The Grit: Giving Up on Cars

Going electric ain’t going to save us.

20101210 New cars at Ford Shanghai plant.jpg

The Grit: Giving Up on Cars
Where did all the grass go? New cars at the Ford motor factory in Chongqing, China (Photo: Reuters)

The Grit loves cars. Not because they are great, big, fossil-fuel-guzzling celebrations of pointless overengineering and one-upmanship. No, The Grit loves cars because they represent almost limitless possibility, and they can get small parcels of humans and their stuff from A to B in the most efficient and comfortable manner ever devised.

Quite a few people appear to agree.

In 2002 there were 812 million road vehicles in existence worldwide. Last year that figure passed the billion mark. Over the next 12 months the global car industry is going to produce at least 58 million new cars. By 2030, there will be two billion road vehicles on the planet.

Road vehicles contribute just over 10 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, but that doesn’t take into account what happens during the manufacturing process.

Pulling the constituent parts of a car out of the ground and assembling it has a significant environmental cost. Driving a car for 100,000 miles may create less of a carbon footprint than its actual construction

What about the electric car? It’s not the complete answer. Making one of those babies creates an even bigger carbon footprint than a gas-guzzler. 

This steady but rapacious pillaging of the Earth’s resources is by definition, unsustainable. Every car bashed out on every production line in every factory around the world is another nail in the planet’s coffin. 

It’s no use looking to the manufacturers for ideas. Despite the greenwash, the automotive industry is only interested in one thing: selling more cars. Anyone working in the sector who tells you different is a liar.

You’re also unlikely to get much truck (sorry) from legislators. Public transport is very rarely profitable, whereas road vehicles are central to the functioning of every single Western economy. They get people to work and get goods to the consumer, all the while generating valuable tax revenues.

Living without a car can be done. Millions manage without any form of vehicle ownership in some of our biggest and most densely-populated cities. There is also something to be said for trying to free yourself from the tyranny of car dependency and the mindset it creates. 

But realistically, ditching the car for a healthier, environmentally friendly lifestyle is a luxury that only presents itself to a few. Even if electric vehicles go mainstream, we’re still going have to deal with all the other side-effects of our growing global addiction. 

But we will get out of this jam. We have to, because it won’t be long before sticking our heads in the sand will cease to be a viable option. You want the solutions in five easy bite-size chunks, you say? Go on, then:

Sharing. The new growth area is the grey zone that exists between hiring a taxi and individual ownership. People who need cars to get them to specific locations but can’t afford, or don’t need, their own vehicle are busy setting up leasing and car-share schemes that work for them, their colleagues and their friends.

Nudging. The carrot: Better public transport. It’s got to happen, and it requires proper, infrastructural investment. Towns and cities in which it is easy (and possibly even a pleasure) to get about without vehicle ownership will have a competitive advantage, attracting the brightest people and the best companies.

Nudging. The stick: Controlled parking, road pricing and lower speed limits are weapons at the disposal of local authorities. They all add hassle and expense to our journeys and eventually get us out of our cars.

Necessity. The finite nature of fossil fuels will force a change in behaviors we are patently unable to make ourselves. As the cost of putting gas in the tank continues to rise, making that journey to work will cease to become viable. We’ll soon find ourselves looking for jobs close to home or accessible via public transport.

Future-proofing. Any serious local authority should be working on the assumption that car travel is going to become a highly regulated and expensive activity, and that car-dependent communities could die unless alternative forms of transportation are built into them. How many new developers are asking themselves whether or not the people who live in their houses will be able to afford a car in 30 or 40 years time?

Caveat: The above ideas are all very well, but the first step in treating any addiction is recognizing a desire to change. Right now most of us aren’t ready to accept how much damage our dependence on cars is doing to us. We just love them too much.