Car blind society

Alex Dyer
Alex Dyer
Aug 24, 2019 · 12 min read
Memorials at the site of a crash north of Wellington, New Zealand where Gary Smith, Craig Hempopo, and Raumoa Tamoa died in July 2001.

Car blindness affects our lives in many indirect ways. The undesirable side effects of cars have been normalised for so long that they seem invisible to most.

It is normal to smooth the road for cars. We wait to cross streets. Public transport stuck in private congestion is normal. It is normal to walk along wonky footpaths sculpted to make driveways smooth. It is common to expect the law to go easy on those involved in traffic violence incidents. We accept spending unimaginable amounts of collective, intergenerational wealth building and maintaining roads.

Many modern societies prioritise driving cars over keeping people healthy, or cities functioning smoothly. Somehow we have got to a point where questioning the continued use of cars has become off limits. The widespread over reliance on cars in modern society means we are practically going nowhere.

Read more of the Car blindness series


Driving worsens walking

Before cars, most people walked for a majority of journeys in cities. Some used horses, some bikes, and there were some trams and trains in larger cities. This was a big problem for car manufacturers because people riding and walking everywhere meant there was little clear space for their products to exploit their primary value proposition: getting around ‘fast’.

Enter cars, and the drive to secure the purpose of a road to that of manoeuvring motor vehicles instead of people. The motoring lobby invented the notion of ‘jaywalking’ — that you were stupid if you didn’t know exactly how and where to cross the street in such a way to make driving easier for motorists. Through the 1920’s & ‘30’s, pedestrians (people) went from the most important to the least important road user. This is so, in pretty much most cities, to this day.

Pedestrians must beg and wait to cross a road, and hope they’re fast enough to get over the motoring chasm when the little green man finally permits them to move.

Wait! Do not cross

In areas with dense motor traffic, it is not uncommon to see intersections designed to make people cross three times to get to the nearest side, because making crossing convenient for people on foot would ever so slightly inconvenience people driving cars.

Large or busy roads have often destroyed dense, close-knit communities and walkable neighbourhoods in cities all over the world. This is historically a prevalent occurrence in city areas with poorer communities and ethnic minorities.

Once abundant footpath space has shrunk dramatically over the last century and is now frequently cluttered with signage, poles, and more infrastructure for cars. Lately electric car charging units are built taking up footpath space, for example.

Electric car charging station. Wellington, New Zealand.

People riding bikes, scooters, or skateboards or new forms of micromobility would for the most part rather not interact with dangerous road users. Cars worsen safety and comfort for all these travellers. They often seek refuge on footpaths.

The then needless confrontations that result with people walking should highlight a problem with the whole road design. If cities truly valued non-dangerous and non-damaging ways of moving around then public space and infrastructure would cater to these uses first and foremost.

Parking cars on pavements is so prevalent in some places that most people hardly give it a second glance.

A white van parks completely across a footpath.
A white van parks completely across a footpath.
Heck! Hek Tiling — did you HAVE to park there?

Footpaths in central districts of cities are commonly too narrow and can cause pedestrian congestion which has a negative economic impact.

Car centric planning often results in the mad idea that the only reason people driving cars are ever delayed is because they don’t have quite enough space. So they add more lanes. Streets get wider, which makes crossing more stressful and dangerous, especially for more vulnerable or slower people.

The prevalence of cars is arguably suppressing many from walking more, either through habitually using cars or through deteriorating the walking experience. New Zealand currently has the highest rate of car ownership in the OECD. Health researchers are pressing the importance of the South Pacific nation to reduce car journeys by 50% by 2050.


Cars kill cities

A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation. Enrique Peñalosa
A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation. Enrique Peñalosa

Cars have got it good. Ever since cities were hoodwinked into incorporating cars like an essential component of some unavoidable utopian future, generations of governments and institutions have been perfecting the capability to build roads.

It’s still happening. The next techbro trends we are being coerced into are ‘self-driving’ cars, flying cars, and, perhaps the silliest of all; dedicated car tunnels for the super rich. Not that these developments are new ideas. These projects are business as usual for the business of motordom.

Backers of autonomous car technology are already indicating the insidious need for further concessions of public space for their systems to work. A perfectly predictable transport corridor makes machine driving a much, much more achievable proposition.

Now… where do we see proven predictable transport corridors already?

For over a hundred years there have been more efforts focussed on enabling cars to move through cities than to ensure the city is a pleasant place for people to actually be!

In many cities it is cheaper to store cars than it is to house people. Unless perhaps you’re living in a car, the affordability of housing is severely compromised by so much valuable land storing cars.

