I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
For flexibility and convenience, nothing comes close to the personal automobile. Pity about all the negative side effects. George Monbiot of The Guardian newspaper writes that “Driving is ruining our lives, and triggering environmental disasters.”
Before the car there was the horse. Transportation of the equine variety carried with it its own downside. Armies of people were deployed to pick up the road apples but the supply of manure, averaging 22 pounds per horse per day, overwhelmed the clean-up crews at times. The Times newspaper ran a dire prediction in 1894: “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”
The New York Times reported on health concerns: “The manure piles attracted huge numbers of flies, and one journalist writing in Appleton Magazine in 1908, charged that each year 20,000 New Yorkers died from 'maladies that fly in the dust, created mainly by horse manure.' ”
But, of course, along came the internal combustion engine and the pollution caused by horses ceased to be a worry. At first, few people realized that cars brought a different type of pollution.
An article in The Lancet notes that “Fuel combustion—fossil fuel combustion in high-income and middle-income countries and burning of biomass in low-income countries—accounts for 85 percent of airborne particulate pollution and for almost all pollution by oxides of sulphur and nitrogen.”
And, where does that lead?
“Diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated nine million premature deaths in 2015—16 percent of all deaths worldwide—three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence.”
This is echoed by a paper published in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: “Fossil-fuel combustion by-products are the world’s most significant threat to children’s health and future and are major contributors to global inequality and environmental injustice.”
Except for the hardy few with major stakes in oil and gas companies, the reality of global warming is undeniably with us.
Here’s George Monbiot again: “Transport, mostly because of our obsession with the private car, is now the major factor driving us towards climate breakdown . . . ”
In 2010, the number of cars in use in the world reached one billion; in 1960 there were less than 100 million cars. We are producing about 70 million new vehicles each year. Certainly, millions of old clunkers go to the scrap yards each year, but there’s still a net increase of huge numbers, particularly in Asia.
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According to the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. “A typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.” But all cars are not equal and in the United States the trend is towards bigger, gas-guzzling vehicles with higher emissions.
General Motors closed down its Lordstown, Ohio, car assembly plant in March 2019. The factory made Chevrolet Cruze compact sedans, a car that customers don’t want anymore. U.S. drivers want big, eight-cylinder pick-up trucks and sports-utility vehicles. The Cruze ran at about 34 miles per gallon; the Ford F-150 pick-up clocks in at 16 mpg.
Global warming brings with it catastrophic weather, crop failure, and disease pandemics. Estimates of the annual death toll from this are all over the place; the World Health Organization says 250,000, while the humanitarian group DARA says five million.
The devastating impact of automobile accidents on families and friends is measured in cold statistics from the World Health Organization:
- Each year, almost 1.25 million people are killed in road crashes; that’s an average of 3,287 a day;
- Between 20 and 50 million people are disabled or injured annually;
- Road traffic fatalities are the ninth leading cause of death in the world, and they're the leading cause among young people aged 15 to 29;
- Without drastic action, road fatalities will climb to the fifth leading cause of death by 2030; and,
- In the time it took you to read this far in the article, eight people were killed in road accidents.
The Menace of the Car
Cars run on tires and tires wear out at the rate of 246 million a year in the U.S. alone. Worldwide more than 150 million tires are burned annually, releasing cancer-causing toxins among other dangerous chemicals.
Cars demand ever-expanding highways that eat up green space and farmland. Once built, new roads fill up with cars and create the need for more pavement.
Reactive nitrogen is released from car exhausts, which is deposited on land, changing soil chemistry. This causes some plants to thrive and others to wilt and die, altering the makeup of native flora.
We have all come to accept background noise pollution caused by vehicles.
Urban spaces are designed to be car friendly and, by definition, that tends to make them pedestrian hostile. In part, because vehicles are higher and bigger, the pedestrian death rate between 2009 and 2018 rose by 51 percent in the United States.
Increased paving for roads and parking lots leads to a “heat island” effect in cities, raising temperatures several degrees. So, hot days become uncomfortably hot days, and uncomfortably hot days become dangerously hot days. That’s when vulnerable old folks and children start dying off because of heat stroke.
“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot”
— Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
- Bridget Driscoll, 44, holds the dubious distinction of being the first person killed by a gasoline-powered car. On August 17, 1896, she stepped in front of a car giving public demonstrations of the new mode of transportation at Crystal Palace, London. The car was hurtling along at four mph (6.4 km/h).
- According to The New York Times, the average life of a car in the 1960s and ‘70s was about 100,000 miles; in the 2000s it’s around 200,000 miles.
- “When Horses Posed a Public Health Hazard.” Jennifer 8. Lee, New York Times, June 9, 2008.
- “The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health.” Prof. Philip J. Landrigan, et al, The Lancet, February 3, 2018.
- “Pollution from Fossil-Fuel Combustion is the Leading Environmental Threat to Global Pediatric Health and Equity: Solutions Exist.” Perera, F., The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, December 23, 2017.
- “The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894.” Ben Johnson, Historic UK, undated.
- “Annual Global Road Crash Statistics.” Association for Safe International Road Travel, undated.
- “Cars Are Killing us. Within 10 Years, we Must Phase them Out.” George Monbiot, The Guardian, March 7, 2019.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor