The Car Is A Violence: 5 assertions & 3 counterpoints

Moving from London to Bristol via bicycle and train, I happened upon an unusually de-congested Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner. Approaching, not just de-congested but devoid of cars entirely — police cars were cordoning off the street for a London event*. Nonetheless, thanks to the sudden absence of vehicles, there was unfamiliar sentience in the air. If you’re in training for shaking yourself of social norms, then take these sorts of opportunities to walk directly in the middle of the road. Even have a picnic there before a policeman chases you away. Although you’ll quickly wish the tarmac was again usurped by its rightful heir, vegetation.

The Problem With Cars

A person once told me, as earnest as it comes, that “the car is a violence (sic)”. This phrase rattled in my brain for months and still strikes me as the best way to describe the situation.

Let’s take some arguments one by one and as briefly as possible.

1. Cars damage the environment

If you didn’t know — giving up beef in your diet would offset carbon more than giving up cars. Notwithstanding, we can’t deny that cars still contribute. Even if biofuels and electric power finally become mainstream, we still must question whether the equivalent alternative — say hydrogen or electric powered buses or the trusty bicycle, are still not the better alternative.

2. Cars are not space efficient

Particularly a problem for densely populated areas. In London I always found myself waiting at the same traffic light at rush hour, counting cars at London Bridge junction. I would convert them into cyclists, pedestrians or commuters and suddenly the congestion is a thing of the past.

3. Cars are regressive

They favour the rich. The theory goes that if you take those London Bridge drivers and convert them to other commuters, the price of cars will lower (in theory); the congestion charge will lower (in theory); and the next tier of income earners will be driving around London in their place. This is an issue, because they wanted to be driving beforehand, but couldn’t afford to. Whereas in my case I earn money when I want or need something, not the other way round, for many they take issue with the prohibitive cost of cars. Given that you ‘gain’ in the strictly economic-productive sense from having a car — commuting times are smaller, you can carry many more things in a journey, you have more freedom — cars allow the rich to stay rich.

4. Cars are stress-inducing

We’ve all heard of road rage. Have you ever heard of “pavement rage”? Enough said.

In terms of possessions they are also just one more thing to have to insure and worry about.

5. Cars are dangerous

Despite recent developments cars are still more dangerous than flights. 1,713 people died from cars last year in the UK alone, more than the entirety of deaths throughout 42 years of the Basque conflict*. I do defend drivers for many of these deaths when it is due, but take away the cars and it’s hard to imagine so many dying in, let’s say, bicycle-on-bicycle collisions.

In Defense of Cars

I also want to de-construct the three main counter-arguments. Have I missed something? Let me know by way of comment or tweet me.

1. Cars are good for productivity.

Let’s be aware this is a selective argument in favour of economic productivity. It largely ignores social and environmental productivity/efficiency, because in the 21st century we, as Mr Orwell once said, “idolise the money God” and wish to speak of everything in strictly monetary terms. (And if you think that is okay, then read this incredibly good attack on the Natural Capital Agenda by George Monbiot.)

This economic race for fortune is never-ending and ultimately parasitic. My belief is you can achieve appropriate economic productivity without the violence of cars.

Besides, in cities such as London, once has to question whether the congestion they cause is actually efficient at all. Which brings me to…

2. Cars are essential outside of cities

What would ruralites do without cars? Very little? This is an exception I have to make for now. However it does beg a further question — is there a better way for country-planning? Of late I have read some teachings from of Paolo Soleri, founder of eco-community Arco Santi in Arizona. He has coined ‘Arcology’, a mix of architecture + ecology, with an awareness that the environmental, financial and social are all inherently connected. A little like my childhood hero E.F. Schumacher, he advocates balance; in this case a balance of the disparate rural and the urban sprawl. The answer to all our city (and rural) planning questions are somewhere in this between. He advocates densely populated but highly productive, functional spaces where cars would simply be obsolete, agricultural production close by and natural green spaces on our doorstep. An interesting idea I plan to write more about in future.

3. Cars are great when used ‘properly’

When cars carry five people they are very efficient (although notably no more efficient than a bus.) Notwithstanding a car is great for remote spaces, beating a bus or bicycle every time in a river-fjording or mountain-climbing competition. additionally they can be your camel and carry many possessions at once, for example if you are moving house.

Using a car in this way to its full capacity is unfortunately an outlier. Using your car like this three times a year does not excuse using it inefficiently for the other 362 times.

Fortunately, we are slowly finding an answer to this — car sharing. Just recently BusinessGreen has reported the government will add £500,000 to car clubs, which is just continued momentum in the same direction. I strongly considered using a car club to move to Bristol, but as I favour possessing as little as possible, I succeeded with just a bicycle and train.

The Tranquility Factor

This brings us back full circle. My experience with Rusty the bicycle at Wellington Arch motivated me to stop and enjoy the scene. Although unnerving, it was unique. Another tick box for removing cars, especially from cities, is slightly more left of field — tranquility. While I am not suggesting a car-free world is instantaneous utopia, I am suggesting it would go some way to helping. I am also not suggesting we airlift all cars out of London tonight, but I am suggesting we at least consider whether we really want them, what real purpose are they serving, and are they really useful?

Have I missed a crucial argument in the plus box for cars? Have I gone too far? Or is this something that needs to happen; and how do we enact that change?

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