Whether Powered By Electrons Or Molecules, Automobiles Are A Curse

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The other day, we did a story about protesters in Germany who object to Tesla expanding the size of its factory near Berlin. Quite a discussion ensued about whether those protesters really understood what they were protesting about, since electric automobiles, by definition, are more environmentally friendly because they don’t spew copious amounts of carbon dioxide in the air as they drive.

That discussion went back and forth, but two of our regular readers (shoutouts to Leeroy and Pitounet!) had a different view. They both think there are simply too damn many automobiles in the world, and whether they are powered by electrons or molecules is largely irrelevant. They clog our cities and roads and cause untold misery for those who are involved in collisions between cars, between cars and solid objects like trees and telephone poles, and especially between cars and people walking or riding bikes.

We don’t usually make comments in one story the basis for another story, but this morning Bloomberg ran a story entitled “EVs Can’t Fix a Global Epidemic of ‘Car Harm,’ Study Finds.” The modern world moves itself around in roughly 2 billion motor vehicles, 65% of which are cars, Bloomberg says. That’s 16 automobiles for every 100 people, but the rate of car ownership is much higher in richer industrialized countries where cars give shape to cities and set the patterns of daily life. This fleet requires substantial, ongoing investment in roads and highways, parking, oil exploration, fuel production, mining, manufacturing, insurance, and more.

All these activities levy regular costs in the form of fatalities and injuries as well as greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Because societies “prioritize speed over safety,” automobiles are responsible for one out of 34 deaths, or 1.7 million people every year, either directly or through pollution.

Automobiles And Harm To Society

Patrick Miner, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Edinburgh, and a team of researchers published a paper recently entitled “Car harm: A global review of automobility’s harm to people and the environment.” Here is the abstract:

Despite the widespread harm caused by cars and automobility, governments, corporations, and individuals continue to facilitate it by expanding roads, manufacturing larger vehicles, and subsidizing parking, electric cars, and resource extraction. This literature review synthesizes the negative consequences of automobility, or car harm, which we have grouped into four categories: violence, ill health, social injustice, and environmental damage.

We find that, since their invention, cars and automobility have killed 60–80 million people and injured at least 2 billion. Currently, 1 in 34 deaths are caused by automobility. Cars have exacerbated social inequities and damaged ecosystems in every global region, including in remote car-free places. While some people benefit from automobility, nearly everyone –whether or not they drive — is harmed by it. Slowing automobility’s violence and pollution will be impracticable without the replacement of policies that encourage car harm with policies that reduce it. To that end, the paper briefly summarizes interventions that are ready for implementation.

“It’s quite a grim paper,” Miner told Bloomberg reporter Eric Roston. It took him and his team two and a half years to survey roughly 400 papers covering everything from noise pollution to cumulative deaths, to injuries, to the contribution of oil to historic fossil fuel and cement emissions. Since the dawn of automobiles, Miner’s research finds these machines have been responsible for up to 80 million deaths and 2 billion injuries. The waste products of infernal combustion engines are responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. These are conservative estimates, Miner said.

When speaking with peers or policymakers about the violence built into the transportation system, “it’s helpful to have one document that you can point people to,” instead of dozens across many disciplines. “That was the impetus for this paper.”

Some of the findings from the study include:

  • In 2019, 43% of people killed by motor vehicles were walking, using a wheelchair or riding a bike.
  • Motor vehicles kill more than 700 children a day. Traffic deaths occur at the highest rates in Africa and Southeast Asia, and, in the US and Brazil, crashes disproportionately kill Black and Indigenous people.
  • SUVs, which make up nearly half of car sales globally, are eight times more likely than traditional cars to kill children.
  • Traffic related air pollution is linked to circulatory and heart disease, lung cancer, asthma and, according to a cited study, “acute lower respiratory infections in children.”
  • Other car harms include drunk driving, drive-by shootings, carbon monoxide poisoning and, in the US, traffic stops that “are a setting for police violence against Black, Latine/x, and Indigenous people.”
  • Access to oil has played a role in a quarter to one half of wars between countries since 1973.

The electric car, a juggernaut of the energy transition, “fails to address a majority of the harms,” the report says, including crashes, sedentary travel, inequality, and cities designed more for cars than people.

Automobiles And Policy

Image by Kyle Field | CleanTechnica

The research on automobiles builds on a framework for thinking about mobility justice put forward years ago by Mimi Sheller, a sociology professor who is the dean of the Global School at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and John Urry. She was one of the first to suggest that violent deaths, illness, inaccessibility, and the other harms associated with automobiles affect communities to varying degrees and that putting a spotlight on them should be central to policy making. Sheller, who wasn’t involved in the new research, said that the authors developed a way to incorporate voluminous data into her framework.

Many US cities are taking steps to address the over-population of automobiles. Bike sharing services that replace the need for automobiles are common in hundreds of places. New York City is the first US city to begin an experiment with congestion pricing. Yet, despite these efforts, there is still a long way to go. Pedestrian deaths in the US reached a 41-year high in 2022. More than half of spending from the 2021 US Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is going toward expanding and resurfacing highways, with only 20% for public transit and rail, according to a recent analysis by Transportation for America, an advocacy group.

To increase awareness that harm from automobiles is “systematically built in and statistically expected to happen” in car-centric modern environments, even our language matters, Sheller said. Safe streets advocates suggest retiring the phrase “car accident” and use “car crash” instead and to avoid the passive voice when describing crashes. “You don’t say, ‘A person was hit by a car’,” she Sheller. “You say, ‘A driver crashed into a bicyclist, killing them.’ Make it the active voice. Identify the subject — who’s doing it.”

The Takeaway

The upshot here is that making all automobiles electric may help lower carbon emissions but doesn’t address the central problem, which is that there are simply too many cars and trucks. To demonstrate the superior acumen of CleanTechnica readers, here are two examples from comments posted about the Tesla protests in Germany.

Exhibit A comes from Leeroy: “Switching from ICEV to BEV is not going to ‘save the planet’ all it does is slow down its destruction. We need to end car dependency. We need to vastly reduce the number of automobiles on our roads. Cars kill millions of people every year, injure far more and kill billions of plants and animals. They kill the liveability of our cities, both parked and in use. They allow mass surveillance of us all. They put a huge financial burden on the poorest and on society in general.”

Exhibit B comes from Pitounet. “We need to at least reduce car dependency. The switch to BEVs have something concerning. It seems some people consider BEV have zero impact on the planet and they can build as many they want as big they want and everything is good. People who really care for the environment don’t think like that.”

For an alternate view of how moving people from place to place without using automobiles could happen, please take a few minutes to watch this video.


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