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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  April 2004

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE April 2004

Subject:

Cars Devastate

From:

Phil Gasper <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 9 Apr 2004 11:36:00 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (342 lines)

--> If you pass this comment along to others
please explain that Commentaries are a premium
sent to Sustainer Donors of Z/ZNet and that to
learn more folks can consult ZNet at
http://www.zmag.org

Today's commentary:
http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2004-04/01engler.cfm

==================================

ZNet Commentary
Cars Devastate April 06, 2004
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 lionís 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 Columbiaís 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 generationís 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 1960s 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. Seattleís
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. Itís 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 driversí
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. [log in to unmask]

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

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