I was a kid who loved cars and put pictures of Firebirds and Cobras on the wall. But, just like having three pints of Häagen-Dazs in a row, there is something called too much of a good thing. Every country wants to enjoy the personal mobility of the U.S., and is enthusiastically moving in that direction, but there’s no question that our precariously balanced planet couldn’t afford it. We are choking on exhaust, going to war to protect oil supplies, and affecting the climate of the planet. This is one car guy who knows there’s a morning after. Let me count the ways.
1. We’re addicted to them. Some 87 percent of American households have one or more cars. The United States had 132 million registered cars and 116 million trucks (a total of 2.3 people per vehicle) in 2009. Japan and Germany have much fewer cars, but about the same density. China is a comer, with 61 million vehicles now — one for every 52 people — but it has the world’s fastest auto growth (10 percent a year is not uncommon), not to mention a larger industry than the U.S. Are there countries not addicted to cars? You bet. Burma has only 9,250 of them, meaning that one out of every 5,710 people takes part in the automotive experience. Of course, Burma is also a notoriously repressive closed society. Where people can afford cars, they buy them. There are only 40,000 cars in Bangladesh, but it’s one of the world’s poorest countries, as is the Central African Republic (just 2,250 cars, which means that only one in 2,107 people is a driver). That picture above? Bangkok, Thailand in 1999.
2. We can’t breathe. First, let’s look at who’s breathing unhealthy air in the U.S. According to the American Lung Association, the seven smoggiest cities (from ozone levels) are all in California, with the Los Angeles/Long Beach/Riverside region being — as expected — number one. Texas rears its head at #8 on the list with Houston/Baytown/Huntsville and Charlotte, N.C. is at #10. Other very dirty cities include Dallas/Fort Worth (#12), Washington/Baltimore/Northern Virginia (#14), Cincinnati (#16), New York/Newark/Bridgeport (where I live! #17) and Phoenix (#19). If you look at some of America’s dirtiest cities, tailpipe emissions account for more than half of the smog in all of them. Internationally, it’s good news that Mexico City, once the world’s dirtiest, has now cleaned up its act a bit, but here’s the bad news: “Capitals such as Beijing, Cairo, New Delhi and Lima are now more contaminated, according to the World Bank, while air in at least 30 other cities contains more toxic particles, including Barcelona and Prague.” Here’s a handy guide to the world’s dirtiest cities, with cars being a chief culprit.
3. They’re thieves of quality time. According to AAA, “The average American today spends more than 100 hours of the year commuting to work — and that’s not even counting time lost in congestion.” Anything over an hour each day spent in commuting and we’re miserable, but Americans are very close to that now — the average commute is 50 minutes round-trip. And that’s on good days. Most of us spend far more than that stuck in congestion, and we’re losing tons of work and life time. According to the Washington Post, “The average Washington area driver loses 70 hours a year — almost three full days — crawling along in traffic, tying the region with Chicago for worst in the country. Los Angeles, the perennial king of congestion, comes in third, with 63 blown hours.”
4. They cost us a fortune. As I’ve reported before, one estimate puts our actual cost of driving at $1.39 per mile. Don’t forget that gas is just the beginning — there’s insurance, taxes, depreciation, parts, oil changes, body shop bills, and lots more. But you can use this handy calculator to get your own cost. And add in the social cost of driving, including health care, congestion and pollution. One paper estimates the “unrecognized private costs of driving” as $59 billion annually. Health-related bills alone are $59 billion. “The basic finding of this report is that the social costs of driving amount to at least $184 billion per year,” it says, “not including the $50 to $100 billion subsidy in free parking and or the cross-subsidy caused by congestion.” Read it and weep.
I'm leaving climate change alone here, but cars are a major source of carbon dioxide, too, and we're the guiltiest people in the world: The U.S. emits about half of all the tailpipe-related global warming gasses in the world. Before somebody tells me I'm out to lunch, let me point out that cars have indeed gotten cleaner. A Toyota Tundra is better out of the tailpipe than a fuel-sipping '66 Volkswagen Bug, and that's a major reason some of our cities (including Los Angeles) are less polluted than they were.
I know, I know, cars are cool. Cars represent mobility. Cars are fun. But these findings aren’t going away. While you're contemplating our auto-dominated future (where's a good Terminator when we need one?) here's a video view of Beijing traffic that has a certain rhythm to it: