When I first saw nature documentaries I was surprised how herbivores would graze within sight of lions. I had imagined that if they spotted a predator they would run as far away as possible. Instead they share the same terrain and only run when a lion attacks. Once the kill is made, calm returns and they resume their grazing while the lions devour their unlucky cousin. Like the herbivores of the savannah, we too have become accustomed to sharing our living space with a dangerous predator. When it claims another victim we are momentarily fascinated and twist our necks to look as we drive past the mangled metal and bodies on stretchers – but then we move on and a few miles later have become once again oblivious to the danger. The killer is humanity’s worst predator: the car.
Accidents are not the only way that cars harm us but they are a good place to start. The World Health Organisation says that the leading injury-related cause of death among people aged 15-44 years is traffic injuries. About 1million 100 thousand people every year are killed worldwide; a further 39 million a year are injured. It is extraordinary how little it bothers us. On Britain’s motorways it is routine to drive past a recent crash. How many of us would feel happy about flying if it were an equally common experience to wait at the end of the runway while police swept away the debris of a previous plane?
Cars kill even more people through pollution and negative effects on our lifestyle. Each year 3 million people die from the effects of air pollution, most of which is due to traffic. If accidents and pollution don’t get you, then just sitting in your car, may. Experts say we need at least half an hour of moderate exercise five times a week to stay healthy. Without a car you will probably get that much just by walking to work, school or the shops. But with a car it’s easy to do almost no exercise at all. Two thirds of British adults over 30 are overweight – the main reasons being bad diet and lack of exercise. Rising levels of obesity are causing a rapid increase in deaths from diabetes, which have now reached 33,000 a year in the UK.
Adding together deaths from accidents and disease, cars are killing at least 3 million people a year worldwide.
Exhaust fumes, road building, car manufacture and the oil industry, all contribute to a general environmental degradation affecting not just humans but other animals and plants. Roads destroy habitats and disrupt the movement of animals. Frogs, toads and newts are declining across the globe and 32 percent of all amphibian species face extinction. Habitat loss and pollution are the main threats but many also die simply through crossing roads to reach their breeding grounds. Amphibians are more sensitive to toxins in the environment than other groups of animals, so their plight is also an early warning to us of how badly the Earth is being harmed.
Global warming will do even greater damage through rapid climate change and rising sea levels. The fossil fuels used to manufacture and fuel cars are a major contributor to greenhouse gases. If the whole world adopted the car to the extent that the USA has, we would need 5 or 6 times the amount of oil produced today. At such rates the climate would be wrecked and oil run out in less than a decade. In practice if the demand for oil continues to rise the price will soar. Powerful countries will then scramble to secure the remaining supplies for themselves, establishing military bases in the oil producing regions and going to war if necessary.
Throughout history until the 20th century, the streets belonged to pedestrians and occasional animal-drawn carts. As a result children could play outside and roam freely. The car has taken away this liberty and put children under house arrest: the freedom to play in front of their homes gone in one generation.
Noise, smoke, smell, dust and danger make walking near busy roads intimidating. A moment of thoughtlessness can mean death. Pedestrian routes near busy roads are typically grim filthy places, often involving a detour through a labyrinth of bridges and tunnels. With fewer pedestrians there is a loss of community and a heightened fear of crime (cars even facilitate some crimes – a bicycle is not so convenient for kidnap or moving stolen goods).
Cyclists have been driven off the roads by motor traffic. Six times more miles were cycled in the UK in 1952 than are today. The decline is not surprising given how dangerous cycling and walking are according to government statistics. For the same length of journey cyclists are ten times more likely to be killed and walkers fifteen times more likely, than if the journey was made by car. Cyclists and pedestrians are not crashing wildly into lampposts and trees – the statistics are for accidents involving at least one ‘motor vehicle’ – they are being run over by the cars!
All cities are now cursed with the constant background noise of traffic. Studies show that living with this noise raises children's blood pressure and stress levels. In the Indian city of Bangalore, nearly a quarter of the police force are suffering from hearing disabilities due to traffic noise.
What do cars cost us and what do we get for the money? The UK motoring organisation the RAC estimates the average cost of buying and running a car at over £5000 per year. Government figures for household spending on cars are lower because most cars (65%) are bought by companies or public bodies. One in ten cars is a company car and they do a quarter of all mileage! Usually they are sold on after a year or two (many households own a former company car). There are other costs too: for example, road accidents cost £16,000 million per year in terms of lost production, health-care, social benefits and similar expenses. In the USA costs are similar, the average household spending about 20% of its income for each vehicle it owns.
At least 8 hours of the working week are used to earn what motoring costs us. In the UK on average, we travel 110 miles a week by car taking about 4½ hours. If we divide the distance travelled by the total time we have spent paying for the car and driving it (8+ 4½ = 12½ hours), we discover that the average speed is less than 9mph. A bicycle would go faster – however note that averages do conceal wide variations in income and in miles travelled in particular weeks.
Cars create more need for travel. Work, schools and shops tend to be located further away than they used to: the average journey to secondary school went up by over 30% in a decade. Many leisure trips are made to get to somewhere unpolluted and peaceful. How much unnecessary extra travel have cars caused us? In Britain the average distance a person travels every year (excluding air travel) has gone up from 1000 miles fifty years ago to 6800 miles today. If half of today’s car travel turned out to be unnecessary waste caused by the cars themselves, the average speed for the useful part of the journey would be only 4mph! You might as well walk.
