Unlike what I usually write, about a specific machine or issue, this one is going to be much more general. I have over the years had many thoughts about cars, mainly because we in the West are surrounded by them a lot of the time, and they are possibly the transport medium people see most often.
On the one hand, I absolutely adore cars. Much of the engineering that goes into even the most ordinary car is very clever, particularly as regards modern engine technology, tyres, and aerodynamics. Cars can also be incredibly beautiful machines (though most aren’t) and in this way can act almost as public art.
I also love a good motor race. I particularly like endurance racing, which is much more of a team event than Formula 1, and can be much more of a test of engineering. It is much more difficult to make a car that will run fast for 24 hours than for 2, and keep the drivers reasonably comfortable for that time. In a 24 hour race, prototypes (cars built specifically for endurance racing) can cover many thousands of kilometres, very quickly, and without changing any of the major components. I think you’ll agree, that is quite the achievement.
On the other hand, I believe cars aren’t a great way of getting around, for many reasons. In no particular order, these are:
Space inefficiency. Next time you’re walking next to a busy road, just take a look at how many people are actually in the cars as they’re going by or stuck in traffic. You will quickly realise that most cars have just 1 person in them. 1 person is taking up space that could be quite easily occupied by 5 or more people. This creates no end of traffic problems, and leads on nicely to problem No. 2.
Resource inefficiency. Again, it takes a lot of energy to make a car, and it is somewhat wasted on 1 person. That’s without mentioning the precious metals in the electronics and so on, and the fuel in the tank, which has to be sourced from rapidly diminishing oil reserves. Cars also are replaced long before they have reached their life, wasting further precious resources in building even more cars.
Air quality. Cities clogged with cars pumping out noxious fumes do not have great air quality. This leads to many health problems, exacerbates many others, and speaking from personal experience, it certainly makes walking and cycling a lot less pleasant.
Induced traffic. This is a transport planning problem that is best explained looking at the US, in particular cities like Los Angeles. You see, it is hard to relieve a traffic problem by building more or wider roads. This might sound counterintuitive, but it is reasonably simple to explain. If roads are well known to suffer traffic at particular times, or in general, a certain amount of people will avoid driving on them. If you build a new road, these people, seeing that now there might be less traffic, will drive, and before long, your new road is also clogged with traffic. For example, Los Angeles has lots of large highways, but is always clogged with traffic in the morning and evening peak. Closer to home, the Queensferry crossing across the Firth of Forth was clogged on the day that it opened, almost completely defeating its purpose.
Expense. In the UK there is a perpetual gripe about the cost of train tickets, which is a topic for another day, but one thing you can’t argue with is that usually you only pay when you actually want to go somewhere (season tickets aside). With a car, you have to pay not only for the car (buying, car finance, etc.), but for servicing (including parts and labour), insurance and road tax (on most cars), before you’ve even turned a wheel. This adds up to several thousand pounds to have a car sitting around, and then you’ve got to add fuel. Oh, and then there’s parking charges, congestion charge, toll roads and so on, something public transport doesn’t have to worry about.
Safety. Car accidents are sadly not a rare occurrence, and many result in the death or serious injury of the occupants of the car. In fact, in the UK, in the year ending June 2017, 1710 people were killed on the roads, according to the Department for Transport. In case you think I’m fiddling the figures, that was actually a 5% decrease on the year before.
And that’s before I mention the 27,130 road casualties listed as “killed or seriously injured” in the year ending June 2017. I should mention, a “serious” injury is not just breaking a bone or something of that nature. A “serious” injury is one that is completely life changing, like losing a limb.
Frankly this is utter carnage. One can imagine if there was a disease that killed or maimed that many people a year, there would be campaigns and races for life and all the rest of it, but for some reason on the roads it is accepted.
I’m not saying that I think cars should be banned. Far from it, there are many situations, particularly in the rural community, where having a car is essential. What I am saying is that we need to think more carefully about how and why we use cars in cities, or when there is a valid alternative.