Stuff about cars

Today’s review is about the car, that piece of machinery that, since WW2, has come to dominate how we move around. It is now ubiquitous in our western world cities. In fact, I wonder whether an alien looking at us would think they are the residents of our world and we are their slaves required to move them around.

Anyway, a few facts and observations:

1. We love them. As my old friend and colleague Phil Heywood once said to me (paraphrased according to my memory of the discussion!) people think of them as a mobile extension of our lounge rooms, all warm and comfy and personalised. I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, but they are convenient and versatile and fast, so they account for about 90 per cent of the total urban passenger task (up from around 40 per cent in the late 1940s). We love them so much we have lots of them. In Australia there are about 17m cars. Worldwide, we are up there in terms of cars per capita at around 7 cars for every 10 people.

2. As the research of Larry Frank, Billie Giles-Corti and others demonstrates, cars make you fat. That is, the more one drives, the more likely one is to be overweight, and designing cities for car use designs out exercise because it makes it difficult to incorporate exercise into our daily lives, for example, by walking to work or the shop.

3. The desire to facilitate car use means dedicating more of our cites to hard stand, either for roads or parking. In suburban development, roads typically use about 10-15% of the land, then every house has two parking spots. Some studies of American cities indicate levels in cites like Houston of over 60% of its land taken to serve the car. The car is eating our cities.

4. Before cars, our streets were used by people, horses, bicycles, and other slow morning vehicles. Early sealed roads were often the result of lobbying by cycling groups, while jaywalking is a term invented by the car lobby to help get pedestrians off the streets to make way for cars.

5. Cars kill a lot of people – in the USA, it’s about 89 people a day, more than are killed by guns, but without the same community debate. In Australia, it’s about 1500 people a year, with about 4800 involves in road crashes daily and 550 of those injured. A significant proportion of those injured or killed aren’t in the cars, they are pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, and in most cases those are the result of driver behaviour.

6. While significant improvements have been made by regulation on nature of vehicle emissions, they are a major contributor to air quality problems and greenhouse gas. One of the sources above reckons that apart from the 35000 or so people killed directly by the car in the USA, another 30000 die from pollution it causes. Can’t vouch for that figure, but years of research by Griffith University’s Rod Simpson certainly is persuasive about the true human and economic cost of poor air quality.

7. Many believe that we may have reached Peak Car, as car use peaked in about 2004 (like rail,tram, bicycle, horse and bus use alll peaked at some point in the past) and has been steadily falling since. in the USA, the numbers of young people with drivers licenses has been declining for some time. The smart phone seems to have become the new rite de passage and status symbol!

8. We behave differently when we drive. Tom Vanderbilt has done a lot of work in this area and Ben Elton has provided delightful commentary in several of his books. We behave much more civilly to each other when we walk. If we are walking down the street and accidentally almost bump into someone, our first response to to apologise, not abuse them, which is often the case when we drive.

9. The car has had a fundamental effect on how we design our cities. Instead of town centre high streets built before the car, we have built big boxes of shops surrounded by car parks and often called them town centres. We have built vast swathes of suburbs featuring curvilinear streets and culs de sac, which make it much harder to find your way, and a loger distance to get there, compared to the easily understood grid patterns that dominated city design before the car.

10. We get sold one thing, and experience another. Have you ever seen car ads showing their product stuck in traffic, rather than the only vehicle funkily speeding along city streets or sweeping majestically along rural or coastal roads. Ben Elton said something about that too:

11. The main constraint to their convenience and independence is of course the extent that other cars get in our way, which is known as congestion. They are the main cause of congestion in cities (don’t think I need to cite a reference for this do I, it’s pretty obvious), and this has major effects on our cities. The Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics estimates that by 2020 car use will involve social costs of $20 billion annually in Australia. Many people still think the answer to congestion is to build more roads, but I am yet to see a city that has “road built” its way out of congestion. It’s more effective to invest in other modes that use less space and resources per trip, such as public and active transport, and to redesign communities to improve walkability (as Jeff Speck explains well).

12. They cost a lot to own. By my calculations in Australia, the annual cost of running the average car is about 15-20% of the average wage. On that basis, we work about 2 hours a day to own one on average. There are similar calculations done for elsewhere.

13. Car travel is is a heavily subsided form of transport. Road maintenance and construction is typically a large part of government budgets, particularly local government. The USA freeway program was essentially a nation building project facilitating and subsiding car use. A lot of the subsidy is hidden by being built in to other coast, for example by planning laws requiring parking to be provided. Some think the level of subsidy is very high . The level of subsidy is certainly high when externalities are factored in. A good discussion about that is found here.

14. The technology is changing fast. I had a ride in a fully electric car, the GM Volt, recently, and it is impressive. Drives like a petrol engine without the noise, and the owner has only a filled the auxiliary petrol engine tank (it charges the battery when it runs out) twice in the last year. And the driverless car is not far away too. What this technology means is unclear, but typically the effect of new technology is quite different to our expectations before it goes into mass use.

15. The way we use them is also changing. Alternatives to ownership include the car share schemes like Zipcar and Car2go, and also schemes where people hire their own cars out when they are not using them. The impacts of these are likely to be on reduced need for car ownership, but it’s too early to tell yet.

So there you have some stuff about cars. Hope it is of interest, Might do more posts in the future with stuff about other modes of transport.

Greg Vann
(Slightly updated November 2013)


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  1. Cars are totally overrated! I’m personally trying to reinforce this in our lives by riding to work and having the kids learn that it’s far more fun to scooter/walk to kindy than sit in traffic in the car!

    The flip side being they really aren’t great at car travel beyond about an hour…so if we’re heading to the coast we pray that there are no delays lest we end up losing a child (or our sanity)!

    Thanks for the read, enjoyed it, hope the tour is rewarding! H

  2. John and I use GoGet when we “need” a car. About once a month I reserve a Yaris online, pick it up in a garage in the city and then run errands that involve heavy items (think charcoal, canned goods, laundry detergent – the tv came home on the bus :), go to Mt Coot-tha, visit friends who live a bit “off” TransLink lines, and have spontaneous lunches in Moorooka, Sunnybank, or Darra. As I’ve recently been reminded that Coles delivers groceries, the first task is off the list, although I do like visiting the shops on Balaclava Street (accessible by transit). By the end of the 24 hour rental (cost approximately 80 including monthly fee, rego, fuel, insurance, maintenance, parking) I am generally delighted not to have to drive again for another month.