Cars – what do we do about them? Part 1: the challenge

I’ve never liked cars. I think that may go back to my parents getting a car when I was 10 and me failing to get the silver badge on the Rail riders club. But, while I’ve long since got over that, I have found through my life that my dislike of cars has taken many forms. Cars made me sick. They still do, especially petrol and diesel cars, which smell. I disliked having to run the gauntlet of the “scary road” when walking my children to school. That was the local rat run, where cars, trying to get quickly over the main road, would not always pay attention to crossing pedestrians. Even back in the 1990s I cared about the environment, about air pollution and climate change and my moral attitude that “cars are bad” was a wonderful way of hiding the more honest truth that I was scared of driving. Eventually, when I was about 40, I did get a car – briefly, for four or five years. My parents in law had given us their first edition Prius. I did get over my fear, and stopped gagging when I filled it with petrol. The first year we had it, I drove it 1000 miles. The final year we had it, I drove 3000. The garage mechanic, who took the £570 from me that the last service cost, thought we could keep it going for years. Two weeks later, thieves stole the catalytic converter and I naively let the insurance company write it off: in hindsight a big mistake. For a while I used a car club, until they replaced my local automatic car with a manual, which really didn’t appeal to someone who doesn’t really like driving. Actually, the only time I have enjoyed driving was the summer when I hired an electric car.

All this is to say, I am never going to be the biggest fan of cars. So it was strange that I got so upset with several people (including a close friend) posting memes on Facebook about how all cars should be banned. I, probably the one who has driven fewer miles than anyone else in the discussions that ensued, was the one seemingly defending cars, while the other people – passionate environmentalists who had had cars in the past, argued they should be banned. One person, not a personal friend, told me that I “should know better” and that my defence of cars shows that I couldn’t be a real climate scientist. Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about the question of cars, learning the facts, considering the challenges that we, as a society have to rise up to and how we can begin to do so.

Today, I saw an almost identical meme posted by another friend. But that friend came from a very different perspective – the perspective of someone who likes cars, and sees environmentalists as trying to take them off him. You see, what upset me when the environmentalists posted was not really about cars. It was the fact that I recognised the memes they posted, because I’d seen them before. I’d seen them on the walls of people who deny climate change, of people who don’t want climate action. Exactly the same memes. And I’m cynical enough to think that people on both ‘sides’ of this are being manipulated by powerful, evil forces who want us to fight each other, rather than them. When I put those memes through a reverse image search, I was not surprised to see that the earliest instances of them were from Russia.

But, that’s a topic that deserves a whole essay of its own. Today, I want to talk about cars.

I want to start with the case against cars. If you like cars, then please try to hear this neutrally. If you dislike cars (all, or just electric or just petrol), then I’m sorry I’ve missed your other reasons. First, cars use up a lot of land. The car infrastructure takes up a huge amount of space – roads, driveways, carparks, service stations – all cover land with concrete and tarmac. Concrete and tarmac can’t hold flowers that feed the insects. And one of the reasons we get so much poo in our rivers is because the concrete and tarmac surfaces can’t absorb heavy rainwater (and heavy rain is more intense now because of climate change), so when it rains, the drains overflow and our Victorian sewage system leaks out into the rivers. Now, there are many solutions to that – but when I see front gardens concreted over to create drives, I do feel sad.

Roads full of cars – parked and driving (though in the morning rush hour near me this distinction is not always clear) – are dangerous for children and the elderly. Ironically, many parents solve this by driving their children to school, creating a vicious circle. Cars emit particulate air pollution – both from their exhaust (especially when diesel), and from their tyres (especially when they are heavy) – and recently, in London, a girl’s death from asthma was directly linked to the air pollution from vehicles outside her home. Cars kill people. In the UK, 1300 people a year die due to a car and 26000 are seriously injured. That’s 8 times as many as those who die or are injured in knife crimes. And cars require energy, and specialist materials: to build, maintain and use. An electric car’s battery is typically around 50 kW hr. That’s similar to what my house uses in the summer in a week – and the country needs to increase its electricity generation just to meet housing demand. A petrol or diesel car is releasing not only carbon dioxide, but also other dangerous gases into the environment, and oil refining requires many of those rare metals that the batteries use, too. All cars require steel production – a process that inherently requires huge amounts of energy, and which, when made from ore, rather than recycled, also release carbon dioxide as a chemical by-product of its production. Petrol use puts money into the hands of dictatorial countries that produce it. Electric battery production is often supported by unsafe, and unfair working conditions of miners. Cars – both electric and petrol – catch fire sometimes. Petrol is explosive. Electric battery fires are very hard to put out. And finally, when the car reaches the end of its life – whether a real one or through the choice of its owner (or, indeed through the act of a few thieves after its catalytic converter), the car needs to be recycled: a process that itself uses energy.

