September 21, 2005
I’m not saying that I don’t like driving cars – or automobiles, if you
prefer – but I do think we’ve gone a bit too far.
Let me explain from the start. We were evolved to walk and run over quite
extensive distances – say 30-50km a day. That worked quite well for us as a
species and our metabolism is predicated upon this regular daily exercise
and natural range of travel. After a million years or so we discovered that
we could ride horses and thus both further our range and our load-bearing
capacity whilst covering more ground in one day. We also mastered the sea
to an extent and invented the wheel – which helped with load carrying in
particular. In the last 3-6,000 thousand years we have increasingly ditched
our own locomotive powers in favour of leveraging other methods. In the
last 100-150 years or so – a really short period of time – we have added
bicycles, trains, planes and cars to this heady mix of ‘augmented transport
modes’. Only the bicycle relies upon our own energy reserves so I’ll set
that one aside for a moment (as a ‘good thing’) and focus on the others -
but in particular upon the car.
We now have an enormous personal range – say 1,000km a day – plus almost
limitless load bearing – but let’s say about 700kg per car, allowing for
towing as well as internal loadbearing. This is granted to us as a gift by
the automobile and allows us ‘personal freedom’. We can choose to work far
from our home, to travel to distant shops and carry heavy objects back and
to transport people (such as our kids) to resources that were an
unreasonable distance away just 50 years ago. This enhanced personal
mobility has grown up over the last 100 years but really kicked in after
World War II – at least in the ‘developed’ world. It has grown
exponentially until cars have almost become mandatory items – we are so
reliant upon them that we feel deprived and our liberty eroded when we
don’t have access to one (or more). Our local economies have subsequently
adapted to suit this freedom – thus our shops, jobs, factories and offices
have evolved to take economic advantage of our ability to jump in the car
and go places. Now, we can label personal freedom as a good thing, and
therefore extend that warm fuzzy feeling to cars as well, or we can analyse
the effect more deeply.
Let’s do just that. We can all see how the price of fuel will impact this
‘freedom’. Setting aside the carbon released by burning fossil fuels and
any other pollution or waste material, and consequent effects like global
warming, what else has happened in our societies because of the
proliferation of the car?
Let’s list a few. People die or are injured in road accidents, often young
people. People drive rather than walk, so obesity and diabetes are up.
Health costs are thus up. With fewer people walking we don’t get the daily
neighbourly contact we had 50-100 years ago. Thus we have become less
attached to our communities. People see empty streets as a threat, so they
(a) worry more and (b) drive instead of walk. Only the car-deprived walk,
so the streets are unnaturally populated by kids and the elderly, plus the
disadvantaged. We worry about that as well – are our kids safe out there?
So we keep ‘em in to watch TV or drive them to and fro.
Vast areas of land are taken up as roads and car parks and we lose the
value of that land for farming or housing or parks. The sheer cost of road
building is huge and is absorbed by the general community, not by the
auto-makers. Cars are faster and more dangerous than pedestrians or
bicyclists so they discourage both groups (again to the detriment of our
health). The community pays to slow the cars down by signage and
enforcement and ‘traffic calming’. The car-less are disadvantaged when
seeking jobs (often because public transport has been run down).
Communities are severed by traffic-clogged roads (who enjoys crossing a 6
lane road to get to the shops?) Again we end up driving, if we can. Small
local shops have been replaced by large scale commodity shopping centres
(which may or may not be a good thing), increasing our reliance upon – yes,
you guessed it – the car. So when we have no car, or petrol is expensive -
we have a problem getting to community resources.
That’s just for starters. My point is that ‘personal freedom’ when dressed
up as a product sold by car makers has a downside that just isn’t being
recognised. Perhaps rising fuel costs will wake us up. I hope so. I’m
wondering how many ills of our society – the increased rates of mental
illness and soaring obesity and diabetes rates – can be directly attributed
to our person freedom to jump in a car and avoid taking advantage of our
innate human resources. Is our laziness actually hurting us? Should we
start billing this cost back to the car makers? Worth thinking about!
Gotta go – must jump in the car and drive to the shops!