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.