I completely understand why many of my friends come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t have cars at all. They argue that electric cars are only slightly better than petrol cars: many of the arguments above apply to both, and that we’re not coming to real solutions while we think that simple replacement will solve the problems. And, in many ways they are right. We can’t simply replace existing petrol cars with electric cars and “solve” the environmental problems. But, before I expand their perspective, I want to consider other perspectives.

Many people, in the lives they lead now, need a car. There are even some people who enjoy driving a car – with my experience in the electric car, for the first time I had some sense of how that could feel. Let’s start with the obvious end: for someone who is disabled in some way, a car provides essential independence. For someone with autism, it could provide an essential safe and quiet space, while public transport is overwhelming. For someone with a weak immune system, it keeps them from the viruses and bacteria that could kill them. For someone with a trade, or medical, job that requires bringing equipment to customers, or moving rapidly to different patients, a car gives them the necessary speed and flexibility. We also need road infrastructure – if only for for fire engines and ambulances! We can stretch this further: in some places, and for some vulnerable people, public transport is frightening or dangerous. Women are attacked and harassed on public transport. So are teenage boys. And gay couples. And ethnic minorities. Even if these cases are rare, it is important to recognise that it may be much easier for some groups to use public transport than for others. And then, in the imperfect world we really live in, public transport in most parts of this country (away from London and a handful of other large cities), is extremely poor. It’s unreliable, expensive, infrequent, only goes down certain major routes so very inflexible, and often overcrowded. You wait in poor quality areas that offer almost no shelter from the British weather, for random periods of time, usually to stand, squashed against strangers, on the journey itself. Even in London, overcrowding is prevalent, and public transport provision is unequal between the North and South of the river – and most of the country feels frustrated that the investment is only going to London.

There are arguments against many of these. We can make some choices: My family consciously chose to live in a smaller house where we could walk to work and school, rather than a larger house that would require a car commute. You can pay for a lot of train journeys for the price of a typical car service and annual insurance costs – let alone the down payment of a car. When car owners say public transport is expensive, it is because they’ve written off in their calculations the cost of the car itself. And, of course, more people die in car crashes, than are stabbed on public transport. But I don’t think these arguments help people: I think they dismiss people’s very real concerns. They also feel a bit like the “metropolitan elite” knowing what’s best for the poor people, or men dismissing the fears of women. Most people don’t have the luxury to think deep thoughts about living a sustainable life – they have a real job which may or may not be near their real house, real responsibilities, real local public transport situations and they’ve made the best decision they can.

Because, fundamentally, the choice we as individuals make really doesn’t matter in itself. What matters is the world that society builds. Now, the choices we make can influence the society that is built – in a capitalist society, where we spend our money matters, and the death of night trains in the 1990s and their resurrection in the 2020s were both caused by demand changes because of the financial choices of individuals. And maybe sometimes the choices we make influence our friends and family to consider if they can do things differently and that can ripple out to a ‘tipping point’ in society behaviour. But, mostly, we need to build a society that makes it easier. And that’s because we as a society needs to have fewer cars between us – but that doesn’t mean that any one individual must sacrifice to the point of making their own life difficult.

As individual households we can consider: how many cars do we need: 2, 1, 0? If we need one or more cars, can we make them smaller? Is an electric car better than a petrol one (I will do a separate thing on this – it depends how much you drive)? Is the car we use day-to-day necessarily the same vehicle as the one we take on a two week holiday (if not, can we have a smaller car, or shared car, or no car for day to day)? Can we share a car we need – but not every day – with our neighbours? But we shouldn’t feel guilty if the answer is “right now, I need a car”, and we shouldn’t feel arrogantly superior if the answer is “right now, I don’t need a car”.

But as citizens in a democratic (ish) society, we can think about other questions – how do we support politicians who will encourage improved public transport and cycle routes? How do we build communities where people can walk to the shops and schools? Can we subsidise through our taxes the infrastructure of high quality public transport before the demand is there? How do we make public transport more pleasant? Can we create more options around shared cars?

I fundamentally believe we should not be shaming people for using cars. We should be building infrastructure that means that for most people, not using a car, or sharing a car, is easier, cheaper and more fun. That will more effectively reduce the number of cars on the road, than any amount of shaming.

[I realised that the blog I wanted to write – with the numbers about electric cars vs petrol cars – will have to wait as a part 2… to come, when I have time]