If you happen to know me personally, you are probably familiar with my opinions on cars, and likely tired of hearing about them. I belong to the group of people who frequent subs like r/fuckcars. My favourite YouTube channels are “Not Just Bikes” and “Climate Town”.
I’ve had the opinion (for a while now) that if humans manage to avoid climate chaos induced extinction, we’ll look back on internal combustion engine era of personal transportation as a ridiculous period in human life much like feudalism, slavery, pea soupers, and whatever else. For all the technology and brain power we have, we have chosen to build our entire modern society around the worst form of transportation.
Granted, cars have certain advantages from a strictly utilitarian point of view. However, I’m focusing on the lifestyle that the majority of city dwelling westerners live today which is one where cars are largely unecessary.
Some people will find ways to argue that we need cars, such as pointing out how convenient it is for them when they go grocery shopping or whatever, but most of these strawmen arguments are weak at best, with a few odd exceptions here and there. I’d argue most of the arguments for the “need” of cars are just marketing talking points that don’t stand up to scrutiny.
For the most part, I will happily declare here on my personal blog that most people do not need a car, can live happily without one, and are better off without them.
To understand why cars are so insane, we have to think about them in terms of their costs and benefits. The costs of cars is very high: pollution, death from crashes, economic cost in terms of ownership, road maintenance, and all the busywork that goes in to dealing with all the problems cars create.
To understand the cost in terms of health, let’s look at the leading causes of death in the US:
A lot of these causes are likely connected to automobiles. Heart disease? Can likely be lessened with more exercise. Cancer? Likely made worse by pollution, of which cars are a huge contributor, both directly and indirectly. Diabetes? Cars. Respiratory diseases? Cars (pollution). “Accidents”? A big part of that is cars (about 40k per year, give or take), although when you crash a car it’s almost never an “accident”. Every time you get in a car, that’s intentional, unless you have been kidnapped.
Digging a bit deeper into the pollution problem, something around 6-7 million deaths are caused by pollution. It’s hard to separate the pollution that is directly linked to cars (i.e., emissions from internal combustion engines, tire particles, brake dust, etc) from the indirect pollution (i.e., pollution from the industrial complex around cars), however we can reasonably say it’s a significant portion.
Certainly within cities, cars are the main cause of direct pollution, which causes a variety of diseases including cancer, respiratory problems, and so on.
You can also make the argument that car infrastructure creates pollution by removing natural space from the surface of the Earth. A freeway means fewer plants and trees that would normally help scrub a tiny amount of that pollution out of the atmosphere. It’s been shown that by adding greenery adjacent to roads, it also reduces pollution, but not as much as just not having a road.
The obesity epidemic is likely caused by cars, at least in part. Road pollution has been linked to dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis. It’s also been linked to lung cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and more. The EPA has a roundup of some more data here.
For a long time cars were the leading direct cause of death for young people in the US, although guns and opioid overdoses recently took the crown for specific cohorts. I wouldn’t call that an improvement, or an excuse for cars.
Pollution also impairs cognitive functions, so maybe it’s too much to ask for people to apply reasoning to this problem.
It makes you wonder: how much are we willing to poison ourselves to make sure the car companies keep posting record profits? Why have we built all our cities and infrastructure around the car, which is arguably the worst health problem we’ve ever created? Have people never heard of trains? Did we forget how to walk places? Does New York City really need all those annoying (and dangerous) cars?
Cars are insane.