Traffic jam in São Paulo, Brazil. Source: WikiCommons. Photo: Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz Mariordo.
Traffic jam in São Paulo, Brazil. Source: WikiCommons. Photo: Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz Mariordo.

A visit to any of the world’s great cities will convince anyone that cars are no longer useful to travel around dense urban areas. Yet, we seem to insist with our wheeled smoking addiction against all evidence, building and buying more cars and adapting our cities to them, decreasing our overall life quality in the process. Why?

The automobile has been an icon of modern industrial society for about a century. Almost every TV commercial will show us shiny large new cars speeding across empty roads in wide open natural spaces, or through some old and elegant (and curiously empty!) European city. These cars will be often driven by handsome, affluent middle-aged men accompanied by gorgeous, sexy women. Yet, this is not how reality will look like for most us after we buy that car! This says a lot, and not only about the gender perspective of these commercial ads. As powerful status symbols, larger and more sophisticated cars are usually seen as proxies for our personal worth and success, at least according to the hedonistic values of our material society.

We seem to hold the religious belief that the personal car gives us freedom and well-being, and the speed and flexible mobility deemed necessary for a modern urban life. Yet, this is far from truth. Traffic congestion and its attendant visual, noise and chemical pollution are a major source of avoidable health issues, as stress, respiratory and skin problems [1]. Another interesting argument, recently put forward by G. Backhaus [2], states that the rise of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and its concomitant chain of dangerous planetary changes (global warming, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, disruption of agricultural cycles, etc) can be seen as a just a symptom of the prevalent worldview, one in which massive fossil-fuel burning is central, and of which car addiction is just a part of.

Getting rid of this is not easy. We can see it a bit more clearly from the systems thinking perspective: we have over several decades built a massive system for urban traffic and a massive industry to sustain it (if the car industry were a country, it would have the world’s 6th largest BNP [3]). We now became addicted to its functionality and supposed benefits, as employment and regional development. Some cities in the world are namely built for the car, with the idea that people will work in downtown while living in far-off suburbs and make their purchases in far-off malls. We have invested astronomical amounts of effort and money in this global idea, and some people have become astonishingly wealthy in the process. This system is almost self-sustaining, at a cost that we are not paying right now (environmental disruption at planetary scale, soon among us). It is not surprising, then, that we refuse to see its disadvantages and many of amongst us are often quick to demean alternative forms of urban mobility, with the excuse of the potential cost involved: an almost archetypical sunk-cost fallacy situation.

Cars still have reasons to exist, even in urban areas, as taxis and emergency vehicles, but particularly in sparsely populated areas where public transport might be inadequate. For the dense inner cores of cities, the use of electrically driven public transportation is a far superior alternative [*]. A cleverly and densely laid system of tramways, subways and trolleybus can effectively and cleanly deal with the necessary mobility of millions of people, not to mention that people can be encouraged to walk or cycle. Taking cars out of the streets liberates the space for living and meeting, which leads to enormous positive social side-effects because people start having more opportunities to meet and knit the social mesh, something that it is often lost in modern megacities. We have some good examples of this at hand: Vauban, Freiburg (Germany), Pontevedra (Spain) or Hydra (Greece), where parts of these cities have been closed to car traffic and had then been reclaimed by people as living, playing and meeting space, positively contributing to the local social well being and democracy.

Living in cities does not need to be a torture, but in many places around the world people still insist in it. The situation seems scarily similar to that of the ancient inhabitants of Eastern Island, or norsemen in Greenland: eroding the basic tenets of our existence to mindlessly serve some bogus religious purpose that is neither uplifting nor necessary. In the face of the coming mega-urbanity of the 21st century, every move to make cities livable and human is useful. Time to change our frame of mind. Urban automobility is dead. We better bury it and move on, the effort will be worthwhile.

[1] Armah, Frederick A.; Yawson, David O.; Pappoe, Alex A. N. M. 2010. “A Systems Dynamics Approach to Explore Traffic Congestion and Air Pollution Link in the City of Accra, Ghana.” Sustainability 2, no. 1: 252-265.

[2] Backhaus, Gary. 2009. “Automobility: Global Warming as Symptomatology.” Sustainability 1, no. 2: 187-208.

[3] De Vries, Bert JM. Sustainability science. Cambridge University Press, 2012.