The Toyota hybrid automobile with a stuck accelerator and no brakes is a sad icon of our age.
Our modern industrial society remains stuck on growth and does not know how to stop. Like the runaway Toyota, we are headed for a crash. The automobile, however, is more than a metaphor. The car is one of the prime forces of destruction on our planet, among the most harmful social design decisions in history.
As a means of moving people around, the car is inefficient, deadly, and toxic. Most North American cities offer few transportation options, making citizens dependent on automobiles. Today, certain developing nations with traditionally sound public transportation, are subsidizing automobile industries. Will these nations make the same tragic mistakes that western nations made?
In 1991, English poet and playwright Heathcote Williams published Autogeddon, a long invective poem about the automobile’s trail of death and devastation, which Williams called “a humdrum holocaust … the third world war nobody bothered to declare.” How did private, expensive, dangerous, dirty automobiles come to dominate North American transportation?
Killing the public option
In 1922, some 1,200 thriving urban railways operated in North America, accounting for ninety percent of urban travel. No one complained or demanded more cars and roads. However, General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan saw a “great opportunity” to replace public transportation with private cars. To achieve this, he established a “task force” to “motorize” North America. Sloan coerced railroads to abandon urban transport and used his influence to discouraged banks from making loans to urban rail projects. Sloan’s secret cabal used advertising and lobbying where it worked, and where it didn’t, they used bribes and intimidation. In Detroit and Minneapolis GM’s “task force” employed mobsters to intimidate politicians. In Florida they gave away complimentary Cadillacs to city councilors.
Then, in 1936, General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Standard Oil (Exxon-Mobil), formed a holding company, National City Lines, which bought urban transport systems and systematically destroyed them. They bought the Pacific Electric system that carried 110 million passengers in 56 communities. They increased fairs, cancelled routes, reduced schedules, cut salaries, allowed trains to decay, ripped up over 1800 kilometers of track, and closed the entire network. By 1956, over 100 rail systems in 45 cities had been purchased and closed. Meanwhile, GM ran ads claiming that electric trains were “old fashion,” and that private cars represented “the wave of the future.”
In 1946, public railway supporter Commander Edwin Quinby wrote a report to city governments, describing, a “deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your electric railway system.” GM used their media influence to accuse Quinby and his supporters of being a “lunatic fringe of radicals and crackpots.”
Quinby’s report caught the attention of U.S. federal prosecutors, who indicted General Motors in Chicago for “criminal conspiracy to monopolize ground transportation,” and destroy public transit. They won their case, and the court convicted GM of criminal conspiracy. GM paid a $5,000 fine. Otherwise, nothing changed. Over the next 25 years, U.S. prosecutors attempted to limit GM’s influence on public transportation, but in the end, GM had more money, lawyers, and influence. They succeeded in sabotaging public transportation throughout North America.
We often hear globalization promoters claim that the “free market” system allows “free choice.” But the destruction of public transportation in North America was not a public choice. It was a corporate scheme for monopoly, power, and profit, preying on human ego and gullibility.
In the 1970s, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher joined the chorus and proclaimed “nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of the great car economy.” Under Thatcher, British engineers built the M25 motorway around London, designed for 30 years of vehicle growth, but traffic jams clogged London within six months.
Today, 17 companies – Toyota, GM, Honda, Volkswagen, Chrysler, BMW, Mazda and others – produce about 60 million vehicles each year. Meanwhile, some fifty emerging global automobile companies – Harbin Hafei, Mahindra, Anhui Jianghuai, Great Wall, China National, and others – make about 10 million vehicles each year. These emerging companies intend to grow to rival the big automobile makers.
About 1 billion motor vehicles now exist on Earth, a fleet growing at about 3% per year. At this rate, within 25 years, Earth will support 2 billion vehicles, and within fifty years, by 2060, 4 billion vehicles.
Over a million people die each year in traffic accidents. Throughout history, over 50 million people have died, comparable to the death toll of World War II. Over 2 billion people – drivers, passengers, and bystanders – have been injured in vehicle accidents. Most of these deaths and injuries could have been avoided with public transport. Accidents happen with trains and buses, but at a fraction of the automobile rate. Good public transportation in place of automobiles would have saved about 42 million of the 50 million traffic deaths due to cars.
However, these unnecessary deaths and injuries account for only a fraction of the destruction caused by cars and trucks. In an automobile culture, cars consume about 40 percent of the urban landscape for roads, highways, parking lots, gas-stations, body shops, and so forth. This represents a massive public asset, land, paved over to serve an inefficient, dangerous transport system.
Worldwide, motor vehicles emit about one billion metric tons of CO2 each year, 15 percent of global carbon emissions. Meanwhile, modest “efficiency” gains – hybrids and mileage improvements – are swamped by the shear growth of the car culture.
