CAR CULTURE AND THE LANDSCAPE OF SUBTRACTION
The hit foreign film of the late 1980’s, Cinema Paradiso, provides a marvelous metaphor for our current international predicament. The movie wonderfully demonstrates how our collective obsession with automobiles has savaged our cities and diminished our sense of place and community. The central character within the movie is the ”Paradiso” cinema, located on a generous piazza in a small town in Sicily. The movie house, along with the church, provide, not only the dominant architectural features of the piazza, but also provide the heart and soul, respectively, of the community. The piazza of 1954 existed as the hierarchical gathering space for the town, with its open market, cultural festivals, and even an outdoor movie screening space. In the movie, people continually traverse the space by foot, bicycle, and horse-drawn cart. Upon the protagonists return to the town in the 1980’s, the once glorious urban space had been usurped by modern progress. Pedestrians are scarce as cars speed across the piazza dodging the multitude of parked vehicles. The former projectionist, turned famous movie director, appears devastated to see the ”Paradiso” condemned for demolition, only to be replaced with a parking lot. In the final scene, we see the theater blasted to smithereens in the background, the weeping nostalgic crowds in the middle ground, and, in the foreground, the rooftops of Fiats and Volkswagons.
Although the film ostensibly presents a general critique of modern industrial society, in the forefront is the burgeoning obsession with the machina. The Sicilian town’s identity and sense of community was lost with the compromise of the piazza.. Crucial public space had been handed over, free of charge, to the priviledged few who could afford an automobile. Unfortunately, this is the typical state of affairs in America’s cities. This (de)evolution in transportation was not a natural progression. The rise of the automobile’s popularity was greatly encouraged by obstinate politicians and profit-motivated corporations. Additionally, the complicity of modernist urban planners and architects, dehumanized traffic engineers, and demagogue developers cannot be ignored. Their collective post-war creation has left us with a mountain of debt, a sprawling suburban ooze, polluted and crumbling inner cities, and a landscape devoid of farmland and forests. All in all, ours is the landscape of subtraction. Cars have contributed nothing to our urban condition, our communities, and our environment. They have only taken away. What started out as a promise for a better life based on unlimited mobility, has become a modern day obsession, as solitary commuters idle in endless traffic jams wondering where all of the cars came from.
INDOCTRINATING THE COMPROMISE OF PUBLIC SPACE
Owning and driving an automobile has become a prerequisite for conformity in our popular culture. To not drive in America is seen as aberrant behavior. Using mass transit is for people too poor to own an automobile, or for big city dwellers who deem the auto commute inefficient. Riding a bicycle is seen as either a recreational act, or only as a method for children and pre-teens to get around. Walking on a country road or a suburban strip, where seldom doth a sidewalk appear, immediately elicits suspicion. Surely only a lunatic or a criminal would do such a thing. In the land of apple pie, every ”normal” citizen gets around by car. After World War II, buying a suburban bungalow was even considered a patriotic act. William Levitt, the Long Island developer for whom Levittown was named said, ”The suburban homeowner could never be a communist . . . He has too much to do!” The aphorisms, ”no one messes with a man’s set of wheels”, or ”what’s good for GM is good for America” has incredible power in our culture.
The indoctrination into our auto-dominated culture begins at very early age. Children play with toy cars and trucks. They build miniature suburbs with Tonka trucks and cranes. Every Barbie doll or G.I. Joe figurine needs the accompanying vehicle to be a complete set. Many children’s toy vehicles are ornamented to appear like cars, even though mechanically, they are similar to bicycles. Many young boys build miniature race tracks of plastic, emulating the stock-car racers seen on T.V. By the time these children become teenagers, they will have their sights set on that 16th birthday with the driver’s license soon to follow. Who can blame them? With many living in suburbs spread so thinly, bicycle trips become impractical, and mass transit is non-existent. Those priviledged enough, will receive a car from their parents as a gift. Most others though, will need to work to support their new, used cars. Surely, some will argue that they need a car to get to work... so that they can have money in order to maintain their cars... so that they can get to work...etc.
From there, one’s adult life becomes a constant barrage of images to reinforce the ”normalcy” of car ownership and use. Psychological reinforcement comes heavily from our media sources. One third of all T.V. advertisements are for automobiles and a great deal of newspaper space, including the weekly ”automotive section”, is appropriated to present images, statistics, and commentary based on cars. This prohibits a reasonable debate on our collective auto obsession, since the media’s finances are so tied in with the auto industry. The government, too, is saturated with lobbyists representing the interests of the auto, oil, tire, and road construction industries, thus prohibiting major promulgation of alternative transportation funding. Subtle apparitions also occur in other ways, e.g. the glorification of winning a ”new car” as the top prize in a T.V. game show or at the New York Marathon, auto company sponsorship of bicycle races, etc.
