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new internationalist
issue 195 - May 1989

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Illustration: Barbara Levy

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Wayne Ellwood looks
at a world driven crazy
by the automobile.

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Detroit is synonymous with two things: cars and violent death. The Ford Motor Company and General Motors both have their headquarters there - the city was the birthplace of the American auto industry. But the city does not just make cars; it has also been made by the car.

The city core is dominated by an indoor shopping mall which you can only reach by automobile. The 'Renaissance Centre' is surrounded by a network of access streets which funnel cars directly into cavernous underground parking lots. Outside, the old commercial streets are largely deserted and the buildings derelict.

Detroit also has the highest per capita murder rate of any city in the West. Says local resident Ralph Slovenko: 'Everything has been removed from the streets except cars and hoodlums. The more people you take off the streets, the more people become sitting ducks for crime.' As a result, adds Slovenko, a professor of law and psychiatry at Wayne State University, 'in cities like Detroit, cars are used more for protection than for transportation.'

It wasn't always like that. Initially the automobile was a benign piece of technology, a plaything for the wealthy and the eccentric. But then a young farmboy named Henry Ford fell head-over-heels in love with the internal combustion engine. In 1913 young Henry's tinkering led to a revolution in industrial production when he introduced the first automated assembly line at his Highland Park, Michigan plant. Soon cheap, mass-produced Model T Fords were within the grasp of the average American worker.

Snarl-up on the Munich-Stuttgart autobahn.



Photo: Camera Press

Cars began to spread faster than the highways that had to be built to accommodate them. Between 1908 and 1928 Ford sold nearly 15 million of his Model T. By 1925 half the families in America owned cars. And the allure of the automobile was spreading - to Europe, to Australia, to Latin America and to colonial outposts in Africa and Asia. The Russian expressionist writer Ilya Ehrenburg captured the car's whirlwind spread in his 1929 novel The Life of the Automobile.

'Cars don't have a homeland. Like oil stocks or like classic love, they can easily cross borders. Italian Fiats clamber up the cliffs of Normandy. American Chevrolet trucks carry Sumatran tobacco and Palestine oranges. A Spanish banker owns a German Mercedes.'1

Like Henry Ford himself, the public was also falling in love with cars. And no wonder. The automobile is the ultimate in unhindered mobility. If you have ever roared down an open country road with the wind in your hair, the blue sky above and the radio blaring, you know the feeling. Whether you live on the Canadian prairies or in the shanty-towns around Harare, the private automobile has a seductive mystique. Cars are the mechanical embodiment of personal freedom, of the ability to be in control, to go where you want when you please.

Car ownership has also been equated with democracy; squeeze into the driver's seat and choose your destiny. This may not have been entirely justified: the freedom bestowed by the automobile is often confined to Sunday afternoon or to a brief summer holiday; the rest of the time there are bills to pay. Nonetheless the illusion of freedom is important.

As General Motors copywriters promised in 1924: 'The once poor laborer and mechanic now drives to the building operation or construction job in his own car. He is now a capitalist - the owner of a valuable asset. How can Bolshevism flourish in a motorized country having a standard of living and thinking too high to permit the existence of an ignorant, narrow, peasant majority?'

Today this ideology is stronger than ever, though the sales pitch is somewhat more sophisticated. Cars are now sold as items of fashion, as extensions of our self-image and as symbols of our wealth and taste. A Nairobi businessman driving a BMW or a Mercedes is making a statement; so is a French teenager driving a shiny Japanese sportscar.

Cars also symbolize raw power. Speed is a key selling-point in most advertising. How fast does the car accelerate? What is the top running speed? The humble family saloon is juxtaposed with wild animals (usually horses or jungle cats): sleek, smooth, erotic - and slightly dangerous.

Speed and sex are strong selling-points in a world obsessed with performance and transfixed by the commercial frenzy of the marketplace. 'The automobile has come to show even the slowest minds that the earth is truly round,' wrote Ilya Erhenburg, 'that the heart is just a poetic relic, that a human being contains two standard gauges: one indicates miles, the other minutes.'

