When we drive cars, we are hurting other people and the environment. It’s not just that cars worsen asthma and other respiratory diseases and exacerbate climate change; they are also responsible for an epidemic of pedestrian and bicycle deaths. Indeed, the number of people killed for the simple act of walking rose 27% from 2007 to 2016. Roads and garages necessary for cars make our cities uglier, fragment the environment and add to runoff that harms our waterways and causes floods. These hidden costs are borne, not by those who drive cars, but by all of us.
What should individuals do? Often, not owning a car is impossible or makes life extremely difficult. Cars can be necessary to get to jobs, and families with kids may need a car. However, many families could do with one car fewer or with smaller cars, while some could easily do without.
My wife and I live nicely without a car. We are a 10-minute walk from Washington, D.C.,’s excellent Metro system, directly on two bus lines and a moderate walk from work. I bike often, and she walks. When necessary, we fill in the holes in our transportation network with Lyft (often shared).
Most people are not in our situation, but it may be easier to downsize their cars than they realize. Much of the transition is psychological. A couple, say, with two cars might feel an emotional attachment and find it simply impossible to live without, yet might actually fare better with one shared car. Change seems unimaginable, but, as happened with people who once found smart phones alienating and now can’t live without them, it turns out to be easier than you think.
Society also has an unwarranted aversion to buses, which are often seen as low class or filled with unwholesome people. I can tell you from thousands of hours of riding the bus that this is not true. Yes, there have been some unpleasant incidents, but these are few and far between. And pleasant chats also happen on the bus, while car trips are socially alienating. Furthermore, nasty incidents happen while driving too, such as accidents, engine problems and dealing with road rage.
Giving up a car does have disadvantages — it takes longer to get places. Yet a car also has disadvantages — it costs a lot, takes up space and needs maintenance. And it discourages walking and biking, which are physically and mentally healthy. Getting rid of a car can be freeing.
Of course, there are many cases where living without a car is simply too inconvenient. If it means an hour commute on two bus lines, versus 20 minutes by car, the car is the better option (although, with electronic devices, it is now easy to read, work, play games, etc., on a train or bus). And large families may need a minivan. Still, if one spouse has to drive to work, the other may not. Families can assess their needs and trade off, say, the one remaining car as necessary.
If it’s too hard for a family to do with one fewer car, the next best action is switching to a smaller, more efficient vehicle, such as a hybrid or electric car. Too many people are driving huge hunks of metal that they don’t really need.
The dirty secret of SUVs — other than that they pollute more —is that they kill many more people than smaller cars. A Detroit Free Press analysis points out “that SUVs . . . are at least twice as likely as cars to kill the walkers, joggers and children they hit,” contributing to an 81% increase in SUV’s killing pedestrians from 2009 to 2016. The high grill of an SUV hits people in the mid-section, where it is often deadly. Are the benefits of driving a huge vehicle that you don’t really need worth the chance of killing another human being?
Just as smoking moved, in the late 20th century, from an accepted norm to a shunned activity, excessive car ownership should be scorned. People should be bragging about their small electric car or their bicycle trip to work, not about their gleaming, massive new vehicle. On a planet facing an existential environmental crisis, we cannot afford to have our roads jammed with enormous vehicles.
Ethan Goffman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an environmental writer and a long-time transit activist in Montgomery County, Md.