While the media continue to glorify accidents involving airplanes, trains, subways or buses, over 40,000 people a year - a Vietnam War total -die in car accidents. (1) According to the U.S. National Safety Council, the death rate per mile travelled in a car is 18 times greater than in a train and 97 times greater than in a bus. (2) This does not include pedestrians; in New York City alone, 283 pedestrians were killed and 15,600 were injured by motorists in 1993. (3) Within the developing world’s chaotic mix of motorized and non-motorized vehicles, the driver and pedestrian fatality rate is close to 20 times greater than in the United States. (4) Car use also adversely affects human health by promoting a more sedentary lifestyle than, say, someone who gets around by bicycle. The ethos of the car oriented suburbs, says the social critic Lewis Mumford, ”creates an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before the television set.” Urban commuters who drive to and from work increase their levels of stress and hypertension, as they long to escape traffic and arrive at work or at home. Being stuck in traffic will subsequently affect worker’s morale and productivity, and, along with delayed delivery of goods, costs the American economy $100 billion a year, according to the General Accounting Office. (5)
THE SUBSIDIZING OF THE AMERICAN MOTORIST
The promotion of car culture is clearly evident in the massive subsidies bestowed upon motorists to enable them to drive almost anywhere as cheaply and efficiently as possible. The true costs of driving an automobile are obfuscated, for their disclosure would certainly reduce auto use and make alternative means more attractive. This would not be compatible with the interests of the oil, car, road construction, or development industries, all of whom contribute heavily to politicians on the local and national levels.
Ample cheap and free parking is a significant way in which motorists are subsidized. Real estate values in urban areas are costly, yet motorist are allowed to use up to 100 square feet of public space for the storage of their vehicles. What reserves the side of the street to be used for the sole purpose of parking cars? Could one use the space for storage instead? To put a trampoline, maybe? Could one open up a futon in a parking space and sleep overnight? What privileges car owners to eat up such valuable urban space, when others pay hundreds of dollars for apartments hardly bigger than a parking space?
The allotment of public space is just one of the many ways in which motorists are heavily subsidized in our country. Charlie Komanoff, an energy consultant in New York, calculates a total subsidy of $700 billion per year, averaging out to about $5.50 per gallon, through the federal and state government levels. He estimates that this is roughly equivalent to what the individual motorist pays for upkeep, fuel, insurance, taxes, etc. Therefore, he reasons, driving in the U.S. is done at half price. The other half is provided for by the taxpayer. This puts those who do not drive: the elderly, poor people, or those who choose not to, at a severe financial disadvantage.
According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, taxes from gas, new car purchases, and registration, cover only 2/3 of the costs of building and maintaining highways and roads. (6) The remaining costs arrive via the general tax fund. To cover the myriad of costs associated with driving, gas would have to be between $3-$4 per gallon. (7) This is closer to the rate found in European countries, where gas tax is 5x greater than in the U.S. (Additionally, taxes on new car purchases overseas are close to 50% of the cost, where here, the rate is 5-10% of the total cost of the new car.) Considering the uproar over President Clinton’s 1993 request for a 10 cent increase in gas taxes, it is easy to see why hidden subsidies need to replace a system of direct taxation.
The primary cost of a car dependant transportation system is the construction and maintenance of highways, roads, and bridges, to the tune of $200 million a day. (8) However, there are many other ways in which motorists are getting a ”free ride”. A significant portion of our security forces are utilized in automobile related issues: accidents, thefts, traffic control, and parking enforcement. These police officers could be much better utilized going after true criminals, rather than waving rush-hour traffic along, or investigating a minor traffic accident. Many of these accidents expound yet another burden on the taxpayer by disabling expensive pieces of public infrastructure. Destroyed fire hydrants, light poles, mailboxes, street signs, guardrails, planters, etc. become financial burdens that would be mitigated in a society less reliant on automobiles for transportation. Besides municipal police, State Police units are an enormous public expense, and apprehending highway speeders seems to be their raison d’etre.
Additionally, a large portion of health care costs are related to car accidents. Oil and car companies get large public subsidies, ranging from tax breaks to oil exploration permits on public lands. Employers are allowed to deduct from their taxes the expense of providing parking for their workers, and receive tax benefits for providing company cars. They are more strictly limited when it comes to tax incentives for mass transit or bicycle use. (9) The environmental damage due to car use: dirty air, dirty water, deforestation, etc., is impossible to calculate, but certainly not insignificant.
