The effect was striking. In 1945, Los Angeles, a city already beginning to struggle with automobile-related smog, sold their street-car companies to the conglomerate who began immediately shutting down the lines. This exacerbated a public health disaster, and in October 1954 the city closed schools and factories for almost the whole month to try to protect people from pollution. Attempts to curb the smog ran up against a city designed around the use of the automobile, and now many decades later, Los Angeles still rates as the worst smog affected city in the US.
The rise of the automobile had a dramatic effect on people’s lifestyles in other ways, and it wasn’t that they now spent less time getting to and from places using their cars: since the rise of the car, average journey times have increased. Despite the fact that a Princeton study showed that commuting was their least favourite daily activity, people are driving further and further to work, living further from their friends and families, and spending more time in their cars than ever. An average week for a US citizen involves 18.5 hours in a car; someone who lives to the age of 84 will have spent around seven years of 24 hour days sitting in their car, much of it battling traffic. Given that the National Research Centre for Environment and Health in Neuherberg has linked one in twelve heart attacks to traffic, getting to the age of 84 for people who spend that much time in traffic might be a problem.
In addition to the time spent on the road, stationary or otherwise, car owners spend much more of their income on transport and this means more hours at work. In the book “Stop Signs – Cars and Capitalism” the authors explain that people generally underestimate how much of their income goes to paying for their driving habit and describe how the average American is working up to three months of the year paying for petrol, insurance, parking meters, fines, maintenance, licensing, registration, health costs, taxation for roads and of course the cars themselves and their depreciation. What this doesn’t factor in is costs like fossil fuel subsidies, wars, and dealing with environmental problems contributed to by cars such as climate change. In the final analysis, it is undoubtedly a slower form of private transport than the bicycle, the book cited above explains why: “after the average time required to buy, maintain and drive a car is divided by the number of miles travelled, estimates place average automobile speeds at some five miles an hour: the pace of a brisk walk”. Even without these equations, bicycles, public transport and even walking can be faster in urban environments. This is not only for the 30% of all car journeys a WHO report states are less than 3 kilometres (2 miles or a few minutes on a bicycle).
People who ride a bicycle regularly know not only the joy it brings but how surprisingly fast it is for getting around an urban environment. Anyone who has lived in a city with good public transport or rides a bike will be familiar with the confused looks of car drivers when you arrive at a destination before them, forgetting the time they took walking to and from their car, finding a parking space, sitting in traffic, etc. The most addicted car drivers just drive habitually, without considering better options for them or the planet.
Our cities continue growing outwards, taking over native spaces, habitat for biodiversity and arable land. The outer suburban sprawl is fuelled by population growth and people wanting to buy cheaper or bigger houses on the periphery of cities. These houses, further away from friends, family, work and cultural activities don’t end up making them happier. As for their families, they suffer too: as The Australia Institute state in their paper Off to Work, “There is an inverse relationship between the time that parents spend commuting and the time they spend in caring for and interacting with their children”.
What about the less tangible ways in which cars change our lives, such as their effect on our aesthetic environment? Cars are hungry for space; the bigger an automobile-dependent city gets, the more pressure there is for its central spaces to be given over to accommodate vehicles. Much of the space cars demand in our cities is parking, the space where they spend the vast majority of their lives. As Manville and Shoup discuss in “People Parking and Cities”, psychologically we focus on streets when we think of cars; however, this isn’t the car’s only or even primary footprint on our landscape. For every car, a slab of oil-stained concrete must be reserved near our homes with a driveway connecting it to the street and a similar space near our work. When the car is out it needs extra spaces too, such as extra street space or what must contend for the dreariest place in our urban environment, the concrete underground carpark. Parking space for cars is often mandated in building codes and zoning laws, which increases urban sprawl, plus house prices and rent for people who don’t want or need a parking space, subsidising those who choose to drive. It also means office workers are offered parking spaces at cheap or free rates, encouraging them to commute by car. When studies have tried to look at how much of our urban space is devoted to streets, parking and driveways (alas they invariably include footpaths in the figures), Sacramento researcher E.G. McPherson estimated that the figure was between 27% and 50% depending on whether it was a low-density suburban area or an inner-city or industrial area. When we imagine our cities without the car, much of this space would be reclaimed by trees, parks and food gardens, further improving air quality, our neighbourhoods and overall well-being.
