The ruinousness of cars

Alex Dyer
12 min readAug 24, 2019
Earth on fire

Most people are probably aware that cars are bad for us and the environment. Given how much we have come to use them, perhaps most aren’t aware just how very bad they are.

It is not uncommon to see well-meaning environmental initiatives proclaim their effectiveness by comparing their performance to the ‘number of cars taken off the road’. Like this is some kind of official unit of measurement.

Every time this is used it does my head in: Why do they not just take cars off the road instead? They will only be trying to compare one or two aspects, usually air pollution or emissions. But it is car blind to ignore the many other benefits of reducing car use.

Cars cause serious harm in many ways. Climate breakdown is one. A health and safety crisis is another. And everything cars need to exist and operate are costing the Earth (literally).

Cars are ruinous.

Read more of the Car blindness series

Cars pollute and degrade the environment

Car exhaust. Wikipedia.

When we think of pollution from cars, we generally think about air pollution from exhaust. The growing enthusiasm for electric cars might lead you to assume exhaust fumes are the only way cars pollute.

Running cars on electricity does help with a couple of important environmental problems: greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, but only partially for both. The process of switching to a different power source for such a resource intensive product also exacerbates other environmental challenges.

Many tend to overlook the embedded carbon emissions from car manufacturing. Carbon emissions of producing a large new car — whether electric or conventional can be roughly equivalent to driving an average fossil fuel car ~150,000 kms.

Cars are also a serious problem in resource depletion — a problem being exacerbated by more complex technology, larger vehicles, and the switch electric power.

Every electric car produced is competing directly for resources that could be used to provision actually sustainable transport machinery. This distracting competition is displacing electric rail, electric buses, electric boats, electric bicycles, escooters, and other micromobility, making them all more expensive than they need to be. We should not be squandering these limited natural resources on cars when we desperately need to achieve much greater efficiencies in transport.

Experts advocate that we need fewer cars altogether, and that the planet cannot resource a wholesale switch to electric car dependency.

But cars also damage our world in other, less obvious ways.

A major source of microplastic pollution and not insubstantial amounts of fine particulate air pollution (the deadly kind) comes from vehicle tyre abrasion, braking, and kicked up dust. Electric cars perform worse at this problem due to being generally heavier.

Noise pollution is second only to air pollution from vehicles. One in three Europeans suffer health problems from noise pollution. Traffic noise is linked to 50,000 premature deaths every year in Europe.

Cars damage infrastructure through the wear and tear of normal use. One journey in an average car is over 17,000x more damaging than a journey by a heavy person riding a heavy bicycle. For the heaviest ‘cars’ — like a Hummer H2 — the ratio is ~350,000×. For the very largest trucks the difference in damage done is in the region of 6.8 million times. No wonder infrastructure is crumbling.

Cars are crashed into things. A lot.

Many cars leak oil and various toxic polluting fluids.

Where cars go, so too goes increased littering and fly tipping.

Air pollution particulates and dust can damage paint and building exteriors.

Cars contribute to the growing light pollution problem.

Cars and the spaces built for them are visual pollution — they can be a visual hazard for safety, especially for kids — and spaces for cars are by and large just plain ugly.

When was the last time you saw any tourism marketed by featuring a parking building, a congested ‘freeway’, or a nondescript fuel stop ‘town’.

Of course, fossil fuel powered cars are seriously bad news when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States for example, cars and trucks currently account for nearly one-fifth of that country’s entire GHG emissions.

Climate breakdown is the most serious threat humanity has ever faced and our dependence on cars is a major contributor to this calamity. I really cannot think of a worse thing to happen to the environment than everything dying.

The planet is dying. Can you really afford to take the car?

Domesticated animals suffer a heavy toll from human driving. You probably know someone who has lost a pet cat or dog on a local road.

Untold numbers of wild animals also die, have ecological conditions destroyed, or migratory patterns interrupted by roads and driving.

Plants and trees are a bit of an obstacle to driving. As a general rule: where cars are — plants aren’t.

Did I mention damage to the environment from fuel extraction gone wrong?

Exxon Valdez. Deepwater Horizon. Rena. Tar Sands.

The only challenge that matters is how to enable everyone to use FEWER cars. The challenge is not how to power cars differently, or figure out the fantasy of making computers responsible for safe driving. If you can’t see reduced car dependency as the primary means to fix cars — you have car blindness.