Perhaps the most expensive endowment of all, lies within the tangled fabric of our foreign policy. Every year, we spend billions of dollars to protect our oil tankers travelling through the Persian Gulf, as well troops for foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia. We even went to war to preserve our ”right” to drive wherever, and whenever, we saw fit. This prompted Senator Bob Dole to say: ”We are there for 3 letters: O-I-L. That is why we are in the Gulf. We are not there to save democracy. Saudi Arabia is not a democracy, and neither is Kuwait.” Meanwhile, if we had continued conserving oil after 1985 at the same rate as before, we would have eliminated the need for any oil from the gulf. (10) The industrialized world’s thirst for oil has allowed it to become pawns in international politics by their intense reliance on petroleum. This dependence plays right into the hands of dictators like Saddam Hussein, who know exactly how to provoke our enmity.
THE GREAT SUBURBAN BUILD OUT
Government and corporate encouragement of car use, and suburban sprawl as a support structure for our fallacious economic ”growth” is nothing new. It began in earnest in 1936 with the creation of the National City Lines Company, a corporate front group representing General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, and Mack Trucks. For the next 15 years, this powerful company bought out 45 street car and trolley systems throughout the country. By the 1950’s, all 45 transit systems were completely dismantled, opening the way for private car use and increased bus service, a demand that GM was all too happy to supply. This was the sad fate of public transportation in Los Angeles, a system nearly as extensive as New York’s. Eventually, National City Lines was found guilty of criminal antitrust violations, but the verdict was moot, for the great suburban build out was in full throttle.
Meanwhile, in the 1930’s, Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Authority (FHA) was created to put the post-depression construction industry back on its feet, and to improve the housing stock for Americans. The FHA subsidized banks through the federal treasury, and therefore allowed for reduced downpayments, and extended mortgages. Unfortunately, the FHA did not guarantee new loans for those who wanted to build or renovate in the inner cities. Maybe this should come as no surprise considering that one its commissioners happened to be on the Board of Directors of the Standard Oil Company. After WWII, the government allowed the millions of returning G.I.’s to own homes without any necessary downpayment, and mortgage interests were made tax deductible. Thus ownership was made less expensive than renting, and with the planned system of new highways, white veterans flocked to the burgeoning suburbs.
As farmland and forests were being paved over with housing developments in the 1950’s, the county and state road systems were becoming overburdened. Our economy demanded more growth, and the Federal Government began the largest public works project in our history, the Interstate Highway System. President Eisenhower began funding the highways after a hearty recommendation by his self appointed commission, chaired by Lucius D. Clay, on the Board of Directors of General Motors. 41,000 miles of new expressways spread over the country like a complex of veins and arteries. (11) Apologists for the vast new highway system insisted that they would quicken urban evacuation in the case of a Soviet nuclear attack, and, that they would provide enormous expanses of pavement and concrete to act as firebreaks, allowing sectors to remain unscathed.
Many companies had enormous profits to make through suburban expansion. The obvious beneficiaries were the oil and car companies, but many others which produced appliances, lawn mowers, lawn care products, etc. stood to cash in also. A major player was General Electric, who realized that every new home was certain to need a new washer and dryer, refrigerator, stove, blender, and other convenience items. GE knew that their fortunes lay within the increased unpopularity of urban apartment living. To encourage this, they sponsored many exhibitions and architectural competitions to glorify the modern suburban house. Famous architects normally won the competitions, bringing with them the legitimacy, and press coverage, of the single family suburban home.
While large sums of money funded the creation of highways and airports, rail improvements were all but forgotten. Sustainable, non-polluting alternatives have never been encouraged by our government except in emergency situations such as oil embargoes. The sprawling suburbs came to a crawl after the 1973 oil embargo, and subsequently President Carter sought alternative energy sources and decreased automobile reliance. After the election of Ronald Reagan, the oil cartel weakened, Iran and Iraq were soon to be engaged in a long and brutal war, and the oil market was flooded. With cheap gas, bank deregulation, and Reagan’s tax policies, suburban development and car-use went back into high gear throughout the 1980’s. During this time period, Federal funding for highways nearly doubled while the funding for mass transit was actually reduced by 10%. (12) In 1994, $20.3 billion was assigned to roads and highways while only $1 billion was allocated for rail improvements. (13)
A CRITIQUE OF SUBURBAN CULTURE
It was the promise of open space which initially lead many people to the suburban frontier. Paradoxically, suburbs have been allowed to sprawl unchecked for so long that very little of this open space or nature exists anymore. People are now either moving back into the city, or moving further and further into exurbia. The pace of this exodus has been exascerbated by advances in computers and the burgeoning ”information superhighway”. Advances in high technology have rendered the proximity to the city as insignificant for some, and has allowed them to create home offices on the fringes of the wilderness. These ”pioneers” are increasing the extirpation of forests and farmland by building structures and roads into areas where none belong.
