Transport Apocalypse

Let us imagine that somebody invents a new form of transport, which has the unfortunate side effect of killing a few thousand people every week. Do you think that it would be tolerated?

But nobody raises an eyebrow when seven people die in traffic during the Easter weekend in Sweden. If they died in trains or buses or aeroplanes or from a leak in a nuclear power station, there would be an outcry and an inquiry and no expense would be spared to ensure it does not happen again. But if it is in traffic…njah…let’s just mumble about doing better in the future and move on, shall we?

According to the WHO, in 1998 over a million people died worldwide from traffic accidents – and that doesn’t include the ones that died indirectly from respiratory illness and whatever else is caused by intensive car use. In the US alone the number was close to 50,000, which means that the same number of Americans that died in the whole Vietnam War are dying every year on American roads.

And there are no serious complaints. A touch odd, don’t you think? It’s just one indication of how deeply rooted cars and car travel is in our society. Almost everything in the modern urban landscape is built around cars. As Carl Sagan mentioned, any creature looking down on Earth from above would naturally assume that cars are the dominant life form on the planet and that humans are merely some kind of parasite.

The average travel speed in London during rush hour these days is slower than it was in the age of horse-drawn carts. We have surrounded ourselves with machines that are supposed to make our lives better and easier and discovered that there is no space left over for us.

I’m not saying we should not have cars. I am saying that people dying, whether from breathing fumes or getting eviscerated in car-wrecks, is perhaps more important than this “right” we believe we have to piss around the countryside at will and waste our lives and resources sitting in unmoving lines of traffic.

/ paddy


15 thoughts on “Transport Apocalypse

  1. Isn’t it that most people will demand higher standards from other people than they do from themselves?

    We expect our train companies and our doctors and our supermarkets not to do things that might kill people, but we don’t hold ourselves up to the same standards.

    Gosh. We might have to obey the speed limit, or not accellerate round blind corners, or change the tyres now rather than when we get around to it.

    Nice graphic. Though don’t forget – whoever mentions Hitler first loses the argument by default.



  2. Isn’t it amazing how the automobile manages to embody just about everything that’s low and despicable about our species? Aggression (look at what happens to normally sweet and kind people when they get behind the wheel); might-makes-right mentality (“Out of my way, puny pedestrian!”); vanity (“Mine’s bigger than yours”); idiocy (suburban mass-auto commuting: “Oh, look: thirty bricks that need to be moved from A to B — well, we had better go and get thirty wheelbarrows to cart them in, then, hadn’t we?”); egoism (“My car takes me to work quicker than public transport does — never mind the fact that its giant lumbering presence gets in everybody else’s way!”); physical laziness (duh); downright infantility (have you noticed how many SUV:s are designed to look like fucking _manga monsters_?); a complete disregard for natural and urban aesthetic values… the list goes on and on.

    I used to think that the impact of cars on health and environment might in the end actually be a good thing, in that it would wake ordinary sheeple up to their overall awfulness. Obviously, that isn’t working, so these days I’m instead counting on global oil depletion to deliver the auto problem its Final Solution.

  3. Hi Paddy

    I get upset when someone tells me not to smoke when I am standing outside. Most times they drive an SUV and spew much more toxic chemicals into the air than I do from my lungs when I exhale.

    People are dieing here in Vancouver too from traffic. There are 700 accidents everyday in traffic here. That is not including the people who are killed by walking by traffic or crossing through traffic on sidewalks. I choose not to drive in Vancouver. There are so many citizens here who learned in different countries how to drive and don’t follow the rules. Drinking and driving is the biggest killer here.

    Take care Paddy.

    Love your header image :)

  4. I prefere horsepower!
    Vi borde ta ett steg tillbaka, det är naturligtvis en surrealistiskt tanke för den moderna människan, men ett är säkert: inte så länge till kan vi fara kors och tvär som vi gör nu. Verkligen inte så länge till.
    Att sänka hastigheten är en liten början.

  5. I have to counter some these points of view.

    First of all I am a car fan and would be very happy if all the other people clogging up the roads weren’t there disrupting MY freedom. Thats me in my stereotype box.