The social costs of car culture include the destruction of neighborhoods, unsightly urban landscapes, fear, stress, and “road-rage.” One of the greatest social costs is lost time and squandered human productivity. Commuters on streetcars and trains can be productive with work, reading, relaxing, eating breakfast in the dining car, or talking to colleagues and friends.
The ecological and social destruction caused by cars goes far beyond carbon emissions and ensnarled cities. The harvesting and mining of resources – rubber, iron, rare-earth metals for hybrid batteries, copper, plastics and so forth – plus the energy-intensive manufacturing process – comprise a massive “embodied” energy and resource demand. Some 20-40% of energy an automobile uses in its lifetime is “embodied energy” consumed before it is purchased. None of this is solved by building hybrid cars. The car culture is a resource pig.
Currently less than 2% of new vehicles are hybrids. If these few vehicles improved fuel efficiency by 25%, that would translate into one-half of one-percent for the entire global fleet of vehicles, which meanwhile is growing six-times faster, at 3%. Historically, mechanical efficiencies do not translate into less consumption, but more. Why? Because when we gain efficiencies, consumer items become cheaper, so people consume more. Apple Computer founder Steve Wozniak, for example, owns four Priuses, perhaps thinking that he’s solving global warming. New hybrid owners will drive more and feel comfortable living farther from their work. It is counter-intuitive, but efficiencies increase consumption. In economics, this is well known as the “rebound effect.”
Car promoters love to show oil consumption per capita declining in certain regions. What they don’t tell you is that per-capita petroleum consumption has been declining since 1979 as population has outstripped oil production. Global oil production has been flat since 2005, so per-capita consumption is now declining everywhere, not because of hybrid cars, but because of oil field depletion.
A recent ad for the Honda Insight hybrid proclaims, “Theoretically, it seats 6.75 billion,” implying that they could build a new hybrid car for every person on the planet. This is a deceit: 6.75 billion people, driving hybrids with 40 miles-per-gallon efficiency, driving 10,000 miles a year, would require 40 billion barrels of oil annually, over 5 times the current demand for automobile fuel, and the difference is greater than the entire current world oil production. There is not enough gasoline – or other resources – to build and fuel 6.75 billion hybrids, or even half that many.
Buying a new hybrid car will not reduce global petroleum consumption. It will increase consumption by adding a new vehicle to the road. The growing automobile culture requires infrastructure, highways, service, and parking spaces, all costing more space and more energy.
From the North American experience with cars, we should have learned that we cannot trust corporations to design our cultures. Car companies may find it profitable to repeat the crime of North America, destroy public transportation, deplete the planet of resources, mine every last scrap of rare earth metals, burn the declining oil, and dam rivers for electricity to grow and feed more cars. For the people and the planet, this would be a disaster.
Nations who want to achieve genuine sustainability should follow the example of cities that have designed and built excellent public transportation, cities such as Stockholm, Oslo, Moscow, Helsinki, Barcelona, Munich, Tokyo, Seoul, and Sao Paulo.
The motor vehicle, including the Toyota hybrid with its stuck accelerator and faulty brakes, should fade away into the dustbin history’s bad ideas.
Yet another brilliant article. Car culture indeed is a war culture (Williams) where existence of the man depends on explosion, countless explosions that occurs in the countless combustion chambers every time we move or do anything.
It’s going to be very hard to tell people like me and the millions of other gearheads to give up their cars.
To think that public transit and bikes will solve everything is childish and naive. What about the millions of auto factory workers who would be out of a job? The people who depend on work trucks for a living? Or the people like me who just really like to drive?
Rex Weyler: All good points. Perhaps as human society moves away from cars, factory workers will build public transport, and people will discover entertainment that doesn’t burn hydrocarbons.
Don’t forget the global roadkill: approx 200 million other mammals are killed by cars every year, and at least 80 million birds.
To assume that we will be able to continue in this cycle of car production and use in a way that does not destroy our way of life is itself childish and naive. I do agree that our society is set up in a way that makes it difficult for some people to transition off of cars. This must change. And yes, we will need lots of skilled workers to create alternative modes of transport.
To create a real future, free of inhumane, and ecologically destructive wars, and global warming we must all do our part. No one is asking anyone else to do any favors, do the right thing for yourself.
The next great illusion is the battery operated car which is currently causing further exploitation of people in the form of war in Afghanistan. Consider this article in the New York times which clearly hopes that Afghanistan will now allow itself to be plundered for lithium, among other resources. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/14/world/asia/14minerals.html?no_interstitial Obviously, this is the plundering of a resource not our own for unsustainable ends.