Where half a century ago, most people lived in a city or a rural location, the post-war blossoming of our car culture has allowed the typical American to now live in a suburban housing development. Ostensibly designed to preserve open space, these communities lack public open space and, due to dysfunctional zoning regulations, are spread so thinly that public transportation becomes ellusive. Therefore, a car trip is the required method of transportation for every task; it is no wonder that the average American motorist drives 10,000 miles a year. (14)
The need to drive everywhere increases social fragmentation and is most detrimental to those who cannot drive: the elderly, the sick, children, and the poor, all of whom become completely dependant on the car driver for mobility. Ironically, many families initially relocate to suburbs for the ”good” of their children, yet their children are stuck in virtual isolation and dependence, for their communities are designed not for them, but instead for cars. Thus, they spend a great deal of their time in front of the television for this becomes the prime atraction in many suburbs whose landscape is defined by housing developments, parking lots, fast food joints, and expressway off-ramps. The suburban landscape that most politicians would proudly call ”growth”, has greatly contributed to the deterioration of community and culture, for community has been substituted with shopping malls, and culture has been replaced by television.
Much of the reason why suburbs look the way they do is because of zoning laws. Drafted by planning boards often representing development and business interests, many of the codes are provided for the convenience of automobiles as if they were the dominant life form on the planet. The main premise behind our current zoning codes is the complete and distanced seperation of homes and jobs, as if we still inhabited cities of smokestacked factories and revolting slaughterhouses. With segregation rather than mixed-use, the ability to perform daily errands or go to work becomes impossible by walking or biking, and with poor mass transit, a motor vehicle becomes a necessity. Additionally, it creates the dysfunctional hierarchy of the commercial strip, the destination for so many who simply need a soda or a newspaper. Corner stores are not allowed in most suburban residential neighborhoods, nor are apartments allowed above shops and restaurants, denying mixed use buildings, and keeping density at a minimum.
Zoning laws regarding street design contribute to the lack of community in most suburbs. These laws deny enclosure, so necessary in making quality street spaces. The comforting feeling of enclosure is what makes 19th century brownstone-lined streets so charming. Compare a street in old-world Brooklyn or Boston to one that has a wide paved surface, no sidewalk, facades comprised of garages, and houses setback from the street and spaced at large intervals. Requirements for wide streets make speeds in excess of 35 m.p.h. possible, and, street trees and sharp curves are heartily discouraged for fear of prompting traffic accidents. Towering alien-like street lamps block out the stars and exist so that late night motorist can negociate the street at higher speeds. All told, suburban zoning laws mandate an environment designed for automobile driving, and with zero regard for the public realm. (15)
On the commercial boulevards, zoning requires that buildings be set back certain distances and provide vast parking lots. The amalgamation of these structures resembles a gridded archipelago within a vast sea of pavement. Architecturally, these areas are as cheaply constructed as they are unsightly, and many design elements are at a scale not commiserate to pedestrians. The attempt to lure motorists comes to its utter perversion as gas stations and restaurants float their signs hundreds of feet in the air, begging for the attention of the speeding motorist. The suburban strip has also created its own building and spacial typologies: the drive-in restaurant, enormous billboards, car washes, gas stations, drive-in movie theaters, and of course, the ubiqutous used car lot.
CAR CULTURE’S INVASION OF THE METROPOLIS
The automobile’s infusion into our cities has had a major impact on urban architecture likewise. Car culture has created the ”architecture of subtraction”, as pieces and parts of towns and cities have been eviscerated to make room for automobiles. This has excised portions of urban fabric, taking away street definition, so important in civic space making. Buildings and entire blocks have been removed to make parking lots. Gas stations become instant eyesores, and usurp large areas of space potentially used for public plazas, parks, or buildings. Both take away from the pedestrian experience of movement through a city, and abate the visual and cultural stimulation. Instead of strolling along a well defined street with interesting shop display windows and greenery, a bleak landscape of cars is considered.
Never before has an invention that so many people consider a necessity taken up so much space. In older cities such as Boston or New York, close to 1/2 of the ground space is reserved for the sole purpose of moving and storing cars, and in newer cities such as Los Angeles or Pheonix, it is closer to 2/3. (16) These inequities become quite obvious by simply walking the streets of Manhattan, for example. The distrubution of pedestrian space compared to automobile space is heavily weighed towards the motorist, even in midtown Manhattan, where millions work, or Greenwich Village where thousands socialize. Hundreds of people can be jammed onto narrow sidewalks, while cars stream by on four and five lane avenues. In the battle for urban turf, the clear winner is the automobile.
Few civic interventions compare to the destruction wrought by urban expressways, which functionally, have done nothing that commuter rail lines couldn’t do. From the beginning, expressways were ostensibly built to bring commuters into the city more easily, but, what they have really done is to drain the city of its middle class by providing a very compelling reason to leave. As highways plowed through cities in the 1950’s and 1960’s, dense urban neighborhoods of different ethnicities were removed and highrise housing projects took their place. The government, sensing the surge in black migration north, built these projects to house them and simultaneously provided urban highways to allow the white middle class to escape, encouraging segregation. Highways were not so much built to ameliorate traffic congestion, instead they created traffic congestion by decentralizing urban areas.
