Costs of Automobiles, and Solutions


No book about reducing our waste, simplifying our lives and creating more joy is complete without raising this subject –particularly in North America. Three of the most important subjects in our modern society –food/water, energy production & transmission and transportation have the largest impacts on both us and Mother Earth.

And, all three are necessary. Of these three, transportation injures and kills the most people directly (through accidents) and indirectly (via air pollution). Yet travel is extremely important. Let’s take a look at the history of travel and what we can do to improve it.

People have always travelled, by water-craft, walking/jogging and the use of animals (dog sleds and riding animals such as horses, camels, elephants, etc.) for all of human history. In our modern world travel is far more crucial because food, raw materials and products are often shipped thousands of kilometres to their destinations. Developed countries, and increasingly developing nations such as China and India, have essentially forced their citizens to travel longer distances to work, shopping, entertainment, school and such.

The most efficient mode of ground transportation, the bicycle, is what led to the construction of the first paved road surface in North America (in New York City), in the very early 1900’s. With the rise of the automobile (which was principally electrically powered!) pavement was extended to the use of motor vehicle traffic as well. As the car numbers grew bicycles and pedestrians soon began to be pushed off the roads (at least pedestrians were sometimes given sidewalks, but this move essentially “paved” the way for the car to dominate the streets. The “no jaywalking” law, recommended by the automobile industry, was quickly adopted, completing the transformation of streets from people to motor vehicles).

Henceforth the car/pickup truck became considered the gold standard of transportation, providing speed, convenience, independence, comfort and (in theory) safety –all icons of western society. Some would add that the automobile –having attained such a high stature– could very well be an object of worship, however subtle. Its presence alone has literally forced a complete redesign of cities to accommodate its huge requirement for space (up to 25% of the surface of a downtown is often dedicated to vehicles!). Accommodating it costs billions of dollars, kills and injures millions world-wide every year, isolates us, pollutes, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and far more. Only objects/subjects that are so highly desired could avoid being eliminated by the sheer costs these vehicles represent to societies.
Ironically what was sold as a dream has become somewhat a nightmare to the growing numbers of people stuck in traffic jams and essentially experiencing the TV show “survivor” five times a week. Urban sprawl has made cities expensive to maintain due to the large land base they have consumed. Schools, fire and ambulance stations, water and sewer mains have to be built to serve these far-flung outposts of urban centres. At what cost? An enormous one, financially, economically and socially, to say nothing of the cost to our health through collisions, pollution and disease. The liberal desire for convenience, comfort, and “security” all lure us into this growing planetary nightmare. While this has been “driven” by the baby boomers the younger generations are waking up to the dangerous and high cost of the automobile. Often, whenever possible, many of them avoid buying a car, or even get a driver’s licence. Increasingly they prefer to live in town centres –reversing the trend set by the baby boomers.

They are wise. Motor vehicles are neither safe nor affordable. World-wide, motor vehicles account for about one-quarter of all Greenhouse Gas emissions principally due to the high fuel consumption. Nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day. An additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled. More than half of all road traffic deaths occur among young adults ages 15-44.  The death and injury from the pollution created by these vehicles, plus ships anchored in harbours, likely doubles the numbers cited above. Thus perhaps as many as 100 million people are injured or permanently disabled each year. This number does not include emissions that abort or injure perhaps another million foetuses yearly. So much for “security.”

In fact the dependence on the automobile alone leads to:
•    High incidents of injuries and death, as outlined above.
•    Current urban designs lead to car dependencies and lead to a lack of sufficient physical exercise through walking and cycling which significantly contributes to health issues such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, and cardiovascular diseases.
•    Other health issues arise from noise pollution from traffic and air pollution, including strokes, respiratory issues, cancer, and more.
•    A lack of transportation options restrict non-car owners/users access to numerous services and facilities, namely jobs, education, leisure facilities, and health-care services, all of which are critical social determinants of health.
•    A lack of adequate transportation is also correlated with higher crime rates and thus a reduced sense of security and life satisfaction.
•    A lack of transportation options also reduce the economic performance of a city or region in part because money spent on cars leaves the region, and such prevents many of those in the lower socio-economic spectrum from getting work or gaining better paying employment.
•    Shockingly lower income earners subsidise higher income earners because they also pay property taxes (in one form or another) and rent or pay multi-residential (condo) fees that, in part, pay to maintain parking spaces –regardless of whether these are needed by the occupants of the building or not.
In addition a city’s economy and vitality is constrained by inadequate transportation systems.
•     Urban areas that encourage reliance on private motorised vehicles foster expenditures on cars and their related costs, such as gas, insurance, and parking. Money spent on cars and fuels is money that largely leaves the regional economy, draining it.
•    Without people-friendly transportation systems consumers are less likely to be enticed to purchase local goods, resulting in weak economic resilience of the community. Smaller shops (whose income is more likely to remain in the community) benefit from being located in walkable areas; big box stores benefit from motor vehicles.
•    A lack of transportation options greatly increases foreclosures at times of economic recessions
•    Businesses in the community may have difficulty hiring employees and suffer from lost customers
•    Regionally, poor transportation options results in higher benefit payments and reduced tax contributions

