Thursday, April 03, 2008

Where are we?

Below is the 2nd article of the three which should soon(ish) be in my local newspaper. Any criticism, fact-correcting would be totally welcome. After looking at why North America became automobile dependent, this article looks at the consequences of automobile dependence.

P.S. - frequent readers of this blog may notice that I've borrowed from myself a few times here. Oh well, as long as you aren't John Fogerty, that's okay isn't it? : )

In a previous article, I argued that North American cities became dependent on the automobile not because it was a good idea, but because the automobile lobby did two very effective things: a) they convinced governments to redesign public space to be pro-automobile and anti-public transit, making people NEED cars whether they liked it or not, and they used advertising to convince people who didn't need a car, WANT a car: To be without an automobile was increasingly a form of public nakedness in which a man, as one commentator put it, “ran the risk of being singled out among his fellows, especially on Sundays and holidays, as either hopelessly poor or perversely out of the swim (McCarthy, 2007, p. 53).

In this article I want to look at what one hundred years of automobile dependence has given us – what environmental, social, and health issues the automobile century has left in its wake. I'm barely going to mention climate change, believing that everyone already knows that our cars' C02 emissions are causing problems like the 200 million climate change refugees that the IPCC expects to be looking for new homes by 2050 (Leake, 2007). Before climate change became such a major issue, the biggest problem associated with the automobile was the PM 2.5 and carbon monoxide emissions from our cars contributing to air pollution. It's a shame that this issue doesn't get much press anymore, because the findings from air pollution research are horrendous - children living in smoggy areas lose 1% of their lung capacity every year (Gauderman, 2004), living in Madrid is the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day (Ham, 2006), a pregnant woman who lives for as little as a month in a high smog area is three times as likely to have a baby with a physical deformity as women living in healthier areas (Ritz, 2002), children living within a quarter mile of a freeway had an 89 percent higher risk of developing asthma than those who lived a mile away (Gauderman, 2005), “people who live near congested freeways are at least twice as likely to develop cancer from breathing vehicle pollution than those who live next to factories” (Tamminen, 2006, p. 47). And are you thinking about driving for a living? You're opening yourself up to increased instances of cancer and respiratory disease (Toronto Public Health, 2007). Finally, the Ontario Medical Assocation's Illness costs of air pollution report has put the number of premature deaths in southern Ontario, due to smog, at 5800 for 2005.

Climate change and air pollution are the most infamous legacies of the automobile, but there are many other problems to consider. The first, and the one with the most far reaching consequences, is that rampant automobile use has brought us to the end of the cheap-oil era. As recently as 2002, a barrel of oil traded at about $20.00 (U.S.). Six years later a barrel costs over $100.00, and the CIBC recently released a report saying that their research shows oil hitting $150.00 by 2012 (Hamilton, 2008). Oil prices are not the only measurement to consider however. Thomas Homer-Dixon would have us pay more attention to a factor known as Energy Return on Investment (EROI). EROI refers to how much energy you put into a project compared to how much energy you get out of the project. The nightmare scenario is when EROI is 1/1 - you get no more energy out of something than you put into it. In the Texas Wildcatter days, all you had to do was dig a hole in Texas and you had a geyser of oil shoot out of the ground. Today, after using up all the easily recoverable oil, we're drilling through unbelievable depths of water and scrounging through all the tar in northern Alberta to meet our petroleum needs. From the 1970's to today, EROI has fallen from about 25/1 to 15/1. The EROI of the Alberta Oil Sands is about 4/1 (Homer-Dixon, 2006). What does this mean? It means that we're now scratching the planet in desperation to get oil. As gasoline heads towards $1.50/litre it is going to become more and more uneconomical to have any sort of long drive to and from your workplace, especially as oil scarcity also causes your heating and grocery bills to rise.

The automobile has also had a profound influence on the health of North Americans. In conjunction with the fact that we eat far too much (one fast food meal can contain 2200 calories, which would require a full marathon to burn off [Maziak, 2008]), automobile use has reduced our daily level of exercise and caused obesity and diabetes rates to soar, and one study in the New England Journal of Medicine states that these problems will lead to the current generation of children, for the first time in history, to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents (Olshansky, 2005). 23.1% of Canadian adults are now obese, up from 13.8% in 1979 (Tjepkema, 2004). Between 1995 and 2005 the number of people in Ontario with diabetes grew by 70% (Hall, 2007). Aside from the fact that automobile dependence has helped to make people sick by reducing their activity levels, these problems entail massive monetary costs – the cost of physical inactivity in Canada has been estimated at $5.3 billion, and the cost of obesity estimated at $4.3 billion (Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute, 2004). Physical inactivity's burden on the health care system was such a concern to the Federal and Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Sport, Recreation and Fitness in 2003, that they set a national target to increase levels of physical activity by ten percentage points in each province and territory by the year 2010. A primary reason that they set this target was that “Physical inactivity levels in Canada remain a serious public health burden. Fifty-five percent of Canadians do not meet minimum guidelines for regular physical activity necessary to attain health benefits. Physical inactivity increases the risk of chronic disease, premature death and disability.” (Government of New Brunswick, 2003).

