The Impact of Cars on Society

- by Yves Engler

A couple months back I came across a phenomenal statistic; there are 1.02 cars in the U.S. for every person of driving age. (1) The New York Times confirmed this in an article that said there are 230 million cars and trucks in the U.S. and only 193 million licensed drivers. (2)

Surely it's more cost effective to call a cab when a breakdown occurs rather than having a backup vehicle? Or have the robots learned to drive?

But in all seriousness, car prevalence has, to put it mildly, many drawbacks. It also contributes significantly to shaping a country and says something about a society.

Driving is a dreadful environmental hazard. Car batteries leak lead acid, which seeps into the earth. Rubber from tires takes centuries to decompose. Most importantly, oil consumption is a major contributor to climate change, which "is already responsible for 150,000 deaths a year and the death toll could double by 2030." (3) According to Jeremy Rifkin in The Hydrogen Economy, "motor vehicles use the lion's share of global oil consumption, which is about one-third of all the global oil consumed each year." (4) This is only made worse by people's propensity towards (often subsidized) gas-guzzling sports utility vehicles.

The inclination towards SUVs - irrespective of safety, need for space, cost or whether they are ever used for their off road purposes -point to an ideology that equates size with desirability. For many people, especially men, a certain psychological yearning is fulfilled by owning and driving a large car. And it is unlikely that SUV purchases will fall anytime soon so long as they are the most profitable vehicles to produce. (5)

Cars not only meet some people's longing for size, they contribute to another unhealthy size increase, namely, obesity. Lack of exercise, due to reductions in walking is a significant contributor to the advanced capitalist world's obesity epidemic in which the U.S. is leading the way. A study released in September showed that in the 25 most sprawling U.S. counties people were on average six pounds heavier than in the 25 most compact counties. (6)

Another recent report, called the Cascadia [the region of North America including British Columbia, Washington State, Oregon and Idaho] Scorecard, explains; "British Columbia's more pedestrian-related urban design may explain why obesity is about one-third less common in the province [B.C.] than in the North-West states." The main difference between B.C. and its climate similar neighbors to the south is sprawl. The Globe and Mail reporting on the Cascadia Scored explains, "in the United States, the federal interstate freeway system has led cities, and that includes Seattle [Washington] and Portland [Oregon], to spread out.

As Vancouver [B.C.] has avoided committing itself to a freeway system, its core has become one of the mostly [sic] densely populated in North America, which means fewer car trips, more pedestrian traffic, greater use of mass transit, less pollution and healthier people." (7) It seems "British Columbians live 2.5 years longer than their Cascadian counterparts below the 49th parallel" even with Cascadians in the U.S. living a year longer on average than the rest of their country-mates. (8)

Contrary to what the Globe and Mail implies, it's obviously a mistake to chalk up all life expectancy difference to more exercise, when poverty, universal health coverage, public health promotion, income inequality and industrial regulations all play a significant roll in health. Still since "a century ago, the typical American walked three miles a day; now the average is less than 1/4 mile a day" and with the obesity epidemic likely to lead to a decline in the current generation's life expectancy, exercise needs to be taken seriously as a health determinant. (9)

It would also be a mistake to think, as the Globe and Mail does, that urban planning bureaucrats didn't attempt to build similar expressways into downtown Vancouver. They did. However, when city planners, with a nudge from the auto industry, tried in the mid 1960's to further shape Vancouver in the interests of the almighty car, community activists mobilized to protect their communities (A prominent activist in the struggle, Mike Harcourt, later became mayor of Vancouver and Premier of the province). They won the battle and people are healthier for it (This is not to claim that Vancouver's landscape isn't highly car-centric. It is. Compared to Germans, for instance, British Colombians consume twice as much energy.). (10)

Not only is Vancouver more likely to spawn an active lifestyle, the absence of a Seattle style highway makes it a more beautiful city. Seattle's downtown freeway is a major blight on an otherwise pleasant city. This more or less generalizes. Cities that are walkable or easily navigatable by public transit are more appealing to inhabit. Think about the cities in the world people want to travel to. How often are Houston, Cleveland, Detroit or Dallas on the list?

Most people would prefer N.Y., San Francisco, Paris or Montreal, which is partly because of more sensible (walkable) urban planning in those cities. In my own experience in nominally desirable cities such as Los Angeles or San Diego being a pedestrian sucks. Even though the weather is perfectly suited for year-round walking (unlike Montreal where I currently live) almost no one walks anywhere. It's not surprising considering how solitary, dangerous and un-enjoyable - outside a small downtown core and a few other areas - an experience walking is in these cities.

Even though it is difficult to walk around most cities, people still don't want to commute by car. The Toronto Star reports, "a think tank on commuter patterns recently surveyed people in five major U.S. cities and discovered that two-thirds of them would prefer not to drive to work. Driving was seen as time subtracted from more satisfying and constructive pursuits." (11) One of the first satisfying and constructive pursuits reduced, as commutes get longer, is civic participation. The Globe and Mail reports, "every 10 minutes of commuting time cuts all forms of civic engagement by 10%" (family time is the priority). (12) It appears that long commutes are dangerous to democracy. And, "in the 30 largest [ U.S.] cities, total time lost to traffic jams had almost quintupled since 1980." (13)

Commutes are also dangerous in a more direct sense. The British medical Journal reports that "globally, road traffic crashes kill about 3000 people a day." (14) While this number is heavily influenced by accidents in poor countries - where infrastructure and safety standards are extremely weak - there is still almost 50,000 people dying every year in U.S. car accidents, many of them pedestrians and cyclists. This doesn't even take into account the tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of U.S. residents who end up with serious long-term injuries each year.