Urban expressways fracture neighborhoods and are accompanied by a host of subsequent urban predicaments. Besides the introduction of air and noise pollution, the highways are like stakes driven through the hearts of intact neighborhoods. Geographically, they are often constructed along natural boundaries and edges resulting in the seperation of the urban realm from rivers, lakes, bays, and oceans. Not only does this deny the heritage of a city, whos economy may have been based on a local body of water, but it also prohibits public access to natural open spaces. Highways built above grade are like massive fortress walls of noise and smog, and built below grade they resemble moats, often with infrequent overpasses to further divide the community. From an economic point of view, they are quite detrimental, for the dense urban fabric cleared for the widened road subtracts formerly taxable land. The maligning effects of the highway reverberate from block to block, and quickly property values plummet, and a once middle class neighborhood turns to squalor as residents flee to the suburbs on the very highway that destroyed their neighborhoods. The void is soon filled with the economically disadvantaged immigrants, and the municipality, loathing the loss of property taxes, allows the area to crumble. This scenario has played a major role in the disintegration of many of America’s cities from Los Angeles, to Detroit, to the South Bronx.
Culturally, the ubiquity of cars has had the largest impact on our street culture, the common bond of communities. The ”public space” of the urban and suburban street has, for the most part, been compromised for the singular purpose of moving and storing automobiles. This relinquishes public space to the favored car owners of our society. Street space incubates social interactions, and these become much more difficult when streets are filled with noisy, polluting, and speeding motor vehicles. According to the late architectural historian Spiro Kostoff, ”the street stands as the burial place of a chance to learn from one another, the burial place of unrehearsed excitement, of the cumulative knowledge of human ways. We lose this because we would rather keep to ourselves, avoid social tension by escaping it, schedule encounters with friends, and happily travel alone in climate controlled and music injected glossy metal boxes.” (17)
In some large cities, streets have become so chaotic and polluted that separate planes of pedestrian movement have developed. Rather than confronting the real epidemic, cities and private sources have built extensive systems of bridges and underground concourses, keeping the public off of the ground plane, where social intercourse traditionally occurred. These ersatz public spaces fail to bring together urban society in all of its diversity. The quasi-public nature of the bridges and concourses are undemocratic, in that they allow the often private controlling body to eliminate certain undesirable elements, such as the homeless or demonstrations.
Sadly, many have forgotten or may never know the true vitality of an authentic street culture. Disneyland’s Main Street or the local mall will never be appropriate substitutes. Instead, much of the built landscape is a pathetic malaise of squalor and dysfunctional planning, yet most of us feel that it was an organic process that could not be ameliorated.
Car cultures affect on crime in this country cannot be ignored. Auto usage results directly in many violent crimes such as car jackings and drive-by shootings, and is often an integral part of much gang activity and violence. Interestingly, it is in large cities that rely most heavily on automobile transportation where major gang problems are most prevalent. Compare gang activity in Los Angeles to New York‘s, for example. Many criminals rely on a getaway car, for the multitude of roads and expressways provide a convenient means of escape. The ubiquity of roads make it easy to buy drugs, pick up a prostitute, rob a store, or blow up an office building. These criminal acts become more difficult in a society whose transportation needs are met with mass transit and bicycles.
The issue of access to terrorism has finally met the attention of our federal government. After months of deliberation President Clinton ordered the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue, just weeks after the Oklahoma City bombing. Although the three block stretch of road has been reclaimed as public space, filled with hundreds of tourists and roller skaters, the need to ”apologize” was still pervasive. Quoted in The New York Times, the President said that the street closing was ”seen as a responsible security step necessary to preserve our freedom, not part of a long term restriction of our freedom.” To equate automobile access of a section of street with freedom is absolutely ludicrious, but, in a car dominant society, many motorists feel that they have the ”right” to drive anywhere, whether that be deep into a National Park, or directly in front of the White House. Maybe the President’s attitude comes as no surprise to those who remember his valiant appeals to the American psyche by declaring, after the 1993 Los Angeles earthquake, that, ”freeway reconstruction will be the most urgent need.”
Some cities are finally coming to terms with the cars-and-crime reality, and have begun programs to limit automobiles in neighborhoods vulnerable to lawbreaking. In Dayton, Ohio, the mixed income racially diverse neighborhood of 5 Oaks recently gated its through streets, allowing access only to residents’ automobiles, and foot and bicycle traffic. According to The New York Times, overall crime went down by 25% after the change and violent crime was reduced by 50%. Additionally, neighborhoods in Coconut Grove, Florida, Austin, Texas, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Los Angeles, have all had success with physical prohibition of thru-traffic. These neighborhoods have experience rebirth as drug dealing and prostitution have been severely limited, although critics say that the deviant behavior has simply moved elsewhere. Nonetheless, these examples show the potential of retaking public space away from the influx of automobiles and returning it to the community.