    But what is the real argument here? Is it anti-car? anti-transport? anti-road deaths? pro-environment?

    Pollution is a problem as is global warming and oil depletion. Cars are the biggest contributer to all of these. And traffic congestion is a pointless waste of life. But people will still want to get around.

    In Ireland and Dublin in particular, policy makers are anti-car but also anti-public transport. More and more urban roads are converted into bus lanes, restricting and congesting other road users. However, the state owned bus company is not allowed buy any more buses because the government wants to introduce competition in public transport. But the details of this seemingly cannot be agreed. So we have congested buses in empty bus lanes and congestion of every other bit of road. Madness.

    Deaths on the roads are terrible. No matter what is done with safety improvements and better driver education/punishment for wrong doing, there will still be accidents and deaths.

    Statistics can show anything. If nobody drove there would be no car accidents. Did people not die in the days of horses and carts? Do people confined through lack of transport grow insular and narrow minded?
    When millions of people are involved in a particular activity something bad will happen to some. How many people come off worse when playing sports? fishing? going down stairs? changing a light bulb?!

    If we all drove elcetric or hydrogen fuel-cell cars people would still die – maybe even from electrocution or nasty burns.

    The sad thing is that road deaths are a fact of life and are generally treated like that. Unless its a particularly nasty/spectacular incident or a relatively large number of people are killed road deaths don’t really register.

    Maybe if more people were actively aware of what can happen on the road they would take more care and hopefully be safer. That includes pedestrians, cyclists, passengers and drivers.

  6. Aphra: Who mentioned Hitler? Not me…

    Tor: Screwdrivers and sledgehammers, meet you at the corner.

    Jessica: Thanks. I assume the citizens who learned to drive in different countries would be Americans..?

    Blackout: I agree completely.

    And Stu: I knew I could count on you for a narky reply! In fact I was counting on it when I wrote this piece, heh heh. And so to your points:

    My real argument is pro-people. Human environments are now designed and built largely for cars. I realise that a car has a driver, but why should one person occupying a few square feet require a constant area of ten square metres just to move around? And yes, you CAN fit four people in a car but stand at any street corner at 8:15 on a weekday and you will see that 80% of the cars have just ONE occupant.

    I have no real problem with roads connecting places together, but there MUST be options available besides cars, especially in cities. It’s maybe not the car driver’s fault, but governments listen to car lobbies and car lobbies listen to car drivers. The real blame here lies with governments being narrow-minded and cowardly. A private car should be a last option, and NOT a first one when a normal trip has to be made.

    In Stockholm there is a very good public transport system but still the city is jammed with cars, so we cannot blame bad public transport for the car epidemic. There is something else going on here.

    “When millions of people are involved in a particular activity something bad will happen to some” – very true, and I can’t argue with that.

    I don’t particularly care if we drive electric, fuel-cell or dung-powered cars – it is still the same big lump of metal and plastic getting in my face.

    Basically Stu I want places (mainly urban places) to be designed for people, with cars coming way down the list after trains and buses. I realise that there is little an average person can do about this, but I will continue to complain anyway because I don’t have a car but still have to suffer all the “downsides” of living in an urban space. (There are upsides too of having cars around, but not as many, for me, as the downsides.)

    So car drivers, don’t forget: You’re not IN traffic, you ARE traffic.

  7. Paddy, you are absolutely right here. And especially so in that last comment there.

    People get very defensive about their driving rights and when their habits are forcefully compromised via legislation. They don’t half make a fuss, demanding rights…crying victimisation etc…. And so, the cowardly governments back down.

    The car machine thing is totally alien to the natural world and is, in all but name, a killer. It might only accidentally kill and maim humans and creatures of the furry kind but it’s still a man-made killer nonetheless. Yet it’s existence is prioritised over real life.

    How the hell did it get so that cars come before humans? How many drivers arrogantly pursue their right of way against pedestrians in any given circumstance?