Many roads are engineered for daily peak traffic volumes. This means we have roads which are larger than needed for 90% of the time. The excess space is then almost completely unproductive for other uses.

Cars suppress economic activity and performance in downtown city centers. People who operate and fund a car dependent lifestyle generally have less money to spend on other goods and services. Fewer private heavy vehicles can access shopping places than can people on foot, bike or public transportation.

Take the London situation. Shopping areas with car dominated streets are missing out on huge opportunities to boost their economic success.

Other economic measures such as productivity and happier, healthier employees are also underperforming compared to city centers prioritising cars last.

Businesses trying to attract car dependent customers have often relocated to purpose built shopping malls and big box shopping centres. The irony of a dedicated place to shop completely separated from dangerous road users that you have to drive to.

Reminds me of the strenuous plight of the car blind who drive (or are driven) to the gym to get some exercise…

On the surface, so to speak, roads seem pragmatic as they can be utilised by multiple traffic types — or ‘modes’. This could work if each mode were carefully designed and regulated to co-exist safely. But that is not what has happened at all.

Instead most roads are violently dominated by cars at the direct expense and viability of accessible, healthy, economical, and sociable modes.

Many cities are engaging in projects like protected cycleways etc in another attempt to contain motor vehicles. These are an important development, but are only needed to continue accommodating large volumes of cars. It would be even better to just reallocate streets as people space and practically exclude all cars.

Cars have seen roads homogenised for use by heavier vehicles. It’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ no matter how big your vehicle. This exclusion of humans who are not encased in armoured mech is the antithesis of what cities should be.

Even much space built for people is terribly compromised by cars. Driveways cut up footpaths, slip-lanes speed motorists around intersections, and many other details can make streets dangerous, uncomfortable, and unhealthy for anyone not encased in crashworthy hi viz metal exoskeletons.

Thankfully this dogma is being retired in many places around the world. Many cities are reclaiming healthier identities as places for people. They are beginning to reconnect people and communities, and to see that cars detract from this far more than they contribute.


Cars pervert land use

Public parking nestled between a hospital and school in Newtown, Wellington, New Zealand.

The way we design cities has been upended by the advent of private automobiles.

Civic leaders routinely rubber stamp unhealthy urban sprawl on the premise that everyone will just drive cars further and further.

It’s almost as if we need a new name for large car dependent sprawl. These areas should be called something other than a city. I propose ‘petropolis’: the outer area of urban development beyond accessible metro public transport.

On-street parking is often viewed as being free (it’s not!). And much off-street parking is highly problematic. Parking buildings are expensive, ugly, and induce people to drive.

When urban designs are optimised for motor vehicle journeys it changes our land and makes places unhealthy. A car dependent petropolis is obesogenic. It keeps people less active by making almost every activity entail multiple car journeys.

Much business has been optimised for customers who drive or drive in, pushing up the cost of their products, even as they court customers who have less to spend (the petrol station took it!).

Even the world’s best cities for active travel still have an inordinate amount of space dedicated to private motor vehicles.

A visual showing the amount of public space used by different road user types, and how much in Copenhagen.
A visual showing the amount of public space used by different road user types, and how much in Copenhagen.
Allocation of space by mode in Copenhagen. From ‘Copenhagenize: The Definitive Guide to Global Bicycle Urbanism’ by Mikael Colville-Andersen

Many districts have harmful ‘minimum parking laws’ enforcing the provision of car parking in developments, which in some cities take up to 30% of the available space.

Many cities suffer disconnection from inner city mini-motorways — space being used by people who are not spending time there while creating barriers to people who are.

The excessive space requirements of cars destroy and suppress opportunities for people in a city in order to allow other people to be somewhere else. There are few more destructive changes in land use in ‘cities’.

Too much tarmac and concrete road surfaces cause havoc with water drainage and soil health, causing heat islands, pollution, and surface flooding, and putting undue pressure on expensive stormwater infrastructure.

Why do we keep doing it?


Car dependency compromises civics

A sign at a protest says ‘Zero carbon emissions now’.
A sign at a protest says ‘Zero carbon emissions now’.
Schools Strike for Climate march in Wellington, New Zealand.

Lawmakers, politicians, and law enforcement have been strengthening car dependency and people, animals, and the environment have been absorbing the growing adverse effects.

Many laws and enforcement policies make it seem like the adverse effects of cars is just the way life is.

Car centric laws all over the world enshrine roads as vehicle-only spaces and you are breaking the law by ‘jaywalking’ across it instead of moving through it in a sanctioned device.