Based upon car culture’s incorrigible impact on North America, one shudders to think of this becoming an international precedent. Sadly, it is already happening. Since the collapse of the Soviet monolith and the opening of the Far-Eastern markets, multi-national auto makers and oil companies have been drooling over their prospects. According to The New York Times, Hungary and Poland already have 50% more cars than before the end of the cold-war, and government support for mass transit has waned. The Chinese government, while vigorously pushing to modernize their country, have begun enormous road building projects, hoping to encourage tens of millions to buy cars. Like post-war America, China seems to be blinded by the fallacious aura surrounding the automobile, and have failed to consider the consequences. Recently,The Beijing Review stated in the purest of Orwellian doublespeak, that, ”vigorous development of private cars will effectively help ease the strain on urban traffic…as the replacement of bicycles with cars will enable Chineese cities to realize traffic modernization.” Perhaps Chinese officials should try driving an L.A. freeway at rushhour, or biking up 6th Avenue in Manhattan before they make such hasty decisions for their country.
THE DESTRUCTION OF FARMLAND, FORESTS, AND WILDLIFE
The constantly expanding suburban malaise is inexoribly connected with cheap gas, the lack of mass transit, and an obdurate government nearly bought and paid for by lobbyists from the development, oil, automobile, and paving industries. The natural desire to live ”out in the country” brings meddlesome human beings closer and closer to our dwindling wildlands. In the last forty years, we have destroyed more land than in the 300 years before, this is due not so much to population growth, but to the natural properties of car culture. The environmental damage has been unprecedented: the dwindling quality of the air and water, the loss of natural resources, and the destruction of farmland, forests, and wildlife. The omeba-like suburbs, left unchecked, will sprawl further into the deserts of the Southwest, the forests of Pacific Northwest, the mountains of Colorado, the farmlands of the midwest, and the last few remaining wild places in the Northeast.
From the perspective of the use of natural resources, the automobile oriented suburbs are perniciously inefficient. Consider the environment impact of a car-oriented suburban style community of 500 households, and an urban community for the same 500 households. The land use requirements for the former are enormous as each house occupies a 1/4 or 1/2 acre lot and is connected by wide roads. The 500 individual homes require vast amounts of materials to build and must be connected by a myriad of power, water, and sewer lines, putting a strain on our dwindling natural resources. Although urban communities are not perfect, they have a much lower ecological impact considering their compact land use, efficiency of materials and infrastructure, and maintained distance from wilderness and wildlife. Additionally, each house in the suburban community becomes but an island within the paradigmatic lush green lawn. Forget the fact that grass is not native to many areas of our country, every homeowner demands one, whether living in lush New England, or the Arizona desert. American lawns total 20 million acres, quadruple the size of Washington state, and require enormous amounts of water and chemicals to keep green. Lawns and their required mowers have become totems of our fetishism with grass, resulting in polluted water tables, noisy neighborhoods, and vast amounts of ecologically useless land.
The common piece of infrastructure that is necessary for all suburban and exurban developments is the paved road. Every square foot of pavement represents an ecological dead zone, a completely sterilized environment that allows the runoff of oil, antifreeze, and brake fluids into the water table. When a road is built in a remote area close to wilderness, it not only brings polluting and dangerous cars, but also brings with it the constant pressure of continued development. The close proximity to nature brings in items not native to a bioregion such as noise, garbage, dogs, vehicles, and guns. Roads also allow the hordes of hunters, poachers, and trappers to drive into remote areas to exterminate wildlife.
The recent rise in popularity of campers and four wheel drive vehicles have accelerated the complete commodification of the natural world. Now we can all have a packaged environment, seen from the safety of mobile fortresses as if the planet were one big theme park. Television advertisements convince viewers that the appropriate 4-wheel drive vehicle will allow them to cross rivers, blaze through forests, and drive to remote mountain vista points. Car culture has clearly brought too many people to places that they do not necessarily belong.
