🛣️➡️🏚️ Road to ruin 🚘💨😷
All roads lead to car dependency
Motor vehicles in Britain were once legally obliged to have a person march ‘not less than sixty yards’ out in front, holding a little red flag, to warn approaching road users of their impending progress. Regardless, any danger posed by newfangled vehicles ‘propelled by steam or any other than animal power’ was limited by the Locomotives Act 1865’s meagre town speed limit of four miles per hour. A quaint soupçon of history that invokes black and white images of Toad of Toad Hall motoring — ladies in lacy petticoat dresses tittering and grasping parasols in the passenger seat, and gentlemen wearing suits, stovepipe hats, and leather gloves to go for a drive in the countryside. Poop poop!
To a modern ear the language and terms of the ‘red flag’ act might seem absurd and archaic, but it is no less restrictive than the modern city of Paris, which voted earlier this year to outlaw electric scooters from its streets1. Involved in 3 deaths in Paris since 2020, the ‘pavement menace’ is set to be banished from the Haussmanstacknian boulevards of the City of Light by 1st September this year, mayor Anne Hidalgo said2. In fact, in most jurisdictions, e-scooters are treated not as an opportunity for reducing carbon emissions and reducing street noise while increasing active travel, but with extreme suspicion — if not outright hostility. In most cities, they are speed limited to 12.5 miles per hour from the factory, legally required to be rented instead of owned outright and subjected to ‘geofenced’ speed limits, which can be suddenly invoked, to the surprise of new users, at invisible boundaries — without regard to whether the loss of power or the confusion over it might compromise the safety of the rider.
But something far more dangerous and threatening than electric scooters surges through the arteries of Paris — and the roads near you too. They weigh over 100 times more than an e-scooter, with an average mass just shy of two tonnes, yet, are permitted to leave the factory capable of speeding well past a lethal 100 miles per hour. They have been involved in not just a few deaths in Paris over three years, but 18 deaths in one year alone (2022) — and even this figure (for a single city) is low, compared to previous decades. Globally, road traffic collisions are the eighth largest cause of death, now responsible for more deaths each year than the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Such is the human cost of convenience. We don’t think about this day-to-day. Cars are instead culturally ingrained as a universal solution to myriad tasks and challenges — from moving my grandmother’s chest freezer at 4 in the morning on Christmas Day, to doing the heavy lifting for the fortnightly big shop, to seeing a friend 15 minutes walk down the road. It’s not that motor vehicles can’t be a solution to these challenges and requirements of modern life — they clearly are. It’s that we heavily and passively discount any downsides — if we even have awareness of them in the first place — and struggle to imagine the possibility, viability or advantages of alternatives.
A journey across the city is colourful and challenging for our entrepreneurial Joelle. But whatever the obstacles and whatever the day throws at her, she and the Yaris Cross are always in confident control.
- Toyota, describing the brief for their advertisement for the Yaris Cross, a subcompact crossover sports utility vehicle (SUV)
To the modern eye, cars are a symbol of aspiration. Of convenience. Of adulthood. Of luxury. Hot and cold running cup holders. You are a failure if you are still taking a bus beyond your youth. They are independence. Opportunity. Individuality. Perhaps even liberty herself. You are not part of the collective, sitting in the traffic jam, you are your own person, forging your own path!
But the daily reality of car ownership is nothing like Toyota’s Joelle, weaving effortlessly through the loom of Lisbon’s cobblestoned cityscape, conspicuously emptied of other people’s cars. Real life car ownership bears much closer resemblance to the satirical opening scenes of the 1999 film Office Space. Stop-start traffic, futility and frustration — which is precisely why it was satirised3. Even if we pull back from the hammed-up satire, driving is still found by its participants to be a less satisfactory way of travelling than active transport by foot or by bike.
We tend to imagine that the human health effects of motor vehicles are all external to the vehicle. These negatives are visible and well-documented. 12% of EU CO2 emissions can be attributed to passenger cars, while long term exposure to traffic-related air pollution is associated with adverse outcomes for: all cause mortality, coronary heart disease mortality, stroke mortality, lung cancer mortality, asthma onset in both children and adults, and acute lower respiratory infections in children. Pollution is also associated with an increased incidence of psychiatric disorder and neurodegenerative pathologies. Air pollution is responsible for 28,000 additional deaths per annum in the UK, with an approximate annual cost to the NHS and social care system of £1.6bn. We have already discussed the deadly consequences of vehicular collisions.
