In the United States, the automobile is God, and driving is its sacrament.
Everyday some 190 million cars fill our roads. Trips by private motor vehicles account for more than 85 percent of the traffic within, and between our cities and towns. About half of the land in our metropolitan areas is devoted to pavement, garages and parking ramps. Our TV programming, newspapers and magazines overflow with ads for the latest model Fords, Chryslers and General Motors autos. Our popular music is replete with ballads about highways and the joys to be had in “the back of a Chevy van.” The driver’s license is the preferred form of personal identification coast to coast. And our country is famous for the irritating abundance of its “drive-through” banks, stores and fast-food outlets.
It’s not particularly hard to grasp the source of the car’s nearly universal appeal. After all, it is an eminently convenient, fast and — given the absurdly low price of gasoline in this country — relatively cheap mode of transportation. However, there’s a definite dark side to the much-vaunted speed and personal freedom afforded by driving: no other form of transportation squanders as much of our nonrenewable resources, destroys as many human lives or does as much damage to the quality of the urban and natural environments. As any bicyclist who has choked on the noxious clouds of exhaust produced by rush-hour traffic can tell you, if we don’t put an end to our romance with the car in the near future, it will be the death of us.
One of the biggest problems with America’s automobile-based system of transportation is that it presupposes an endless supply of cheap oil. We are already the world’s biggest consumer of petroleum products (with consumption climbing to new record levels every year). Internal combustion engines burn a full 43 percent of the 17 million gallons of oil we use daily. But oil is a scarce resource, and the political and economic costs of keeping the crude flowing have been rising for some time. Profligate consumption long ago tapped out our major domestic oil fields, forcing us to turn increasingly to overseas suppliers to fill our fuel needs. Back in 1973, we imported only 36 percent of our oil. Today we import close to 50 percent. Dependence on foreign oil puts us in a rather precarious geopolitical position. We’ve already fought one bloody war in the Persian Gulf to insure ourselves of unfettered access to Kuwaiti and Saudi crude. Who knows when our fossil fuel addiction will lead us into another, perhaps even deadlier conflict?
Meanwhile, world oil consumption is skyrocketing and, according to the International Energy Agency, increased demand coupled with depleted reserves will cause a 50 percent leap in oil prices by the year 2005. If we continue to consume oil at our current insatiable pace, it won’t be too long before payments at the filling station become our largest household expense.
Of course, the minor nuisance of mounting gas prices pales in comparison to the environmental holocaust that has been unleashed by America’s gas-guzzling lifestyle. Every year our vehicles spew billions of cubic feet of poisonous gas into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and ballooning rates of respiratory illness in the process. The countless acres of roads and parking lots we’ve built over the years have destroyed the natural habitats of one endangered species after another. Moreover, according to an article in the spring 1996 issue of Auto-Free Times, motorists kill nearly 400 million animals on the road each year. And this figure, the article cautions, could well be an underestimate.
But “road kill” isn’t confined just to squirrels, rabbits and the occasional deer. Traffic accidents slaughter about 47,000 Americans a year and injure hundreds of thousands more. As Alan Durning of Northeast Environment Watch explained in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, “traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among Americans aged 10 to 24.” The fatality rate per mile for automobiles is exponentially higher than that for bikes, buses, trains or airplanes. In fact, according to Durning, driving is so risky that the increased reliance on automobiles associated with suburban living actually makes the suburbs more dangerous than the worst inner city crime zone.
In my mind, though, the automobile’s greatest sin is not that it has caused so many deaths to many different life forms, that it has produced so much pollution or that it has turned us into a nation of oil junkies; rather, the worst aspect of the car’s popularity is the form it has imposed on our cities and the effect it has had on the rhythms of urban existence. The car has given us downtowns dominated by parking ramps and highway interchanges. It has given us creeping urban sprawl and the deafening roar of the hour-long traffic jams. It has encouraged the growth of suburban neighborhoods without sidewalks or parks. It is because of the car that a populous metropolitan area like Minneapolis-St. Paul has inadequate bus service and still lacks a light rail system.
Given the manifest (and ever-worsening) evils wrought by the automobile, the question of how we break our dirty four-wheeled habit becomes urgent indeed.
Activists and policy wonks are divided about how to cope with the damage done by our insane transportation preferences. Some say instituting higher fuel-efficiency standards for new cars and embracing ethanol and other substitute fuels is the answer. However, this strategy only addresses the need for energy conservation and self-sufficiency without confronting the many other environmental and social problems associated with cars.
A more promising approach to reforming our transportation system would seek to discourage the use of automobiles altogether by closing old roads and blocking construction of new ones, transforming existing highways into toll roads, increasing vehicle registration fees, eliminating parking and raising taxes on gas (by, say, one or two bucks a gallon). The funds generated by newly instituted fees and taxes could then be used to heavily subsidize more sustainable forms of mass transit like buses, street cars and subways. In addition, following the example of Amsterdam and other European cities, larger American cities should designate the majority of their downtown streets exclusively for bikes and pedestrians.
The choice is ours, either we put a halt to the tyranny of the automobile or it will drive humanity (along with several other species) to extinction. Only a nation of self-indulgent idiots would choose the dubious pleasures of driving instead of the continued survival of the planet.
Let’s hope we’re smarter than that.
Steve Macek’s column appears in the Daily every other Monday.