A tragedy in the making

The life and death of the great American automobile

The revved-up extravaganza known as the North American International Car Show took over Detroit last week. There were the usual attractions — concept cars and the latest version of the once-mighty Stingray — but hype around electric cars seems to have short-circuited and now it’s back to the future with diesel engines.

Inescapably, the backdrop to the whole thing was the continuing evaporation of Detroit — the city that cars built — a portent perhaps of the fate of the automobile itself.

Almost 50 years ago, automobile safety crusader Ralph Nader delivered a wake-up call to the auto industry. In Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, he wrote that “the automobile has brought death, injury and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people” and is “probably the most wasteful and inefficient mode of travel devised by industrial man.”

Even Nader likely didn’t know the half of it. One of the most devastating effects of what he called the “mechanical and biological hazard” was the destruction of the walkable human-scale city. Observed from 5,000 feet, a North American city could be mistaken as the habitat of a single dominant species — the car.

Suburbia was built for cars and, it seems, supersized people. As we re-create more walkable compact cities we are starting to realize that cars do not fit in a people city. The biggest beef against more compact development? Too much traffic and not enough parking.

One of the most intractable and urgent problems we face is reducing transportation-based carbon emissions. Thousands of Canadians die prematurely every year due to high levels of automobile-induced air pollution.

For poor people, a car is an unaffordable albatross. A single parent in Calgary holding down two minimum-wage jobs and obliged to own a beater automobile could be one flat tire away from homelessness.

We work up to three months of the year just to pay for our cars. Ivan Illich famously calculated that we could walk everywhere we wanted to go in the time we work to pay for them.

It used to be car boosters could counter that sales keep going up — that the consumer has spoken. Not any more. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that just 45 per cent of 17-year-olds had driver’s licences compared to over two-thirds in 1978. In 2010, the per cent of new cars purchased in the U.S. by 21- to 34-year-olds was only 27 per cent, down from a peak of 38 per cent in 1985. The trends are similar in Canada.

As The Atlantic reported in September 2012, the puzzle that is now bewildering every automaker is how to sell cars to Millennials. In its TrendBook 2013, Ford made the unprecedented move of publicly acknowledging young people’s flagging love affair with the car.

Knowing the reality of the carnage and ecological destruction caused by cars, it is almost criminal that car companies should be training their high-powered selling machines to seduce young people into buying a product they’ve decided they don’t need.

In a sane world, society would take this opportunity to confront climate change by retooling the automobile sector’s industrial might to the manufacture of solar panels, wind turbines, bicycles and street cars.

Cars allowed us to put some distance between the polluting factories where we worked and our homes, but ironically, they have turned the entire modern city into a dangerous industrial landscape.

In Calgary, every year, as many as 40 people die as a result of car accidents — the leading cause of injury and premature death in our city. Cars killed 834 people in Canadian cities in 2010, including 416 pedestrians. Countrywide, there were 2,200 deaths and 170,000 injuries, costing $63 billion. Worldwide, cars kill an astounding 1.3 million people every year, rivalling deaths from HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020, 71 million disability-adjusted life years will be lost worldwide due to car accidents.

Yet with the bare minimum of training, we license almost anybody over 14 years of age to drive these hulking machines on streets and in neighbourhoods at upwards of 50 kph, living in fear of letting our children out the door lest they get mowed down in traffic.

All told, it is not even clear that the auto industry is a plus to the economy. According to Transport Canada, collisions cost about five per cent of our nation’s GDP. Yet the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association estimates the automotive industry’s contribution to Canada’s GDP at only three per cent.

The Globe and Mail recently referred to cars as “unaffordable burdens.” They are indeed unaffordable and undoubtedly a burden at any price. Automobiles kill and maim, are a poverty trap and the death knell for convivial and vibrant city life. Sadly we remain largely oblivious in what Nader called this “automobile tragedy.”

Next week: Life After the Automobile.