How much money are we wasting on this useless means of transport? There are 26 million private cars in Britain so if the average cost is £5000 per car, we are spending £130 billion a year. What else could we buy with £130 billion? Well £30 billion buys enough windmills to supply all homes in the UK with electricity – the unwanted car factories could manufacture them. That still leaves us with £100 billion to spend in the first year! Next year there’s another £130 billion to spend - in fact even more because spending on gas and coal has gone down thanks to the windmills and our health system is cheaper because there are fewer accidents.
Imagine that you get up one morning to find that the car has been de-invented. Welcome to car-free world! Let’s go out and explore.
The first thing you notice on opening the front door is the quiet: you hear only birdsong and the footsteps of a passer by. Next you notice that there are no lines of parked cars and that the air is fresher. The houses in the street have changed a bit too. For starters they all have solar collectors on the roof for both hot water and electricity, paid for from the savings made in the first two years after going car-free.
During the course of the day you discover that what has primarily replaced the car is the bicycle. Bicycles are the cheapest way of providing door-to-door personal transportation that is faster than walking and can carry heavier loads. Most people already had a bike in their shed. Those who didn’t could buy a cheap one for little more than it used to cost to fill their cars with petrol. Bicycles really came into their own when the ‘cycle expressways’ were built. These allowed a 5-mile commute to be accomplished in well under 30 minutes, making bikes faster than buses or tubes for most journeys.
Borrowing a bike you set out to visit the shops. When you get there, an attendant in a sort of ‘bicycle cloakroom’ takes your bike and helmet and gives you a token to retrieve them with. Your bike has pannier bags but you are interested to know how people carry larger amounts of shopping. Looking about, you see a man loading bags onto a tricycle with a substantial luggage carrier. Next you notice several shoppers going home pushing various designs of trolley; ramps and lifts have been provided where there is a change of level, making this as easy as using an airport luggage trolley.
On your ride home you catch up with an electric van proceeding at its maximum speed of 6mph. When it stops to make a delivery, you ask the driver why many of the items seem to be in standard-sized boxes. She explains that goods are often now moved in mini-containers. Low-speed electric vehicles like hers collect and deliver them but if sent over any distance, they will be carried by trains for the bulk of the journey. The standard sizes allow mechanised transhipment and sorting while in transit. You say goodbye and decide that it’s time to see what has happened to the railways.
Arriving at the station on the nearby local suburban line is a bit of a shock. The vandalised bus-shelter that had replaced the original Victorian building has gone. Instead there is a splendid new station with heated waiting rooms, a café, toilets, baby changing facilities, and ramps and lifts for wheeled access. And of course, there is a bike ‘cloakroom’ … doesn’t everywhere have them?
As you cycle away from the station, there is an acrid smell of exhaust and a roar of traffic. You leap off the bike and drag it onto the pavement just in time to escape death under the wheels of a 4x4. There are flowers tied to a lamppost beside you and a note, which reads, “In loving memory of Bobby, aged 8.”
You’ve left car-free world and the question on your mind is “how do I get back?” Giving up your own car won’t remove the others … and Venice is too far to commute. So it’s time we asked our government for a real choice: a car-free suburb in every town. Then we can begin to create our future car-free world during the years until climate change finally convinces the rest of humanity to make its ‘worst predator’ extinct.
REFERENCES AND SOURCES:
Important sources of data consulted include:
The World Health Organisation: Traffic accident deaths and traffic pollution.
The Guardian and www.diabetes.co.uk : Diabetes deaths.
The Ramblers Association: Walking.
The BBC on-line: Traffic pollution and noise.
The Washington Post, The PA Fish & Boat Commission and The Road Ecology Center: Amphibians and road kill.
The RAC Motor Index: Costs of Motoring.
UK Government Statistics (www.statistics.gov.uk), Department of Transport statistics, DVLA: Household expenditure on cars, distances travelled, accident statistics for cars, bikes, etc.
Houses of Parliament and ETA: Number of company cars, proportion with free fuel, mileage.
Consumer Expenditure Survey, Bureau of Labour Statistics, www.detroittransit.org : American household spending on cars.
ROSPA (www.rospa.org.uk): Cost of UK road accidents.
“How We Can Save the Planet”, Hillman: Wind energy data. I used this data to deduce the 30bn figure to produce enough electricity for all UK homes, based on 30,000 1.3MW onshore turbines and assuming a cost of £1m each.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT): Size and turnover of automotive industry, new car sales data. SMMT give turnover for the UK Automotive Manufacturing, Distribution and Servicing business as in excess of £180 billion, supporting 800,000 jobs, which matches up well with the £130bn figure I give as the cost of private cars.
Professional Engineering (January 2006): Gives costs of solar water and PV as follows: Domestic solar water heating £2000-£3000 including installation, providing all hot water in summer and 50% in winter; Solar Photovoltaic £4000-£9000 per kW installed (a 2kW system would produce almost 50% of average household electricity). The £130bn a year saved by getting rid of cars represents about £5000 per household. With economies of scale this should easily pay for both such systems in one to two years.