- Millions of cars on the road have contributed to a public health crisis, from pollution to road deaths.
- However, Americans are still obsessed with cars, writes author Daniel Knowles.
- Knowles explained to Insider why Americans and the world love cars so much, despite the downsides.
It’s hard to imagine a time when America, home to the most famous automaker in history and the world’s first monster truck, nearly threw cars into their cities over a century ago.
Daniel Knowles, author of “Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What To Do About It,” chronicled a time in the 1920s when Americans were enraged by the ever-increasing presence of cars on their streets – cars that killed of pedestrians and taking over the roads they traveled on foot.
Protests across the country followed. One person even wrote to The New York Times suggesting that pedestrians crossing their street should point their guns at anyone driving in self-defense, Knowles wrote.
Knowles, whose work cited historian Peter Norton’s book “Fighting Traffic” for much of this chapter, told Insider it was one of the most telling facts about cars he had. learned while researching his new book.
“Cincinnati had a law that almost passed that would have required every car to have an automatic speed limiter,” Knowles told Insider. “And this huge backlash against cars when they first came, I was really surprised. I think I got this idea that like cellphones or something, everybody has in sort of said, ‘Oh, it’s just a new invention, I guess I’m going to buy one’ and then everyone bought them.”
Today, thanks to the auto industry’s lobbying efforts to move pedestrians off the roads and into cars, Americans view cars very differently, he said. Cars are a necessity and even a symbol of self-reliance and the American dream, Knowles wrote.
Knowles’ book, however, argued that these early car culture fighters may have been onto something.
Cars suck because they blow — chemicals and particles, that is, Knowles wrote. They are a major contributor to the climate crisis. They isolate us from busy cities, but we cling to the idea that they give us freedom. Now cars lead us to our smog-filled destiny, he wrote.
Knowles, who lives in Chicago and doesn’t own a car, also wrote about the uneven distribution of car damage that affects people of color. Communities of color are more likely to be exposed to harmful air pollution, regardless of region or income. Car culture has destabilized cities like Detroit by helping local planners and lawmakers implement laws that would build freeways in cities to accommodate suburban white car owners, he added.
Despite this, writes Knowles, the cars persist. Data shows that they are infiltrating every nook and cranny of our limited space on Earth as car ownership increases all over the world. Between 2017 and 2021, the number of vehicles registered in the United States increased by almost 4%. In 2016, research found that globally, the number of cars in the world would double from 1 billion to 2 billion by 2040.
“Even in America today, I think the big challenge is political, and part of that problem is what people on the internet call ‘the brains of the car’ – you know, the crowd of anti-car people who are big like Reddit and that kind of thing, but… I think when you become completely addicted to your car, the idea of making driving somewhere more expensive or more difficult, or somehow restrictive , it looks like some kind of aggression.”
How to Ditch Cars Completely
The problems with cars are already known to policy makers. Their solution is to bet on electric vehicles.
In April, the Biden administration unveiled an investment plan to make electric vehicles more affordable for low-income families. It’s part of a wider goal to make 50% of vehicle sales electric by 2030 to combat the worst impacts of climate change.
California also unveiled a plan to ensure that all new cars sold beyond 2035 are zero-emission vehicles.
But, as many transport experts have argued before, Knowles told Insider he believes we need to ditch cars for public transport altogether, both for human rights reasons and because the enormous environmental cost of maintaining so many vehicles on the road.
To change America’s car culture, Knowles said he thinks public transportation planners need to start focusing on the people who might use it the most, like low-income families burdened with car costs or women who take care of children.
“A study that the Los Angeles Metro had done found that it was disproportionately mothers who had part-time jobs and some family responsibilities, and found that public transit just wasn’t working for them,” Knowles said, describing a 2019 study that found women who used public transportation were burdened with concerns such as safety and accessibility for them and their children. “And those are the people you need to target.”
Knowles also said policies that make it harder to drive and easier to use public transportation will help.
“So many American cities have passed laws, changed parking requirements, and changed zoning so developers can build apartments and dense housing around transit stops,” Knowles said. “And so I think I would be more optimistic.”