Cars are noisy: walk into any backyard in my hometown and you will hear the ever-present din of traffic. It is something we have grown up with and just live with without thinking, but studies on the issue have shown it has a very real effect on our well-being. Noise is a major health issue, being linked to stress, hypertension, sleep problems, cardiovascular issues, happiness levels and obviously hearing problems. The Office of Environment and Heritage in New South Wales says that the most important source of noise that impacted on people’s lives is road traffic noise. The WHO’s website on environmental noise states, “Traffic noise alone is harming the health of almost every third person in the WHO European Region”, and that up to 40% of people are subjected to high levels of traffic noise.
So who wants to live next to noisy, pollution bathed arterial roads that join the areas of our cities together? The answer is practically nobody. People don’t need all the studies to know that it is unhealthy for adults and especially children and that’s why property prices are related to the amount of traffic passing one’s home. In the end, it is usually the poor, the elderly and other disadvantaged groups who live in the cheaper housing near large roads. A reduction in the amount of traffic on our roads is going to mean better, healthier lives for everyone, most of all for those people economically forced to live near large roads, whose children suffer much higher rates of asthma and other pollution-related disorders, as was shown in a study by researchers at the University Children's Hospital in Munich.
How do cars affect how people relate to each other in a city? A study called “Traffics Human Toll” in New York by Transportation Alternatives found people who experienced higher amounts of traffic on their streets were less happy with where they lived, have fewer friends locally, spent less time playing with their children and did less walking in their neighbourhoods. The automobile has meant the diminishing of things like local shopping and the rise of vast shopping malls which don’t even have footpaths leading into them. Knowing the shop owner, chatting with friends or neighbours over your shopping, all these things seem to be visions of a bygone age. So long as you are expending virtually no effort in travelling, why not drive the extra distance to the mega-chain store which stocks 14 brands of tomato sauce. I live literally five minutes’ walk from my local shops, yet most people in my area would never think of walking there; instead, they drive to larger supermarkets further away, and thus my local small shopping centre is a permanent litany of “for lease” signs. Because they aren’t carrying their shopping home, people have one less barrier to any second thoughts about purchases they don’t need. Personally, I take a backpack and a couple of fold away bags shopping, which is about as much as I can comfortably carry. My bags and backpack are designed to be comfortable so make my walk much more pleasant than cheap plastic bags would. People driving generally do once-a-week mega shops loading up their cars, using poor quality disposable plastic bags which do the job for the few metres they will walk with them before discarding them to landfill, along with 20-30% of the food they overbuy.
And what about our neighbours? As mentioned, there’s less chance of bumping into them in a store that you drive miles to, but you are also less likely to pass them walking on the street, or even see them in their front yard as you exit your driveway by a car. It was common once for generations of families to live side by side in areas with cultures so distinct they had their own accents. People bought houses near friends and families, generations would attend the same schools, play on the same sporting teams. With this loosening of local social ties comes a lack of a sense of place, which translates into a lack of understanding local issues, less involvement in our communities and centralised, leadership based politics controlled by the media. The messages that can reach those in cars are billboards and radio advertising, both of which are relatively expensive and often owned by corporations who limit what political views can be shown on them. The bake sale or home-printed flyer of a small local group is invisible to someone hurtling past in a car; those who can engage people in cars are those with the resources required to buy space in our mass media.
Today we believe we can live far from our social networks and that via the usage of the car we can visit people whenever we want to, but do we end up doing so? In the book “Bowling Alone” the author states that for every 10% addition in commute time, people become 10% more socially isolated. Social isolation was called by Psychology Today “A Modern Plague”, evidenced by stories in our media of sick or deceased people being left in their houses for weeks and months. The media in turn blames us rather than looking at the structural aspects of society, perhaps in deference to the companies who profit from the status quo whilst lavishing the media with commercials and full-page advertisements. The Advertising Age magazine estimated the US auto industry would spend over 30 billion dollars on advertising in 2012, that sort of money buys obedience and a blind eye from our media.
