Cars and Society

It’s cliché for older people such as myself to complain about the impending collapse of society. We look back on our childhood as a golden age, and imagine our sore knees a metaphor for a world in decline. We know, second-hand, that there was a time before us, but we shrink from considering anything about the time after us. It’s almost comforting to think everything will end with our death, instead of contemplating the world carrying on without our awareness of it. So, it’s easy to dismiss contemporary threats to society as nothing more than what old folks have ranted about for many years.

And yet, cars, and the threats they pose to society, are different from any threat that has come before. Our society has existed in more or less its current form for at least six thousand years. We know of cities that age or older, with all the labour and social stratification, and logistical challenges — including moving people and goods — that cities imply.

For most of those thousands of years, if you wanted to go somewhere, you walked. If you were one of very few wealthy people, you rode a horse, but most people walked. The other option for travel, especially long distances, was a shared conveyance of some sort — a ox-drawn wagon or horse-drawn coach, or a ship.

Railways in some form have been around as long as our society, but didn’t become significant people movers until about two hundred years ago. And railways are a shared conveyance. As recently as a hundred years ago, railways, subways, interurbans, and streetcars were how most people regularly travelled various distances on land.

Then came cars. After thousands of years of most people relying on feet, or shared human or animal powered vehicles, we adopted the notion that everyone should have a personal machine for travelling even short distances in great comfort and at high speeds, taking any route, at any time, to any destination.

GM Goodwrench ad. Headline: It's not just a car, it's your freedom. Text: "It's the freedom to visit close friends in far-off places. The freedom to go into the neon city...or escape to a mountain retreat. The freedom to go across country or just across town...without a second thought." Text continues be explaining why the car should be serviced by a GM dealer. Image is an aerial view of a rural setting, with an eagle flying in the foreground, and one car on a rural highway in the background.
Source: https://time.com/vault/issue/1989-01-23/page/49/

I like cars. I’ve had any manner of fun with and in many different cars, appreciate the technologies of them, and admire the aesthetics of several designs. I also accept that, in a car-dependent society, cars are often the only reasonable or pleasant way to travel. But I don’t think a car-dependent society is a good thing.

In the very brief period of time they have existed, cars have consumed vast quantities of the planet’s limited fossil fuel resources, which took millions of years to accumulate. And cars have generated vast quantities of harmful waste. They’ve also allowed or even required us to restructure how we live, leading indirectly to more consumption and waste.

For example, again for thousands of years, people lived close to where they worked. Cars have made it possible to commute distances unimaginable for previous generations. In a vicious cycle, the restructuring of society around car ownership has left walking more dangerous and less feasible, and reduced support for public transit, encouraging more people to buy and use cars. With car ownership being costly, people seek cheaper housing, often available at further distances from work and other amenities, necessitating greater car reliance.

Mass ownership and frequent use of cars, and the social changes that has brought, are not sustainable. Cars use too much energy, generate too much waste, and take up too much space on roads and streets. Until about a hundred years ago, streets were a sort of commons. I’m old enough to have played on the street in front of my house. Now streets are reserved for cars.

Electric cars are not a solution. Most of the problems with cars are not specific to the motive technology. Mechanized personal transportation uses energy, regardless of the final form, and the larger and faster the machine, the greater the energy used. Then there are other social costs, such as car related deaths, both directly from collisions — a leading cause of death in some age groups — and indirectly from the waste products (including the microplastics shed by tires as they “wear”).

About fifty years ago, developed countries, particularly the United States, decided we should make cars less polluting, more fuel efficient, and safer. But, succumbing to myths of being a rural nation, trucks were exempted from many of the rules. Automakers promptly exercised their freedom to make larger and more luxurious trucks, which were more profitable to sell, and many drivers exercised their freedom to purchase larger and more powerful vehicles.

The adoption of computerized engine management to reduce emissions (OBD II) in 1996 ensured better efficiency and less pollution, but that was almost thirty years ago. Sure, you can now get compact gas-electric hybrids with fuel efficiency that seems incredible by 1970s standards, but most of the recent engineering for cars has gone into making them accelerate, brake, and turn faster.

Much of the design work in recent decades has been to make vehicles more intimidating. For example, the 1994 Dodge truck redesign deliberately resembled a highway tractor. “One look at the truck in a parking lot is all it takes to tell the passerby that the Ram is one seriously mean bruiser.” Since then, trucks and their similarly exempt SUV cousins have been in a race to be bigger and badder — pedestrian safety and fuel efficiency be dammed.

When I hear statements like “I need a truck, since I’m a contractor,” or “I need a 4-wheel drive SUV, as I live in a rural area,” I wonder if these people have ever considered that for most of human history, we managed without cars, and it might be possible in the future? Or that it might be necessary in the future?

People sometimes defend their requirement for cars, or large cars and trucks, based on their personal needs or wants while ignoring or dismissing the social costs. And this is the greatest problem with cars. They’ve allowed us to travel, work, and live apart from other people, literally isolated in insulated steel and glass boxes. We choose the temperature, the music, and the travel speed. It’s a false independence, short-term, and gained at the expense of unsustainable subsidies and unmanageable waste. But this false independence has helped nurture political movements that prioritize individual freedom over society-wide benefits.

If transportation can be personal, why not health care, or education? An often-promoted solution to power network outages is a personal generator. Individual gun ownership is promoted by some as a solution to justice, security, and crime issues. These individual solutions are not available to everyone — only those who can afford them. And the total cost of individual solutions (financially and by other measures) is always higher than the per capita cost of making something available to everyone. But cars have enticed many of us into thinking individual solutions to social concerns are not only possible, but the best option.

I cannot imagine widespread use of cars a hundred years from now. Perhaps that’s a failure of imagination on my part. I believe the more likely scenarios are embracement or forced adoption of simpler and lower energy-use technologies like electric bicycles and public transit. Or a dystopian state where the wealthy continue to enjoy individual comforts such as cars, and a large struggling underclass would rather aspire to individual wealth than share resources.

By trc

Freelance writer, freelance editor, web consultant, and film studies scholar.

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