Comments: 9

Clairvoyant wrote:

Noel, your arguments would carry more weight if they were not a one-sided advocate's rant. Yes, automobiles have negatives, but they also have positives. Yes, the use of automobiles contributes to pollution: but to see what automobiles replaced, take a drive down to Cardston (or take the bus) and take a look at the exhibit (it's not a big exhibit, so it would not take long)on horses in the city, and the consequent pollution and disease. You include world statistics for automobiles, but not other modes of people transport ... try train safety in India. Your alternative of the walkable human scale city is mostly late 20th century make believe: it ignores the reality for working class people ... try Blue Death for a description of London: it ignores company towns with the company store (another day in the mine and deeper in debt ... go down to the Crowsnest where the miners cut another tunnel into the mine so they would not have to walk so far. Yes, automobiles can be a poverty trap, but they can also be liberation from poverty: the freedom to work for thousands of employers, not just those within walking distance, or a two hour one way bus ride that professional engineers endure in Jakarta: the automobile gives shopping freedom, so Costco and Walmart become options for those who cannot afford the upscale local "company store". You are concerned about the health effects of automobiles, but narry a word on communicable diseases in LRT & subways in northern cities: let's see: stand out in the wind tunnel LRT platform in the freezing cold, get on a packed LRT car with standing room only, slush & muck everywhere, and at least of couple of hackers & coughers within spitting distance; or get into my car, temperature at a comfortable level, music or quiet by choice, a comfortable seat, nobody hacking in my face, no boot heel crushing my toes: sounds like a really tough choice?

You have concluded that young people don't want cars. Yes, there is a bit of truth to that, but mostly it's not a rejection of automobiles: sit back, don't worry about time or directions, play the iPod, or text, or twitter while your parent drives, but that won't last forever; auto redesign (no such thing as a bumper anymore) giving huge repair costs for bumps that would not have given visible damage on vehicles three decades back, with punishing insurance rates delay driving, especially driving new cars; government non-conservation policies pulling so-called clunkers off the road and thus removing lower cost vehicles that young people can afford. Sorry, but unless central planning is able to drive most of the population into dire poverty, automobile use is not going away. Especially not in places like China and India.

For counterpoint to "Life After the Automobile", try "The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths".


on Jan 28th, 2013 at 11:50am Report Abuse

Rewind FFWD wrote:

Counterpoint to Clairvoyant's pro-auto stance:


Pollution from road traffic goes far beyond the obvious air pollution. A good portion of the pervasive, constant low-frequency hum or "monster breath" of urban life comes courtesy of those 4-wheeled monsters. Pass me the shoe leather, please. My preferred transport mode is shank's mare and I use it on a daily basis in Calgary.

To help you kick the habit, read: http://www.calgaryherald.com/life/free+Calgary+What+family+life+without+wheels+taught+them+about+city/7905430/story.html

Not surprisingly, Calgary ranks last on the list of major Canadian cities when it comes to walkability. Walk on!

on Feb 1st, 2013 at 2:45pm Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

Yes, I am "pro-auto" because I believe it that for most of us, the pluses far outweigh the minuses.

There is nothing wrong with living without owning a car: it is a choice, which any family or individual is entitled to make for themselves. For the family in the Herald story, it appears to be much more than a choice of transportation, almost the central issue in their lives worth a book, an e-book, a movie. And even they admit that the lack of a car constrains their employment / income opportunities: tradeoffs.

Noise ... no argument that autos contribute to a background noise level that is much higher in the city than somewhere out on the prairie ... obvious to anyone that is even minimally observant, and certainly obvious to anyone who has ever worked the graveyard shift. Which autos blow me out of bed? The garbage trucks. The buses. The plows. The cop cars. The EMS vehicles. The firetrucks. The LRT.

And vehicles are not the only source of noise in the city: vent fans on commercial buildings; dogs; pissed to the gills drunks; cops' choppers; magpies :) ... It's the city, and the people density is high, and with higher density comes higher noise

on Feb 3rd, 2013 at 6:43pm Report Abuse

Rewind FFWD wrote:

The pluses far outweigh the minuses? For whom exactly? Taking into account the FULL impact of automobiles -- starting with the pollution while gathering the raw materials for those vehicles -- and then adding in the pollution and destruction of the environment from the oil industry for the petroleum that fuels them, it's pretty obvious that your equation is a little skewed and unbalanced.

And you don't have to be blown out of bed for the after-effects of auto noise to impact your health: low frequency noise from constant traffic is known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Too much of it is bad for your heart and can lead to an early death. Vehicles are indeed the biggest noisemakers -- as a whole -- than anything else in virtually any city worldwide.

on Feb 3rd, 2013 at 8:25pm Report Abuse

Nkeough wrote:

Good conversation. I of course stand by my comments. The column did not even touch on the environmental damage the production, use and disposal of automobiles costs. I think the financial cost burden of the automobile is also quite compelling. And without any of that if 1.3 million deaths a year is not enough for sober reconsideration of the place of these machines in our lives I don't know what is. Whats more, research out of the UK demonstrates clearly that the brunt of the health costs are borne by poorer people - eg they tend to live closer to highways and suffer more health effects with for example more of their kids getting maimed and killed by cars.

