Since moving to Brussels1, I have been radicalised against the automobile. I came from the Dutch countryside, where cars are kind of necessary to get anywhere meaningful, but where other modes of transport do exist and are feasible. I spent six years cycling one hour to school and one hour back, and I spent a few more years doing a commute of 1h30 by two buses and a train to university. Using a car would have shaved 50% off my commute time, but importantly, those other modes of transport occupy space. There is a well-maintained cycle path that I could ride on through the countryside and within the destination town, and the bus stops and train stations are well-cared for public spaces.
Not so in Brussels. Or, at least, not the cycle paths. On my current cycling commute, there is a stretch of about thirty metres with a cycle path, but to get on that path, I have to make a left turn into busy one-way traffic for a few metres to skip a kerb. For the remainder of my ride, I have to share the street with cars.
And I fucking hate it.
I have been chased by angry (young male…) drivers thrice, and I can’t count the amount of times that a driver rushed past me with half a metre to spare at a speed that can be paraphrased as ‘paraplegic on impact’, only to get stuck in traffic twenty metres down the road.
And while the other modes of transport I use—walking, public transit—aren’t quite as likely to result in my death, these modes leave a lot to be desired, too. There’s a stretch on Bogaardenstraat into Zuidstraat where you can’t comfortably walk two abreast. This means that every time someone crosses your path, you have to kind of squeeze past each other, and because this is the city centre, this happens a lot. The pedestrian space could easily be widened, of course, but it would eat into the space of the row of cars sitting there, parked, taking up enough space to walk three abreast, doing nothing. Astonishingly, the one-way lane next to the row of parked cars is functionally empty most of the time, because of efforts by the region to reduce traffic in the Pentagon. This results in most of the width of the street being used by exactly nobody, even though the pedestrian path is absolutely clogged.
The bus, for its part, gets stuck in traffic. This means that the difference in time between taking the bus and taking a car is, well, fuck all. The only meaningful difference is that you wouldn’t have to drive in Brussels, which is its own miserable hell. You’re constantly surrounded by impatient drivers high on cortisol and testosterone, and finding a spot to park is nigh-on impossible. Laughably so, considering how much space is already dedicated to cars doing nothing.
The problem is cars
The unifying factor behind all of the above grievances is, of course, cars. Or at the very least, other people’s cars. No matter how you’re moving through the city, having to deal with other people’s cars is a misery inflicted upon you. They’re there, and there are so ungodly many of them.
It’s a tragedy of the commons. If we could imagine a scenario where you were the only person with a car, maybe it would be all right. You could live the dream that car manufacturers sell you in advertising: go anywhere at lightning speed in your own comfortable space. And other people, for their part, probably wouldn’t be so bothered if there were only a single car on the road. But that’s not the world we live in, nor a world we could reasonably manufacture. In meatspace, we have to suffer other people’s cars.
And there’s a lot of suffering to be had:
- Cars are loud. Being adjacent to a street full of car traffic makes existing in that place miserable.
- Cars are smelly. Same as above.
- Cars pollute the air. Your health becomes worse by simply existing near them and breathing in the burnt fuel and tyre microparticles.
- Cars take up an arrogant swathe of space disproportionate to the amount of people using them, both themselves, and with their infrastructure. An empty road or parking spot is still a space reserved for cars.
- Cars turn people into monsters as soon as they get behind the wheel.
- Cars ruin public spaces. Grand Place, in my unbiased and very objective opinion the most beautiful square in the world, used to be a parking lot.
- Cars kill our planet.
- Cars kill people.
It took a while for me to get to the point, but I want to zoom in on that last bit: car-induced deaths.
Die for what?
I’m the sort of person who empathises with numbers. When COVID-19 first crippled the world, there would inevitably be an article every day detailing the amount of infected people, and the amount of deaths resulting from the virus. I read those articles with increasing heartache, both able and unable to comprehend the scale of suffering caused by an ultimately preventable2 phenomenon.
But using a bit of napkin mathematics, by 2025, more people will have died in traffic collisions than have died from COVID-19 since the virus’ outbreak. Well over a million people die each year in traffic collisions, and like the coronavirus deaths, these deaths make my chest hurt more than a little.