Who isn’t familiar with cases of light sentencing of driver infringements?

Some chronically car centric places have laws to punish people who ride bicycles without wearing plastic hats. In New South Wales, Australia, you can be fined AU$330 (~US$235) — if you’re not wearing a helmet while cycling. But if you’re caught speeding while driving your car: penalties conveniently start as low as AU$119 (~US$85).

Decision makers at every level are potentially compromised by car dependency.

When it comes to financial activities of public representatives there are often robust processes to provide transparency of spending interests. But there are few requirements of politicians and officials to declare any biases they may have towards how people get around.

This is a problem because people making decisions about how other people travel may effectively have a conflict of interest.

Well-meaning representatives who want to see change can face enormous push back from car dependent citizens stuck in car dependent environments.

Politicians love spending loads of public funds on cars and roads, and then strangely have little left to spend on other critical public needs. Political hopefuls often sell wider highways, tunnels and other expensive motor infrastructure to help them get elected.

The motoring industry has historically put a lot of effort towards the car blindness of decision makers.

We are terrible at judging just how expensive the ongoing maintenance of infrastructure will be.

The insurance industry is optimised for people to smash cars into things, and each other, and get them back behind the wheel as quickly as possible.

Renewing most driving licenses seems to be solely concerned with keeping an identity card up to date more than anything to do with safe driving standards. Aside from professional grades of license; renewals rarely involve any practical re-testing.


The language of car blindness

Even much everyday, common language normalises car culture.

Road violence incidents are routinely called ‘accidents’.

Crash not accident
Crash not accident
Via crashnotaccident.com

We say ‘drive safe’ unironically — even as loved ones launch themselves into choked streets at dangerous speeds.

We say: ‘hit by a car’ — which is seriously daft because cars don’t actually ‘do’ anything of their own volition! They are machines. They have no independent agency. Only drivers hit with cars.

We say: ‘you’re brave for cycling’ — as if cycling is a dangerous activity, while the oppressive presence of dangerous heavy vehicles is overlooked.

People crossing the road in cities in not the exact place, time, and manner that best befits motorists are called ‘jay walkers’. A derogatory invention courtesy of the early motoring lobby from the United States of America.

The language of car culture is also reflected back at us from mass media content. A recent study of articles from multiple American news outlets revealed patterns of language that consistently minimised the responsibility of motor vehicle drivers, while non-dangerous road users are often blamed for their own demise.

The study also found that reporting language also consistently frames road violence as isolated incidents and rarely drew any attention to broader systemic problems behind crashes.

And none of the articles analysed consulted with planners, engineers, or road safety experts.

Cars are routinely marketed to appeal to our emotions and divert attention from their ruinous impacts. There are laws banning the advertising of cigarettes. Why not cars?

Being killed in road violence nowadays seems like an unfortunate, but inevitable cost of living in today’s ‘modern’ world. There’s nothing you can do. It’s another ‘price of progress’.

The weather is a frequently used excuse people use to justify sheltering in cars. But the weather is not the barrier many apparently think it is.

Take Wellington, New Zealand, for instance, a city known to be sometimes windy. The number of days where the wind is actually prohibitive to travelling without a car are quite rare, and the number of times you might be caught out in really bad conditions are easily worked around.

Daily highest average wind speed (not gusts) in Wellington, NZ for May 2019 — Steve Maggs, ClimatePoint

Overall, the average wind speed in Wellington is generally light in anyone’s books at 18.8kph. Depending on the direction of your journey, and especially if you’re riding a bicycle, the wind may also be quite an advantage as well!

Daily rainfall levels in Wellington, NZ for May 2019 — Steve Maggs, ClimatePoint

When good infrastructure enables people to easily go where they want by foot, bike, bus, etc, the weather is rarely a barrier. Cars consuming too much public space at the expense of safe clear streets really is though.

Car centric lifestyles are hard to escape from in places optimised to move cars, even if you desperately want to. Lots of people make many concessions, big and small, which are unnoticed and unaccounted to uphold the ability for some to drive conveniently.

While there are many ways we may improve towns and cities, one of the biggest opportunities lies in changing how we move around them. This shift won’t happen by itself. It will only happen when more people denounce the failed experiment that is universal car dependency.

Public transport, walking, cycling, and micromobility are transport options which are true beacons of freedom for most. Greater provision to make these convenient will enable healthy and happy, people-focused modern societies.

Alex Dyer

Written by

Alex Dyer

Passionate about healthy streets and cities for people. On Twitter as @AxleRyde

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