The inhumanity of car dependency

Alex Dyer
Alex Dyer
Aug 24 · 11 min read
A mother attaches a sign to her son getting ready to ride his bicycle. It reads: ‘Please Mr Motorist. Watch out for me?’
A mother attaches a sign to her son getting ready to ride his bicycle. It reads: ‘Please Mr Motorist. Watch out for me?’
Please Mr Motorist watch out for me? 1937

Our reliance on cars has affected cultural norms. Where once ‘death machines’ were (rightly) vilified and shunned, now it is a cultural tinderbox to criticise even one aspect of cars at a time.

‘Developed’ societies have embraced a car centric model predicated on diminishing and sidelining many basic human needs. Many sacrifices are made but hardly noticed.

If we actually consider the daily efforts required by individuals and groups to enable people to drive cars, they really start to look anything but convenient.

Car dependency is precarious. The level to which driving has become habitual for many, means we are very badly positioned to function well without them. It’s like we completely erased the wake up call that was the oil embargo crisis of the ‘70’s. If the same crisis were to happen again (which the climate emergency should be treated as) it will be very painful to adapt quickly.

Over-reliance on cars takes a toll on humanity. We have normalised their pervasive presence so much that we now find ourselves living and working in places that do more to serve the needs of cars than of people. Cars demand more of people than the benefits they provide.

Overcoming car blindness and reducing dependence on driving can help us to reconnect with nature and the human condition and boost our health, happiness, and resilience.

Read more of the Car blindness series


Cars & kids don’t mix

Now, cars can be convenient for transporting little ones. But why are children driven in cars so much? Some reasons are not simply about convenience.

The poor safety of the built environment is one. Getting around safely (without a car) is persistently compromised by heavy traffic.

Parenting in a car dominated built environment can be hellish.

Keeping little kids away from cars is a very demanding job. You can’t allow toddlers out of the house, into garages, onto driveways, or anywhere there are cars around — which is everywhere!

It is a little less stressful to live in a fully fenced property knowing your wee ones are less likely to ‘escape’ onto the road.

When they can walk, children are usually so small that motorists cannot see them over the bonnets of parked cars. And kids have a hard time seeing past those same parked cars while they are learning to look before crossing.

As a parent, there’s a persistent anxiety of hoping your kids survive the walk to & from school each day — if you even let them.

And when they do get bigger you become a private taxi service until your teenagers start getting lifts from friends who are (inexplicably) allowed to operate heavy machinery at speed in public.

Having pleasant road trips with kids seems fantastical too. Car seat compliance, various food & hydration paraphernalia, motion sickness, faffery, and general in-car pacification are torturous. And you’re sitting in direct earshot of an inconsolable, physically restrained passenger who isn’t getting their way and you can’t pull over until the next exit which is 17 minutes away.

So, as a passenger, you try to help by turning around to retrieve a soft toy stuck under your seat and put your back out in three places and still don’t reach Poochy, making the poor dear (and you!) scream even louder for the remaining 15 minutes until the exit finally arrives.

And because the vast majority of public space in the immediate neighbourhood is wholly inundated by parked cars and speeding cars, it becomes your duty as a parent to freight your energy laden kids, by car, to a designated playground, an empty sports field, some piece of nature that is an hours drive away. Or you have to pay to access some tired and sticky bounce-nation trampomatic-gym-zone inflatable-castle play-space-barn in some shed in a big box retail complex only after playing an impromptu game of life & death dodge-ems in a hostile expanse of melting tar seal car parking accessible via a labyrinth of urban motorways.

The number one cause of death for children and young people aged 5–24 in the United States of America is road traffic incidents.

In Australia it is top for 1 -14 year olds and 2nd for 15–24 year olds.

Children die locked in seats in cars in lethally high temperatures.

Children die being reversed over in family driveways. We mandate fencing of pools to prevent drowning. Why is driveway fencing not mandated?

Children die under heavy vehicles while walking home from school.

Children are killed in high speed collisions.

Cars are also invariably a factor in many stranger danger incidents, and are a common tool used for abductions.

Being driven around is just not good for kids either.

Too many cars clogging up city streets suppresses kids walking or cycling to school. In an unwelcoming, frequently unsafe environment and with a seemingly habitual compulsion to combine trips sees parents ending up driving them, worsening conditions further for those still car free.

