The argument against cars

Experts weigh in on why cars are hurting municipal efficiency strategies

The following question was recently posted on Quora: "What are the most environmentally wasteful designs?"

Among a myriad of responses, a few experts pinpointed automobiles as wasteful resources. Read their arguments against a car-dependent society:

Jonathan Dirrenberger, Aeronautics and Astronautics expert

Rush hour in Miami, Florida Image: B137/Wikimedia Commons
Rush hour in Miami, Florida Image: B137/Wikimedia Commons

The automobile. To be technically correct, it really should be: the current way we use the automobile, i.e. inappropriately.

The automobile is useful and in fact ideal for those one-off trips carrying really big things, traveling to far-away places not in reach of public transit, racing seriously-injured people to the emergency room, moving those who are physically disabled and can't move any other way, carrying large construction supplies, etc.

Unfortunately, that's not how the motored vehicle is used the vast majority of the time: it's used by essentially healthy people who are commuting solo to work or do errands, mostly within 5 miles of their home.

It's perhaps humankind's greatest mistake to use a ~3000 lb vehicle with several hundred horsepower just to move ~300 lbs (1.4 people plus a bag or two). That's a weight/load ratio of 10. Compare that to a bike which weighs ~30 lb and can easily carry 300 pounds giving a weight/load ratio of 0.1, a hundred times more efficient than the automobile.

(Note: no matter how you power the car, none of this is fundamentally changed. It will never make sense to have such a large vehicle move one person through urban areas, no matter how much we think electric cars or driverless cars will somehow save us from our bad behavior).

The result of such a wasteful design has been an incredible waste of energy (primarily finite and dwindling fossil fuels) not only to power the vehicles but to manufacture them, create all the roads they require, and prop-up the suburban sprawl the cars have single-handedly enabled.

Then there is their contribution to air pollution, including carbon emissions, as well as land pollution (landfills) via the fact that much of their materials cannot, or simply are not, recycled or reused.

There is also their significant contribution to the obesity epidemic by taking away the primary way humankind has obtained exercise (self-locomoting to where ever we need to go) as well as their destruction of the relative quietude of cities which are now dominated not just by the innate "sound" of cars (the sound of the tires on the road and air rushing over the car) but by the completely over-used horns, ridiculously over-powered stereos, and utterly useless yet deafening car alarms.

Cars have dehumanized our cities since, as soon as we get behind the wheel, we become anonymous and hence selfish; the motorist sees them self as solely entitled to most public space (almost always for free or deeply subsidized) and pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit become obstacles and annoyances. This means motorists are easily willing to jeopardize the safety of these vulnerable road users.

And finally, there is the atrocious death and maiming automobiles have caused because of their high speed and weight, causalities which have disproportionately affected pedestrians and cyclists who are trying to locomote in the most efficient and healthy way.

To top it off, we have in one century single-handedly destroyed the purpose of our cities, the most efficient place for people to live, by reorienting urban design to be for the inefficient and dangerous automobile rather than for people. For 10,000 years, cities were built for people, yet in one century the automobile has mostly undone that. This has been a phenomenal waste of resources.

Friedrich Markgraf

Constantly accelerating and decelerating 1.5 tons of metal by burning irreplaceable fuel in an inefficient engine to move on average 1.2 people (while consuming the driver's attention) is a very wasteful and very impractical way of transporting people.

Cars take up a huge amount of resources during production, and then again during use, and again during recycling. They pollute the air, take up huge amounts of space (a parking car wastes a lot of space already, a moving car takes up a multiple of that if you factor in safety distance etc.).

I do like cars as artifacts, because they aggregate much of what's great about us: A lot of design and engineering goes into a car, and each car is a technological marvel, a living room, and a sculpture all rolled into one.

But it's a perverse marvel, because we go to great lengths to polish this thing that stems from a flawed concept: Individually motorized public transport. Thankfully, much of the world is rich enough or on the way to becoming rich enough to be able to afford luxury items like cars. Unfortunately, the concept of the car does not scale well. The things are simply too wasteful to have any real place as ordinary household items, yet almost everybody owns one (or strives to).

And electric cars won't fix the basic problems: We're still hauling around a ton of crap just to transport one single human. Now including a few hundred kilograms of batteries containing non-renewable resources themselves. Renewable electrical energy might one day be our dominant power source, but we're far from that now.

Self-driving cars will tackle another conceptual problem, namely that human drivers are neither very safe nor very environmentally friendly, besides the fact that they could do something more fun and/or useful instead of piloting a machine that could be driven much better by a computer (not yet, but soon). Still, the central problem remains: The huge overhead.

The concept of the car itself is flawed and wasteful, and even shiny, self-driving, electric carbon monocoque two-seaters that integrate into a smart power grid aren't gonna change that.

End of answer. What follows is my imagination of how individual car ownership could be replaced.

Cars will always have a place for special applications, but for urban and even semi-rural environments, we will need to switch to non-individual motorized transport. This can mean public transport as it is now, with buses, trains, trams, and shared taxis. But in the future, we might see more advanced concepts akin to what I like to call packet-switched public transport.

In packet-switched networks like the internet, Information is put into "packets". These packets are basically containers with destination information on them, not unlike parcels. The network - all the switches and routers - are responsible for getting the packet to its destination. The packet itself does not care how it gets there, nor does it have any means to move by itself.

Similarly, in a packet-switched public transport scheme, you request a cabin for your destination, enter it, and the cabin will be transported via the public transport network towards your destination. Maybe it will need to be moved off one train onto another. This can be automated.

Maybe the first and last parts of the journey, it will have to be loaded onto a "taxi" and individually transported. Maybe today's route is different than yesterday's.

You don't care. You get to your destination in time (though travel time may vary slightly, your smartphone will have told you quite exactly when you're going to arrive when you hailed your cabin), dry, unstressed, and without having to navigate traffic or change buses yourself. All while using far less resources than driving your own car – which you don't own anymore, because you don't need it, freeing up a lot of money for you to spend on nicer things. And if you do want or need a car for a day, you just rent one.

Sure, this requires quite a bit of an infrastructure, with huge costs, and huge standardization efforts to make the systems inter-operable. But long term, it will be cheaper and healthier than individual cars, the concept itself is proven (TCP/IP, just the physical layer is different and packet loss is unacceptable), and the streets will be much emptier for when you do take a car every now and then.

And in the meantime, do something for the environment and for yourself, and take the bike to work.


Vince Schutt

Suburban sprawl.  By building out instead of up residential buildings are built with greater square footage per resident.  A number of environmental wastes occur as a result of this suburban buildout:
  1. The road infrastructure to support transport
  2. Building infrastructure to support these neighborhoods with services / shopping outlets
  3. Every home shop and service needs a parking footprint equal to or greater than the footprint of the building offering the service
  4. Additional long-term infrastructure commitments: gas, electric, water, internet, bridges, pipelines etc.
  5. Last but not least people have large spaces in their house they aren't living in.  Large empty spaces have a human tendency to get filled with stuff.  The stuff you end up buying but hardly using when moving from a 1,000 sq foot city home to a 3,000 sq foot suburban home is waste.
These items are just the tip of the iceberg in suburban waste - much more exists everything from lost time from driving, to clinical depression stemming from reduced feelings of community and social engagement.

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