On Friday I was at the SF Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) to give a talk with Bruce Appleyard entitled The Legacy of Livable Streets: Four decades later, what have we learned? Bruce is the son of Donald Appleyard the UC Berkeley professor who led the 1969 study on the social impacts of motor vehicle traffic in San Francisco that I replicated for my dissertation at the UWE Centre for Transport and Society. Tragically, Donald Appleyard was killed by a speeding car in 1982, a shock that reverberated throughout the urban planning world.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Bruce is finishing up his PhD at UC Berkeley and looking to release a second edition of his Dad’s seminal work, Livable Streets. He and I just met when I returned to the States in October. He’s a really sweet guy, and I feel like I’m almost getting to know the father through the son. Bruce and I have been traveling around the Bay Area talking with high school students, planning organizations, and anyone else who will listen about the importance of his father’s work, and how we can take lessons from Livable Streets to help us get us out of this mess that we’re in.
David Baker, architect of sustainable housing and longtime bicycle advocate, moderated the session on Friday and introduced me as being ‘one of the old guard transportation activists from San Francisco- someone who has, over the years, remained unabashedly anti-car.’ (or something like that)
Thank you David Baker. Honestly, that is the kindest thing you could possibly say to me. As readers of this blog are well aware, there is no love lost between me and ol’ four wheels. Unfortunately the potentially healthy relationships we could have had with the car have (almost exclusively) been usurped by relationships of dependency that have proven devastating to our health. Devastating in ways that are now being documented and measured like never before.
I have no problem with coming right out and saying it. I am anti-car. I am vehemently and totally against our society’s current relationship with the automobile. The expectation that everyone can own a car and use it as one’s primary transportation is delusional and dangerous. However, I am not anti-driver. And there is a big difference. Love the patient. Hate the disease.
What I said by way of introduction at the SPUR event, was the following:
Imagine that you grew up in an alcoholic family, watching your sisters and brothers beaten, your parents so drunk they couldn’t stand up, watching them collapse in the gutter puking their guts out, watching them neglect the ones who they loved and gamble the family’s nest egg just so they could get one more bottle of booze. If this was you, I imagine you’d be pretty anti-alcohol, despite perhaps enjoying a glass of wine with dinner on occasion as an adult.
Our society is like that family- but the drug of choice is of course, fossil fuels, with the most potent method of administering that drug being the motor vehicle. Sadly, the addiction is that much worse because it goes undiagnosed (and like many other drugs is extremely dangerous when combined with alcohol). The side effects written off as “tragic accidents” and “natural” disasters. Somehow we have grown numb to the impacts. The biggest killer of our kids. The greatest threat to our future. Doesn’t get much bigger than that.
To confront the reality directly would require difficult questions about the morality of our society- especially questions of class and corporate power, and require an initially painful period of withdrawal. For most people, that transition is too much to take on as long as social norms and current land uses continue to require that human adults individually purchase and operate a vehicle with five or more seats. Though as a new generation grow up into a senseless motorized and suicidal society, this dynamic is perhaps gradually starting to shift.
We need an intervention of historic proportions- a way to shake ourselves out of our complacency. But how, when, and where? Who? You?
So why am I anti-car? So glad you asked. Let us count the reasons:
Top Ten Reasons I am Anti-Car:
Cars are killing our kids. Motor vehicles are the number one killer of California children and UK boys (1).
Cars are poisoning the air. We sacrifice the air that we breathe to exhaust pipes, the toxins from which kill up to an estimated 2.4 million people/ year and degrade the health and quality of life of billions more. (2) One’s right to breathe is now considered less important than one’s right to drive.
Cars are destroying our mental health Worsening road noise causes an unknown epidemic of stress, sleep deprivation- even heart disease and depression. (3)
Cars are destroying our local social lives and communities. The volume of traffic on your road largely determines the number of your neighbors with whom you are acquainted, and particularly the number of close friends. (4)
Cars are terrifying billions into lives of inactivity and disease. Cars not only allow people to live virtually exercise-free lives, they also scare countless others away from walking and bicycling and into sedentary (and often solitary) lifestyles. Lovely stuff. Skyrocketing obesity levels in the developed world are a predictable outcome of our car-friendly planning and transport policies over the last 60 years. In the United States, 70% of the population fails to meet minimum recommended physical activity (5), a deficiency that leads to over $77 billion per year in hospital costs. (6)
Cars destroy human and animal life. We kill or seriously injure 50 million human beings (7) (more than 200 Haitis) and somewhere over 1 billion wild and domesticated animals every year which we dismiss as “accidents” on the world’s roads. (8) The truth is that this massive suffering and death toll is a preventable tragedy. Deaths and injuries are strongly linked to the number and speed of vehicles on a given roadway. (9) One less car will actually save a life.
Cars are jeopardizing our stable climate. We are endangering the very foundation of our civilization- a stable, productive climate, just so we can continue to put the pedal to the metal. Despite clear warnings from scientists, we persist in selfish and self-destructive behaviors like individual, habitual driving- not because we are evil, but because we think that someone else is paying attention to the problem. Cars are responsible for more CO2 emitted than any other sector in California. (10)
Adolf Hitler LOVED cars. And yes, what top ten list would be complete without Hitler. It is true that the man himself really was the driving force behind the Volkswagen, the Autobahn, and ultimately the technique of killing 6 million Jews and other undesirables efficiently with the use of the internal combustion engine.
On that note, happy cycling.
(1) ONS, 2002. Social Focus in Brief: Children July 2002. London: Office for National Statistics/TSO. Available from:
[Accessed 8 April 2008]. For US:
(2) WHO, 2002. Estimated deaths & DALYs attributable to selected environmental risk factors. WHO Member State, 2002.
(3) YAMAZAKI, S., SOKEJIMA, S., NITTA, H., NAKAYAMA, T., FUKUHARA, S., 2005. Living close to automobile traffic and quality of life in Japan: A population-based survey, International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 15:1, 1-9.
(4) APPLEYARD, D., 1969. The Environmental Quality of City Streets: The Residents’ Viewpoint. Journal of the American Planning Association, 35, pp. 84-101.
HART, J. (2008) Driven to Excess: Impacts of Motor Vehicle Traffic on Residential Quality of Life in Bristol, UK. University of the West of England 2008.
(5) U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, 2000. Healthy People 2010. Washington, DC: USDHHS.
(6) PRATT, M., MACERA, C.A., WANG, G., 2000. Higher direct medical costs associated with physical inactivity. The Physician and Sports Medicine. 28 (10), 63–70.
(7) WHO, 2004. Global strategy on diet, physical activity and health. Geneva: World Health Organization.
(9) ROBERTS, I., NORTON, R., JACKSON, R., DUNN, R., HASSALL, I., 1995. Effect of environmental factors on risk of injury of child pedestrians by motor vehicles: a case-control study. British Medical Journal. 310:91-94.
IIHS, 2000. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Status Report 35 (5), May 13, 2000.