Walkable towns and cities are places people want to visit and live, they are places which have a sense of community, places for people of all ages, abilities and disabilities. Moving beyond mass private automobile ownership will be a different life, and all the studies tell us that socially it will be a better one.
Carbon, carcinogens et al
Global warming is one of the greatest impending existential threats to life forms on this planet, rivalled perhaps only by habitat destruction and nuclear war. So says the available science, and in recognition of that, it is recklessly short-sighted for us to continue to run our lives and civilisation as wastefully as we currently do.
The car’s contribution to this problem is fundamental, especially as part of our individual discretionary footprints. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes clear how fundamental: “Transport predominantly relies on a single fossil resource, petroleum that supplies 95% of the total energy used by world transport. In 2004, transport was responsible for 23% of world energy-related GHG emissions with about three quarters coming from road vehicles. Over the past decade, transport’s GHG emissions have increased at a faster rate than any other energy-using sector”.
The level of delusion even by those who are concerned about the issue of climate instability is well illustrated by articles on the internet asking if it is more efficient to fly or drive, tips on buying a more fuel-efficient car or on driving in a more efficient manner etc. The Australian Broadcasting Commission’s television show “Carbon Cops” illustrates the prevailing lack of rationality in their fact sheet on cars and climate change. They recommend a host of trivial measures for those who want to feel they are doing something whilst driving the environment over the edge, with actions such as removing roof racks to reduce drag, opening the windows for a few minutes to help your car air conditioning work better, pumping up your tyres so you use slightly less fuel, buying a “greener” or hybrid car, or running cars on vegetable oils, the last of which they provide absolutely no information on the carbon impact of, unsurprisingly given that all evidence points to it being even worse than petroleum.
People want to hear such myths about small changes, which they still don’t make, but even if they did would not solve our environmental crisis. As individuals, we do have the power to dramatically reduce our contribution to climate instability via our choices, but they aren’t anything as trivial as the small proportion of cars which have a roof rack removing them. More fundamental change is needed, such as dramatically reducing our use of private powered transport, changing to communal modes for our transport and changing the sources of energy they consume.
A car is a huge drain on the ecosystem even before it drives out of an auto dealer. This includes hundreds of thousands of litres of water, mainly steel but also many other metals dug as ore out of the ground and then extensively processed, numerous plastics, rubber and glass. Cars also are a host of many dangerous substances such as mercury, benzene, cadmium, lead and sulphuric acid. In the 2011 review “Car indoor air pollution – analysis of potential sources” the authors extensively list many chemicals present in cars that have been identified as harmful to human health, including many known carcinogens. The “new car smell” which people once talked favourably about was found by an Ecology Centre study to “contain a unique cocktail of hundreds of toxic chemicals that off-gas in small, confined spaces”.
The Guardian article “What’s the carbon footprint of a new car?” states that manufacturing a car can create anywhere between 6 and 35 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e), equivalent to between a tenth and almost a half of the emissions it will cause over its life-cycle. The Environment and Forecasting Institute in Heidelberg estimated that the average car has produced 26.5 tonnes of waste and 922 cubic metres of polluted air before it gets onto the road. Even sitting in a garage a car is an environmental problem, so this idea that we can all just buy greener cars is not a solution, especially if it means an increase in the number of cars being replaced through misguided “green consumerism”.
There are a number of other aspects to the car’s effect on the environment. Discarded parts of automobiles litter the landscape. In the USA alone 285 million tyres are discarded each year, around two-thirds ending up in land-fill. Huge discarded tyre mountains mar the landscape, providing breeding habitats for mosquitoes, leaching toxic chemicals into the environment and presenting a fire hazard. Tyre “mountain” fires in the USA have burnt unstoppably, pouring toxic fumes into the air for months on end. The disposal of cars also makes a large contribution to their overall life cycle.
