Photo: Is it time for a real war on cars?

There is no war on cars — but there should be. (Credit: poeloq)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Senior Editor

In railing against everything from bike lanes to transit spending, pundits and politicians often raise the spectre of a "war on cars." Of course, there is no war on cars — but there should be.

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Cars directly kill and hurt more people every year than most diseases, resulting in 1.5 million deaths and 78 million injuries needing medical care, according to the World Bank. Road injury is the eighth leading cause of death worldwide. Pollution from cars also causes acute and chronic health problems that often result in premature death — from heart disease and stroke to respiratory illness and lung cancer.

Environmental impacts of cars are also well-known and wide-ranging, including climate change, smog and oily run-off from roads, not to mention the green space sacrificed for infrastructure to sell, drive, fuel and park them. Despite fuel-efficiency improvements, emissions from vehicles have more than doubled since 1970, and will increase with rising car demand in countries like China, India and Brazil, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

Because many people, especially North Americans, can't conceive of a world without cars for everyone, we overlook major problems caused by our private automobile obsession. We're rightly outraged when a company like General Motors ignores faulty ignition switches in some of its vehicles, thought to have caused 13 deaths over 13 years. The massive recall that followed was justified and necessary. But as a headline on Treehugger's website argues, "It's time for a bigger recall of a seriously defective product: The Car."

The article continues, "Since we can't recall every car all at once and redesign the entire country, there are at least things we can do to make it less bad. Significantly reduce speed limits. Make drivers pay the full cost of infrastructure construction and maintenance through the gas tax. Build the cost of medical care for those millions of injured by cars into the price of gas. Invest in walkable cities and alternative forms of transport."

Seattle newsweekly The Stranger, only somewhat tongue-in-cheek, created a 2011 manifesto for a real war on cars. "We demand that car drivers pay their own way, bearing the full cost of the automobile-petroleum-industrial complex that has depleted our environment, strangled our cities, and drawn our nation into foreign wars," it says. "Reinstate the progressive motor vehicle excise tax, hike the gas tax, and toll every freeway, bridge, and neighborhood street until the true cost of driving lies as heavy and noxious as our smog-laden air."

As Treehugger notes, we can't shift from car-centric societies overnight. And until we find ways to better design our urban areas, many people will continue to rely on cars. After all, in the "developed" world, and increasingly in the developing world, we privilege private automobiles when creating infrastructure, often at the expense of what we need for public transit, walking and cycling.

Some even claim automobile and oil companies bought and dismantled streetcar and urban rail lines from the mid-1930s to the 1950s to sell more cars and oil. Fuel efficiency wasn't a concern because, before pollution and climate change impacts were known, gas sale profits were a priority. Many factors were involved in the development of car culture, but we now find ourselves in an era when much of our oil is burned to propel mostly single users in inefficient vehicles.

Even with today's improved fuel standards, only about 15 per cent of the energy from each litre of fuel burned is used to move the vehicle, which typically weighs 10 to 20 times more than the passenger(s) it carries. That translates to about a one per cent efficiency to move those passengers.

Although we can't stop using cars altogether, we can curtail their damage to people and the environment. We can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by cutting back on car use, choosing fuel-efficient vehicles, joining a car pool or sharing program and reducing speed. At the policy level, we need increased investment in public transit and cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, stronger fuel-efficiency standards, reduced speed limits, higher gas taxes and human-centric urban design.

Besides combatting pollution and climate change, reduced dependency on private automobiles will lead to healthier people, fewer deaths and injuries and livable cities with happier citizens. And that's worth fighting for!

April 17, 2014

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Jan 06, 2017
5:44 PM

This is where I part ways with Suzuki. He has had a life long career of engaging the public on nature and environmental matters. But saying there should be a war on cars is just too much. It is where many of us — I have been on the left of the political spectrum for my entire life — stop listening. There are numerous progressives and political lefties who are value personal vehicle travel. There are ways to improve lives with increasing technology. It is every bit as environmental to fuel vehicles with clean electricity with improvements in electric technology as it is to run extremely expensive light rail vehicles everywhere. Technological advancement will save earth, not holding us back to the best transport options the 1800’s will offer.

May 05, 2014
5:10 PM

Is it really the car that causes all these deaths, or people who drive like inveterate idiots? People text, eat breakfast sandwiches, put on their makeup, shave, read magazines and lack spacial and situational awareness that even pre-schoolers can manage, yet it’s the car’s fault? Most of those deaths and injuries happen in places like India, Africa, etc where life is, unfortunately, cheap. Go ride a motorcycle for 50 miles and tell me it’s the car’s fault that “accidents” happen. sigh

Regarding infrastructure costs, most of it already comes from gas taxes and if it doesn’t, it’s the fault of politicians who co-opt those revenues for “the general fund”.

