Daily Car Use: Mimicking a Bad Habit

from the Vancouver Sun

It’s no secret that our imitative nature is both a blessing and a curse. Our lives would be overwhelming if along with reinventing the wheel we had to recreate tables and chairs along with all the tools and techniques presently at our finger tips. Our ability to mimic also plays a role in the acquisition of a mother tongue and in learning languages of a mathematical, artistic or scientific nature. We base our behavior on that of family and peers to form satisfying relationships and to learn other cooperative strategies. These compensate for our relative physical weaknesses in a world where human beings cannot survive without the support of others.

But mimicking new practices on a global scale, those which technology facilitates even though they have not withstood the test of time, can have serious consequences. The average number of light vehicles per household in Canada—vehicles weighing less than 4500 kilograms—was 1.47 in 2009. In Alberta and in the United States the rate was close to 2, more precisely, 1.87 and 1.9, respectively. If it were not for an affordability factor for some families, the ratio would be even higher because car ownership seems so normal. People like the independence of car travel and the fact that despite traffic, it’s sometimes faster than public transit.

In 2010, in the six largest metropolitan areas in Canada, car users took an average of 27 minutes to get to work, while public transit users took 44 minutes. In mid-sized metropolitan areas (areas with between 250,000 and 1 million residents), the difference in average commuting times was larger—23 minutes for car users and 46 minutes for public transit users.   Statistics Canada

Better catalytic converters have eased the conscience of consumers. But these honeycomb-shaped appendages are far from being perfect filters, and how many drivers know about the existence of PM 2.5 pollution? Worse, CO2 emissions pass through the rhodium-palladium-platinum catalysts completely unscathed. No car manufacture or dealer will advertise the fact that the number of vehicle-miles traveled by passenger cars and light-duty trucks increased 35% from 1990 to 2013, and that they accounted for 60% of transportation’s 34% contribution to greenhouse gases in the U.S in 2013.

mallBut there’s more to it. When every household opts for two cars it creates a greater need for roads which are paved with asphalt, mostly a residue of petroleum distillation, fueling a demand for more oil. More roads entail more overpasses, which need more concrete. Almost two thirds of cement is calcium oxide, a compound generated from heating calcium carbonate, which of course releases more carbon dioxide. In cold areas, automobiles often idle, generating more pollution. Icy roads are treated with chloride salts, which eat away at concrete and metal, leading to the disposal of materials,  more cement production and more car manufacturing to replace corroded ones. The interior of cars is largely synthetic and derived from polymerization of cracked petroleum, again cementing the dependency on fossil fuels.

Cars change the landscape by other means. Drivers become more willing to live far from their work. Housing developments arise to accommodate them, often at the expense of good farmland that was close to a city. It implies that more food then has to be grown farther away from a population center. That creates the need for more transportation from distant places by large diesel-burning trucks and ships.

A view of some Bois Franc residences from one of the many walkways: Source: http://images.lpcdn.ca/924×615/201207/13/521291-on-voit-ici-situation-geographique.jpg

A generation ago, in Montreal, the Bombardier corporation had the foresight to design a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood close to one of their aircraft plants. Known as Bois Franc,  the project won awards and was used as a model to inspire students of urban planning as far as Queen’s University.  In the neighborhood, green spaces abound.  Eventually the city added bike routes and protected a woodland area and even set aside an area for monarch butterflies.  Through contractors, the company offered initially modest and affordable homes to their employees and other citizens, hoping that the former would walk or bicycle to work. But few of their employees bought the homes. And the majority of those who did continued to drive to work.  The community is close to other industries, several schools, stores and many services, but most of its students and employees mimic the norm prevalent in the rest of the city and do not walk or cycle.

Some compensate for their lack of physical activity by driving to gyms whose artificial walkers and lighting consume electricity, something whose generation in most parts of the world depends heavily on burning coal and natural gas. The parking lots built for gyms are often part of large malls with tarred rooftops and huge asphalted parking lots, which absorb and radiate far more heat than grass and trees. Together with hot vehicles, tar accentuates the heat-island effect of urban centers. This increases the use of air conditioning, which is powered again by CO2-releasing combustion. Furthermore, any leaking a.c. fluids are also greenhouse gases. For many other drivers, their sedentary lifestyle increases the likelihood for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In 2014, worldwide , 9% of adults 18 years and older—about a half a billion people— had diabetes.

Another  important consequence of having so many cars on the road is that over 30 000 people in the United States are killed in motor vehicle accidents, twice the number who are killed by guns. In 2014 global terrorism claimed over 30 000 lives. Worldwide in 2010, there were 1.25 million casualties from traffic accidents. Yet no politician has ever declared war on automobiles.

