What’s wrong with cars?

One of the key themes of The Melbourne Urbanist is the need to price road space. Cars will be with us in one form or another for a long time yet, whether we like it or not. Autonomous travel provides enormous benefits but cars also have a dark side, so they can’t just be ignored.

I’m therefore pleased that Bern Grush from Skymeter, a Toronto company specialising in road use metering technology, has given me permission to publish the stylishly written Preface from his forthcoming book, (tentatively titled) Overcoming Global Gridlock.

The book is about the need for road pricing and how it can be achieved. Here he lays out the issues and challenges with the car. But a warning – this is not the standard anti-car diatribe you’ve read countless times before. He’s actually pro-car although, as he puts it, in a balanced way. Read on:

Overcoming Global Gridlock – Preface

“We have reached a crisis point with cars and trucks. We face mounting congestion. We need to reduce both emissions and oil consumption pretty much everywhere. In many countries funding for road building and maintenance is becoming ever harder to sustain.  All the while, demand for personal mobility and goods movement continues to expand. And there is little to indicate many people are willing to give up the private vehicle.

If the autonomous vehicle has so many problems stacked against it, but demand for it is increasing, you can see that something has to give. This is predicted for the coming decade or two.

Cars are important to us. Judging by their use and abuse, the mile-for-mile preference we have for them over other forms of mobility, the growth in their numbers, the increasing number of vehicle miles travelled each year and a hundred other indicators, it is the car we are addicted to rather than oil.  Oil is just one symptom. Most of the sustainability problem as it is now will survive the end of oil.

We can list a lot of bad things about our cars, but there are also a lot of good things.  Perhaps the good outweighs the bad – I, for one, think that it does. There are a lot of reasons we have so many cars and there are many solutions offered to deal with their overwhelming ubiquity. We needn’t review those things here. You already have an opinion. You already like or dislike cars. I am probably unable to change your mind. You already have a car (or two) or wish you had one. Or perhaps you have even managed to get rid of yours. Or not yet.

Here is what you cannot argue with – the relationship between our species and the car is in some trouble. Our roadways scar our planet and drain our treasuries. Our cars clog these roadways; they are ravenous for fuel and clean air, and for space to park. They directly kill more people every year than all the wars on the planet; they indirectly shorten the lives of many more. And sooner or later we will have to wean the entire fleet off of oil – likely 2 billion of them by the time that happens. If you have a car and you don’t think you are addicted to it, lend it to me for a month.

How did it get to this? Where is it going? And how much longer can we let it play out before we engage in a concerted effort to rescue the beloved private vehicle?

When my grandfathers were youths there were no cars. The streets of large cities like Paris, Moscow and Chicago teemed with horses. Manhattan had 5mph speed limits that were routinely ignored and 200 pedestrians were trampled to death each year (Vanderbilt). The London Strand was described with streets flooded “with churnings of ‘pea soup’ (a euphemism for a slurry of horseshit and urine) that at times collected in pools over-brimming the kerbs, and others covered the road surface as with axel grease or bran-laden dust to the distraction of the wayfarer” (Jacobs). Horse-drawn vehicle congestion was a normal condition.

By the time my mother’s father, a blacksmith who shoed horses, entered the Great Depression he had 13 children but no work thanks to the automobile. The decades leading up to the second war saw the end of the horse and the entrenchment of the autonomous vehicle. When my father’s father reached his middle years in the ‘20s, he owned a Model-T and maintained it himself. The congestion in our great cities switched from horse to car. We could fit more vehicles on the same streets and we breathed the pollution instead of walking in it.

After the Second War, the car entered our sex-lives and our song lexicon – spilling out of our radios:

I’ll buy you a Ford Mustang, I’ll buy you a Ford Mustang,

I’ll buy you a Ford Mustang if you’ll just give me some of your love now

Yeah, give me some of your love girl, yeah, you know what I want (The Animals)

When I was 13 I knew I’d drive when I was 16.  Neither of my parents nor any of theirs thought that as a teenager. A new entitlement had locked in.

The automobile has had a good ride since the 1950’s. Road building, urban form, transport policy and automotive innovation have deepened the entitlement to the point that we have now collectively forgotten what non-automotive transport and sex-before-cars was like. For many of us, not owning a car is little like being caught naked in public.

This entitlement, if not the car itself, is endangered. The reputation of the private vehicle is tarnished and declining.  In some circles drivers are looked on as if they still smoked cigarettes. The utility of the private vehicle is diminished by congestion. Parking has turned from minor nuisance to dreaded chore. The gap between the promise of car ads and the experience of owning one widens more each year. My fourteen-year old daughter guffaws at car ads. She looks at me funny, when I say she will be driving soon.