All of these reasons have played a big part in reducing kids’ freedom and damaging their development. Just two generations ago it was not uncommon for kids to play outside with friends and engage with their communities within a multiple kilometre radius of their homes. Today, in most places, that area has contracted heavily.

School crossing attendants should not be a thing. Kids working as crossing attendants to enable motorists to drive past schools at the worst possible time is a sad symbol of car blindness.

Perhaps cars should not be driven near schools. At the very least; children should not be required to smooth the passage of dangerous road users just when the most children are moving around in residential areas.


Driving is anti-social

They are a slice of personal space & shelter as much as they are a tool for travelling. It has become a common first world modern comfort. But why do we crave this separation, and what are the downsides of this social disconnection?

Cars are more effective at excluding and divorcing people than they are at strengthening communities. In cities, being closer together and having convenient things is kind of the whole point.

Cars do support people connecting across longer distances, but only at the expense of disconnecting people in communities being driven through.

In general people living with high car dependency have lower real world social connections than people living in dense neighbourhoods. People isolated in vehicles forego serendipitous encounters that may have occurred had they been getting around by other means.

Isolation in cars may also produce poorer connections between socioeconomic and cultural communities and contribute to bigotry and racism.

People without cars in a car dominated city are disempowered. Families, children, and older people are disadvantaged if they don’t have access to a car or someone with a car. And once you do depend on a car — losing access to one can be a terrifying prospect.

Cars are also used as social status symbols — depending on how new, big, expensive, powerful, or shiny your wheels are. While seemingly innocuous, this symbolism isn’t so much of an issue as the very real economic disparity being highlighted. A predilection for expensive private cars is symbolic of a celebration of socioeconomic distance. It is fairly poorly veiled classism.

Big car-centric roading projects are frequently promoted as a panacea — promising ‘time savings’ and ‘fixing congestion’, when in reality, they are socialism for the wealthy.

Elite projection is designing and building a world that a rich minority might imagine would work best for them and that such solutions must be the answer for everyone. These visions are invariably at odds with providing realistic, scalable solutions. They are often unrealistic, inaccessible, unscalable, and unsustainable. It would be like thinking the solution to crossing a river every day is to retain a helicopter and employ a personal pilot instead of just building a bridge that anyone could walk over.

Many private vehicles are designed and marketed to appeal to toxic masculinity.

So to be into car culture you have to be rich enough, and skilled enough, and tough enough. And if you can’t step up then there must be something wrong with you.

And who hasn’t experienced the anti-social posturing of someone behind the wheel absolutely losing their shit.


Dehumanising ‘others’

Another form of dehumanisation is found in ‘concern trolling’ — having disingenuous concerns for people not in cars and thinking up various misplaced ways to ‘fix their vulnerability’ while never looking at the real sources of danger. A clear car blindness symptom.

Because we agree killing and injuring is wrong, yet without acknowledging cars as a dangerous problem (car blindness), we attempt to ‘protect vulnerable road users’ by applying similar ‘safety’ methods used for car occupants. We cocoon them in plastic hats, bright clothing, reflective paint, armour, air filter masks etc.

Occasionally some communities provide little flags for people to wave while crossing the road, and tell pedestrians it is their job to ensure their visibility.

People are then expected to ‘share responsibility’ for the safety challenge (of cars) — even though people walking or riding bikes contribute an infinitesimal amount of danger compared to the inertia of a private urban tank.

People not cocooned in cars should also ensure that they make eye contact with people at the wheel. Even if they can’t see through the glare of the widescreen or the A-pillar to the driver ensconced on their phone playing their favourite game.

Lollysweet Mega Jewel Squishsplosion Generations. The Reckoning. Install now!

All these car blind attempts to improve the safety of non-dangerous others are really only thinly veiled victim blaming.

Non-dangerous road users are dehumanised through the lack of care and investment given to keep them safe and make their journeys comfortable and enjoyable. Their journeys are 2nd class.

Sometimes footpaths are not even built in highly car dependent and car blind areas. But at least when they are, there is usually a physical separation involved. People on bicycles usually get nothing, sometimes get paint, and extremely rarely get physical separation.

At its best ‘paintfrastructure’ makes those already cycling slightly safer. Done poorly, it doesn’t help much at all (see: sharrows) and is effectively just signage to remind motorists that people on bikes do exist.