    I always remember walking home from work with my lovely mum one time in the pouring rain and she walked straight across the road in front of an on-coming car. It was dark and wet and she had her umbrella up so her visibility was not so clear. Luckily, the driver stopped in time. But he shouted a load of abuse at her about watching where she was going and about how he had the right-of-way and about how he could have killed her…blah..blah…

    I was embarassed and I told her off for not letting him go first and she just said…”Oh for goodness sake! He’s in his warm, dry car and I’m out here getting wet through!”

  8. I got my first car at age 33 to use it on a rural archaeological dig. Me & my wife have had one since, but most days we don’t use it. My rule of thumb is to use it only when I’m going where there’s no convenient public transport.

  9. Yeah Pat, I guessed you might be trying to bait me but I went fot it anyway.
    I agree with pretty much all your saying – traffic is the traffic and urban spaces shouldn’t be dominated by them. I like to walk most of the time when I can. I like to drive, but I like to drive for the pleasure of motion – not to be part of traffic. Maybe cars should be toys with designated areas to drive them. Hey thats like a race track….

  10. Aphra Ben, good point.
    Paddy, jag skrev en insändare häromdagen. Pro citycykling (eller snarare cyklisthat). Med argumentet att det är enkelt att gå eller köra bil i stan men svårt att cykla eftersom allt är helt anpassat till bilister och fotgängare. Och pro tolerans och hänsynsfullhet trafikslagen emellan. Men det kan nog behövas alla trafikanter emellan när jag tänker efter.
    Håller med om att fler borde köra bil lite mindre, och håller tummarna för ett par nya tunnelbanelinjer. Hörde att en är på gång till Solna, hoppas det är sant.

  11. Karin: The problem with car drivers is that they don’t stop driving just because there are alternatives. Sure, it helps, but they must be FORCED to reduce their car use. Congestion charges was one good way, but nobody will give up doing something easy just because it’s better for other people.

  12. Paddy: People must be FORCED to change? History has shown that this philosophy usually turns out well. ..
    I think your original point that if X amount of people were to die in a train wreck or a nuclear leak there would be an outcry, but not if they die from auto accidents misses the key difference between A train wreck and A nuclear leak and SEVERAL auto accidents. Whenever there are a large number of deaths from a single auto accident, usually there is an investigation into why and what could be done to prevent it.
    As for myself, I tend to see the benefits society enjoys from increased mobility. My biggest gripe with cars is their inefficiency. The auto industry has been far too slow in changing their offerings to include more fuel efficient vehicles and alternative fuel sources. The higher demand for hybrids than current production only supports this belief.

  13. Glen: Sorry, bad choice of words. By FORCED I mean make the other options far more attractive. Or force us like was done with CFCs – although of course the fridge lobby is not as powerful as the car lobby…

    I accept that mobility is important, and that cars will always be necessary, but I do not accept that this “freedom” comes before everything else.

    Cars are useful for lots of things – but not for day-to-day commuting in cities with well functioning public transport. Using a car in this situation is usually only due to laziness and status. Prove me wrong, people…

  14. We accept the death toll associated with operating private motor vehicles because of the overwhelming benefits that society gain from their use. That people are dying is “important”, but equally that they have their desired mobility is also “important”.

    Carl Sagan’s comment was a fantastic demonstration of of rhetorical flair, but not a statement of fact. Cars are not the dominant species. Cities are not designed for cars – they are designed for people; people with cars.

    As technology changes, no doubt our cities will change – perhaps as we start moving to “freelance” information economies in the developed world we’ll naturally start using our cars less, we’ll turn some of the roads into promenades and the roundabouts into plazas.

    Quick statement of interest: I live in the middle of a city, so I walk quite a bit, but don’t use the bike so much since I fell off and broke my wrist. (Which sounds better than “I’m too unfit to get up the hills without having a heart-attack).

  15. James: That was a brilliant comment, and one I can find practically no fault with. Keep them coming! Although…I do not entirely agree that society gains so much from cars being used on the level they are used on today. I do not agree that shipping people between very similar places should be the cornerstone on which our society is built. Transport and mobility is important, but we place far too much emphasis on this mindless dashing about. The more we move about, the smarter we don’t get.

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