Roads themselves are a huge environmental burden, particularly for the wild places of the world. Shy light-sensitive species will simply not cross roads, studies have shown even relatively narrow roads provide environmental barriers which can contribute to species loss. Thomas Lovejoy, Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and University Professor in the Environmental Science and Policy department at George Mason University has stated: "Roads are the seeds of rainforest destruction". A single road Belem-Brasília highway in the Brazilian Amazon has caused destruction far beyond the land it occupies on its 2000 kilometre length. Providing access for loggers, farmers, and others seeking to exploit the regions natural resources it "has today evolved into a spider web of secondary roads and a 400-kilometre wide swath of forest destruction" according to William Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and an Australian Laureate at James Cook University. He also goes on to explain "roads are not just an environmental worry in the tropics. In forested areas of western North America, one of the best predictors of wildfire frequency is the density of roads. In Siberia, road expansion is promoting a sharp increase in logging and forest fires. And new roads in the Arctic could potentially alter epic mammal migrations." He also quotes Brazilian scientist Eneas Salati who says “The best thing you could do for the Amazon, is to bomb all the roads.”
Then there are the enormous amounts of materials and energy needed to maintain national road grids. Roads trap heat, changing microclimates. Roads stop water permeating into the ground, flowing instead into gutters and the sewerage system, drying out the surrounding land and lowering the water table. This water flowing into the gutters is toxic: cars leave traces of themselves behind on the roads, parts of their tyres, oil, brake pads, exhaust and in many countries salt and other de-icing chemicals. These pollute the roadside environment and as the US Environmental Protection Agency states, during storms runs off into the water system, becoming a major source of toxic pollutants in rivers, streams and bays.
As mentioned previously the pollution from car exhausts increases rates of asthma, contributes to other breathing and health problems and is a cause of premature death. Added together, it is difficult to see how someone could say they are an environmentalist whilst regularly using a private automobile. Cars are only affordable because their environmental costs are externalised, to non-drivers, to flora, other fauna and future generations.
It has been fashionable to talk about the perils of human overpopulation since at least the late 18th century when Thomas Malthus wrote: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. Human population, however, is slow to change by any desirable means, so faced with an environmental crisis which demands action in the short term, we must change the way we live.
Ward’s Auto stated in 2016 that the world automobile population had reached 1.3 billion, with over sixty million cars (and rising) being added to the roads annually according to the International Organisation of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers. We have seen the car for what it is, a machine which encourages able-bodied people's laziness, increases our social isolation, pollutes our world, is a danger to all life especially our wildlife and young, destabilises democracy, gives untold profits to uncaring corporations privately exploiting a shared resource, and threatens our climate. From an environmental perspective, the population bubble we can easily do something about is the rise of the automobile numbers and their domination in our lives.
Imagine a world without private ownership of automobiles. The incredible energy we use manufacturing and maintaining cars could go into things which actually make our world a better place. More public transport, efficient light rail and bicycle paths on reclaimed roads, a large increase in our taxi fleet with intelligent, perhaps even automated systems enabling it to be cheaper and better utilised, and shared car schemes for the rest of our needs, like occasional longer trips. We can continue the move to online shopping for most of our goods, with the return of things like the local greengrocer being part of quieter, more walkable neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods with more trees, gardens and parks that we want to be in.
Changing something like the way we move around in the world is bound to provoke fear; however times of change are also times pregnant with possibilities of positive new ways of living. People often overestimate the negative effects of change in their lives and forget how quickly we can adapt to new realities. We have spent the last few decades figuring out that consumption, growth and car culture aren’t making us happier; let us not waste more time on that bankrupt vision. Let us commit ourselves in the coming years to pursuing things we do know make us happier: health, community, nature, all things our “love affair with the automobile” (an industry slogan by the way) has detracted from. We can live in cleaner, safer, more socially cohesive cities, with more spaces for children and all things that grow, we can divert the wasted resources the automobile uses into technologies to help the world rather than harm it.
Cars were an invention that brought new possibilities to our lives, so much so that they became integral to us; however, it wasn’t fully clear what the total cost would end up being. This experiment on a mass scale has now been done, the facts are in, the case is clear. Car based lives and cities were an alluring, expensive mistake and we need to wake up from this delusion and change course. We have to rethink our societies and structure them around human relationships and environmental integration.
The trial is over, the time for the end of private automobile ownership as a mass institution has come.