It’s sometimes amazing the intolerable things people are willing to tolerate for a little convenience, even when the fix is simple, cheap, and barely perceptible.
Beginning as early as the 1920s, but picking up after World War II, a quiet and unheralded revolution took place in the United States. This revolution totally altered social patterns and behaviors, turned life upside down, and utterly changed the American landscape.
It was the automobile revolution and it was a resounding triumph for the “mechanical Jacobin,” as the philosopher Russell Kirk called cars.
Today, the car culture of personal autonomy is so firmly embedded in the American imagination that few people can conceive of life without cars. Getting a driver’s licence and a car at 16 are simply assumed to be parts of life for many people, like going to high school or getting married.
While cars are often faster and more convenient for many people than other forms of transportation, with important implications for commerce and manufacturing, there are costs to all this convenience, and the environmental impact is perhaps the least of them. Every year, over 30,000 Americans are killed in car crashes and millions more are injured—and many of the victims are children.1 It’s an amount comparable to the number of deaths from gun violence, which is frequently characterized as an epidemic.
But the costs are even greater than that. The infrastructure built for cars harms families by driving up the costs of food and housing and promotes sedentary lifestyles that result in greater obesity and other health problems. The stress caused by a long commute is associated with a higher divorce rate. Automobile suburbs are notorious for increased social isolation and a lack of civil society. Moreover, as Baby Boomers age, they are becoming less able to drive and hence less able to interact with other people or even get necessities such as groceries. Last, our car-oriented life style has left many cities and towns in a precarious state, threatening schools, libraries, youth sports, and police and fire departments’ services.
For the sake of convenience, we let drivers kill children. For the sake of convenience, we let mothers have their unborn children killed. For the sake of the freedom of the open road, we oppose basic safety. For the sake of freedom from sexual mores, women are treated as disposable objects.
Where are we all headed in such a hurry that this is worth it?
Oddly, perhaps the easiest thing to do is reduce the number of deaths. At its most basic it’s a question of physics: force equals mass times acceleration. In other words, speed kills. For many years, traffic engineers recommended that all roads be treated like highways: no trees, wide travel lanes, plenty of turning lanes, and few stops. While this approach works well for limited-access highways, it’s a recipe for disaster on city streets.
The information drivers get from the street encourages them to speed up, while a lack of trees and on-street parking leaves pedestrians without a buffer. The lack of crossings encourages pedestrians to dart across roads, and the width of the road not only gives pedestrians little time to get across but puts them at risk.
I have witnessed a car stop for someone in the street, only for a car behind the car that stopped to swerve around and almost hit the person crossing.
To make matters worse, in many places, people who kill pedestrians with their cars are rarely even charged with manslaughter. In one disturbing case, according to an article in Aeon, a woman in Atlanta, Georgia, whose son was killed by a drunk and doped-up hit-and-run driver was charged with vehicular homicide and faced more jail time than the driver who actually killed the child.
It’s a story almost as old as mass automobile ownership itself. According to the writer Hunter Oatman-Stanford, around 200,000 people had been killed by cars in the United States by the end of the 1920s and most of them were children. At the time, common law jurisprudence and common sense put the burden of liability on the driver. The street, the public way, was a way for the public that everyone could use.
Then the motor industry reacted. They used public relations to convince people to equate cars and speed with “progress” and to insult pedestrians as “jaywalkers.” They then drafted a model traffic ordinance that brought legal force to making cars the kings of the road and exiling people to sidewalks and crosswalks. With groups like the American Automobile Association providing free “educational” materials to schools, according to Oatman-Sandford, the dominance of the car became unquestionable.
Practically overnight an ordinary human activity was criminalized and the victims were blamed.
The sad thing is, it would be incredibly easy to change things.
Wide lanes can be narrowed with paint, wide streets can have trees planted along them, and bike lanes can be added between the parking lane and the sidewalk. Some cities are using raised crosswalks to get cars to slow down and some cities build “bumpouts”— extensions of the sidewalk and curb past the parking lane and into the street — in order to reduce the distance people have to cross the street.
These changes, along with others such as reducing parking minimums — city-required space developed solely for parking during development — or creating lanes exclusively for buses in order to improve public transport, are vehemently opposed by people because they can take away a few parking spaces or slow traffic. Ironically, considering the lengths to which the motor industry went to demonize ordinary walking and promote driving, these efforts are sometimes criticized as “social engineering.”
The Vision Zero movement, which started in Sweden in 1997, advocates for safer streets. While many American cities have signed on to its principles of eliminating all road fatalities, they have done little to implement them and the slaughter goes on, which is why the work goes on.
A consistent life ethic ought to examine the built environment, as well as human action. Where environment is planned for the service of persons, the dignity of the human being is respected implicitly. A society in which human lives are valued is one in which its practical, physical structures orient towards individual lives.
1.) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Vital Signs: Motor Vehicle Injury Prevention— United States and 19 Comparison Countries,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, July 8, 2016, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6526e1.htm?s_cid=mm6526e1_w; “Child Passenger Safety: Get the Facts,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed March 6, 2017, https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/child_passenger_safety