Car blindness — Ignoring the true cost of cars

Alex Dyer
8 min readAug 24, 2019

We love cars. Or do we?

Perhaps instead, we just have places to go and people to see and jobs to do. Perhaps they’re just another tool of modern life and have become familiar, habitual, routine.

Many don’t even like driving but have come to rely on cars due to decades of investment in infrastructure optimising their movement.

Compared to driving cars other travel options may seem less familiar, or under provisioned, and be less accessible or convenient. And many options for getting around are severely compromised by heavy flows of private heavy vehicles.

Are the externalities of driving too hidden, too remote and indirect, or too “someone else’s problem”? Will we look, or will we remain blind to it all?

This is the first in a series of four articles discussing car blindness. For cities around the world, more urgency is needed to enable sustainable, efficient, and healthy transport.

To realise this faster, we must carefully review one of the biggest barriers: our dependence on cars.

Car blindness

Car blindness is the mindset of not seeing that cars themselves are a major, chronic problem. It is when one overlooks the heavy price tag of driving cars and is unable to see the precariousness of car dependency.

A symptom of car blindness is being convinced that by fixing one or two problems, cars will finally make sense.

Maybe by changing how they‘re powered will fix them? Or maybe making them a tiny bit less dangerous? Or making non-dangerous road users, like cyclists, more visible? Or adding another lane to a highway, or tunnel through a city?

This quest for the elusive redemption of cars means being unprepared to accept they are incompatible with cities designed for people. ‘Fixing cars’ is actually all about fixing cities and providing accessible transport alternatives.

If cars were introduced as a new product today, would they even make it into the public domain? The problems they present are considerable. But seeing as we’ve already built them into society, it is very challenging to acknowledge this.

Cars for everyone was born from corporate fantasy, that everyone can just nip around everywhere in outsized heavy vehicles. This rose-tinted driving-goggles-vision is at odds with healthy city living and planetary resource boundaries.

The convenience of driving cars comes at the expense of many things including local community connections, individual and collective wealth, and general well-being. It is important that more people see these issues clearly.

Cars can be useful

Heavy vehicles designed to transport up to 7 occupants (but usually not actually transporting more than one) can do some jobs well;

  • they enable mobility for some with physical impairments or illness,
  • they’re convenient for unplanned, inter-city journeys,
  • they’ve been a focus of technological innovation,
  • they are valuable tools in rural living & heavy trade work scenarios
  • they can assist in some emergency response scenarios (if there is no congestion to contend with)

Looking at the problem of cars

In reality, how we use cars today is insanely inefficient and problematic. As a transport system, cars waste vast amounts of time, space, resources, and energy.

Cars are a major source of several forms of pollution, contribute heavily to climate breakdown, and are exacerbating a global ecocidal mass extinction.

As a product cars frequently disrupt many people’s daily lives. Driving contributes to many negative health impacts in humans. And cars are literally killing us in multiple ways.

The ruinousness of cars

Ever since cars were first marketed motoring interests have striven to convince people that their adverse consequences were worth the ‘free’ movement they enable. The adverse consequences are good for business.

And this perilous illusion is still working; many people are still passionate about cars and remain convinced they will continue to enjoy a dominant place in mainstream culture.

Many of the ways that cars degrade everyday lives don’t even factor in any official monitoring. We have normalised the downsides, and externalise them as some immutable price of ‘modern progress’.

Car blind society

With decades of technological improvement behind them, cars are still dangerous and disruptive, and don’t come close to delivering a positive return on investment in the transport mix in cities.

It’s not like people haven’t tried to repel cars from cities in the past. When cars began invading cities early last century, the majority of citizens desperately repelled them.

Newspaper cartoons from 1920’s America as appears in Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (MIT Press) by Peter D. Norton

Today, car blindness appears semi-ubiquitous. Some car owners identify strongly with their cars. They might consider them an integral part of their culture and identity, and become defensive of the smallest criticism of motor vehicles — as if they’re some sort of law of nature or a fifth limb.

The inhumanity of car dependency

But many people can see the problems. People across the world are recovering, slowly, from car blindness.

Visionary, pragmatic cities around the world, such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Oslo, Paris, Madrid, and many more, are realising the immense benefits of new mobility options and infrastructure, and are rapidly eroding the dominance of private motor vehicles for their residents.

The promise of a better world

If we want cities to work better, if we want healthier, happier lives, and human life on Earth to continue in some level of comfort, we need to see past the motordom zeitgeist. We should be moving past using car technology in such wasteful ways. We must urgently realise a new world with transport options that work for people and the planet.

Cities and towns are meant to strengthen human social connections, enhance economic efficiencies, and promote well-being and community. Communities thrive in cities where the built environment is designed with people in mind. Public spaces should be universally accessible and as safe and inclusive as possible. Roads are public spaces.

We have a responsibility to tread lightly on this planet for ourselves and future generations. Travelling in sustainable ways — literally treading lightly — is a powerful way to do this. By building healthy mobility into our lives we can be wealthier, safer, and happier.

In this wondrous, modern age it is common to perceive cars as a normal, functional transport option — that we are living one step away from a futuristic Jetsons-style utopian futurama as promised in world fairs of old.

But the real promise of a better world lies in truly appreciating what makes our lives and this world healthy. Sometimes this means reassessing technology that was once attractive, and finding more appropriate ways to utilise it.

Vision for the future

The good news is, choosing to travel differently; walking, public transport, or on a bike etc, can (if well provisioned for!) become as familiar and habitual as some find driving. They may present different challenges to driving cars, but many perceived barriers are just about forming new habits.

Becoming familiar with healthier travel choices can eventually make being car-free more convenient for many, and a whole lot more empowering, enjoyable, and life affirming.

Car free journeys are no longer the preserve of walking, public transport or riding bicycles either. These are still the champions, but there is an explosion of innovation happening around the world.

Everything is getting smaller and cheaper, and electrified and shared. It is called micromobility.

In the not too distant future, owning a car will seem quaint. Archaic. And excessive — unless you have very particular mobility assistance needs.

Journeys of all kinds will be enabled by shared and connected transport systems — known as Mobility as a Service. This is already a reality in some progressive cities.

Healthier, cheaper and accessible means of moving about is achieved by having public transport and space that is safe, attractive, and accessible. The rewards are not just about how we move either. Having more open spaces, seating, trees and nature, less noise, more freedom for all ages and abilities are achievable goals for city living. The main barrier to providing these rewards is: cars. Too. Many. Cars.

To overcome car blindness we need to put pressure on local and national authorities responsible for our built environment to provide safe space for walking and cycling, and reliable, comfortable, and frequent public transport. There must be a clear, measurable objective of reducing car dependency.

Vote. Vote with your shoes. Vote with your pedals. Vote with your bus and train passes.

Engage with public initiatives that can move us toward healthy streets, healthy cities, healthy people and a healthier Earth. Discuss the problems that cars bring with your friends and family. We will be unable to face these problems while we are blind to them.

At this critical time in human history it is important that more people face the many serious negative impacts of cars, especially for what is a very short list of unique benefits. We really need to treat driving as the extremely costly and privileged activity it is, and regulate it far, far more heavily.

Healthy air, a stable environment, and safe and accessible cities should be ours by right.

So next time you’re heading out and about, listen to that little niggle of conscience in the back of your head. Look to travel about your city in a healthy way. Think of every journey you take as an opportunity to reinforce how highly you value all life and everyone’s well-being.



Alex Dyer

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