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On the environmental cost of cars

"A city made for speed is made for success"

(Le Corbusier, 1971: 179)

As urbanisation has proved to be a condition of industrialisation, the process of rationalisation that accompanied it has put the focus on speed. Cities have developed in two ways "horizontally and vertically" and the tools for speed through these two dimensions have taken the shape of the car and the lift. Although they are not in direct competition, the preference of one over the other strongly influences the layout of contemporary cities. It is never as obvious as when comparing the features of two of the most notorious American cities: New York's skyscrapers and Los Angeles' highways.

No doubt, Le Corbusier was an advocate of the lift, believing in the vertical expansion of cities. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, the car has arguably taken over, and cities now rather spread horizontally. This process of sub-urbanisation has been made possible by the increasing reliance on individual modes of transportation. Initiating a vicious circle, the rise of the car industry has triggered the emergence of a car society. This is hardly surprising, as indeed, physical mobility and individualism are inherent part of late modernity and are, more often than not, taken for granted. Little wonder that the USA have "more licensed drivers than registered voters (Hawken et al, 2000: 40).

The car, at least in western societies, is now totally part of our everyday life. One drives to go to work, to go shopping and to pick up the kids from school. It is a functional object and as its use developed, so did its internal comfort. As the engine technology has only little improved since its early days, the car is now sold as a package of options, a combination of gadgets. Stereos and air-conditioning devices have turned the tool into a toy, and as the driver identifies to its machine, it has become a status indicator. As a matter of fact size matters, thus power, speed, and shininess have become exterior signs of wealth. The car has become the embodiment of western civilisation. As Freund and Martin argues, it symbolises our attachment to "mobility and freedom through power and speed", our sense of "individualism" and the emphasis we put on "pleasure and sexuality" (1993: 82, 85, 90).

However, in the past twenty or thirty years, the car and its ideology have begun to raise more and more concerns in our society. The implications and consequences of its development are almost impossible to measure with certainty. They range from the car production itself, to the wastes a car generates, via the fuels it consumes. In addition, at the human level, the impact is not solely on the urban layout but also on its social implications, not to mention the direct and indirect health hazards that represents a car. Above all, it is the environmental implications of a car society that seems the most worrying as it is the main responsible for the current ecological crisis (Wolf, 1996: 129).

Indeed, as cars get increasingly produced and consumed, they too consume and produce. Any given car will require to its production steel, alloy, plastic, rubber, paint, etc…To operate a car, one needs fuel, a lot of fuel as the older the car gets the more fuel it needs. Finally, for a car to be driven properly, a paved road is necessary. In other words, the car consumes resources, energy and land.

However, cars do produce something in return. Firstly, they provide motion to their owner, and it is about the only thing they do right. The rest is a long list of embarrassments. Indeed, fuel combustion creates toxic exhaust fumes that are mainly responsible for the air pollution of urban centres. Noise pollution is another concern in densely populated areas. Finally, old cars go to waste after a few years leaving metals and rubber to pile up in car cemeteries.

Another aspect of such a society oriented towards individual transport is the direct and indirect human cost. On the one hand, it has been mentioned, cars amount for the best part of urban pollution and although it is hard to assess with certainty the damage on health is rather high than low. On the other hand, car accidents kill or incapacitate people worldwide on a daily basis.

On a sociological level, the transformation of the urban landscape since the Second World War has taken the shape of sub-urbanisation. If most people have enjoyed life with a car away from the busy city centres, those for whom a car remains a luxury they cannot afford have been left to wonder where is their place in such a world. Indeed, train, tramway, and underground systems were developed with the public good in mind. When the priority turned to roads and highway development, public transport not only became partially obsolete, its very existence was jeopardised by the lack of investment.

For many reasons, the picture of such a car society is dark. However, things can and are likely to change, hopefully for the better. The main question today falls on car manufacturers and is what is to be kept and what is to be thrown away? For consumers, it is rather a matter of distinguishing the car as a useful tool from the car as a wasteful toy.

It is somehow amazing to realise that the car has gone through the entire 20th century without any major change or improvement. While its production process has transformed, its technology has essentially remained the same. Despite being today the largest industry in the world, it is paradoxically non-innovative, as its principle is the same as it was a hundred years ago. It all adds up to make the car "the highest expression of the iron-age" (Hawken et al, 2000: 22-24). However, it would be wrong to conclude that if the situation is such it is because the car is a near-perfect machine.

Indeed, besides the enormous amount of material the car production necessitates, the internal combustion engine has been and remained a failure in terms of profitability and fuel consumption. Essentially due to the amount of small parts present in an engine, frictions waste most of the fuel. Considering that the weight of the driver is 5% that of the car and that only 20% of the fuel consumed is used for the motion of the car, the average driver only turns 1% of the energy spend to travel from point A to point B (ibid. 24). In a world of successive energy crisis, there is definitely room for improvement.

The impact of car production and use on the economy of a country is also enormous. In the USA, the car industry consumes "one fifth of the country's steel and two third of its rubber" (Girardet, 1992: 104). In an age, which should arguably be that of composite, fibre, and recyclable materials, this also seems a bit retrograde. Indeed, if it is somehow possible to recycle metals and glass, it is a different story altogether for rubber tyres as they are bound to survive several generations of drivers. That is in the best situation, more often than not, they are simply burnt on the spot, generating the darkest and thickest of smoke.

However, the car is dirtier directly than indirectly. Although the situation has improved in the past twenty or thirty years due to the generalisation of catalytic converters, cars' fumes still account for fifteen per cent of the world's carbon dioxide (CO2) output (Girardet, 1992: 102). For those concerned, carbon dioxide is the main cause of global warming, which threatens to raise sea levels by melting the poles' ice cap. If the effects of carbon dioxide are widely publicised, little is known of the impacts of carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and lead, all found in the average car's exhaust fumes.

CO is poisonous to humans and mostly comes from cars. SO2 mainly comes from large industrial plants, although diesel motors, standard for lorries and buses also emit in large quantity. Soluble in water, this gas is processed by the liver as well as the lungs and endangers the good operation of the kidneys. NO2 is corrosive and strongly oxidising. In urban areas, eighty per cent comes from vehicle exhaust. It usually decreases lung function and increases airway responsiveness in mild asthmatics. This condition is increasingly common among urban populations. Finally, lead, which in city centres comes mainly from vehicle exhaust and industrial sources, affects people's nervous system and metabolism. In children, it has been linked to problem with intellectual development, motor abilities, visual attention and spatial skills (Smogbusters, 2003).

These toxic emissions are largely down to the use of petrol as the main fuel of motor vehicle. It is likely that a change of fuel would improve the situation. However, as Deborah Gordon argues, it is far from being simple. In 1991, she maintained that there was "no conclusive answers yet as to which fuel is the most environmentally benign", although she saw "compressed natural gas as the most promising near-term alternative" (Gordon, 1991: 108).

Ten years later, the prospects are a little better. Hybrid engines, which turn fuel into electricity, and electricity into motion, are a technological reality. Light, simple, reliable and clever "rather than wasting energy, braking generates it" electric propulsion "convert up to ninety per cent of the electricity produced into traction" (Hawken et al, 2000: 25). Nonetheless, these technological innovations are far from being available to the general public, and it is probably still sometimes before it becomes the norm.

If motor vehicles consume a lot of resources and produce little but toxic waste in return, their most visible impact remain on our landscape. Indeed, cars, more than anything else, consume space. It is estimated that in the USA the average kilometre of highway "takes up to six hectares of land" (Girardet, 1992: 104). That is about six times as much as the same length of railway. Space is not only needed for a car to travel; it is also required for a car to rest. Free parking slots are the city's golden nuggets. The situation can reach some ridiculous extreme. It is the case in Tokyo where one cannot buy a car until one can prove to "own or to rent a place to park it" (Hawken et al, 2000: 42). From roads to parking spaces, cities devote up to one third of their land to cars (Girardet, 1992: 105).

All in all, the impact of car is not solely on land consumption, but also on the use made of this land. Peter Freund and George Martin argue that roads and highways, as well as transforming our visual experience of a landscape, "reduce the ground capacity to retain water"(1993: 27). This is directly responsible for the raising risk of flooding in sub-urban and urban areas.

Another aspect of intense car use is the affect it has on people, drivers and non-drivers alike. As well as emitting toxic fumes, cars make noise. This heavy and steady noise is inescapable in city centre. That form of pollution is responsible for the obvious hearing loss as well as raising blood pressure and stress level. It appears that the "heart rate of a train passenger is lower than that of a passenger in a private auto" (Peter Freund and George Martin, 1993: 33). Similarly, the heavy use of car is unhealthy for its driver since rush hour, because of its intense competition, increases aggressive behaviour (ibid. 34).