A great tragedy is the quantity of wild animals that are struck and killed every year by speeding automobiles. More than half a billion animals, including 1/4 of a million people, are killed every year on the planet’s roads and highways. (18) This is 10 times more creatures killed by cars than by the American pork industry, for comparison. (19) The average American’s car kills 3 to 4 vertebrate animals per year and have contributed to the endangerment of some species, most notably the Florida panther, 65% of whose documented deaths have been at the hands of motorists travelling through the Ocala National Forest. In Pennsylvania alone in 1985, 26,180 deer and 90 bears were slaughtered by automobiles. (20) In the Mikumi National Park in Tanzania, more animals, including baboons, wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, jackals, and even elephants, have been killed by cars than by poachers since the1991 road improvements increased the maximum speed from 20 m.p.h. to 60 m.p.h. (21)
Some species are attracted to roads, while others are averted, both of which have disastrous implications for the animals forced to deal with the intrusion. Animals averted to roads run the risk of genetic deterioration due to inbreeding. This is created by the fragmentation of their populations, hemmed in by roads on all sides. This also affects the healthy migration of animals, and forces them to stay in unnatural climates. The noises due to road construction and the resulting traffic can alter an animal’s pattern of activity, and raises their stress levels. This is especially true of birds who rely heavily on auditory signals.
Exacerbating the quantity of roadkill is the unfortunate fact that many animals are attracted to the typography of a road. The dense vegetation at road side attracts grazing deer and a multitude of rodents. The proliferation of rodents, along with previously killed animals attracts scavengers such as coyote and racoon, who in turn are often struck by cars. Other large mammals also come to the roadway to innocently use it as a travel corridor. The proximity of the large mammals attracts curious and naive onlookers who frequently harass the animals or try to feed them human food. Wild animals also come to the road to eat de-icing salts in the winter season, increasing the potential of a collision, but also poisoning the animal due to the sodium and calcium chlorides present in the salt. (20)
Another way in which automobile ownership and use is detrimental to the environment is the vast quantities of natural resources required to sustain a transportation mode. Besides the seemingly infinite amalgam of wood, gravel, asphalt, and steel used to build and maintain the Earth’s roads and highways, the world’s 400 million cars requires excessive amounts of resources and energy to create. In a culture less reliant on automobiles, the inner city street‘s ubiquitous abandoned car, the monumentalized pile of worn tires, or the junkyard cache of flattened cars would be greatly lessened.
Although most cars can last much longer, many are passed on after only a few years. This keeps car companies profits rolling in. Complicit designers are all too happy to continually churn out the latest models with improved aerodynamics, racier colors, and the newest gizmos of convenience. In 1955, Harvey Earl, the head of the GM styling division said, ”Our biggest job is to hasten obsolescence. In 1934, the average car ownership span was five years; now it is two years. When it is one year, we will have a perfect score.”
The environmental problem most apparent to the public is air pollution. Within urban areas, cars are the single largest source of air pollution, and create 13% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, 28% of Chlorofluorocarbons, and between 30-40% of nitrogen oxides, the primary chemical responsible for acid rain, according to the Marland Energy Magazine in 1983. The E.P.A. reports that automobile air conditioners are the single largest source of ozone depleting chemical. Despite the fact that these days cars produce 1/2 as much carbon monoxide as they did twenty years ago, this has only had beneficial results within the purlieus of urban smog quantity. At the same time, the amount of carbon dioxide released from cars is the same and will always be the same, for it is the inevitable byproduct of fossil fuel consumption. The invisible and odorless CO2 cannot be reduced no matter the filter or cat. converter on the newest, most aerodynamic car, and it is this insidious CO2 gas which is contributing greatly to the greenhouse effect. (22) Despite the fact that presently cars produce 1/2 as much carbon monoxide as they did twenty years ago, this has only had beneficial results within the confines of urban smog quantity. At the same time, the amount of carbon dioxide released from cars is the same and will always be the same, for it is the inevitable byproduct of fossil fuel consumption. The invisible and odorless CO2 cannot be reduced no matter the filter or cat. converter on the newest, most aerodynamic car, and it is this insidious CO2 gas which is contributing greatly to the greenhouse effect. (22)
Air pollution also accelerates the deterioration of a city's infrastructure and buildings, especially those of historic value. Buildings in many cities have been severely discolored due to polluted air, and those lying on busy streets and thoroughfares need facade renovation much more frequently than those on calmer streets. Some structures even experience structural damage due to heavy, rumbling trucks. Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk in New York’s Central Park, a weekday speedway, has degenerated more in the 35 years since its been in Manhattan, than in the previous 3500 years in the harsh desert climate of Egypt.
It is the profligate use of oil, in many ways, that may contain the most ecological destructive component of all: the ubiquitous oil spill. Ubiquitous in a sense that the Exxon Valdez disaster was not an anomaly; spills of that magnitude occur quite often, and have disastrous implications on the ecology of the world‘s oceans. Greenpeace estimates that one billion gallons of oil are directly spilled into the oceans every year. Valdez was only the 14th largest spill in history, but, because most others occurred off shore and did not directly reach a populated land mass, their was a dearth of media coverage. Accidental spills only represent 17% of the total oil which enters the marine environment. The rest, enters the oceans via the routine flushing of carrier tanks, and the daily byproducts of the petroleum industry. Another 50 million gallons of gallons of petroleum seeps into the world’s fresh water supply through the daily run-off from roads and do-it-yourself mechanics. (23) Although the estimation of the total death of sea creatures and birds due to oil spillage is incalculable, the toll from the Alaska Valdez incident, according to Greenpeace, led to the deaths of 5000 otters, 200 harbor seals, and perhaps 1/2 a million birds.
