Why cars as urban transport are a bad idea

Christian Reis
Last reviewed July, 2000
"1 ton of metal to transport 70kg of human body is reasonable?"
Marcelo Corbani

Abstract

In general, if a large enough portion of society is a beneficiary of a transportation system, I believe it is enough to outweigh many consequencial problems of transport. However, cars are a benefit to individuals at great detriment to society - including these same car owners, and thus is not gracefully covered in the previous phrase without relying on hypocrisy.

This description is laid down in an attempt to stablilize many ideas that I´ve had over the years about cars and their effects on modern society. It will probably never be final, since there are consequences always extend as far as one wishes to see. However, the main points are hopefully very direct and are based on careful argumentation. Of course, it´s quite possibly all wrong. Please complain about it.

Hipocrisy is to be viewed in this paper, and hopefully in life, as a general "bad thing" (should there be a paper on hipocrisy, or is this phrase self-evident?).

This paper does not directly discourage the use of cars, but it might make you discouraged indirectly, if you are able to think.

Don´t be that afraid of it, I´ve tried to write it to be bias-free.

For people that think about urban transport

People´s default means of locomotion is walking, ever since we became upright (and before, something like crawling, I imagine). Most people are not bed-stricken, and thus walk during the day, though this is growingly limited to walking around stores and worksites. This is perhaps not self-evident, but obvious if you analyze your behaviour inside your home. Unless you have a private elevator or escalator, you will walk to your bathroom, kitchen and living-room, and into your garage or parking space, at least. You also walk from your remote parking space to wherever your destination is, and usually inside that destination you also walk.

This paper is targeted to people that live in cities, around which our modern society has been built. It´s not an attempt to ignore people that live in the countryside or inside vehicles. They do exist. This is not targeted at them. Perhaps more people live in the countryside than in cities in your country. This is still not written for them. Therefore, the word People in the paper refers to average city-residing people in most of the countries I have visited. I have tried to cover marginally average people as well.

Many of the causes and effects are shared by people that do not live in cities, and possibly by people in locations where there are no cars. Because of that, even if this isn´t targeted to them, they might want to read it.

Generally, transport is used to describe moving from one place to another inside our planet. It´s that extensive. The practical reach of this paper´s transport is limited to transport during ordinary People´s days in an urban environment. It shouldn´t include baloon riding.

Urban transport extremes

Walking is the simplest means of transport you can use regularly, isn´t it? No special equipment, no special skill beyond what what you learnt as a baby. Well, walking crushes grass and many small ground-dwellers. Ants are unintentionally killed by walkers. However, isn´t it unlikely a ecological disbalance will result of this? How many humans will be negatively affected by the effects of walking? However, it is very slow and isn´t quite fit for transport in most modern cities. But almost anybody can walk, if they so desire. It´s perfect if we didn´t have to hurry anywhere and lived close to everything. It´s can be very boring when routinely used, of course.

On the other end would the most complicated form of urban transport. Even though I can´t quite decide what it is, it´s quite certainly something built to move a lot of people - complexity derived from size. Subway and busses, most probably. They pollute, consume fuel, require roads and tracks, ocasionally have accidents and don´t require exercise (though usually people walk to stations and stops).

Cars lie in the deadful middle ground. They are somewhat closer to busses than to walking in transportation consequences, but they´re designed for individuals, like walking.

(And don´t say five people can ride in a car before you´ve counted the proportion of cars with five people inside in the next traffic jam.)

Why people use cars

People depend on transport. They have a need for a means of transport that gives them freedom to exercise their needs and desires during transportation. People have no time, are lazy, can´t walk, hate other people, and enjoy driving. Or, better laid out, the reasons people use cars today fall mostly in these categories:

  1. Lack of time for transport

    This is fairly recognized as a modern problem. People always want to do many things in a day´s time, and it takes a long time to get from one place to the other. There isn´t a simple way to cover a customized route of 20+ kilometers in a day without relying on a car. There are usually transport alternatives, but none conveys the freedom and therefore speed in transport. Freedom in transport can be equated to speed in the most common use cases (but not in reasons c, d and e) ) since the main benefit of cars are allowing you to have a personalized route that maximizes route targets against time. You can go more places in less time.

