Car Culture: A Dead-End Road

The Occupy movement has drawn attention to unsustainable forms of development, capitalism’s insatiable thirst for resources and its constant expansion. In Vancouver, the movement included Stop the Pave, a group organizing against freeway expansion and drawing attention to the role of the private automobile in depleting resources. Such movements can draw on the April 2011 book Stop Signs by Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler, for the case it makes against the supremacy of the private automobile, and its argument that the car is taking us down a dead-end road of economic, social and ecological decay.

The authors provocatively argue that the purchase of a new car is one of the most ecologically destructive choices a consumer can make. However, the number of cars on the road continues to increase. The private car has become a necessary part of life for millions. Auto companies and their friends have succeeded in marginalizing alternatives such as walking, cycling and public transit — options that are often (or often seen as) unattractive and unsafe.

Stop Signs is presented in an interesting, sometimes humorous, nonacademic way. The authors take an ecological approach, observing the car in its economic and social setting. A road trip — by bus — through the US, the heartland of auto dominance and car culture, is the vehicle for much field observation. Although the authors tend to digress, they also offer a great deal of useful information.

The book illustrates the huge impact of the car in transforming both the urban and rural landscapes. This transformation is viewed as a symbol of capitalist progress and the good life, but Mugyenyi and Engler warn that such a super resource-consuming model is not sustainable, especially if the rest of the world adopts it as well. Moreover, whatever the quality-of-life benefits of the car, the authors argue that it fails on its promise of freedom and a dignified life for all. Instead, they suggest, another world is possible and necessary.

The human toll

Cars are noisy and dangerous. Corporate media culture fuels fear of murder and violent crime, but automobiles are the biggest killers of children and youth. Globally, cars kill more than one million people each year. Much of this carnage takes place in the unregulated space of the Third World. In the US, the annual toll is 40 000 deaths, including 6000 pedestrians and 700 cyclists. Every study shows that increasing speed promoted by auto companies sharply increases the number of fatalities. Studies also prove that other options, such as buses and commuter rail, are far safer.

Similarly, cars create smog, particulate matter and environmental toxins. Poisoning the environment contributes to rising rates of asthma and cancers, and indirectly leads to many thousands of premature deaths annually. And in a car-dependent culture, people walk less. Lack of exercise and the stress of long commutes exacerbate health problems.

The US contains four percent of the world’s population, but consumes one-quarter of the globe’s oil and close to half of its gasoline. Yet the worst impact will not be suffered in the US. Global climate change will lead to increased drought, uninhabitable areas and threats to food security, most starkly in poorer countries.

One example is the Niger delta, where the oil industry has destroyed land and failed to benefit the Ogoni people who have been brutally repressed. Oil has been a rising force behind US foreign policy and intervention in the Middle East as well, helping fuel the extremist counter-reaction of 9/11.

Creating need for profit

Stop Signs says, “The logic of corporate profit is conspicuous consumption, a trait embodied by the auto’s endless need for endless space.”

The book’s primary focus is the auto industry’s capacity to reproduce itself through the constant creation of expanding needs. Particularly in the US, the “auto-industrial complex” does this via advertising and control of media, anti-competitive practices, political lobbying, influencing education and academia, and general promotion of “car culture.” But the authors also critique other social consequences, for instance noting Detroit’s demise due to policies of car domination, poor mass transit and the trend toward the dispersal of manufacturing.

In the early twentieth century auto production began a meteoric rise, becoming the economic engine of US capitalism by generating huge demands for related industrial products and raw materials. It went on to become the world’s largest manufacturing industry and, along with the oil industry, the leading source of corporate profits. At the peak of its domination in 1982, one in five US employees worked in auto-related industries.

Car dependency could not have happened without massive publicly subsidized road projects, including the US interstate system which fuelled suburban growth. Freeways cut through US cities destroying existing — often Black — communities, and aiding “white flight” to the suburbs. Many inner cities were left with a reduced tax base and declining public services. Jobs shifted to the suburbs, making it difficult for those without cars or dependent upon inadequate public transit to get jobs.