The demand for petroleum constantly pressures the oil industry to search for oil in more and more remote places. The oil companies‘ thirst for profit leaves them with no concern for the consequences of their actions. They would drill in the Grand Canyon or sink a derelict oil platform in a whale sanctuary if they thought they could get away with it. Their powerful lobbyists are constantly persuading the U.S. and other governments to open up fragile wilderness and marine habitats for oil exploration, whether it be in a tropical rainforest, a spectacular mountain range, or the Arctic tundra. When habitats are opened up for exploration, great damage is done even if oil is not found in sufficient quantities to warrant refining. Seismic studies destroy habitat and terrify wildlife, and the myriad of abandoned roads are often subsequently used by logging companies to get to areas that were initially off limits to them. The predicament can only get worse, for as Asia, especially China, developes its system of roads and opens its markets, the numbers of cars are expected to double globally by 2010.
The ultimate fallacy of an economy and lifestyle dependent upon cheap and plentiful oil is that it is not sustainable. According to the Hubbert Curve on oil production, an industry forecasting standard, the world is expected to run out of its oil by 2040, at the present rate of use. Petroleum depletion could be mitigated if motorists would pay for the true costs of driving, thus making alternatives, such as trains and bicycles, more attractive. Higher taxes must be levied upon gas, registration, and new car purchases, and tolls need to be increased, especially for solitary commuters. This would not only offset the many subsidized costs of auto transit, but would also create capital for rail improvements. The discouragement of automobile use must begin today, or we run the risk of being unprepared when the pumps run dry and ”carmaggedon” day is upon us.
Many of humanity’s most pressing problems such as deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, the dwindling of native cultures, global warming, the loss of communties, and water pollution, can be traced to the overuse of automobiles, and unchecked suburban development. Cars are here to stay and they certainly have their uses, but, too many people have deemed these uses to mean every single trip, whether one mile or one hundred miles. We have been brainwashed into demanding a table in the non-smoking section of a restaurant and then, after the meal, either driving home, or walking along noisy, chaotic, and polluted streets. The daily bombardment of automobile images and our government’s obstinate attitude towards alternatives has allowed us to accept the auto-dominated landscape that surrounds us all. Until this type of behavior is curbed, our decadent lifestyle will continue to decimate communities and cities, and precipitate the ongoing destruction of the natural world.
1 - ”Mobilopathy”, Ralph Slovenko, Journal of Psychiatric Law, Summer 1984.
2- ”Accident Facts”, National Safety Council, 1993.
3 - New York City Dept. of Transportation Safety Division.
4 - ”Rethinking the role of the Automobile”, Michael Renner, Worldwatch Report #84, 6/88.
5 - ”Smart Highways: An Assessment of their potential to Improve Travel”, U. S. General Accounting Office, 1991.
6 - ”Highway Statistics”, U.S. Federal Highway Administration, 1992.
7 - ”The Real Cost of Energy”, Harold M. Hubbard, Scientific American, 4/91.
8 - A.P.M. Newsletter, 8/93.
9 - ”Cars are Evil: Automobiles and the Environment”, Stefanie Pollack, Conservation Law Foundation, 7/90.
10 - Rocky Mt. Institute, Amory Lovins, at the First International Conference on Auto-Free Cities, New York, 1991.
11 - The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler, 1993, p.106-107.
12 - ”Acting in the National Interest: the Transportation Agenda”, the Surface Transportation Policy Project.
13 - National Association of Railroad Passengers, 2/94.
14 - International Road Federation, U.N. Economic Committee for Europe
15 - The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler, 1993, p.113-118.
16 - ”Automobile Index”, Conservation Law Index of New England
17 - The City Assembled, Spiro Kostov, 1992, p.243
18 - ”Rethinking the role of the Automobile”, Michael Renner, Worldwatch Report #84, 6/88.
19 - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
20 - ”The Ecological Effects of Roads”, Reed Noss, Wild Earth Magazine
21 - ”Eco-mole”, Carlos Drew, Earth Island Institute Journal, Spring 1995.
22 - ”Not So Fast”, Bill Mckibben, New York Times Magazine, 7/23/95.
23 - ”Oil in the Sea: Inputs, Fates, and Effects”, National Academy Press, 1985
Philip Goff is a graduate student in urban design at the Univ. of Oregon.