    This is probably the main reason modern societies require cars, so I´ll break it down into contributing factors.

    The need for rapid transport stems from mainly modern issues:

    1. the standard work hour allied to extra-work interests. People have to work; there´s no simple answer to this in any modern society, and unless you inherited great wealth or receive money freely you are usually obliged to perform some sort of activity to be rewarded with means to sustain yourself. Even inheriting money or receiving money freely usually involved some sort of task to be performed, and administering the money is often a task in itself (many people would argue that this task is more leisure than work, but let´s try hard and not be too critical).

      • In cases, work is the sole activity in a person´s life. They wish for no outside activities beyond work, and though possibly unhealthy it is not in the scope of the paper to question this. These people, if living an organized life, and almost abstaining from anything not directly involved with work and self-sustainence (eating, sleeping, personal hygene) can usually abstain from the use of cars, provided there is either proximity to work, for using personal locomotion, or public transport. These people are quite rare, possibly non-existant, at least from sampling the amount of people that I´ve met in a lifetime. They do not have families. They do not eat out in restaurants on weekends and do not go to stores more than once a week. They can do fine without cars.
      • Most people do not fit in the above description. They desire other activities beyond the basic work for self-sustenence. They want to eat out, go to stores, do sports, visit friends. Even if these interests are quite moderate (on occasions together more than perhaps 5 times a week) they usually need transport beyond walking to get to the places where they perform their preferred activities. If public transport is deficient, they will default to using cars, because there is no convenient way around it.

    2. the size and organization of most modern cities. Modern cities are developed with roads as one of their main concerns. Not only because they deliver convenience, but because roadbuilders and automakers alike are very powerful industries, and thus can convey their designs upon the development of cities. People first organized in cities for convenience: it was the one place were everything was conveniently close, and they no longer needed to travel to buy goods and visit people (there were no movies at the time, nor widespread leisure sportsmanship). However, modern cities have detracted from this: they are usually very large and spread out, and thus killing the convenience they once delivered. This is a very awkward development, but understandable through the process of migration and desirable neatness. The effect is that cities attract people, cities grow, and the cities´ conveniences get spread apart. This forces people to rely on some sort of transport beyond walking.

    3. The modern social cycle, and the structure of the family. The fact that children usually have to be taken care of during their first 15 years of life forces parents to have to account for transportation needs for them, too. So apart from going to work and to the supermarket, parents have to take children to school, to music rehearsal, to the movies and to friends houses. Because there is a usual concern for safety for one´s upbringing, public transport is usually not looked upon as an alternative. The process of transport for children is possibly analogous to transport of the elderly, as well. People are forced to use cars because they need to take other people to places they can´t go by themselves. The larger the family, the larger the number of people dependant on the able drivers´ transportation.

  2. Danger

    The fact that cities usually involve a violent crime factor, and that it is many times associated with public transport, is certainly an impulsing factor to the use of cars. Especially for children, women and the elderly, danger in public transport is a definite drawback to it´s use (ask bus riders in Rio de Janeiro, if you disagree). This is self-evident, isn´t it?

  3. Laziness

    Most modern people are lazy to a certain extent, many times because of laziness itself, and many times because of the amount of tasks they are required to do. They want comfort, and they want it to the least effort. Cars are convenient because they can usually be parked quite close (though becoming a growing problem) and require very little strain to drive. Manual gears will give way to automatic transmission for the laziest.

  4. Physical disability

    Many people can´t physically use public transport, either because of weakness or a physical defect. They are the same that usually can´t resort to self-powered transportation alternatives, such as walking. So even if they live in a large city with safe, fast public transport available, and are not lazy, they can´t use them. And they can´t cycle around either.

    These people probably account for a small portion of society. Most people that are so weak they can´t walk are so through refusal to exercise or laziness, aren´t they?

  5. Avoidance of others

    People like cars because they have windows and doorlocks. They keep uninvited people out. They keep them from having to engage in contact with other people, which can be for so many reasons I couldn´t really write them all. This is usually a social sickness, unless you live where it´s quite dangerous to walk the streets. Colon, Panama and Rio de Janeiro are somewhat like that. Danger is accounted for in b), so this avoidance is specifically not wanting to share space with other people. It usually extends only to people you don´t know.