Cars are then directly and indirectly harmful. They are also deadly. If there is such a thing as a passive smoker it is someone suffering directly from the smoke of other people without itself being a smoker. Similarly, if there is such thing as a passive driver, it is a pedestrian or cyclist, suffering from other people's dangerous behaviours. Cars cause injuries and cars cause death. Every year, half a million people die from car crashes and accident. It is the equivalent of half the people killed by malaria, the greatest human killer. Another fifteen million get injured for the same reason (Hawken et al, 2000: 41). In America, car accident is the leading cause of death for people aged from five to forty three and is the main responsible for the loss of years of life expectancy (Freund and Martin, 1993: 36).

Herbert Girardet argues that by 1992, "600 million motor vehicles were in use worldwide" (1992: 102). Motor vehicles are lorries, buses, cars and motorbikes. Their repartition varies greatly depending on which country or continent is considered. Where the USA have an average of 1.3 person per vehicle, Africa, unsurprisingly, has 67.7 people per vehicle. Asia and Africa, who account for 72.7% of the world's population, consume only 23% of the world's vehicle fleet (Shrecker, 2000: 54). The balance is definitely wrong and once again the Third World is suffering from the irresponsible consumption of western societies as the greenhouse effect affects everyone.

However, the problems of social organisation linked to the development of car use remain restricted to the countries that consumes the most. The phenomenon of sub-urbanisation that emerged after the Second World War is so far restricted to the Western World. It is nonetheless a situation worth considering. Indeed, entire cities have been developed with the use of car in mind. It is the case of Los Angeles, which despite a population only marginally larger than that of London covers an area three times as big. Milton Keynes is a closer example of such a city designed to suit its driver's population. As a matter of fact, "the low density lay out reflects the planners' assumption that people would all own their own car, live highly mobile lifestyles and drive great distances each day" (Girardet, 1992: 104).

This situation surely suits the individualist car lovers. Indeed, such society has adapted to their lifestyles as they represent the best part of the consumer mass. From the 1950’s onwards, shopping centres, restaurant and motels have blossomed along motorways, providing the driver with the means to consume while remaining outside of the busy city centres. Frank Lloyd Wright, who in the 1920's claimed that "the congested verticality of any city [was] now utterly inartistic and unscientific", rightly believed that "the car would allow cities to empty out" (quoted in Hall, 1988: 284, 288). Broadacre City, his suburban project was meant to be "Democracy Realised" (ibid.).

The motorway project that literally paved the way to sub-urbanisation began in America in the 1920's with Robert Moses' New York City project. He designed and supervised the development of a twice-two-ways road going from Manhattan's riverside to the beaches of Long Island. This fast track would enable easy access to the beaches for the population of Manhattan. However, the "bridges on the parkway [were] built deliberately too low for buses" therefore barring the non-drivers from an easy access to this new kind of leisure (Hall, 1988: 279). There began the history of the sub-urban project, which more often than not turned out to be a history of discrimination. This specific urban planing went on with a total disregard of "the elderly, the young, the poor, and the non-driver", focusing instead on an increasingly prone-to-consume middle class (Girardet, 1992: 104).

As for the first, the last word belongs to Le Corbusier who cynically argued that in a car society "we shall use up tyres, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work - enough for all" (1967: 74, quoted in Hall, 1988: 285). The vision is quite accurate today, as the car remains at the heart of our society. Those who are not part of the car industry do work to consume its product. However, just as the peacock’s unpractical tail, the car, when it comes to keeping a four-wheel drive in the city, has become an irrational asset: only good enough to mate with it and, occasionally, in it.

The crisis is here and now, but only a small proportion of the population seems concerned. It is unsurprising, though, as concern means change. So far, little has changed in the industry. Cars still consume steel, glass, and rubber, fuel and land. Worse, although exhaust regulations have been strengthened, as the world’s vehicle fleet is ever raising, the pollution can only worsen. As the manufacturers do not seem to be in too much a hurry to transform their industry, the responsibility to reduce car use is now faced by local authorities. Let us hope that Ken Livingston’s congestion charge on vehicle travelling through central London proves a success as it could lead the way for other cities concerned with traffic and pollution.

There is definitely room, and above all, need for improvement. Nonetheless the situation remains dark and depressing, as America's head of state appears determined to go at war arguably only to secure a little more cheap fuel for its two hundred million cars. This more than ever legitimates the individual's individualistic approach and little concern for the impact cars have on our world, our society, and our environment. Although it may sound a little cynical, it is truly on the individual that fall the responsibilities of such a situation. Indeed, a consumer society it may be, consumers made the car the commodity it is today. The luxury it represents has been taken for granted for the past fifty years and it seems unlikely to change. The Ford T model was perhaps already a luxury, it was nonetheless durable, and above all, it was non disposable.

London, March 2003.

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