Extinction symbol.

Cars are making us sick

Car fumes aren’t nice. We understand that they are not good for health. But with the number of cars in intimate proximity of our homes and public spaces perhaps we generally underappreciate just how very bad air pollution from vehicles is.

According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 4.2M people die prematurely from ‘ambient air pollution’, of which a major source is motor vehicle exhaust. Over 4M children suffer cases of asthma per year from traffic exhaust pollution, which is now arguably a larger health issue than smoking. That’s 11,000 new cases per day.

Air pollution from cars reduces life expectancy for thousands and is especially dangerous for children. Scientists now assert that fine particulate matter may harm every organ in our bodies. The health problems complicated by this are possibly much worse than currently understood.

If fine particulate matter in the air is hurting our bodies, it will be harming all animals breathing that air as well.

Driving cars also compromises human health by reducing daily activity and exercise for a large proportion of people. Inactivity is a major, growing health problem around the world.

Many leading non-communicable diseases — the main modern causes of death — can be dramatically reduced by cycling instead of driving a car. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, type-2 diabetes, respiratory disease, and more. This is not to say driving directly causes these health problems, but our overly sedentary lifestyles definitely contributes to complications and driving is a sedentary activity.

Driving, possibly more than anything, interferes with critical opportunities for people to move actively in our busy modern lives. It does this by eliminating active journeys by motorists and also suppresses other people from choosing to due to reduced safety in the built environment.

The substantial expense of owning and operating cars diverts money from people’s budgets, — money that could be spent on healthier food and activity choices.

People lose time driving — time they could be using more productively, socially, feeling less stressed, or travelling in healthier ways.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Americans on average spend just under 1 hour a day operating a car. This totals around 84 billion hours in traffic per calendar year — or 9,589,041 person years.

In comparison, the health benefits of riding a bicycle are thought to be so great that the time spent doing it is practically free. For every minute you are cycling you extend your life expectancy by a minute.

And last but by no means least — road violence incidents can have life altering consequences which can impact quality of life and mental health for whole families.

Cars are dangerous

Every year around the world there are over 1.2M deaths from road violence.

The number of people dying from road violence per year has only recently been matched by the number that are killed in gun related deaths per year in the United States.

People walking or riding bikes are described, in road engineering terms, as ‘vulnerable road users’. This is perverse. It frames people’s natural vulnerability as weak, and insufficient for the dangerousness of the environment they’re moving through. As if that danger is non-negotiable. It may be more constructive to classify road user types in terms of how dangerous to others they are.

People going for a walk, running, skating, scooting and riding bikes are all a relatively low danger to anyone but themselves. Let’s call this user group: ‘people’.

But cars, operated poorly, frequently put others in mortal danger. Due to huge numbers in close proximity in cities and residential areas, they are injuring and killing the most others — other car occupants and other non-dangerous travellers — especially people walking. Motorists even sometimes kill other people just sitting in their homes! Let’s call heavy vehicles and their operators: ‘dangerous road users’.

“Who kills whom” and the measurement of danger. Road Danger Reduction Forum UK

More and more things in our modern lives compete for our attention and this is bleeding into our time behind the wheel as well. Lately, on balance, technology seems to be creating more distractions to drivers than delivering more safety.

Oh — yeah — a full dashboard-wide touch screen with 10 apps and live-streaming videos. What could possibly go wrong?!

A central tenet of motoring safety systems is predicated around a notion of ‘crashworthiness’ — where your transport option’s safety is measured by how well you and other occupants survive in the event of a crash.

Think about that: you are only as safe as how well you crash. Actual safety, surely, is about how well you can avoid crashing while travelling.

An adapted road safety billboard in Ōtaki, New Zealand.

A more crashworthy car enables faster speeds — because somehow making messes survivable means it’s ok to make bigger messes?

Hence we end up with ‘Top Safety Pick’ awards for monstrous machines that are somehow perceived and sold as ‘safer’ because they supposedly perform better at keeping their occupants alive when they crash, but not how well it can avoid crashing or running people over.

And a common refrain is that the bigger your car — the safer you are. There is a speck of truth to this — but only in that it creates a form of arms race, and civilians not encased in protective mech are ‘putting themselves’ in danger.

