Politics of the car

With growing traffic jams, longer journeys to work and increasing road deaths Aileen O'Carroll makes a contribution to the debate about how to get out of this mess.

Cars are a problem. Transport, particularly road transport, is a major contributor to the production of greenhouse gasses which contribute to global warming. It is estimated that for every gallon of oil used about 19 pounds of carbon dixoide go into the atmosphere. Cars can make you sick. They produce polluting gasses, at certain concentrations these irritate the eyes and nose and respiratory system and can be carcinogenic.

Cars are noisy. Traffic is the major source of noise in cities. The noisiest of all are the heavy goods vehicles and the number of these are expected to double by 2015. Noise can damage hearing, disrupt sleep and increase stress and blood-pressure.

Cars take up a lot of space. Up to 10% of the arable land in the US is taken up by car transport. It's estimated that in the 1960s in the US up to 50,000 people each year were displaced by cars. In heavily populated developing countries such as China, Egypt and Bangladesh there simply isn't room for cars. In cities, where space is even more limited, the problem can be worse. It is estimated that roads take up 25%-35% a cities land.

In some parts of the world this is worse than others. Average Australian cities have four times and average US cities have three times more roads than in Europe. In Los Angeles two thirds of the city's land is taken up by cars. The difference in these figures indicates that there is nothing automatic about how much space cars should take up. Different policies can result in different transport systems. The UK has seen greater growth of suburbs than other countries and also has a greater level of car dependency. In Germany more people own cars, but they are used less.

The people who are least likely to have a car, are most likely to die because of one. In the UK 40% of the population do not have a car. Of that 40%, 65% come from low income groups. The number of children injured or killed in car accidents is highest in deprived areas. Children of the poorest families are five times more likely to be hit by a car then those of the richest*. This is because these children are more likely to walk to school, to live in high traffic areas or in communities that are severed by wider and thus more dangerous roads.

Behind the car is a huge and powerful car industry. In the US from the 1930s to the 1950s General Motors and other automobile manufactures bought 90% of the tram networks in 45 US cities. These were then dismantled and replaced by busses (which were manufactured by the car companies). In 1991 the auto industry in the USA spent 10 million dollars defeating legislation aimed at tougher fuel efficiency standards. The only solution often being offered is to build more roads, it's a solution that benefits industry not people. More roads into the countryside surrounding cities, leads to the growth of suburbs, which leads to more traffic (and calls for more roads). The solution leads to more problems, and it also leads to great wealth for the developers who build the suburbs and those who own the land they are built on.

Take the example of the Liffey Valley shopping centre. This superstore is located nine and a half miles from Dublin's city centre. It advertises itself as being "where the M50 meets the N4". The M50, a ring-road around the city, was designed to help traffic avoid the city. Most traffic is not caused by long distance journeys between cities but by short regular journeys within cities. Liffey Valley contains 23 acres of car-park. The supermarket attracts routine shoppers, which means routine drivers onto the M50. In the UK the building of huge shopping centres in the middle of nowhere has lead to 'donut' cities. Shops in the centre go bust forcing people to drive to the outskirts for their normal shopping. Out of town shopping is impossible for those without cars. A UK report on poverty indicated that these centres contribute to poverty. The Citizens Organising Foundation discovered that the cheapest groceries cost 69% more in the poorest districts compared with shops in the same chain in the richest parts*. Before the councillors were 'lobbied' by the developers the plan for the area was very different. It was planed to create a town-centre at Neilstown for Lucan and Clondalkin. This would have been accessible to local people, instead they have been left with minimal facilities.

Ensuring that cars can travel more easily is not necessarily going to solve our problems in the long term. We have to think about alternative ways of travelling and look at why we need to travel. There are more people using bicycles in Asia than there are cars in the world. Irish cities are not designed with either bikes or public transport in mind. Changes to public transport are hotly debated in the press and by the media, changes that benefit cars are rarely discussed. We have few bicycle lanes and those which exist are often poorly designed and dangerous, an afterthought rather than an important component of city transport.

We need to ask ourselves, what sort of cities do we need to live in? Cities need to be designed differently. We need cities where it is possible to walk, cycle or get public transport to work. Cities in which shops, schools and doctors are easily accessible to those without a car.

Information in the article from a research project on cars at www.tcd.ie/ERC

* Captive State, George Monbiot, p127, p186

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This edition is No70 published in June 2002

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