The irony is that in many cities you can actually get around more quickly with a bicycle than a car. Inching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic has become a daily headache for millions of commuters from Lagos to London. In the UK capital, rush-hour traffic averages 13 kilometres an hour; in Hong Kong, cars creep along at 21 kilometres an hour. The US Department of Transport estimates that nearly three billion gallons of gasoline were burned up in 1984 (about four per cent of the country's annual consumption) as American motorists stewed in traffic jams.2

Car-parking consumes space and money.
Peter Francis /



Photo: Camera Press

The current buzzword amongst transport planners is 'gridlock': the traffic paralysis that results when there are too many cars and not enough road space. You don't have to be a transport specialist to appreciate the point. If you're one of the hundred thousand motorists who tackle the M25 ring road around London every day you'll already have sampled it. In some sections the highway already carries more cars than the UK Department of Transport forecast it would by the year 2001. The problem is universal. In cities like Jakarta, Delhi and Bogota 'rush hour' is all day, every day. And let the force be with you if you try and drive cross-town in Sydney or Toronto on a Saturday afternoon.

Driving is no longer a source of entertainrnent or relaxation - not unless you're a masochist. The UK Marriage Guidance Council describes the wear-and-tear that commuting can inflict on a marriage. 'The husband comes home exhausted, is not very communicative to his wife and is fit only to snooze in an armchair.' This they call the 'Shula Syndrome', named after the wife in a popular radio soap-opera The Archers.

Traffic is literally driving people crazy. The mental strain can also cause neck pains, high blood pressure and ulcers. US psychiatrist T Byron Karasu notes that some of his patients are so stressed out by driving they spend half their $200-an-hour session talking about commuting.3

Drivers undergo a Dr Frankenstein transformation when they slip behind the wheel. Strapped into a lethal cocoon of steel-and-glass, normally-polite people curse, shake their fists and scream abuse at their fellow motorists. 'Such anger,' writes sociologist Jack Levin 'comes from the emotions innate to being in a car. People have the illusion they can't be tracked down, that they're going to get away with it. For that reason people will do things they wouldn't normally do if they felt they could be identified. Because of that a car is the worst place to keep a gun.4 In southern California, police have established a special task force to stop the growing number of freeway murders; their tempers frayed by traffic jams, angry drivers are shooting each other.

More frightening still are the deaths and injuries caused by automobiles: nearly a million human beings die each year in car crashes. In the US alone, 50,000 people a year are killed and four times that number are injured. In the Third World, where strained budgets mean roads are often poorly maintained, traffic deaths are routinely 20 to 30 times higher than in the West.

You'd think that something which caused as much violent death and suffering would have been banned long ago. But not the car. People seem oblivious to its impact. Drivers may crane their necks as they crawl by another accident, but that's about it. Cars continue to pour off the assembly lines and people continue to snap them up.

Why? One reason is that cars have made themselves indispensable in industrial countries. The post-war residential communities - the classic suburbs - are totally geared to the automobile. If you live 25 or 50 kilometres away from your job you often have no choice but to use a car. Cars and suburban sprawl go hand in hand; one has spawned the other.

Wild animals, wide-open spaces and crude sexual symbolism are used by auto makers to sell their products - often degrading women in the process.
Colin Davey /



Photo: Camera Press

'The car,' says researcher Michael Renner, 'has created more distance than it overcomes. Tidy subdivisions, each house with its own plot of land and its own driveway are physically separated from local shopping centres and from jobs. And because communities are so stretched out, public transport is hopelessly inefficient. Many suburbs in North America are so huge that walking and cycling are not even serious alternatives to the car.

In places like Surrey, British Columbia, a typical Canadian suburb outside Vancouver, the rolling green lawns go right up to the road side. There are no sidewalks because people are not expected to walk. This style of suburban development is replicated in wealthy enclaves dotted around Third World cities like Rio de Janeiro and Bangkok. Well-paid bureaucrats and businessmen can hop into their Volvo or Nissan, fight their way through the heat and traffic and emerge in the cool, luxury of the local air-conditioned shopping centre.

Our ambivalent dependency on the automobile a conflicting mix of need and preference - has proven disastrous for the environment. Exhaust pollutants are a major contributor to acid rain, continued global warming and increases in respiratory disease. Washington's Worldwatch Institute claims that the world's 400 million cars pump more than 500 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere every year.

Car companies proudly parade their corporate social conscience whenever they announce improved pollution controls or enhanced fuel efficiency. In fact, manufacturers have had to be dragged kicking and screaming every step of the way by environmentalists and consumer groups.

Car-makers openly admit that they have already developed a dozen prototypes which could slash gasoline consumption by more than half. Renault, for example, has a test car which averaged 124 mile per gallon in tests.5 However there is little hope these cars will be marketed as long as low-priced oil is in abundant supply.

As Henry Ford II once said: 'mini cars make mini profits'. There might be a growing public outcry over the 'greenhouse effect' and the 'ozone hole'. But car--makers are not yet anxious to tackle such problems; they are concentrating on the luxury market where cars can be loaded with high-priced options and profit margins are correspondingly higher. The car companies are waiting for another oil crisis when consumers will demand improved fuel efficiency.

