Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The poor poor car

I have to respond to this Sydney Morning Herald editorial titled "Something in the air", Friday March 17 2006. Whilst it's not specifically about bikes or bike-bashing (something the Herald is recently familiar with!) it reflects a pro-car media bias that not only reinforces the naive view that cars (and their drivers) are somehow "innocent" of environmental harm but does nothing to address the pollution and general bike-unfriendliness that comes with increasing traffic. The article begins with the sub-heading "Cars are demonised as the primary cause of pollution but are such claims true? JOHN CADOGAN dispels some myths". It's a good article in that it brings many interesting and useful pieces of information together, but it's thrust is biased - possibly by ignorance or simple laziness rather than intent - and consequently weak in its analysis. It's to be expected that journalists with an interest of any sort will find it easy to succumb to subjectivity but sad nonetheless that the "Drive" section of a popular Australian newspaper can only reinforce the current state of mind and cannot think beyond the short term.

OK, I like (and drive) cars. But we should also consider the crisis in species extinctions (including our own if we don't do something!), much but not all of it due to global warming; and the enormous damage that cars do to our local environment and our social structures (as in no-one walks any more, making our streets 'unsafe' and so on). To just blankly write off criticism is silly and impedes reasoned thought and action. To rebut the claim (whether it be true or not) that "Cars are demonised as the primary cause of pollution" with shallow analysis of just one aspect of a car's environmental footprint is overwhelmingly weak.

OK, I'll get to my point. This editorial makes a case for comparing the gross output volume of pollutants by cars with such things as energy generation and distribution. It (rightly)paints a bleak picture of Australia's greenhouse-unfriendly coal-fired power stations and draws the conclusion that the blame lies more fairly there, rather than with cars. Well, yes, we must do something about reducing all forms of greenhouse gas emission, but to compare power station gross output with the gases pumped out of cars is misleading. Cars do not just appear as if by magic. They are elaborately transformed by the application of energy to raw materials. They are shipped around as material, as parts and as final product. They are serviced and repaired, recycled and discarded. They also demand roads (with signage and policing), parking lots, fuel distribution and garaging. These are not inconsequential matters, in fact the fuel burn is likely to be just (grant me some license here) 30-60% of the total energy budget for each car (dependent on size and use). So the greenhouse emissions are likely be be up to 70% higher than what is quoted in the Herald editorial. It may be less, but not by much.

You could argue that we don't need to garage cars, but we do. When we had no cars we had stables and we had trams and trains - houses did not need 1, 2 or 3 car garages and we didn't build them. We also built narrower streets. Houses could be closer together, footpaths wider. Shops were closer to us and obesity rates were lower. We exercised more and shared more community resources, like transport. It's true that we'd still need roads for buses and trucks, and bike paths for cycles, but higher-standard roads and freeways would be much reduced in number and 'urban sprawl' much reduced. Don't think it'd work? How does New York City work? I'm not saying NYC is an ideal of any sort but they do manage quite nicely with low rates of car ownership.

Bottom line? You must factor in the whole footprint. We haven't even looked at death and injury and the resources needed to address these car-related 'aftershocks'. Cars "own" that footprint - something not reflected in this Herald editorial or in new car prices for that matter. Don't look at just one statistic and tell me that it proves anything. Proper analysis means doing some hard work. Do that analysis and write that article, it'd be very interesting to read.

Meanwhile, get on your bike!

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