But there are health consequences for the crumple-zoned, HEPA-filtered4, comfortable and air conditioned occupants too, going beyond collision injuries. Every daily hour spent in a car raises the personal likelihood of obesity by 6%. Driving also exhibits a dose-response relationship with negative health behaviours including insufficient sleep, physical inactivity, and regular smoking. Self-reported health and well-being are also lower among drivers. Normal, decent people become hatred-filled monsters when the red mist descends and road rage takes hold. If we were to take an actual risk-based decision based on relative danger and measurable impacts on society and human health, it would not be e-scooters being banned in Paris on September 1st — it would be cars.
Not that cars should actually be outright banned — clearly there is plenty of reward in the risk-reward bargain. But it should be highlighted that the subject of e-scooter safety has a lot more media and political prominence than any debate about motor vehicle safety, despite the latter accounting for far more deaths and injuries — it’s like we’re an A&E department focusing on hangnails instead of heart attacks. The wider phenomenon of the general public excusing negative outcomes and behaviour they would otherwise object to, purely because a car is involved, was recently measured and granted the moniker 'motonormativity' by a trio of researchers.
Their study looked at the different responses people give to comparable statements on antisocial behaviours such as: 'People shouldn't smoke in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the cigarette fumes,' versus 'People shouldn't drive in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the car fumes.' 75 per cent agreed that smokers should not impose their negative externalities on others, while only 17 per cent thought the same for motorists. It’s not just social attitudes — judicial sentences for driving offences are typically much less severe than for comparable manslaughter and bodily harm.
Noticing the vast gap in social attitudes over similar questions, and rejecting their social and cultural dominance, a thriving internet subculture has developed in direct opposition to cars and car-centric societies. They offer a less academic term for the negative outcomes, behaviours and values they associate with motor vehicles — 'carbrain,' — a 'derogatory term for vehicle drivers, whose cognitive functions have been impaired by the act of driving.' Reddit boards such as the 400k strong, and bluntly named r/fuckcars are filled with lively commentators sharing their perceptions of how cars and car culture negatively impacts their daily lives, their neighbourhoods, and wider society. Meanwhile, popular podcast The War on Cars recently celebrated its 100th episode — each filled with philosophising over car dependency. These are not the posts and projects of weirdy-beardy environmental activist types, freshly unglued from a museum artefact — these platforms are notable for how they are dominated by normal, everyday people.
Contempt for cars is easily dismissed as the idealist mutterings of metropolitan intelligentsia. They have no idea how your life would be impossible if you didn’t have access to a car. I hear you — but this is precisely the point. It being absurd not to have access to a car where you live is a product of urban and suburban design where active travel and pedestrians are an afterthought. It means you are passively directed towards living a deconditioned, polluted, sedentary lifestyle — the proximal cause of the negative health outcomes listed above. Far too many of us sit down to drive to work, where we sit down in front of a desk, after which we sit down to drive home, whereupon we sit down to relax after a long hard day of sitting down. In short: your environment structurally incentivises you to live a shorter, less healthy life.
One third of English adults are physically inactive, engaging in less than the CDC and NHS-guideline of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week5. This is no trivial matter or an expression of nanny statism — meeting these guideline amounts of physical activity is associated with a 30% fall in all-cause mortality. For children, the number meeting the threshold of guideline physical activity drops to one in five, with negative implications for cognition, learning and development. But is it any wonder adults and children don’t meet these thresholds?
We make it inconvenient to facilitate our lives any other way. We make our streets unsafe for children to play in, while we berate our children for not playing outside like generations past. We ferry our children back and forth from school and commitments in SUV battle tanks instead of encouraging them to walk or cycle, because of an unsafe environment that we created. 60 per cent of children never play on their street, up from 50 per cent a decade ago, while some of those that do play outside passively encouragesare chastised by authority figures. Our suburban dispersal prioritises journeys made by car, rather than enabling active travel for seeing friends, shopping and commuting to school and work. We design our living environments for cars first, not humans.
At the other end of the age spectrum, the elderly are equally isolated and shunned by car-centric neighbourhoods as soon as frailty overcomes the ability to drive, which then hastens progressive diseases of isolation and cognitive decline, like dementia. Better provision of public transport, walkability, local shops and services and urban greening (i.e. the presence of trees, shrubs, and plants) are all linked to lower reported loneliness and increased physical activity among the elderly.