As is typical of these kind of thoughts, everything you’re asking for would put the burden on the middle class that relies on cars for their livelihood. Your article should be retitled “there is no war on the middle class, but there should be”.

Pardon me if I’m offended.

Apr 29, 2014
6:16 PM

I agree with this article and promote driving less, however I am in a unique driving scenario that someone out there must be able to identify with. How will small business contractors survive without vehicles? As a mural artist I can often run, walk, or bike to my job site once things are set up, but getting everything I need there is a different story. I somehow seem to spend the better part of some days driving for errands, picking up materials, etc. to the point where sometimes I think I’m a courier. My reality is that I need many different items from many different places to make work happen. That said I often look around at a red light to see all of us idling in solitude. One option I have thought of is a bike trailer, which would facilitate some of my needs. There is no way around a vehicle for other needs, such as scaffolding or larger equipment. I also live in Edmonton so paint on my bike trailer might freeze in the winter by the time it reaches it’s destination. Any ideas or comments?

Apr 27, 2014
7:21 AM

Is “The Nature of Things” still interrupted by car ads?

It certainly still gets substantial funding from gasoline consumers through the tax revenues on that fuel. Dr. James Hansen proposes a minor increase in that tax, and a major one in government’s net revenue on natural gas and coal, in the form of a carbon “fee” levied equally on all fossil fuels.

His proposal would increase government’s conflict of interest in this matter, would make it, even more than now, society’s main carbon interest group, or you could say, if you’re after an arresting acronym at the expense of some precision, its main petroleum interest group.

It would do that, except — crucially — he requires all of the carbon fee to be returned in equal dividend to the citizens. “Fee and dividend”.

I think there is a bright future for the dividend all by itself, with no new carbon taxes. Rebate all that government now makes on fossil fuels to the people equally. This idea’s future is bright because it amounts to a progressive tax cut: more for approximately the poorer half of us, less for the richer ~half.

Apr 26, 2014
9:38 AM

I don’t see where in this post you talked about the effects of building denser housing near transit. Is it here, but expressed more subtly? It seems to be a topic that the public is not clear on.

Apr 25, 2014
8:51 PM

I don’t understand this. You preach on the negativity of motorized vehicles on the environment but you won’t stand up for your cause against the blatant actions our BC Government has taken to eliminate the mandatory emmissions program in the Greater Vancouver area by the end of this year. I was hoping that the clear benefits this program has proven on improving our air quality was to be expanded to all major populated areas of this Province, not a reversal to the 1970’s. In May of 2012, our Government announced the closing of AirCare by December 2014. Since then there was total silence, not a singal word, from any environment group. It is quite obvious that the David Suzuki Foundation has more ‘bluster’ than influence, in my books.

Apr 25, 2014
8:26 PM

The best thing you can do to cut car use is to put up dense housing near transit.

Apr 24, 2014
3:10 AM

I hate to have to say this, but large cities are generally not sustainable due to the inability to supply enough food locally issue.

Advocates of sustainable cities always want to create a city where as much of the population as possible can walk from the homes to work, and to both service and supply. I will point out as someone with 30 years worth of national-scale wholesale fresh food industry warehousing and distribution experience that the walk-to city will be an expensive nightmare to supply, especially to stores small-enough to walk-to, in a walk-to city design.

I developed a formula to ascertain the required amount of farmland necessary to feed a population based on the USDA food availability guide, the USDA food loss guide, and on average crop yields as reported by multiple sources.

In order to supply the USDA food availability minimum average daily calorie of 2500 calories, including average farm-to-retail loss rates, the average person needs just under 1000 lbs of food annually.

Now take average crop yields of 5000-10,000 lbs per acre, so each acre farmed in dirt feeds 5-10 people, not including loss at the end user. So let’s say that the metropolitan NYC region has 20 million people.

At 7500 lbs of food per acre in average crop yield, with only a single crop per year, how many square miles of farmland does it take to just meet the human food need in metro-NYC?

The result is a staggering 4167 square miles of crop land, which does not include any pet food, animal feed, produce to make butter, vegetable oil, or biofuels either. 4200 square miles is a square area of 60 x 70 miles.

And right now, at this very second, metropolitan NYC only has 3-4 days of fresh food supply on-hand in all of its warehouses and on all of its store shelves, and many restaurants there have even less.

Now let’s say that we grow all of the NYC food requirement in indoor hydroponic greenhouses that average 5 times the crop yield of dirt farming and we can get 3 crops per year. That figure is still 280 square miles of hydroponic greenhouses.

I had a discussion with several urban planning and sustainability PHDs on this very subject, and we agreed that the maximum population for a sustainable walk-to city given a local food supply constraint would likely only be 100,000 to maybe 200,000 people.