Finally, I'd like to mention the social costs we're paying due to automobile dependence. In 1961, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacob argued for closely packed communities where you met and mingled with your neighbour every time you took out the garbage. She argued for a concentration of people and shops in one place, the idea being that the two would support each other, and that a vibrancy would arise from the constant interplay of people meeting on the streets as they went about their daily lives.

The automobile quite emphatically does NOT create a vibrant interplay of people. It creates suburbs and isolation. “Cars are increasingly inhabited by lone individuals, often insulated cocoon-fashion from the world around, rather like mobile gated communities” (Freund, 2007, p. 41). Not only do we travel by ourselves in our steel cans, building cities for our cars, rather than for ourselves, means that we live farther away from each other, and farther away from the places that we want to visit. Remember when you used to be able to walk to main street (or yes, drive to it), and do every single one of your errands – groceries, banking, post office, pharmacy – on foot? Meeting your neighbours in the shops? Probably not, and if you do, you're probably over 30 years old. Today's reality is making about 5 car stops to complete your errands, with a distance between each one of around two to five kilometres (and incidentally, these short trips, because they finish before a car's pollution control mechanisms kick in, cause more pollution than longer sustained trips).

Nobody profits from this style of urban design, except the automobile and the oil companies. In fact, most of us suffer from it. Although the automobile is here to stay, there are a few things that we can do to alleviate the problems that automobile dependence has caused, and the simplest solution, and perhaps the best solution, is active transportation.

Article Two – Reference List

Bittman, M. (2008 January 27). Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler. New York Times.

Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute. (2004). Physical Activity Monitor and Sport.

Freund, P. & Martin, G. (2007). Hyperautomobility, the social organization of space, and health. Mobilities, 2(1), 37-49.

Gauderman, W.J., Avol, E., Gilliland, F., Vora, H., Thomas, D., Berhane, K., et al. (2004). The effect of air pollution on lung development from 10 to 18 years of age. New England Journal of Medicine, 351(11), 1057-1067.

Gauderman, W.J., Avol, E., Lurmann, F., Kuenzli, N., Gilliland, F., Peter, J., et al. (2005). Childhood asthma and exposure to traffic and nitrogen dioxide. Epidemiology, 16(6), 737-743.

Government of New Brunswick. (2003) News Release: Federal and Provincial/Territorial Ministers Responsible for Sport, Recreation and Fitness Target Increase in Physical Activity.

Hall, J. (2007 March 02). Diabetes soars in Ontario. Toronto Star.

Ham, A. (2006 February 11). Spain chokes under ‘Grey Beret’. The Age.

Hamilton, T. (2008, January 11). Economist predicts $1.50 a litre for gasoline. The Toronto Star.

Homer-Dixon, T. (2006, November 29). The end of ingenuity. International Herald Tribune.

Leake, J. (2007, April 1). Climate change ‘could create 200m refugees’. The Sunday Times.

Maziak, W., Ward, K.D., & Stockton, M.B. (2008). Childhood obesity: Are we missing the big picture? Obesity Reviews, 9, 35-42.

McCarthy, T. (2007). Auto mania: Cars, consumers, and the environment. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Olshansky, S.J., Passaro, D.J., Hershow, R.C., Layden, J., Carnes, B.A., Brody, J., et al. (2005). A Potential decline in life expectancy in the United States in the 21st Century. New England Journal of Medicine, 352(11), 1138-1145.

Ontario Medical Assocation. (2005). The illness costs of air pollution: 2005-2026 health and economic damage estimates. (OMA Publication ISBN 0919047548).

Ritz, B., Yu, F., Fruin, S., Chapa, G., Shaw, G.M. & Harris, J. (2002). Ambient Air Pollution and Risk of Birth Defects in Southern California. American Journal of Epidemiology, 155(1), 17-25.

Simpson, J, Jaccard, M. & Rivers, N. (2007). Hot air: Meeting Canada’s climate change challenge. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Tamminen, T. (2006). Lives per gallon: The True cost of our oil addiction. Washington: Island Press.

Tjepkema, M. (2004). Adult obesity in Canada: Measured height and weight. Statistics Canada.

Toronto Public Health. (2007). Air pollution burden of illness from traffic in Toronto: Problems and solutions. Retrieved April 1, 2008 from

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