All but one of these bullets was gratefully furnished by Lan Le Diem Tran’s thesis on sustainable leisure.

What does it cost society for various ways of getting around? For every $1 spent on walking or cycling, society pays less than 10 cents. For every $1 spent on buses society pays about $2. But for car travel for every $1 spent society pays nearly $10! A further breakdown of the costs and benefits of the various modalities of travel may be extrapolated from this study, conducted on a medium sized city in North America.

But, and this is a BIG but, quoting costs and figures like these do nothing to convince most drivers of the need for change. Why? Simply because cars to our culture are like cows are to the Indian continent. They are sacred. Not to be touched. Since the 1930’s, and especially post-war, owning and driving one’s own automobile came to be expected with adulthood.  The automobile is the birthright of baby boomers. Owning and/or driving a car gives an owner their identity (thanks to the very clever and expensive marketing prowess of the automotive industry. The car/pick-up truck represents the peak of our culture, a culture of entitlement, convenience, speed and comfort. From the perspective of many drivers, society is supposed to cater to the car. Collectively we seem to behave as though driving a vehicle is an entitlement. Being sacred it is not ever to be criticised.

The kind of anger I have seen directed at any who would even dare to suggest alternatives to the car is totally incredible. Some drivers are impatient with pedestrians, even swearing or waving their fists at them; many more fail to approach street corners slow enough to avoid striking pedestrians. Some drivers become so enraged at bicycles they deliberately target riders by passing too closely or even side-swiping them! (These drivers might have the same attitude toward buses but the size different likely has a bearing on their behaviour...) I have seen people argue that hospitals should divert precious funds in order to build parking spots so that people can visit the ill. Yet those who rely on their cars for all travel are the most likely to get ill and need the hospital, the very institution that has rendered funds to pay for their parking! I believe we as a society have no idea just how much the automobile has taken over our psyche.
Relying heavily on the single-occupancy motor vehicle is not only costly for the user/owner and especially for society it also exacts a cost to our well-being –physically, mentally and socially. Car travel is usually isolating. This is counter to our need to be connected to others. The quality, not only the quantity of travel, makes a huge impact on us, for better or for worse.

What are the benefits of a more sustainable transportation design, one that includes greater density, easily accessible services (think of cities in the pre-war years where one could walk to shops, schools, work and such), dedicated walking and cycling trails and a robust interconnected easily accessible and fast public transportation system? One that gives easy access to carshare and bicycle sharing hubs? It provides the following benefits:
•    Better physical and mental health, including better work-place performance and fewer anxiety and anger issues,
•    reduced pollution & noise,
•    greater longevity,
•    much lower transportation costs,
•    lowered costs for the city
•    greater safety,
•    greater sense of community and belonging,
•    greater social cohesion,
•    much improved local economies and job opportunities,
•    more attractive to tourists
•    increased civic pride
•    greater numbers of young adults who provide needed services and perspectives (vital to a fully functioning city)

What city would not wish these?

Boiling all of this down, what constitutes a sustainable transportation system? It
1.    Allows the basic access needs of individuals and societies to be met safely and in a manner consistent with human and ecosystem health, and with equity within and between generations.
2.    Is affordable, operates efficiently, offers choice of transport mode, and supports a vibrant economy.
3.    Limits emissions and waste within the planet’s ability to absorb them, minimizes consumption of non-renewable resources, limits consumption of renewable resources to the sustainable yield level, reuses and recycles its components, and minimizes the use of land and the production of noise.

North America has a long way to go before catching up to Europe and much of the world in this regard. Local, provincial/state and federal initiatives are underway. All each of us need to do is to jump on board to any one of them while seeking ways we can improve the quality of our lives.


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