So after lots of thought on urban design I came up with a design for linear cities connected by moderate speed electric-powered rail mass transit. Each city center would be 4-5 miles apart or so, and light rail trolleys, bicycling, electric buses, walking, and perhaps electric golf cart type vehicles would provide all of the necessary human transportation needs within each urban center along the main rail line.

Given a certain population density those individual urban centers would be 2-4 miles in diameter, and they would then be surrounded by farmland, or perhaps clustered around a hydroponic greenhouse. Major industrial production centers could also be located along the main rail lines. Still, if each urban center only has a capacity of 100-200K population…

At the stated crop yield above, how large a hydroponic greenhouse is necessary to feed 200,000 people? 2.8 square miles, or 1.4 square miles for 100,000 people. How many urban centers of that size does it take to disperse the 20 million people of metro-NYC, with the goal of walk-to or bike to food supply?

We must still have cars and trucks until we can design and build sustainable cities where a majority of human needs can be met on a walk-to or very short commute basis at slower travel speeds than today. So, how do you move from where we are today, with tens of thousands of trucks hauling food enroute to NYC at this very second, from as far away as California, with several thousand more being loaded later today too, considering you walk-to urban design goals?

And much time is left before we run out of time on climate emissions, and then rising temperatures, worsening drought, rising sea-levels, increased evaporation of surface water supplies, ever less annual runoff, drying soils, loss of vegetation, stagnating and falling crop yields, and declining aquifers all combine to render half of America or more unable to support half of its current population, which causes immense refugee hordes to overwhelm any possible sustainability elsewhere?

Gasoline or diesel engines in cars will have to be phased-out rapidly in-favor of hybrid and electric motive technology, possibly powered by natural gas or hydrogen, but we are still going to need cars or some sort of personal powered transportation vehicle, and small trucks for local supply, unless we could move back to an older design where high-density housing surrounds mixed-use development, industry, warehousing, railyards, etc, and is adjacent to food, other supply, service, and professional services too.

And then you will still need raw material supply and both recycling and waste pickup and processing too.

Take my word for it, huge high-density walk-to cities are not sustainable from a food and supply perspective as the distances involved are too great.

Apr 23, 2014
7:59 AM

I agree totally with your war on cars. I ONLY WISH YOU HAD INCLUDED SOMETHING ABOUT THE NOISE they cause and how this detracts from the urban experience. And also the detrimental health effects which are being documented more and more.

Apr 23, 2014
3:09 AM

@John Christensen :

Apr 22, 2014
8:51 AM

Could there not be a few request stops on the long highway bus routes?

Apr 21, 2014
8:44 AM

I agree wholeheart, but please, the headline is disconcerting: suggesting a us vs them outlook which does more harm than good if you want more ppl onboard standing up for the environment. What would a commuter living outside the city think? Would he change his/her ways or feel targeted by such a headline title?

Apr 20, 2014
8:58 AM

I wish it were that simple. As an architect with a strong interest in studying urban design and environmental issues since my university days (the early 80’s) I have unfortunately witnessed little to nothing happen on the urban design front. Sure, plenty of people have identified the problem, written books and even produced bona-fide treatises on it (A Pattern Language being the quintessential treatise) but nothing happens. So all the research and evidence is there, and yet still nothing happens. So we’re left asking why? I’m afraid that much of it flows from pure and simple greed. Because there are so many pigs feeding at the profit trough (developers, farmers, municipalities, retailers, construction companies, architects, engineers, politicians, oil companies, automobile manufacturers, and a long list of others) the proliferation of the suburban project continues, given in relative terms, it’s easy money…. and always in the name of “giving the customer what they want”. And in some ways, it does just that. We’ve so successfully exported the concept of the “American” dream (a single family house with a big yard and two cars) across the entire planet, that it is no surprise that as a net immigrating country, we are all invested heavily in delivering the goods…. as promised. It also doesn’t help that we now have several generations that were weaned on suburban living and as a result, know little else. Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they wish to continue to emulate it.

Apr 20, 2014
8:27 AM

Really? check your headline: not exactly a good way to get ppl on board..What do you say to the soccer mom who has to commute to work everyday? walk? Seriously, the green movement needs to be in tune with everyday people. Suggestion: why not feature an article showing how buying a small(er) car pays for itself in less than 5years. Or tell the truth about hybrids . Or links to treeplanting seems planting 12 trees offsets a year’s worth of car use.

The war is not on cars but ignorance and the failure of action.

Apr 19, 2014
11:59 PM

I’ve thought for a long time now that reducing the maximum speed limit to 10 km /hr and enforcing that by mandating speed regulators be installed in every vehicle that occupies the road, would be a good place to start. The rate of serious accidents resulting in injury would drop, people would be less inclined to travel long distances on a routine basis, the material requirements to construct an auto would decrease, there would be savings for cities and provinces all around allowing a reduction in taxes.

