Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Blow up your car

The American way of life provides its citizens with many luxuries. Along with these riches our society is riddled with problems. Some of the major problems we face as a country can be linked directly to our current transportation system. The automobile creates cancer causing pollution, clogs our roadways costing billions of dollars, and promotes obesity. Upon analyzing the facts, one must agree that cars need to be replaced by mass transit and human powered transportation.

The most obvious problem caused by automobiles is traffic congestion. One need only venture into any mid-size to large city to be an eye witness of this phenomenon. Our national roads have become grid locked with motorists commuting to and from work.


Rush hour in many cities now lasts practically all morning and afternoon and reaches far into the suburbs. State and local officials are being urged to build new roads and expand existing highways, but environmentalists and preservationists are filing lawsuits across the country to stop major highway projects. They’re concerned about the effects of greater traffic on air pollution (Hosansky).

With such far reaching effects, it is no wonder the costs are so enormous.

One of these costs is measured in lost time. Anyone who has driven in the United States has most likely experienced the frustration of waiting in bottlenecks or grid locked roads. The cost of this waiting effects millions of Americans everyday. A secondary cost hits drivers’ wallets in terms of gas consumption. Vehicles waiting to traverse traffic jams, sit idling, wasting gasoline and spewing out toxic fumes. “In a recent study of 68 urban areas, it was estimate that the cost of traffic congestion- measured in lost time and wasted fuel-rose from $21 billion in 1982 to $78 billion in 1999″ (Fickes).

Every year more motorists are using the current roadways. According to the Federal Highway Administration, “Highway travel increased 80 percent, and the number of drivers increased 30 percent, from 1980 to 2000″(Fickes). A trend that has worsened current conditions and darkens the future. Can you imagine traffic in 2010 if it increases another 80 percent?

Another concern is the gargantuan budgets needed by governments to maintain and improve roadways. The current capacity has been exceeded, millions of dollars are spent maintaining the roads that already exist. To build the roads needed to improve traffic flow, billions if not trillions of dollars would have to be spent. This money will continue being spent as the current trends continue into the future. An alternative, self-sustaining system, would allow this money to be used for more worth while ends. National healthcare and education could be reformed and improved to truly meet our needs.

All these cars caught in traffic jams are spewing toxic gases into our skies. When one looks to see blue skies, one will instead see a brown cloud, the aesthetics of our cities are effected. I have spent a considerable amount of time in Santiago, Chile. I can recall numerous times when, in hoping to see the Andes, I could see nothing more than smog. The smog is only cleared after a rainstorm, but it only stays clear for a couple of hours until the haze returns. Even in a small town such as St. George one can see the haze when looking to the horizon. Many say compliance with EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards will remove this eye sore, but if we look to Denver the contrary is found.

A city official in Denver stated, “Despite compliance with the EPA’s health rules, the metro area routinely fails the state issued haze guidelines designed to track how well-or poorly- we can see across the skies”(Hartman). The EPA is not so concerned with aesthetics as they are for health. Despite their concerns “some 1.5 billion people are exposed every day to levels of pollution well in excess of World Health Organization recommended levels”(Whitelegg). One can see current standards and regulations have failed to correct the effects of pollution expelled from our cars.

Some of these effects are detrimental to the health of our nation. “Tens of thousands of people are dying from breathing in vehicle emissions”(Emissions). This drastic fact is reinforced by European researchers, “Researchers studied deaths in Austria, France, and Switzerland and found that 6 percent- more than 40,000 a year- were caused by air pollution, of these 20,000 were blamed on the microscopic particulates found in vehicle exhausts”(Emissions). Much progress has been made in the last couple of decades, but in response to current trends and concerns over pollution caused premature deaths, an environmentalist stated, “Tens of thousand of Americans will die prematurely this year, in part because of the air they breath, but efforts to eliminate the toxins poisoning that air are proving elusive and costly”(Miller).

Besides shortening our lives, air pollution effects our daily health, causing cancer and chronic diseases. “Among the more common, wide spread air toxins are benzene, a cancer-causing agent found in tail pipe exhaust”(Hartman). No wonder every one has cancer. Another toxic chemical is known as PM 10. Speaking of these toxins research shows, “PM 10 emissions from diesel fuel can lead to chronic lung disease”(Emissions). Lung disease and cancer are serious health risks that affect our lives, and we as citizens contribute to these diseases every time we drive. Researchers have also found that “traffic fumes accounted for 25,000 new cases of chronic Bronchitis in adults, 240,000 cases of Bronchitis in children and more than half a million Asthma attacks”(Emissions).