A car grave yard: part of the car culture we have created.
Curt Gunther /



Photo: Camera Press

There have, however, been some technical improvements. Lead emissions in the US dropped by 94 per cent in the ten years after lead-free gasoline was introduced. And carbon monoxide emissions fell by half in Japan during the 1970s. Improvements in Third World countries have been slower, since their car models tend to be based on old Western technology. Maintenance is also more irregular and enforcement more difficult. Mexico, with one of 'the Third World's biggest car fleets, has almost no emission controls. Individual cars are polluting less, but the sheer volume of cars has meant overall pollution may be increasing. Between 1976 and 1985 the total number of miles driven increased by 50 percent.

The global auto fleet burns billions of litres of non-renewable petroleum and uses massive quantities of raw materials. In 1985, motor vehicles burned 44 per cent of all the petroleum used in Western Europe and 49 per cent in the Third World. In the US the car industry uses a fifth of the country's steel and nearly two-thirds of its rubber.6 In fact the manufacture of automobiles has assumed such a dominant place in the global economy that questioning the wisdom of car-centred society is seen as slightly mad. It is a measure of how deeply cars have changed our lives that we cannot imagine life without them.

With markets in the developed world reaching saturation point, car companies have now pinned their hopes on new consumers in the South. Multinationals like General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen are looking to richer Latin American and Asian countries for 60 per cent of their growth potential in the next decade.7

And they are meeting with some success. The streets of Mexico City (or just about any other Third World city you care to name) indicate how completely Government planners have adopted car-based transport policies. The main square in Mexico City, the Zocalo used to be a pleasant place to stroll and talk. Now it's filled with deafening traffic and the air is blue with car exhaust - trying to walk is more dangerous than driving. Third World cities, once designed for people, are slowly being rebuilt to service cars.

Gearing a developing nation's transport to the private automobile carries a high price tag. Roads and bridges are expensive. And importing oil, vehicles and car parts to benefit a tiny number of wealthy car-drivers soaks up precious foreign exchange. In Haiti, for example, only one in 200 people owns a car yet a third of the country's import budget is spent on petroleum and transport equipment.8

As cars grab the lion's share of resources, low-cost, environmentally-sound alternatives like rickshaws and bicycles are ignored or marginalized. Not a very sound policy when you consider that the cheapest car costs an average Brazilian worker about six years' wages while a bicycle takes only six weeks' pay. In most Asian countries, pedal-powered vehicles are the main form of transport for both goods and people. India is now the second-largest bicycle maker in the world, churning out more than 13 million bikes a year - most of them exported to other developing countries.

Developing countries still have a chance to avoid the mistakes made by the West. Activists like transport planner Michael Replogle advocate 'sustainable transport strategies that meet the basic mobility needs of all without destroying the resource base'. The net result of car-centred development, says Replogle, is to boost imports, increase foreign debt and make life worse for the poor.9

In industrial countries, mounting concern over environmental issues is moving transport planning to the top of the political agenda. There is a growing sense that old solutions no longer work: building more roads is not the answer. New highways soon fill up and the problem re-emerges. Effective ways have to be found to stop people driving cars unless absolutely necessary. That means driving must be made expensive and inconvenient. But restricting the freedom to drive will fail unless public transport is cheap, efficient and convenient. Buses and light rail systems make far more environmental sense than private cars.

Decreasing our dependency on the automobile will also require far-reaching decisions about land-use planning and urban development policy. The best way to stop car use is for people to live closer to where they work and shop. Town planners and some visionary architects are dredging the past for ideas. They are basing new suburban developments on the old-fashioned village, so shops, homes and offices are all mixed together. Who knows: if gridlock gets worse we may look back in 50 years at the suburbs still spreading out around cities like Detroit, Sydney and Denver as the last of their kind.

1 The Life of the Automobile, Ilya Ehrenburg, Urizen Books, 1976.
2 Rethinking the Role of the Automobile, Michael Renner, Woridwatch Institute, June 1988.
3 US News and World Report Sep 7 1987, p 26.
4 Quoted in Madd or Mad?, an unpublished commentary by Protessor Ralph Slovenko.
5 Michael Renner, op cit. p 16.
6 Driving Force, Kaplinsky and Hoffman, p77.
7 Environment, Vol 25, No 1, Feb 1983.
8 Not Man Apart Vol 17, No 4, July/August 1987.
9 Sustainable Transportation Strategies for Third World Development, Michael Replogle. Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, Washington, 1988.

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