An interesting PBS documentary from The American Experience series aired last week. It chronicled the life of Henry Ford. I was surprised to see how conflicted he was in his later life with the kind of noisy chaotic city he had helped create with his invention and the assembly line. He went to great lengths to escape both his assembly line at River Rouge and the noisy city, spending much of his life on his farm and spending millions to recreate the pre-car America in his heritage/theme park.

on Feb 4th, 2013 at 8:10am Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

Noel: Can you put some context around the 1.3 million? Starting with a country by country breakdown? And spreadsheet it with other major causes of death on a country by country basis? Thanks.

To Rewind FFWD: "For whom exactly?" For the workers who have a choice of employer. For the workers who can find another job when their existing job disappears. For the families who have a choice of where to shop. For those who have lived in company towns. For those who would be trapped in housing beside the factories. For those who want to avoid the colds and flus of mass public transit. For those who want to take a local vacation, to see with a little bit of freedom, the world outside of the city core. For those who want the opportunity for their children, and for themselves, to partake of more activities than can occur within walking distance. For seniors who are not keen to walk a couple of kilometers on iced sidewalks with a couple of bags of groceries. For parents who are not keen on grocery shopping on foot with a couple of kids in tow. For those who want the freedom to go where they want,when they want,in reasonable comfort. "For whom exactly?" Probably most people.

on Feb 4th, 2013 at 3:23pm Report Abuse

Rewind FFWD wrote:

Clairvoyant: I almost get the feeling that you're a used car salesman or perhaps a new car salesman. You brush aside the negatives of automobiles -- widespread pollution of all kinds and more than a million fatalities worldwide due to collisions -- as though they are justifiable for CONVENIENCE.

BTW I'm almost senior age and I walk daily a couple of kilometres on iced sidewalks and over uncleared city pathways with bags of groceries. It beats getting a gym membership. All you need at most is a set of cheap boot grippers for additional protection (and I rarely use those). I find it hilarious that people go jogging for miles and then hop in their vehicles to go get a few items of groceries. Ludicrous! But that's modern civilization -- and the power of automobile advertisements.

on Feb 5th, 2013 at 7:02am Report Abuse

Clairvoyant wrote:

To Rewind FFWD: Sorry, but no I am not a car salesman. I must admit that I am surprised that you think all my "For whoms" are simply convenience: that is a learning for me, that you and possibly much of your generation and younger have no concept of what working class life was like even as recently as sixty years ago. I know that there are negatives to automobiles, but I also know that the negatives must be put in the context of the benefits, and of the realistic alternatives. With regard to fatalities, most people see the aftermath of automobile accidents, and hear &/or read about them: yet they choose to continue to drive ("... hilarious ... hop in their vehicles to go get a few items of groceries. Ludicrous! ...). Somehow, intuitively or with some rational evaluation, they have decided that for themselves, the benefit outweighs the detriment. The issue of fatalities is not trivial, but show me the breakdown by country, and by type of accident, and with other major causes of death. Then look for solutions that prevent (or more accurately, delay) death, while making people's lives better ... maybe it's the crusade against cars in North America ... maybe it's the struggles against malaria & cholera in the third world ... maybe it's tobacco and lung cancer ... maybe something else. And at least for me, a good life includes freedom to choose for oneself

on Feb 6th, 2013 at 1:36pm Report Abuse

Rewind FFWD wrote:

C: You're still brushing off the rather large negatives with a flippant "[car owners/users] have decided that for themselves, the benefit outweighs the detriment [to society as a whole]". Working class life sixty years ago? Let's go back even further before the car arrived on the scene. Having lived in Melbourne, Australia for several years -- where streetcar tracks run 283km -- the working class there 100 years ago rarely ventured farther than local urban parks for entertainment or family picnics on a day off. Did life fall apart back then because of a lack of gas-guzzling, polluting autos and trucks? Nope. I rather fancy that the average family was at least as happy -- if not more so -- than the current version with 4 cars zooming off in different directions from suburbia. Simplicity has it rewards. Buddha found enlightenment under a tree, not in the back seat of a Chevy. Most of my family grew up on farms in Sakatchewan and tooted around in the early 1900s using horses, including horse-driven covered sleds in winters. Never hurt them any and I reckon they had as much fun or more than the frazzled urban variant in cars. If someone's idea of a good life -- smoking (direct pollution/future staggering health care costs) or driving (pollution from start to finish plus deaths/associated health care costs) ultimately infringes on my quality of life, the "benefits" equation needs to be re-examined.

on Feb 9th, 2013 at 6:19pm Report Abuse

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