Many argue that these health problems do not warrant spending the money to change our current transportation system. But these health problems have economic consequences as well, as explained by John Whitelegg, “Particulate pollution and levels of cancer-causing pollutants have already damaged the health of millions of children. This will follow them through to later life and directly affect their economic potential and the health budgets of already strained national administrations” (Online). The world’s beauty and our own health are slowly being destroyed by the automobile.

Vehicles are also destroying the environment. “It is estimated that about 14 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transport, with road transport responsible for three-quarters of that”(Emissions). It seems that some catastrophic event will eventually wake us from our complacency if we chose to continue in our current direction.

The world’s transport crisis has reached such catastrophic proportions that road traffic accidents now kill more people each year than Malaria”(Whitelegg). These accidents include motorists killing motorists, and even more tragic, motorists killing pedestrians and cyclists, these numbers are even more drastic in developing countries. The vehicle owners, usually wealthy professionals, are killing thousands of poverty stricken people. The poor are forced to walk or bike everywhere they go, facing dangerous roadways with no protection provided for them. “By 2030, it is predicted, 2.5 million people will be killed on the roads of developing countries each year and 60 million people will be injured. Even now 3,000 people are killed and 30,000 seriously injured on the world’s roads every day”(Whitelegg).

The budgets of developing countries are strained by roadway maintenance and improvement, while the poor receive no benefit from this money. At the same time, pedestrian and other alternative transportation desperately needed to improve the economic welfare of the poor, is being passed over by governments in favor of auto transportation. These improvements are being promoted by politicians who drive and are motivated by their own needs and wants, improving their lives and oppressing the poor (Whitelegg).

In the United States, people are growing, but not in a good way. Obesity rates have reached epidemic standards. Researchers working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict, “that about 40 percent of Americans, or 68 million will be obese by 2010 if bellies keep expanding at current rates”(Deardorff). Obesity supports a multi-million dollar weight loss industry and causes chronic diseases. Between these two problems alone the cost of our fatness is extreme as noted by Adriel Bettelheim, “Numerous studies conclude that excess fat makes it more likely that a person will develop chronic disorders, such as Diabetes, High Blood pressure, Arthritis and elevated levels of blood cholesterol. The NIH (National Institute for Health) estimates that total costs attributed to obesity-related disease now approach $100 billion annually”(Online). The enormous quantity of money hits consumers and governments alike, but the costs have failed to motivate people to abandon their laziness. Even impending death has failed to promote a more active society, “The death rate from Obesity is probably equal to the premature deaths from smoking”(Bettelheim).

There are many factors that contribute to Obesity, the nation’s lack of activity is one of the principal causes. Bad eating habits, a sedentary lifestyle, and even larger portions of food have conspired to make the United States the fattest nation on Earth. The NIH estimates that 97 million American adults- 58 percent of the adult population- now are overweight or obese. Public health officials say that weight problems often lead to chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and contribute to as many as 300,000 deaths annually (Bettelheim).

Or in other words, 300,000 people die annually in part due to our laziness. This inactivity is only promoted and amplified by the transportation system. “Food intake is only part of the problem. Americans also are less physically active than ever, choosing to drive short distances instead of walking and to ride elevators or escalators rather than climb stairs”(Bettelheim). If we abandon our vehicles for just the short drives, we could lower the national rate of obesity.

Many people claim, as do some researchers, that obesity is caused by a genetic flaw that Americans have caught. Adriel Bettelheim disagrees with the “obesity-as-disease model, arguing obesity appears to be more of a symptom in many people”(Online). It seems that obesity is a symptom, the United States has the largest proportion of car owners, and it is almost impossible to find a building without an elevator or some form of automated lift to climb or descend from one floor to another. Our luxury has turned us soft, our laziness is slowly killing us.

Death and chronic disease are not the only externalities of our laziness. Most overweight people suffer in many psychological and societal ways also. “Though obesity is, first and foremost, a medical issue, it has strong emotional and societal consequences, as well. Various studies suggest fat people lack self esteem and are less likely to marry and achieve professional success”(Bettelheim). Obesity is retarding the growth of our nation. Fat people are not any less intelligent than physically fit people, but fall behind when contributing to society. Most people feel life without a spouse or partner is not worth living, but as we see here many obese persons never marry, most likely due to their lack of self esteem. “In general Americans probably don’t like their bodies as much today as they did 20 years ago, and that’s a sad commentary”(Bettelheim).