Painted on-road bike lanes are often exactly where parked cars’ doors are opened. And this style of bike lane also tends to decrease the distance of passing motorists.

A painted on-road bike lane with the text ’LAME’ instead of lane.
A painted on-road bike lane with the text ’LAME’ instead of lane.
An on-road painted bike ‘lame’.

Inferior provisions for people riding bikes such as this are also called: ‘door zones’, ‘murder strips’, or ‘bike lames’. I call it ‘paintfrastructure’.

Unfortunately, there remains a faction of cycling enthusiasts who subscribe to a ‘share the road’ mentality. Known as ‘vehicular cycling’, its car blind proponents think riding bicycles amongst dangerous heavy vehicles should be the norm. For all ages & abilities. It is a strategy that car centric planners have historically found quite agreeable. It is like the Stockholm Syndrome of vulnerable road users. They have come to embrace their tortuous masters.

Variety of transport options across a city scape — including a ferry, rail, trams, buses, cars, cycling, walking, scootering.
Variety of transport options across a city scape — including a ferry, rail, trams, buses, cars, cycling, walking, scootering.
Carolgreen.net

Decades of car centric city designing has suppressed bike riding for many segments of society, most notably women.

And the rise of car dependency in cities has historically displaced many communities of minorities and people of colour in the name of ‘gentrification’.

While on the face of it ‘sharing the road’ sounds like a logical maxim — ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ — the reality is that it suppresses people from travelling in more sustainable ways and can end in serious injury or death.

Even when nobody gets physically harmed, sharing the road with heavy vehicles can be traumatic. Close passes, or ‘near misses’, can leave people on bikes swearing off riding ever again.

The unappealing prospect of riding a bike amongst heavy traffic is mockingly referred to as ILOH — or ‘Insert Loved One Here’ (make your own!).

An on-road bike lane gap between parked cars and a passing buss with the caption: Insert loved one here
An on-road bike lane gap between parked cars and a passing buss with the caption: Insert loved one here
The doorzone along Island Bay Parade before a kerbside cycleway was built.

So, with such a hostile road environment where, as a non-motorist you’re expected to not get yourself or your children killed by ensuring other people, who may not even be looking can see you and do look for you, and by being expected to prepare for crashes with heavy vehicles — is it really any wonder why many car centric modern cities suffer widespread, chronic car dependency?


Cars are just plain old hard work

Car centric infrastructure has made cars seem convenient, but everything else about them takes blood, sweat, tears, and (for most) recycled ancient dinosaur fat.

There are a bunch of basic barriers of entry. To use a car you must:

  • learn road rules
  • gain driving skills
  • licence your driving ability
  • buy a car (becoming less required, slowly)
  • licence your car
  • register your car
  • insure your car and your driving
  • fuel your car
  • maintain your car
  • wash your car (you don’t have to do this one — but if you don’t you may be frowned upon)
  • clean your car (the inside version of the point above)
  • store your car (and often pay a lot for this) wherever you go
  • Store your car where you live
  • pay all the speeding and parking fines
  • try to not kill anyone

There can be quite a lot of mental overhead administering car ownership and maintenance. Car maintenance can be seriously expensive.

Motion sickness from travelling in cars is not uncommon.

Driving requires superhuman attention to do safely.

Being mentally sturdy enough to put up with babysitting a parked car or zen enough to transcend seemingly endless bogs of congestion as a daily ritual is beyond the patience of many.

Being dependent on a car also has the insidious effect of making other ways you might travel seem daunting. Cars and the marketing behind them play into your self doubt, telling you you’ll have a terrible time if you don’t drive, and you’ll most likely fail, or you’ll be a loser. Car companies and their marketers are expert gaslighters.

Hashtag: Break Car Culture
Hashtag: Break Car Culture

Car blindness is no accident. It is an ingrained, structural ignorance. After all — you must choose driving for car companies to be profitable. It works for their business that people ignore and normalise all the downsides. That children lose out on so much. That we miss more social opportunities. That we dehumanise and out-group non-motorists. That individuals sacrifice so much to own and operate cars.

Towns and cities should work for people. Machines and transportation should work for people and the planet. Cars are mainly working for the corporations profiting from them.

Let’s reclaim the built environment for people. Let’s look to an independent future. A healthy, human future.

Alex Dyer

Written by

Alex Dyer

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

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