Apr 19, 2014
8:43 AM

This is laughable. The USA is not like Europe and mass transit ONLY works in large cities. Living in the suburbs in the North East you need a car. I couldn’t imagine walking to work 15 miles in the cold winter and forget bicycles in the winter time, at 3mph walk speed it would be 5 hour walk so 10 hour commute, LOL. Iam also a kayaker and carry a 18 foot long kayak on my roof of my car. I do drive a small Honda Fit but if I had no car I sure wouldn’t be able to go kayaking all around.WE do have some bus runs but waiting for a bus when its minus 5 F is not something your going to get people too do, just not gunna happen. Your in dream land if you think that will happen as long as there is gasoline available. Sure you could tax the heck out of people but they will still drive a car. Heck most of my friends still drive SUV’s even with gas at almost 4 dollars a gallon.

Apr 19, 2014
6:34 AM

No there’s no speed limit in Germany and they have less serious accidents. So reducing speed might not make a big difference.

Apr 18, 2014
11:48 PM

We don’t need to eliminate motor vehicles entirely. We just need to use them a lot more intelligently. Emergency vehicles, public transport and even private cars (full and for sensible trips only) have a place. Motor sports, motorised leisure boats and off-road adventure vehicles should all be banned today.

Bicycle: the intelligent solution to so many of the world’s problems.

Apr 18, 2014
11:05 PM

I agree entirely that car use in cities should be minimised, for the obvious benefits quoted. But cities occupy only a small portion of a country’s area, and people who live outside cities will rely on cars for personal transport for the foreseeable future. And because they will always drive at higher than city speeds they will remain at a high percentage of road fatalities and injuries. Can there be a feasible solution for the non-city situation?

Apr 18, 2014
10:32 PM

unless you live in them

Apr 18, 2014
9:12 PM

Perhaps put pressure on politicians from local to federal level to develop a comprehensive public transport system. Improve transit systems, improve railway network (certainly create thousands of jobs)….between towns, between cities and between provinces. School children are becoming more aware of environmental issues. Transport could be another debating topic in schools. Scientists and other organizations should provide data/information for this purpose.

The major pressure the politician have is from the business sector. In fact many politician see their job as a career path into the private sector. It time for civil society exert its influence.

RIght now, increase fuel tax is also going to hurt the low wage earners as there is no alternative transport for a large swathe of the population. Perhaps unions too can play a role in pegging their income to transport costs.

Apr 18, 2014
7:33 PM

The most health-hazardous air pollutant is PM2.5 (tiny particles less than 2.5 millionth of a metre in diameter) that cause 10 to 20 times as many premature deaths as the next worst pollutant (ozone)

As explained in a 9 minute video discussing air pollution in Utah, PM2.5 penetrate the deepest recesses of our lungs. As well as causing lung disease, PM2.5 can enter the bloodstream and transport the toxins in air pollution all round the body, causing inflammation, heart disease, cancers, dementia, genetic damage in babies, increased risk of childhood asthma, autism, reduced IQ when children start school and attention problems.

Environment Canada reports that 42% of all Canadian PM2.5 emissions in 2011 were from domestic firewood burning, compared to 8.8% from road, rail and air transport and 4.1% from the oil and gas industry

Apr 18, 2014
6:36 PM

Also forgot to mention, if there is a campaign against cars, I’d happily support it financially… Just sayin’

Apr 18, 2014
6:34 PM

I totally think there should be a war on cars. They are the biggest causer of pollution, and there should be more investment in transit. I’m not just saying this because I work for transit, or because I’ve never really driven or ever owned a car and take transit all the time and walk, but also Hitler pushed for cars to be in production. Think about that.

Apr 18, 2014
3:57 PM

> As Treehugger notes, we can’t shift from car-centric societies overnight. And until we find ways to better design our urban areas, many people will continue to rely on cars. After all, in the “developed” world, and increasingly in the developing world, we privilege private automobiles when creating infrastructure, often at the expense of what we need for public transit, walking and cycling. <<<

This is the nub of it. Demonising the vehicle or the driver is politically counterproductive. Instead demonise the land use plans. Where is the Suzuki Campaign for Zoning Reform? Where is the Suzuki-Trottier Engineering Partnership for a new Street Design Manual that privileges place over flow?

Do something useful instead of trotting out these lazy scattergun sermons to the choir.

Apr 18, 2014
6:59 AM

I’ve thought for a long time now that reducing the maximum speed limit to 40 km /hr and enforcing that by mandating speed regulators be installed in every vehicle that occupies the road, would be a good place to start. The rate of serious accidents resulting in injury would drop, people would be less inclined to travel long distances on a routine basis, the material requirements to construct an auto would decrease, there would be savings for cities and provinces all around allowing a reduction in taxes.

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