In the 2010s era of peak-oil, a century after peak-horse, most big cities have speed limits of 25-35 mph, and average speeds that are far lower. Pedestrians may be a little safer in these cities than they were under horses hoofs, but now we waste time and fuel. We pollute, text co-workers that we will be late, and use GPS to find alternative routes. In my city, Toronto, resigned complaints about congestion dominate morning greetings in place of innocuous comments about the weather. Our morning and afternoon rush-hours now bleed into a single 12-hour peak.

This trend will not self-reverse. Left as it is tending, the utility of the autonomous vehicle is threatened. And with it we will lose what remains of the convenience, effectiveness, autonomy, pleasure and sexiness of private commuting and travel.

This book is not anti-car. In fact it is pro-car – but in a balanced way. It is true that many drivers continue to be rude to transit, aggressive toward bikes, and threatening toward pedestrians – and like blowing smoke in the face of non-smokers, drivers do that to the detriment of the way of travel they prefer. Unless we consider new ways of thinking about the use of fuel-powered, multi-thousand-pound, autonomous, private vehicles, we risk writing the obituary of freedom that the automobile came to symbolize in the last half of the twentieth century.

This book describes the way out”.

Footnotes not shown.

Bern Grush is a Toronto-based entrepreneur, systems design engineer and scientist with a strong interest in ending congestion and promoting “alternatives to the automobile for urban mobility”. He is the Chief Scientist at Skymeter and edits the blog Grush Hour. Overcoming Global Gridlock will be published in the (northern) Spring.


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4 Comments on “What’s wrong with cars?”

  1. Chris says:

    A sentiment shared by myself. There is definite denial in the general populace regarding the loss of freedom prevalent in todays urban vehicle congested society. We still try to drive, in our urban environments, as if we have 100’s of km of open uncongested roads in front of us.

    Automobiles still represent freedom in many ways, but for the majority of people, in their day to day activities, this is not the case.

    The early part of the last century we had the automobile revolution, now we are having, or getting close to post, the information revolution. The next revolution, which could recharge world economies, could be a transport revolution. It stands to reason, with the majority of the worlds populations living in cities, the next big thing to evolve will be how we choose to live, and commute in these metropolises. The current trajectory will be to the determent of all. Let’s face it, there is always a lot of kicking and screaming at great turning points. The current road block is peoples perception that decreased costly autonomous vechicle usage is a step backwards, until this perception changes no great advancements will take place.

    • Bern Grush says:

      Chris, glad to see the shared insight. I think there IS a way to keep our cars (while being more thoughtful about using them) and getting back some of the enjoyment, conserving their utility, and stop crapping on the planet — all at the same time.

      At an e-car-everything conference today, I said to someone I am writing a pro-car road-pricing book. The look I got was as though I had confused A.Hitler with M.Teresa.

  2. Michael (another Michael) says:

    The writer has identified most of the problems and reasons why cars are both dominant and problematic, but only touched briefly on the generational issues. I have lived in two cities where the majority of people don’t own cars and the population don’t see car ownership as either a rite of passage or an entitlement. There is not only a denial about the problems with cars but an exaggeration about their value. The generations that grew up into a car dominant culture before environmental concerns about cars were widespread are probably incapable of seeing past them. They literally haven’t really considered the alternative and probably won’t. I seriously doubt that any solutions to the problem of cars will be politically palatable until the baby boomers are gone. Good luck with the road pricing, but I doubt it will be widespread in Australia anytime soon.

  3. Tanya says:

    I lived in Toronto most of my life and my generation (Gen Y some might call us) do not drive. Anybody living within Toronto proper usually takes the subway because it’s more convenient than driving. So it’s easy for someone living in a city like that (very similar lifestyle to Manhattan) to consider giving up a car. Even when I had a car, I never used it unless I was driving out of town. Most of my friends don’t even know how to drive (and we’re in our mid to late twenties!). It’s a completely different world to Melbourne, where not having a car is like breaking both your legs and arms. Now I am totally a driver, but given the opportunity, I would much rather give up on driving in exchange for better public transportation. As it is now, I refuse to use the ridiculously mediocre system in Melbourne, and this is from someone who used public transport to get around all her life in Toronto without a single problem. In the past year I have seen more delays, cancellations, and breakdowns than I have EVER seen in Toronto (x100). And that’s not even starting to talk about the inadequacies of the system even when it does work… So what else are people supposed to do?! Of course they’re going to drive!


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