Then there is the exclusion of the poor. There’s a populist argument that goes something like this: ‘The poorest households can’t afford more taxation, therefore we shouldn’t tax cars more because it’s anti-poor.’ This fatuous argument is completely specious — car ownership, access, trips made and total driven distance are all overwhelmingly dominated by high income households. There is no car subsidy in the world that can compete with well funded, safer and better-networked public and active transport for helping the urban and suburban poor facilitate their lives, because car ownership, maintenance and use is innately more expensive than the alternatives.
Car-centric societies are inherently anti-poor, by restricting access by income to specific sites of employment and to public amenities, from out-of-town shopping centres, to suburban supermarkets, to industrial estates. Air pollution concentration is also correlated with measures of deprivation, thus a greater health impact by vehicular pollution is borne by the poor. Again, if you do not charge people for the negative externalities of their driving, your lungs are subsidising their pollution. It is not a serious argument that we should make our urbanism and health worse, in order to subsidise specific minority professions.
Over 80% of all journeys made in the UK take place in a car. In one respect the bike lobby are right when they call us a car-dependent society — the private car is bang at the heart of what most of us do, most days. And this isn't going to change any time soon, however much the internet cyclists and trendy urbanists shout about it. Nor should it change. The benefits of the masses having access to private motorised transport are absolutely huge, vastly outweighing the disbenefits.
Conservatives are too quick to defend the dominance of private cars, not realising that their arguments are, in fact, libertarian. Which leads to the classic dead end of undiluted libertarianism: maximalist individual freedoms lead to mutual imprisonment in the collective outcomes of individual freedoms. We all must suffer the shared consequences of our individual choices. Indeed there are plenty of conservative reasons to reject car-dominated urban spaces. Walkable, human-scale neighbourhoods are far more likely to reflect the sense of pride and familiarity in place that define the Scrutonian branch of conservative philosophy. It is pro-family to create streets that are safe for children to play in. Exclusion of the elderly from unassisted participation in public spaces is not conservative, or even defensible.
But car libertarianism ends the moment drivers are asked to bear the cost of their negative externalities. Just look at the visceral reaction in Uxbridge to the proposition that drivers should pay for the negative externality of their pollution, rather than having it subsidised by our lungs. Your costs of doing business have gone up because of the ULEZ? Then you should ask your customers to pay for the pollution they cause using your services7 — something a plurality of Londoners support. Then there’s the phenomenon of local authority-sanctioned free parking, to which dads seem to think they have a unique, God-granted right. When was the last time you walked into a café expecting a coffee for nothing? Free public land use is an explicit subsidy towards drivers, with the side effect of uglifying our precious shared urban spaces.
Streets filled with parked cars are unsightly and unwelcoming. Car libertarianism doesn’t mean occasional neat placement of design classic E-Type Jags, gullwing Mercedes and the like, but the uglification of the environs of your own precious home, as yet another unloved garden is paved over to fit in an extra, dull metallic blue Honda Jazz. The AI images above of car-choked streets may be a caricature, but they’re not that far from the truth. Drop a Google Street View pin into random urban and suburban communities of wide-ranging wealth and income and it won’t be long before you find otherwise charming streets littered with unattractive steel boxes, disfiguring otherwise-handsome local vernacular architecture, built in an era pre-dating mass car ownership. You will be lucky if they are not parked with two wheels on the pavement, blocking access for the disabled, and parents with prams, while fracturing the paving underneath.
Rejecting car-centrism means challenging a lifestyle most people associate entirely with freedom and personal rights. This appears to be why the perfectly agreeable concept of having local shops and amenities within walking and cycling distance of home — 15 minute cities — has provided so much grist for the conspiracy and culture war mill. Ditto low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs), which are just urban cul-de-sacs with a modern brand name.
The ability to drive anywhere you like is a powerful emblem of liberation and possibility, and any attempt to shift society away from car dependency can feel like a personal attack on those sacred symbols. And much like building more housing, regardless of the benefit to society, the immediate costs of reducing car dependency falls on individuals, making it much more frictional and difficult to implement. A hypothetical future of human-scale walkability feels much less appealing than car libertarianism, with all its immediate convenience, today.
Perhaps the biggest problem with cars is that they are the perfect solution to almost all transport challenges. Despite the destruction of our urban fabric, the health consequences, the social exclusion of the young and elderly, and the prevalence of traffic collisions, they are my solution for me, available right now. Which means one of the first steps in creating a less car dominant urbanism means making alternatives feasible. Simon Cooke in The View from Cullingworth again:
The alternatives — bikes, buses, trams — simply don’t get close to meeting people’s everyday needs. We cannot reconfigure the entirety of urban and suburban Britain just to suit the prejudice of a few cyclists and urban densification obsessives.
