Peak Car And Congestion: When Is Enough Too Much?

George W. Bush said the US is addicted to oil. George Monbiot, a well known environmental writer for The Guardian, has a slightly different take on things. He recently had the audacity to suggest that the world is addicted to oil because it just has too damn many cars. Not only are our cities drowning in congestion caused by automobiles, but the total number of cars in the world is projected to double by 2050. We don’t have room for the cars on the road today. Where are we going to find room for twice as many of them?


You may think it’s strange for a website that focuses on all things automotive to question whether we really need all these cars, but the fundamental issue is sustainability. If we make it impossible for the earth to sustain human life, what’s the point? Elon Musk can show us the way to zero emissions driving, but let’s not pretend that manufacturing cars doesn’t have an impact on the environment.

The steel and aluminum to build them has to come from someplace. The asphalt and concrete we use to make our roads has to come from someplace. Recycling vehicles that have reached the end of their useful life requires lots of energy and generates hazardous waste. But it’s more than that. Our lives revolve around our cars. Our cities are built to accommodate cars rather than pedestrians and people riding bicycles. Suburbs exist because of cars. Congestion exists because of cars.

Elon Musk says burning fossil fuels is one of the dumbest experiments in human history, but Monbiot sees things slightly differently. “It was a mistake  — a monumental, world-class mistake. Cars for everyone was one of the most stupid promises politicians ever made. Cars are meant to meet a simple need: quick and efficient mobility.”

But that simple goal has gotten lost, he argues. It is now “snarled up with other, implicit objectives: the sense of autonomy, the desire for self-expression through the configuration of metal and plastic you drive, and the demand for profit by car manufacturers and fossil fuel producers whose lobbying keeps us on the road rather than moving along it.” Monbiot has a name for it. He calls it “Carmegeddon.” (Note: that word actually has a specific history.)

The solution? Less investment in roads and parking lots and more investment in efficient, affordable, public transportation systems, Monbiot says. He points to Helsinki, which is dealing with its congestion problem with minibuses that whisk people from where they are to where the need to go via a smartphone app. Since the typical car sits unused 96% of the day, allowing it to serve the transportation needs of others when the principal owner doesn’t need it could reduce the number of cars on the streets in our cities by a factor of three. Imagine New York City or Los Angeles with only a third as many cars vying for space. Congestion would be a thing of the past. Think of how much more appealing walking or bicycling would be without all those cars vying for space in our cities.

This article looks at how to counteract urban sprawl. One of the biggest advantages of uncoupling ourselves from our slavish dependence on cars would be a dramatic decrease in carbon emissions from cars. 70% of all greenhouse gases from the transportation sector come from motor vehicles.

People like to talk about “tipping points.” Today, the end of the internal combustion engine is in sight. But is there another tipping point on the horizon as well? Are we nearing the time when private car ownership is no longer the default scenario?

Personally, I have some reservations about the sharing economy. Cars have become extensions of our personal space. I always know where my sunglasses are, for example. And I always have car seats for the grandkids with me, even though I only use them once a week. I worry that people who use my car will leave trash behind for me to clean up or smears from chocolate-covered fingers on the rear windows.

But those are quibbles. The goal is to keep the average temperature of the world from rising high enough to melt the polar ice caps and put most of the world’s cities underwater. If that is the case, is “peak car” such a bad idea?

Source: The Guardian | Photo by joiseyshowaa via (CC BY-SA)

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.