Upon analyzation of these facts, one can see the effects of the automobile in modern society. These effects are far reaching, permeating through almost all aspects of life. The nation’s health has been obliterated, efficiency in travel does not exist, and even the aesthetics of our cities and natural places is affected negatively. The only benefit the car affords us is allowing us to continue in our laziness, removing ourselves almost entirely from the need for self mobilization. I propose that this does not need to be the case, that in fact our cities’ beauty can be restored, our health can be better and we can improve our quality of life by becoming independent of the car.

The first step is to provide and promote mass transit, such as, light rail, subways, and efficient bus systems. These systems allow citizens to commute inexpensively and pollute less than personal automobiles. This first step is essential to remove the existing strain on public roadways, less vehicles equates to less traffic congestion and in turn less pollution. Another important factor to step one is the psychological consequences. As people commute via alternative transportation, they realize they are not naturally dependent on motorized vehicles, thus allowing the population to think outside the cage which is motorized transport.

The conglomeration of benefits from step one culminate in the process of the second step. The public realization of independence paves the way to truly reform our system of transportation. Mass transit has already been implemented, we must therefore install car free roadways. To prevent mass hysteria, this must be done in a systematic, logical process, incorporating time and reformation of existing roads. The linking of residential areas to shopping centers and schools is the first step, followed by a de-motorization of downtown areas. This approach targets the filthy air in central areas of business, and allows current cyclists and pedestrians to access jobs and other essentials of life without fearing for their personal safety. As aforementioned pollution is worsened by congestion, freeing downtown areas of vehicles reduces pollutants in the hardest hit area of metropolises. These efforts also promote a society where physical fitness is a requirement instead of a luxury, cutting down the size of our bellies.

New found energy earned by self mobilization will incur a trend of growing popularity of commuting via bicycles and or by foot. Our bodies and cities will appear in their splendid beauty. As people convert to human powered transportation, the automobile will be abolished as a form of short travel. Vehicles will be utilized only for going to other cities or longer travel, which carries us to the last step of my solution.

To put the icing on our cake, we need a fast and efficient system to travel from city to city and country to country. Although a system does not currently exist, I feel confident that when the need arises, American ingenuity will rise to the occasion and such a system will be readily available at the time of need.

A system such as the one described would eliminate our society from the problems presented earlier. A city free of cars would also be free of pollution, doing away with the brown cloud that has covered our beautiful skies for so long. The activity needed to exist in such a system would develop a base of physically fit citizens, more apt to deal with life and able to enjoy every aspect of it.

Some might find this idea absurd and completely irrelevant in our fast paced, globalized world. However, there is an existing model of the said system. Enrique Penalosa, mayor of Bogota, has revolutionized the way Colombians view transportation, reallocating transportation money to promote the movement of the cities oppressed. John Whitelegg explains,


In Bogota, Colombia, Enrique Penalosa the mayor from 1998-2001, held a referendum and reallocated transport budgets to improve the quality of life for the poorest. The results were staggering. The city embarked on an intensive programme of building cycling and pedestrian only routes, including a car free route, 17 km long, connecting some of the poorest parts of the city with facilities they need to access, including jobs. On one weekday in 2000, a car free day was set up and 7 million people went to work without a car. In a subsequent poll, 82% supported the concept (Online).

The mayor’s programs have been a success, fomenting economic growth and cleaning up the environment.

The money used was already budgeted for transportation, eliminating further strain on his government. The results of his referendum are explained, “Parks were built on derelict land, canals cleaned up and car free days implemented. In October 2000, the citizens of Bogota voted in favor of excluding cars from the city in the morning and afternoon peaks from 2005″ (Whitelegg). An entire city will rid itself of cars, not by the tyranny of the few environmentalist but by the consensus of the population. “Bogota’s approach is based on creating an equal and vibrant city where no one need fear the oppression that pervades so many countries’ transport system” (Whitelegg).

Brown clouds, lung disease, obesity, and economics problems have all been addressed. The solution is set forth and reconfirmed by examples of current successes. The fact is, we are living in a crisis and something drastic needs to be done, save the world, blow up your car.

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