This sentiment is comprehensively and demonstrably false, as countless European cities (and their suburbs) prove, looking far prettier and having more active, healthy denizens in the process. But Rome wasn’t built in a day — while we may look to Amsterdam as the contemporary poster child of active urbanism, for many decades the city even went backwards8. It took a concerted effort for the Netherlands to become the model of walking and cycle-friendly, and public transport facilitated urbanism that it is today.
The Netherlands saw rates of cycling fall off a cliff from the 1950s to the 1970s, driven by an assumption that the car was the future of travel and urban life. Canals were drained to become roads, neighbourhoods were razed to insert urban highways, and the private car took precedence, accompanied by a large rise in road traffic deaths. But then — a citizen fightback began. Campaign groups led by Stop de Kindermoord9, horrified by increasing road casualties and the repurposing of scarce public space for polluting road traffic, took to the streets and to their politicians’ offices, demanding change. Canals were refilled. The facilitation of car journeys was no longer the main goal of urban planning. The destruction of historic neighbourhoods ceased.
Private cars are clearly still present in Dutch society, but they are intentionally deprioritised in urban planning. They are not the transport first resort. Safe, segregated and networked infrastructure enables safe and convenient cycling, and public transport is some of the best in Europe, lessening the relative advantages of using a car. It’s much easier to avoid using cars when the alternatives are so safe, comfortable and easy. While 37 per cent of journeys are made by private car in London, in Amsterdam, this figure is only 20 per cent. People still live their lives — society has not fallen apart. Instead, the Dutch enjoy a health dividend equivalent to 3 per cent of GDP, accompanied by 6,500 fewer deaths a year.
It’s not just Dutch cities either — their suburbs are world-leading in being friendly to pedestrians and cyclists. Everything from narrow, winding roads that slow down cars to keep pedestrians, children and cyclists safe, to cut-throughs and shortcuts that prioritise active travel. In London it’s primarily risk-taking younger men that cycle. In the Netherlands, the age and sex balance is much more equal. Modal uptake is a product and consequence of urban design choices.
The Netherlands (coupled with Denmark, which has equally impressive cycle infrastructure and rates of cycling) destroys the myth that our Northern European, maritime climate makes active travel unfeasible. It destroys the myth that suburbs can only work with multi-vehicle, car-as-a-first-resort households. It only works because they don’t have hills? E-bikes and e-scooters, pending political-regulatory hurdles, have solved that problem, if it even existed in the first place — and at a fraction of the environmental impact and cost of manufacture, purchase and use of electric cars.
And let’s be clear — electric cars are not the future of urbanism. They cannot solve for activity and public health. They cannot solve for traffic. They cannot solve for noise pollution — road noise is primarily caused by tyre friction and air resistance, not internal combustion engines. They cannot solve for the uglification of our urban environments, or for the theft of public space for parking from bars and cafés. They are a partial solution to a different problem — carbon emissions. We should view the challenge of solving for urbanism separately.
Absent a successful Dutch-style grassroots campaign against car-dominance, the route forward lies in regionalism. The Uxbridge by-election proved once again that wedge issues can be used to implement the tyranny of the motivated minority over the majority, who, to repeat, support the ULEZ policy. It is far easier to channel local opposition to a policy that is backed by, and benefits London as a whole, in one, single, first-past-the-post (FPTP) constituency by-election.
If power to decide transport and urban infrastructure is devolved to a regional or city level, the needs and wants of an entire urban area, rather than local interest groups, can be strategically prioritised. Take London’s Soho. Well-serviced by at least four tube stations, subject to some of the worst air pollution levels in the country, dense, disabled-accessible and full of restaurants and bars with clear unmet demand for outside seating, it took a global pandemic to get Westminster City Council to experiment with closing off streets to taxis and the private cars of the rich. But this brief, glorious experiment ended, as the spineless council leadership rolled back on the scheme, citing:
There have been trials of pedestrianisation in Soho in earlier years which were not successful. This was because the closure hours were so long that an almost uncontrolled drinking and party atmosphere was created that caused significant noise, nuisance and health risks. Late night use of closed streets also prevented effective servicing, maintenance and street cleansing.