But unlike COVID-19, which struck like lightning, traffic deaths kind of crept up on us, and have become part of the status quo. It has become a matter of stating the obvious that people will die in traffic. After all, everything we do carries a risk of death. I could descend a flight of stairs, misstep, and die, just like that. So too with cars and traffic—we simply need to be able to get around, and the deaths are a logical, amoral consequence of transportation.
But if the goal is getting around, then is there not a safer alternative to whizzing these metal cages (with three empty seats and an air conditioner) through our streets like deadly bullets?
There’s a data sheet by the European Commission which contains a collision matrix. It’s a little hard to read intuitively, but the orders of magnitude speak for themselves.
Car-involved deaths account for three quarters of all traffic deaths in the European Union. These machines cause immense suffering, and we’re not even looking at the numbers for injuries, which are staggeringly worse.
The bitter thing is that these deaths are fundamentally unnecessary. Alternatives to the car exist. Good alternatives to the car exist. We could run buses for days and build rail tracks to every small town in the middle of nowhere for all the money wasted on cars, their fuel, and the infrastructure enabling them. We could tear the asphalt out of our city streets and turn them into lovely and lively places for the people living there, with dedicated lanes for buses and cyclists.
But instead, we sacrifice our public spaces and kill people at the altar of the automobile, and I just don’t get it. How many deaths are tolerable to enable the car as a mode of transport? What is it about the car that warrants the disproporionate death and suffering? Can the people who loved the victims find solace in the fact that their deaths were an inevitable result of the system that allows us to drive cars everywhere?
None of the answers I will ever get to these questions can satisfy me. On an individual level, the rebuttal is most commonly that someone needs a car, because they live 30 kilometres from work, and public transit is insufficient. But cars enabled them to live so astonishingly far from their daily commitments in the first place, and we can fix public transit. More broadly, there’s an appeal to ‘freedom’, where cars enable you to go from anywhere to anywhere, quickly and irrespective of the schedule of public transit, but I could make the same argument for widespread private helicopter ownership.
Not everything is possible
Some things simply aren’t possible. And some things that are, shouldn’t be. This is the same finding and paraphrased title of a report issued by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture. Following a ruling by the Raad van State, the Dutch government’s program to solve the nitrogen problem was declared invalid. Intensive agriculture is resulting in severe and potentially permanent harm to the local ecology, and the Dutch government has to respect its own laws to protect certain areas. The neoliberal government was not very happy with this, because respecting the law would mean a fundamental change to the status quo in the agriculture industry, so they made an effort to find literally any other way to solve the problem.
No such solution exists. ‘Not everything is possible’, found the report. You can preserve the environment or have cheap massively produced animal products. You cannot have both. And in preserving the environment, you would only have slightly fewer and slightly more expensive massively produced animal products.
I feel basically the same about cars. I can appreciate that a car can be a handy tool, but I do not value that tool nearly enough to accept its externalities as a mere fact of life. The cost of doing away with the car isn’t that high, either. Many hundreds of millions of people live their lives just fine without the automobile, and humanity was able to get around and explore the world long before cars existed.
In that respect, cars are basically like asbestos. Asbestos is a strong, cheap, non-flammable insulating material. It does an excellent job at a task that is highly in demand. The kicker, of course, is that the people working with this material get asbestosis and lung cancer. As a society, we made the choice that the tool wasn’t worth its externalities, and we had to switch to more expensive or less insulating materials to do the same job.
I want that, but for cars. Indulging in a little utopism, let’s just call the 20th century a failed experiment (I recommend this attitude more broadly), declare our infrastructure bankrupt, and get rid of cars in the same way that we got rid of asbestos. We could even grandfather them out, and we could have exceptions for people with disabilities or certain industrial purposes. Let’s also reduce the speed limit to 30 km/h, universally. ‘Dead on impact’ should not be a speed option that these highly dangerous machines have. If you want to go fast, take a train or something.
Not everything is possible, and I wish cars were viewed more like an experiment whose costs outgrew the benefits.
Or in fact since having lived in Dublin, which is much worse as it pertains to cars, but COVID-19 made its grand entrance a few weeks after I moved in, so everything from that period is a depressive grey blob. ↩︎
Apart from national governments failing us by throwing workers into the meatgrinder to keep the economy running, animal agriculture caused the pandemic, and will cause worse pandemics in the future, even though we don’t need animal agriculture for anything that we can’t substitute. ↩︎