[Marxism] Cars Devastate

Mike Friedman mikedf at mail.amnh.org
Sat Apr 10 08:20:22 MDT 2004

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 

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 
lion's 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 Columbia's 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." 

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 generation's 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. Seattle's 
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. It's 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 drivers' 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 

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. 
yvesengler at hotmail.com

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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