In other words, it was a huge success, and people committed the heinous and unforgivable crime of enjoying themselves. The NIMBY objections of a few freaks that live in Soho, but insist that London’s party district turn into a quiet village green should be completely disregarded. A regionalist approach to government could give recognition to the principle that Soho is an amenity for all Londoners — not just stupendously wealthy residents, who apparently don’t want to live in a city, but have a vice-like grip on the minuscule balls of the pathetic council. That same council has shelved plans for the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street, the busiest shopping street in Europe10. Presumably it’s the cars that are spending the money to keep the knockoff souvenir and American candy stores in business.
Regional vision is also important for network effects — a single bike lane that ends at the boundary of the next borough is of little use to people that feel unsafe using unsegregated infrastructure. People want safety and convenience for their whole journey, not just for part of it. The prize for London’s worst borough on this metric could probably be awarded to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which has a similar fetish for cycling deaths and driver prioritisation. Strategic implementation of a joined-up network, regardless of the views of individual councils, is vital for success.
We should devolve the power and budget to implement better urbanism to an expanded number of metro mayors, going well beyond what the Mayor of London’s pitiful budget and powers allow for today. We should allow mayors to take political responsibility for genuine and brave urban transformations. Take Ljubljana, Slovenia, as an example. First elected mayor of the city in 2007, Zoran Janković faced protests and even public assault when he began a programme of pedestrianisation.
Controversial at first, the pedestrianisation of Ljubljana now enjoys approval ratings of around 90 per cent. The proportion of journeys taken by car in the city has dropped from 58 per cent in 2003, to 39 per cent in 2022. Air pollution has fallen by 70 per cent, while the proportion of trips made by foot has risen from 19 per cent to 35 per cent. Janković has been rewarded for his new urbanist policies, winning a fifth term as mayor in 2022, with 63 per cent of the vote. Ljubljana has become a nicer place to work, visit, traverse and live in.
Mid-density, walkable, car-as-a-last-resort neighbourhoods are just fundamentally better, more social, more human places to live than car-choked cities and carbrain suburbs. Even if you personally disagree with this conclusion on political or cultural grounds, you must surely feel an obligation to pay attention to the health consequences of necessarily sedentary lifestyles and urban pollution, leaving aside car libertarianism æsthetics.
Younger cohorts in the developed world, who associate cars far less with a surge in incomes and wealth, seem increasingly disinterested in motoring — with the number of teenagers holding a driving licence halving to just above 20% in the last 20 years. The political scales are increasingly going to tip in favour of visionary politicians who are prepared to stand against the carbrained mistakes of the past, and stick up for who cities are ultimately for: humans.
Let’s say you find yourself uncomfortable with this essay’s iconoclasm and its rather dirigiste conclusions. You’ve spent the entire read going ‘yes, but…’ I ask you — next time you find yourself aggressively beeped out of the way in a noisy, dirty, city centre street, filled with parked cars, with the metallic taste of vehicular pollution in your mouth, reflect upon the question: Is this is a superior way of living?
If you enjoyed reading this essay, this previous post on how to avoid conflict in urban design will be right up your (pedestrianised) street:
In a referendum with a very low turnout of 7.4 per cent, 89.03 per cent voted against permitting e-scooters.
Satire must necessarily contain a kernel of truth, otherwise we wouldn’t find it funny.
High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters remove around 99.97% of airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns (µm), including dust, pollen and pathogens.
People typically associate physical activity with intensive formal exercise, such as gym classes, running and gym bro weightlifting. In fact, moderate physical activity is inclusive of brisk walking, water aerobics and a gentle bike ride. Even gardening and housework can count towards this goal.
Which is worth a sub, regardless of my disagreement with his thoughts on this topic!
I am just a humble shitposter, not a politician. I fully recognise that this position is a doorstep nightmare. James O’Malley has written an excellent run-down on the doorstep politics of ULEZ, the frictions inherent to the policy, and how we might overcome them.
‘As I’ve written before, people will not vote to make their lives worse. Policies that are punitive to the individual, that aim to reduce demand with a stick and not a carrot, are almost by definition politically costly. Extra taxes, reducing consumption and hectoring voters or implying they are morally at fault is a recipe for losing elections.’
See more here:
There seems to be a real issue of middle-income countries prioritising for cars in their urban fabric, driven by an aspirational association between cars and expression of newfound wealth. Cities like Alexandria are making the same mistakes that the Netherlands made — then later reversed — half a century. ago.
Literally ‘stop the child murder,’ a campaign group set up to protest against the number of children being killed and injured in vehicular collisions in the Netherlands.
God only knows why, it’s a genuine shithole.