Government in effect provide massive amount of corporate welfare to the auto industry. Meanwhile society is expected to pay for the social and ecological damages created by the industry.

Meanwhile, the auto industry aggressively pursued its self-interest, shoving aside competition. It regularly put profits before safety as in, for example, the case of the 1979 Malibu whose fuel tank was placed in a position vulnerable to rear-end collisions. During a lawsuit, it was revealed that General Motors didn’t alter their design because they had calculated that the potential cost of damages and related deaths would be less than the cost of changing the product.

In the 1930s, auto companies conspired to eliminate the electric trolley. By taking over bus companies, they made it difficult for electric companies to operate trolleys, and eventually bought out the operators. By the 1950s, 90 percent of street cars had disappeared from city streets.

Marketing car culture

Consumer demand for the automobile did not arise by magic, but by the skillful manipulation of human values and emotions, and powerful lobbying forces. Successful marketing ploys, such as introducing new models every year, have helped maintain sales, as has generous provision of credit for those who don’t have cash on hand. And through intensive and well-funded lobbying, the auto and oil industries have fended off challenges that put consideration of health, safety, the environment, energy efficiency and social justice at the top of the political agenda.

Through funding, the auto industry has influenced the direction of education and research at universities. This helped shape the ideas of urban planners and architects, and direct money into scientific research that benefits companies, away from alternatives to auto dominance. Stop Signs documents how much the car has become an integral part of US popular culture in song lyrics, movies, widely read magazines, promotions and sporting events such as NASCAR.

From criticism to alternatives

The authors devote much of their book to a popular and often funny critique of the negative ecological and social impact of the private car. The last chapter looks at alternatives. Here, they see a few positive signs. Concerns about global warming and high oil prices are forcing some rethinking in popular attitudes, although much opposition remains passive.

Some look to quick energy fixes for the problems generated by our dependence on fossil fuel. But the authors are highly skeptical. They argue technological solutions and supposed alternative sources are not the answer. In particular, they lambaste bio-fuels, noting it takes five times the land to grow corn to produce ethanol than it does to produce food for the poor. Instead Mugyenyi and Engler argue for investing in more efficient means of transport. We need to drastically shift our mode of transportation from cars to buses, street cars and subways.

More hopefully, new critical thinking is evident in actions such as Car-Free Days, Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass Bike rides. While some of these are focused on individual choice to reject the car, Mugyenyi and Engler recognize the need for broad systemic change. There is a need for mass-based movements and alliances that are inclusive of those who drive, as a way of gaining sufficient weight to change public policy. The authors note some successes in stopping highways and freeways in the US and Canada when community opposition was particularly strong, and look to build on such successes.

The authors are also pro-worker, and favour some kind of eco-socialist or economic democracy alternative. Despite this, there is little focus on the role of unions in the auto industry. There are obvious difficulties in convincing auto workers and anti-car activists to join together. However, the authors don’t mention openings that could be explored, such as the conversion of plants to produce more social and ecological transportation products. Overall, the book underemphasizes the need to move from a system in which giant corporations decide what gets produced, to a system in which production decisions are socially controlled.

Mugyenyi and Engler recognize the need for a huge shift in public and social investment — but don’t fully address the need to organize campaigns to do this. Nor do they give enough emphasis to campaigns to lower or eliminate public transit fares. Unless fares are lowered, and service greatly expanded and improved most drivers will continue to see their cars as a necessity. Stop Signs maintains a certain coherence by focusing on the auto, auto corporations, and the emerging social movements against their domination. However, these issues cannot be resolved in isolation. We need to address broader question of social justice, social inequality, and the global threat of austerity-driven cuts to public transportation systems and corporate rule that created car culture in the first place, and actively sustains it now.

Howard Lavender is a long-time Vancouver activist who is dependent upon public transit (occasionally frustratingly when the service is grossly overcrowded or inadequate). He is an editor of New Socialist Webzine.