The irony in all of this is that cars’ time-saving advantage disappears when people prioritize living close to their employment location. According to Statistics Canada, workers who walk or bicycle to work have shorter trips (14 minutes on average), about half of what drivers expend. What has to be undone is our one-dimensional rationalizations, symptomatic of copycatting behaviors that have no rational foundation.


 “What destroys the poetry of a city? Automobiles destroy it, and they destroy more than the poetry. All over America, all over Europe in fact, cities and towns are under assault by the automobile, are being literally destroyed by car culture. But cities are gradually learning that they don’t have to let it happen to them. Witness our beautiful new Embarcadero!  “Embarcadero4_1000x386

VW Scandal: But Many Other Reasons Not to Love Cars

In 2015, consumers were stunned by revelations that both Volkwagen and Audi had used hidden software to deceive American regulators who measure pollution emissions. The cars involved burn diesel. Compared to gasoline, diesel is a petroleum distillate containing more carbon atoms per molecule. The latter is burnt at higher temperatures, leading to more fuel efficiency. Although higher temperatures lower carbon dioxide emissions, they also facilitate the reaction between nitrogen and oxygen in the engine, leading to more of the type of pollution that causes smog and acid rain. This is where the scam kicked in; the cars were programmed to meet the nitrogen oxides (NOx) limit only when they were being tested. At any other time, they emitted about 40 times as much NOx. And even without the rigging of data, the larger carbon molecules in diesel lead to the production of more fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution.

nocarThe scandal only adds to one of many preexisting reasons not to love cars. A rational family opts to buy one car, at the very most, and to use it judiciously. Here’s why:

1. Car Passenger Mortality
Cars are massive. Also kinetic energy is proportional to the square of their speed, which is part of their allure. Drive twice as fast and you need about four times the braking distance. Fail to stop and your collision will have four times the energy. Ensuing deaths seem to be an accepted fact of life which rarely raises an eyebrow unless it affects immediate family members. The truth is cars have a higher per passenger mortality rate than trains, buses and commercial aircraft. The mortality rate from car accidents in the United States is double their homicide rate. Critics will point out that the former rate has been declining since the 1970s, but this is only due to demographics. Due to aging baby boomers, there has been a decline in the proportion of inexperienced drivers (and hormone levels!) on the road. But such patterns are not present in places like India or Nigeria, and if those countries repeat our mistakes and rely heavily on driving, it will cost them many more lives annually.

2. Contribution to Climate Change
Cars using gasoline burn a mixture of heptane and octanes, compounds containing carbon and hydrogen. Oxidize such compounds and, among many other things, CO2 will be generated. Since there is no practical filter for carbon dioxide, all emissions end up in the environment, where they contribute to climate change. The U.S has about 250 million vehicles for its population of 320 million. China has 1.3 billion of the world’s 7 billion residents, but only 100 million or so vehicles. If ownership in China were to equal the U.S. rate, the Chinese would own over 1 billion vehicles, which would further amplify the greenhouse effect.

3. Contribution to Smog and Acid Rain.
We previously mentioned how cars form nitrogen oxides. These lead to nitric acid formation by reacting with hydroxyl radicals in the air. Nitric and sulfuric acids are the two major components of acid rain.
Nitrogen oxides also dissociate in sunlight to form ozone, a compound which is useful in the stratosphere. The problem is that it never gets there. Instead it remains at ground level where it is poisonous. In addition, nitrogen oxides react with hydrocarbons in the air to form peroxyacyl nitrates (PANS), constituents of smog. Although catalytic converters attempt to reverse the oxidation of nitrogen, they are not 100% efficient, so cars equipped with such gadgets continue to contribute to both acidic precipitation and smog, both of which claim the lives of those who suffer from respiratory diseases.

4. Cars Reshape the Urban Environment
As citizens become excessively dependent on automobiles, an exaggerated amount of land is devoted to those archaic 19th century inventions. The environment loses green spaces and public squares to highways and parking lots. The latter affect a city’s microclimate. Asphalt absorbs solar energy, raising already uncomfortable summer temperatures in urban centers, leading to more air conditioning, which releases more greenhouse gases.

5. Cars Contribute to Heart Disease and Type 2-Diabetes 

People over-depend on automobiles to get around. They do away with walking, cycling or cross-country skiing. This lowers their physical activity, raises blood sugars and weakens their cardiovascular system. As the number of cars in the “developing” world increases, and as non-traditional diets are adopted, the world’s half billion cases of type 2 diabetes and the frequency of heart attacks will not get any smaller.


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