There are ways, however, to reduce these injuries. For instance, according to the British Medical Journal, "silver cars were about 50% less likely to be involved in a crash resulting in serious injury than white cars." (15) Yet still, white and other more dangerous colored cars are sold. This is partly because cars are, and all these have been, about status. They are advertised in ways to highlight the importance of the driver in them not their convenience. And are we ever bombarded with these images. In 2003, three of the five biggest advertisers in the U.S. were car manufacturers. (16) This year Ford has increased their advertising budget by 10% and according to The Economist, "so far this year, GM has been spending $4,141 per car on promotion costs compared with $3,253 in the same period last year" (about four times their steel costs). (17,18,19)

Conversely car companies lobby ferociously to block government safety regulations that might increase their costs by $10 or 20 on the less than $100 they usually spend on safety regulations. Safety isn't a high priority for these companies that advertise many of their cars on the basis of speed. The Christian Science Monitor reports "auto manufacturers are promoting faster cars these days as a way to get out of the worst sales slump since 1963." (20) Evidence suggests that car companies have successfully influenced drivers' behavior with police reporting substantially more speeding tickets above 90 miles per hour, which certainly heightens road risk. (21)

Speeding along the highway is associated with personal freedom and so is driving generally. People often say they feel most free in their car. One recent study had 91 percent of U.S. residents affirming that the automobile is an important aspect of individual freedom (88% in Canada). (22) As a pedestrian I find that somewhat ironic since a major hindrance to my own freedom, especially in suburban areas (most U.S. cities), is the car. Not necessarily the car itself, but the fact the landscape is almost entirely subservient to it. Walking becomes almost completely impractical. A car becomes a basic requirement.

This sense of 'car freedom' is all too often ahistorical and asocial. It very much reinforces capitalist ideology's denial of any social basis of reality. When driving there can be a great sense of individual freedom, however, it's premised on a whole set of social relations that often go unaccredited. Most obviously the building of roads and other car based infrastructure. They weren't free and they can't be built without a strong network of social relations. Immense sums of public resources are devoted to advancing car drivers 'freedom'. Just imagine if all those resources - 318 billion over the next 6 years if the Senate highway-spending bill passes - were devoted to expanding (free) public transit. Certainly then there would be greater mobility on public transit and a heightened sense of public transit freedom. Personally, my time spent traveling through European cities with their extensive public transit systems, with a two-month train pass and walkable cities felt especially free.

But at least car travel is efficient, right? Not necessarily. According to Allan Engler in Economic Democracy: the practical alternative to capitalism, "when the hours that a woman or man of average income must work to purchase a private car, to pay for the fuel, insurance, and repairs are added to the time spent in traffic gridlock, fueling, cleaning and looking for parts to the car, the distance they travel in all this time is little more than four miles an hour, the speed of a healthy walk."

But this isn't important. It's only important that the private automobile - from automobile manufacturing, steel, plastic, rubber, glass, and upholstery manufacturers to advertising, insurance, credit companies, and of course the petroleum industry's exploration, refining, distribution, and service stations - has been the single most important source of capitalist profit for nearly 100 years. What other explanation do we need? Please ignore people's health and communities, the pedestrians, and environment.

I and a companion will be traveling (bus) across North America in the hopes of writing a travel log/analysis book on cars and being carless. Anyone who might have an extra room available and or interesting information on cars and Urban Development in their communities please get in touch:


1.Globe and Mail
2. NYT March 14 2004
3.Financial Times Dec 12 2003
4. The Hydrogen Economy p.65
5. Globe and Mail Aug 24 2002
6. NYT
7. Globe and Mail March 16th 2004
8. Globe and Mail March 16th 2004
9. NYT March 14 2004
10. Globe and Mail March 16th 2004
11. TS Mar 15 2004
12. Globe and Mail Nov 19 2003
13. NYT March 14 2004
14. BMJ Dec 20 2003
15. BMJ Dec 20 2003
16. Financial Times
17. Automotive News Feb 16 2004
18. Economist March 16th 2004
19. Automotive News Feb 16 2004
20. Globe and to Mail March 5th 2004
21. Globe and to Mail March 5th 2004
22. la presse February 24, 2004

Discussion List Issues: The Youth Anti-War Movement: A Debate (1) The Youth Anti-War Movement: A Debate (2) The Youth Anti-War Movement: A Debate (3) Oil and Indigenous Lands (1) Oil and Indigenous Lands (2) Oil and Indigenous Lands (3) Israel, Palestine, and Nationalism (1) Israel, Palestine, and Nationalism (2) Israel, Palestine, and Nationalism (3) To join our discussion list, go here Join Our Info. List:
Search Site
Our Links


Socialism & Democracy

Monthly Review

Dissident Voice

Brings the Troops Home Now

Z Net

Marxism List

New Left Review

International Socialist Review

Electronic Intifada

Electronic Iraq

New Spark Productions

Press Action

Left Turn

Student Underground

Green Left Weekly

Clamor Magazine

Traveling Soldier

Radical Activist Network

League of Independent Voters

Labor Net

Labor Notes

Free Higher Education



Illegal Voices

Jews Against the Occupation

Committee for Social Justice in Columbia

Venezuela Analysis

Act Against War

Environmentalists Against War

Earth First

Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and Environment

Rainforest Action Network

Food First

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)

Democracy Now

Student Underground