1.2 million people were killed by them last year. 50 million people injured. Sounds like a lethal weapon? An AK-47 perhaps? For the answer just look out of your window. A car. Karl Benz must be turning in his grave, as little over a hundred years since its inception in rural Germany, combustion-driven vehicles have killed tens of millions of people. Not many weapons manufacturers could brag about figures like that.
Although road deaths have fallen in the UK recently, they are now the biggest threat to people aged 10-24, i.e. people such as us students. The WHO predicts that global road deaths will rise to 2.3 million a year by 2020, as more and more of the developing world joins the fray. And so they should expect to join the fray too. Cars are seen as potent symbols of progress, wealth, and of that all-important ‘freedom’. What a shame these dreams don’t really go much further than the advertising board.
The belief that cars create wealth is some respects, false. Cars, roads and motorways are extremely expensive to maintain, and divert much-needed public funds away from public transport. More importantly, oil imports are big drains on most developed economies; tellingly, Canada is the only G7 country which is a net exporter of oil. A large proportion of the profits from oil sales prop-up regimes of varying degrees of corruption and undesirability, such as Saudi Arabia, Congo and Angola, who then invest that money in purchasing our own companies from us. As such, Saudi Arabia already ‘owns’ 7% of America. For the last few decades, the American government has had to pour multi-billions into their ailing car industry just to keep it afloat, and that problem looks only set to escalate as the World plunges further into a recession. Not to worry, I suppose you can always escape your problems in your car, right?
The clichéd poster of a happy family driving off into the sunset has been at the forefront of advertising campaigns by the car industry since the very beginning. However the reality of most car journeys is merely routine or trivial – to and from work, to and from school, to and from the local shop.
The majority of these journeys could easily be substituted by bicycles or public transport, or simply by walking, were cities were planned and developed appropriately. And that’s just it: they’re not. Since the visionary architect Le Corbusier unveiled his modernist ‘Ville Radieuse’ in the 1920s, planners and politicians alike have been seduced by the dream of the car utopia.
There are no better examples of this than modern cities such as LA, Birmingham or Shanghai. Their unfolding stories deviate somewhat from the original glorious ideals. With their gargantuan urban motorways, inner city flyovers, ring-road systems and expansive car parks, all these cities are suffering immeasurably from problems of pollution, stress and alienation. Cars have broken down the very social fabric of these cities through their overriding spatial demands, and their visual, respiratory and noise pollution. What right-minded parent lets their children play out in the road these days?
Steets have merely become an annoyance, something to quickly scuttle through, from one sealed environment to another. Notoriously in LA for example, few people walk anywhere as everything is located so far away from each other. Far from ‘liberating’ the people, citizens are now shackled to the car, even if they only want to do simple day-to-day activities, such as buying their daily bread or visiting a friend. Further, the misconception is that drivers are the ones who chose the route at their whim. In fact, the policy of traffic planners has always been to restrict and control the movements of cars as they see fit – rather like red blood cells in the arteries of the body.
Once outside the city, if you can escape the traffic jams, the car is heralded as the vehicle of exploration; the perfect tool for opening up our beloved unexplored countryside. Admittedly the car may indeed increase accessibility to some of these more remote areas, but does it not stink of hypocrisy to permanently tarmac over huge swathes of the countryside that we so dearly cherish, just so we can drive through in our cars once in a while? At the same time, these roads splice through our few remaining fragile ecosystems, cutting them up into yet smaller and smaller portions, putting serious strain on the ecosystems’ very ability to survive. And should the animals dare to venture across into another wildlife pocket, they face the very real threat of becoming roadkill, and one of the incalculable numbers of animals that have died in this manner.
However now it’s not only the animals and young people who should fear the car, because the ugly spectre of global warming has appeared upon our horizon. Realistically, carbon-neutral fuels look a long way off, and even with the automobile industry’s speculated efficiency improvements, the world’s fleet is expected to triple by 2050, making the overall task of mitigating humanity’s greatest threat a staggering prospect.
If that’s not a big enough problem in itself, it is believed by many experts that the world is entering the period of Peak Oil, where global oil reserves begin to dwindle and prices exponentially increase, as demand outstrips supply. As oil is the very bedrock of the global economy – the fallibility of which has been proven quite clearly recently – the last thing we want to do is to shake its foundations by chugging through our remaining reserves unnecessarily.
As well as being hideously resource inefficient, it’s not even immediately desirable to have millions of individual drivers on the road, especially when the massive quantity of individual drivers can create infuriating traffic jams. This follows the Government’s admission that road congestion in the UK has been worse than predicted, and that targets for reducing traffic jams by the end of the decade are unlikely to be met. This sparked off the Virgin Trains’ campaign, ‘Business Brain Takes The Train.’ Why drive, when you can catch up on work, read a book, watch a film, or just rest?
It is bizarre to think, that at a time when the world has poured hundreds of billions into the misguided ‘War on Terror’, over 300,000 people have been killed on American roads alone. If a terrorist attack caused the death of 300,000 people (roughly a hundred times more people than were killed in the Twin Towers attack), there would be outrageous public outcry, and immediate and decisive action by the government to minimise the likelihood of such an atrocity ever occurring again. So, is it high-time for a ‘War on Cars’? Inside the offices of planners and urban designers that war has already begun. The move is on to design cities of the future which have minimal car usage, maximum public transport, and residential, work and leisure spaces intertwined.
The ambitious eco-city of Masdar, in the UAE – which is heralded as a sustainable blueprint for the future – will ban automobiles within the city; travel will instead be accomplished via public mass transit and personal rapid transit systems. The planned eco-city of Dongtan in China, will also minimise car use down to an absolute minimum.
However, with the muddled policies of Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, and Chris Loftus, laughably Environmental and Social Justice candidate in our very own University of Nottingham recent exective elections, both seemingly advocating the unfettered use of cars here in the UK, clearly politics is not facing up to the problem: the global car experiment has failed. The time has come to grow up, face our challenges coherently, and allow our planners the powers they need to save ourselves from one of humanity’s most blood-soaked inventions.
 Tolley, Rodney. Sustainable transport: planning for walking and cycling in urban environments.Woodhead Publishing, 2003. P.262