PCP – Against: Are Cars an Overall Boon for Society?

Meagan Cardno - 4B Nanotechnology
Posted on: January 29, 2017

If you are friends with me, you might know that despite being 22 years old, I currently do not have my license. No, this isn’t some sort of lifelong prohibition against the tyranny of our requirement to own and drive a car in order to be a beneficial contribution to society, but I do want to serve as an example of how it is very much possible to live life without what many see as a “fundamental” right of first world living. I am fortunate in regards to having a decent public transport system, allowing me to get to class or to work. I’ve even travelled to the US and back with nothing but public transport, with only commuter-common worries of “did I forget anything?” or “what if there are delays and I miss my flight?” and the like.
Yet it seems as though the average person sees such a motor-less life as just a long struggle of inconvenience. “But what about groceries?” some might cry. Well I buy groceries while on public transit too, and yes that does mean I have to keep in mind how much I can feasibly carry. But does that mean I’m starving? Absolutely not. In fact, I like to think such a weight restriction has been overall more beneficial for me — not only do I waste less food, as I typically buy exactly what I am going to eat for the coming week or so, but I also tend to make more frequent trips for groceries than perhaps the average motorized shopper with $250 in purchase. Going frequently means that buying produce becomes far more sustainable, as I use and eat what I buy within a few days.
But the majority of my argument focuses on just how much individual driving hinders our society, and how our own selfish desire for convenience is proving detrimental for our planet overall – first and foremost just due to how inefficient such convenience is in terms of fuel cost. There are reasons why benefits are in place at the moment for people who carpool or take public transit, because cars spend the majority of their lifespan taking only one person, the driver, to their destination. If we were to fly airplanes across the Atlantic with only the pilot and his crew, people would be understandably upset. Yet we do the equivalent of that by having nearly half a million vehicles sitting in traffic on the 401 every day — the majority of which hold no cargo aside from the person in the driver seat and their briefcase.
What does this inefficiency mean for us? Well aside from being horrendously expensive to build and maintain infrastructure, its an absolute nightmare for our environmental impact. Transportation as a whole represents about a quarter of greenhouse gas emission sources in the United States, second only to energy production (responsible for just under a third of GHG emissions). Of course transportation doesn’t encompass solely individuals — after all, airplanes and freight trunks are quite the gas guzzlers. But by driving independently and at bare minimum capacity, we could consider ourselves essentially quadrupling our GHG emissions. Imagine the benefits solely from having four people in one vehicle, let alone if we encouraged the use of transport like buses or trains.
While yes, the greenhouse gas emissions argument is neutered significantly if cars were to be replaced with electric vehicles, that comes at a catch too. First of all, the manufacturing process is a huge producer of greenhouse gases in its own right (something that will continue even in the production of electric cars). Economic impacts of oil and gas runs deep too, as much of our Canadian economy and personal financial stability is linked directly to the availability and prices of oil and gas prices. Oil and gas companies are amongst the most influential on our planet, largely in part due to our individual need for their resources for us to (quite literally) get anywhere in life. Our need for fossil fuel resources have driven us even to war on numerous occasions (which I will not name in fear of not expressing the complex sociopolitical nature associated with these sorts of struggles). While removing mass public driving from existence might not fish us entirely out of the deep hole of fossil fuel reliance, it would be a damn good step since we are already taking massive strides in other sectors, such as fuel production and industry.
Finally, there is the undeniable truth that driving is in itself a high risk task — why in the name of Feynman is it expected for every able-bodied adult to be partaking in such a high risk procedure? In several studies across the past decades in first world countries such as the United States or the UK, motor vehicle accidents are listed as the number one cause of accidental death consistently. If you think about it, it makes sense as well — even if the chance of having a vehicular accident during any drive is lower than, say, the risk of hurting yourself while using a chainsaw, we interact with cars exponentially more than we tend to interact with chainsaws.
This is the reason that truly baffles me the most, since demanding that such a widespread high-risk activity be performed by the adult population would be unheard of, and considered preposterous. What if we asked every adult to be capable of wiring their own house?  In truth the principals of electronic circuits are no more difficult than the principals of road safety, and the risks of bodily harm or death could be comparable. After all, mis-wiring your house could result in your own harm or the harm of others, or you could be put at risk yourself because your neighbour mis-wired their house and started a fire. Except, it’s far easier to avoid a burning building than a car going over 80 kph.
Why don’t we consider driving a high skills job? Why can any 16 year old pass a written test and immediately get behind the wheel of a device responsible for more deaths per year in the US than even their horribly managed guns and other weaponry? Just because it is convenient? It seems that perhaps the principles of prior generations have just been passed on to us without proper reflection — after all, people never had to be warned of the dangers of drinking and horseback riding.
Now you might be asking now: what system do I propose in place of our current system of undeniable reliance of individuals driving themselves from place to place? The reality is we are probably too far gone down our current path to replace this system in the course of my lifetime without costing more in money and materials than the associated issues I just outlined. However, I don’t think that it’s impossible to imagine a future in which we wean ourselves off of our car addiction generation by generation, putting in the time to build better public transit infrastructure and highlighting the global benefits associated with less people driving.