Another downside to crashworthiness is risk compensation — where the driver feels that the amount of protection they are wrapped in enables higher speeds, less attentiveness, and higher chances of crashing.

Drivers are persistently inattentive anyway — because we are human. It’s almost like humans are not designed to operate these machines at these speeds for any amount of time really.

Distracted driving is already an enormous problem. Distraction from devices is rising and may now be a greater problem than drunk driving.

Even when drivers are driving without distraction, a study from the University of Toronto in 2018 found they did not look properly to check for non-dangerous road users when turning fully 50% of the time!

Cars are getting bigger, heavier and more powerful on average every year. The average car is getting heavier and larger and more people are choosing to buy ‘SUVs’ and ‘utes’ (light trucks). The total number of cars has also been consistently increasing — making already overcrowded roads increasingly dangerous.

People can develop a variety of poor driving habits over the years; like dangerous following distances, speeding, and bad visual checking — especially at intersections.

And drivers being human (most anyway) — they make mistakes. They can be impaired in multiple ways like the usual drugs & alcohol. But also they can be too fatigued, distracted, or suffer sudden health emergencies at the wheel.

The design of most cars and trucks impose visibility challenges — obstructing drivers from maintaining good situational awareness of the road and others around them. Especially in close proximity like dense residential neighborhoods.

The dangerousness of driving is costing all of us dearly. And that’s before we even start talking about the money side of cars.

Motordom is financially ruinous

The expense of crashes alone; including emergency response, hospitalisation, surgery, recovery care, legal, and vehicle and infrastructure repair, is enormous.

While uncomfortable to boil down to money, the New Zealand Ministry of Transport estimates the average “social cost” of a fatal crash is just over NZ$5M, over NZ$500,000 for a serious injury crash, and a minor injury crash is nearly NZ$30,000 per. At these figures, road violence costs every man woman and child in New Zealand over NZ$1000 each and totalling close to NZ$5B (~US$3.2B) per year every year.

The average income in the United States in 2017 was $31,786. Owning and operating an average sedan car in the US costs ~$9,000 per year, or 28% of the average income.

Cars suck an immense amount of wealth. 85% of money spent on driving in the United States leaves the local economy. Where once cars were seen as an economic driver, they are now one reason economies are more frequently crashing.

Owning and operating cars is also an immense financial drain with ongoing costs for fuel, maintenance, storage & parking, sometimes tolls, purchase and depreciation, licensing & registration, insurance etc.

Even the cost of the cost of cars is a massive, ugly problem, which has already covered pretty well by this guy:

Cars are forming their own financial crisis — ‘The GCDFC’ if you like — The Global Car Dependency Financial Crisis.

Cars are possibly the worst investment too many people make. You never expect to make money on cars, instead you grit your teeth and hope you don’t lose your money to cars too fast. Or your life!

Vast amounts of public money also pays for motoring infrastructure new and old..

When cities invest in other transportation options — which makes driving easier and safer for those still driving, some who are car blind remain vehemently opposed. It’s like they want the next generation of residents indebted for one or two rejigged intersections, or a new tunnel,

Mt. Victoria Tunnel. Wellington, New Zealand.

… or a couple of extra traffic lanes to make a particular stretch of driving a few seconds faster — until it all jams even worse.

Induced demand is one of the most basic principles behind traffic planning. Yet the well documented adverse consequences of building more and more roads for cars seems to go out the window of many local authorities intent on ‘fixing congestion’, and ‘saving time’ for people driving expensive cars.

When all the investments of time and money, social and economic costs are boiled down cars deliver very little value for money. They effectively slow us down. The real speed of driving cars is just 5.9kph.

As Brent Toderian says — ‘Let’s be honest — let’s put all the information out there about what things cost, and what different ways of getting around cost or save the public purse. Let’s have that conversation.’

The problems that result from an excessive reliance on cars are many. It is not a case of trying to mitigate one or two of these problems. Cars are ruinous. They are damaging, degrading, dangerous, unhealthy, exclusionary, expensive, and inequitable and more.

At what point does a product, which has such deleterious side effects go from being problematic to being the problem?

Cars have always been problematic. Given the level to which society has normalised their use, it seems we seem stuck trying to solve their side effects and barred from seeing the real promise of alternatives.



Alex Dyer

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