As someone who has had access to good public transportation, and for this reason has never purchased a car, I have saved tens of thousands of dollars over the last decade which have lead to a decent standard of living for myself, so it benefits individuals as well as the world. Car corporations know this and work to thwart citizens in creating decent public transit for themselves. In reality, it is cyclists and transit users who see their tax dollars simply turned into more roads for cars rather than into something that would benefit them.
Consider Albert Koehl’s article on the realities versus the myths of bicycle use:
To a world without cars, where people take responsibility for their own part in maintaining the planet!
Greenpeace could help promot PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) systems.
Two commercial systems are being buit. All of the problems you mentioned in this article CAN BE SOLVED by PRT, and “MISTER” is only one of a handful, which reached physical implementation. Visit our website, http://www.mist-er.com, where you will also find links to the whole PRT world.
PRT can move the same number of people in the city as subway but costs 10 to 30 times less to build and in a few years will be energy self sufficient !
It requires under 2 KW power to move 4 people at 30 mph, and extra 4 kW for aircon. Still, much less than car and less than even subway.
Vehicles wight 300 kg (~600 lb), stops are offline, travel is safe, on demand, 24×7, without stopping from start to destination. Infrastructure weighs some 200 lb (100 kg) per meter/yard. It can be built quickly and easily without affecting existing city structures. Stops can be on the ground or inside buildings. Every stop and every vehicle is accesible to wheelchairs and push chairs + bicycles. Average occupancy is like that for cars, and the system is anti vandal proof.
Ticket costs are like bus rides, except that systems are profitable!
best regards – Ollie Mikosza
I moved to Vancouver from Los Angeles a year ago and sold my Toyota before I left the states thinking I would replace it once I moved to Canada. I’ve had a car since I was 16 and I am now 50. I was afraid that giving up my car would be the same as giving up some of my freedom but actually I found the opposite. It’s nice not to have an extra responsibility that is costly and time consuming. Luckily I live in a city with great transportation and I live in a neighborhood where almost every thing is close by foot or bus. After seeing the oil gulf spill, I decided not to purchase a car again. Yes, there are some inconveniences that come with not having a car but the benefits outweight them. I wish more people would try it. I’d like to see areas developed some day for people that don’t have cars and prohibit cars from entering in those neighborhoods. I really get tired of the noise pollution, especially motorcycles.
ferrarimanf355 Says: “What about the millions of auto factory workers who would be out of a job?”
The best answer so far comes from the UK Sustainable Development Commission in the report Prosperity Without Growth
We have to make big changes, and enhance social justice at the same time. That is what the climate justice movement is about. e.g. http://canadians.org/events/dig.html
PS. Great article Rex!
While GM might have propagated a certain image of the car, people were more than happy to lap it up. Therefore I’m not sure if the growth in the popularity of the car can be attributed to marketing alone. Even if GM had not been able to successfully gloss over the negative aspects of giving up public transport for private vehicles, it is difficult to imagine our consumerist society being mature enough to favour lower ecological impact over the convenience, luxury, wealth and status represented by a car. The problem (if you want to call it that at all) is in the very nature of human beings who can only empathise with short term incentives and cant really feel strongly about “securing our children’s future” despite what the common rhetoric might lead one to believe.
The fundamental question is whether subversive marketing and business tactics are the cause or just a symptom of a much deeper issue. The CEO of the car company and the customer who buys the cars are both just people who are driven by narrow self interest and as human beings, thinking in terms of our own immediate vested interests comes very naturally to us. The real change in an idealistic sense will come when values change and people become so emotionally connected to their communities that they prioritize the long term well being of the community over selfish desires and perceived needs.
Even the somewhat heightened sensitivity to environmental issues nowadays is because people believe that the problem will reach catastrophic proportions in their own lifetimes and even then they mostly only contribute in ways that don’t threaten their current lifestyles.
The only way to control the growth of ‘car culture’ is to educate people on the real and present dangers of such unprecedented growth and to provoke a popular consensus on the need to limit the use of cars. This will then have to be backed up by effectively enforced government regulation which is fair and uniformly applied in both rich and poor/emerging economies. Educating the community and getting the community to act will take time and highly innovative communication since we would be seeking a fundamental change that goes against centuries of conditioning. This leads us to the question of who will do the educating. Here the answer might be NGOs but they seem to be in short supply and many don’t focus on the need for effective communication. In fact I would say that communication is the most important enabler in this movement since ultimately it’s about an internal transformation at an individual level. However most NGOs only focus on the issues they address and generally interpret communication as advocacy or activism. We need NGOs that are innovative and relentless in their focus on taking the message to the people in order to precipitate what can only be described as a cultural and spiritual revolution.
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