    This is composed by the growing number of xenophobes in modern society. This portion is probably higher than those physically disabled, and lower than the lazy. Isn´t it more common to be lazy than afraid of strangers?

  6. Entertainment

    Cars are delightful to drive to most, and video games are poor substitutes. Most people enjoy the rumble of the engine and the moderate vibration that the car´s activity produces. We also enjoy the speed that we notice through the outside world going past very fast, and the power the speed conveys. Power-worship used to be limited and generally not very well looked-upon, but the shift of man´s life from one in contact with nature to a technological world has made it very fashionable and common.

What happens when people use cars

Any human activity done by a significant amount of people transforms society and the world´s environment. Cars are very popular, and therefore should fit in the above description. To try and guage the effects of cars in the transformation of our world, I´ve laid down some of the effects I think people produce through their use of cars.

  1. Behaviour
  2. Environment
  3. Society & Economy
  4. Health

Adding it up is not straightforward, is it?

What´s the sum of these effects? How do you think cities feel now, compared to what they used to be a decade ago? Has traffic improved? Are there less accidents? Are they cleaner? Are people less stressed because of transportation issues? Are they healthier? Do they feel safer?

The cause of these changes is of course not limited to the automobile, but it can be stated a main cause of most. Without a car you can´t contribute to traffic. You can run people over, but it´s quite less common. You can´t really pollute the air very much.

If life were a decade: cars have increased during the decade. The problems cars cause have also increased.

Do you envision a stopping point in the increase of cars? Will the number of cars stabilize if we change nothing in our behaviour towards them?

The questions above are probably easy to estimate. The following is probably the most important of the questions presented. I can see no absolute right answer here; you can think either yes or no.

Provided the number of cars doesn´t stabilize, will the problems they cause do so?

This section is for people that have weighed the issues exposed above, and think cars shouldn´t be used as default transport. This means you have formed your own opinion about it and think they are a "bad idea". I have only stated facts, or assumed facts, hopefully. You can disagree, and if you do, you shouldn´t read what´s below, because this wasn´t written to convince you to do anything.

What can be done to avoid using cars

Don´t use them. This is your immediate way of not contributing to cars being used. If less cars are used, less cars are bought, less cars are fixed, less cars are produced. Less cars mean diminished consequences. If you use them while maintaining your opinion, you are undermining your own opinion, and being something of a hypocrite. There are alternatives to cars, so you can´t say you´re forced to use them.

  1. Encourage and use public transport. Public transport companies become richer if more people use them. They might invest and improve service. They could promote research in new and innovative transport means. Imagine my parents riding a bus to work.
  2. Use self-powered transport. You´ll feel better. You´ll become less lazy. You will probably produce more, because you´ll feel better and less lazy, and because you´ll become healthier. People that use self-powered transport exercise more. Exercise is generally viewed as a "good thing", isn´t it? You´re probably already too comfortable for this.
  3. Move to somewhere convenient. You can move to somewhere closer to where your usual transportation stops are (parking lots, I fear). Closer to work, closer to where you exercise, closer to where you buy whatever you buy. Not only do you avoid using a car, you also avoid wasting time on transport. It´s a tough choice, isn´t it?
  4. Do less during the day. This is auxiliary: doing less things you can avoid making more radical changes in your lifestyle. You still have to decide on how to get to places, though. This isn´t immediately rejected by most people; they never get around to it, however.
  5. Avoid cities with car-planning. Cities built for cars and with no public transport are most likely inviable. Brasilia, in a couple of decades, will probably be a traffic nightmare and people that live there will have their lives affected by it. They would probably forced to choose their activities and perhaps do less than people that live in rural areas, as ironic as it seems. Move because I want to avoid using a car?
  6. See? There´s no easy solution. If you want to change, you have to change. There´s no easy path for bringing what you think is right into reality. And it´s not supposed to be easy.

    There is no promise either, as always. Even if you do everything as you think would be ideal, you have a fair chance of failing miserably at promoting your ideals. You, however, will certainly live a more reasonable life than your average hipocrite, and you´ll feel better about it. If you´re unambiguous internally, you definitely feel confident.

    Feeling confident is a good thing (TM).