In 1989, a group of Chinese government planners came to Europe on a fact-finding mission. They were widely praised for curbing car use – the country of a billion people, after all, had only a few million vehicles; the bicycle was king; the streets of his city were safe and the air generally clean. How did they manage to have so few cars? asked their hosts, struggling as always with chaotic British streets, traffic jams and pollution.
“But you don’t understand,” replied one of the members of the delegation. “In 20 years, there will be no more bicycles in China.”
He was almost right. China’s rapid development has been driven by massive car ownership. It now has 300 million cars – and what was once the kingdom of bicycles is now the land of 20-lane highways, more than 100,000 gas stations and scrap yards. Beijing, Shanghai and most other cities are choked with traffic, their air is some of the worst in the world and their hospitals are full of children with asthma and respiratory illnesses. China, like every other country, needs to rethink the car.
The global love affair with the car, which promised consumers convenience, status and freedom, is over. The reality, from Hotan to Hull and from Lagos to Lahore, is that the car is now a social and environmental curse, disconnecting people, eroding public space, fracturing local economies and driving sprawl and urban decay. With temperatures in the UK reaching highs of 40C this summer, this reality has become impossible to ignore. Instead of the prospect of speed and cheap mobility, consumers now face soaring costs, climate breakdown and air pollution, the devastation of nature, debt growing, to personal danger and ill health, and to the most serious energy crisis in 30 years.
Today, the World Health Organization is concerned. Car crashes are the eighth leading cause of death for people of all ages and the leading cause for young people aged 5-29 worldwide. At least 1.3 million people die each year in car accidents, and another 20 to 50 million people are injured, often at tremendous personal and financial cost.
Here in the UK, 24,530 people were killed or seriously injured on the roads in 2020/21, costing the country around £36bn a year, or around 20% of the current NHS budget, according to the cabinet Legal Hugh James. In the United States, it’s even worse: government figures show that traffic crashes and their aftermath cost nearly $1,000,000,000 a year, and more than 624,000 people died in fatal crashes between 2000 and 2017. This compares to the An estimated 535,000 US military personnel died in the two world wars. In China, 250,000 people die each year in accidents.
But we may be reaching “car peak,” the point where the world is so saturated with vehicles – and cities and individuals are so fed up or financially stretched – that they are banned or willfully abandoned. With petrol in the UK reaching £2 a liter and costing £100 to fill up – on top of the thousands of pounds shelled out in loans and taxes to own a car in the first place – it doesn’t It’s no surprise that young people in particular avoid them and take other forms of transportation.
The auto-magic that has fascinated societies for a century is gone. When the cost of living crisis started to hit, Ireland, Italy and others (but not the UK) reduced public transport fares to 90% (in Germany). Spain went further by announcing that train travel on many routes will be free from September until the end of the year. Global car sales, already in their infancy before the pandemic, are now down in China, Russia and Germany. UK new car sales have fallen for five consecutive months and the level of car ownership in the UK has now fallen for two consecutive years – the first successive declines in ownership for over a century.
From there, it looks like death by 1,000 breakdowns for the passenger car. Just as coach and horse were driven out by automobiles 120 years ago, the carriage is routinely expelled from cities around the world by authorities or public revulsion. As thousands of Jubilee Street Parties have shown, car-free streets are popular and are the safest and best way to save money, improve health and make cities quieter and more livable. A recent report by the Center for London shows how low-traffic neighborhoods, widely introduced during the pandemic to encourage walking and cycling, are reducing car use and making roads safer. Wales has reduced the default speed limit on residential roads from 30mph to 20mph.
Countries may have no choice but to reduce car use. It is widely accepted that car mileage needs to be reduced by at least 20% by 2030 just to meet climate targets. Milan, Paris, Hamburg, Copenhagen and most European cities are now either banning cars from their centers on a large scale or making traffic too onerous. They push an open door. Car numbers in London are falling – and recently 50,000 Berliners called on the city to impose the world’s largest car ban, covering 34 square miles.
In this urban century, where almost 70% of the population is expected to live in built-up areas within 30 years and where the world population is expected to increase by another 3 billion by 2100, the private car makes little economic sense. or social. Carpooling apps, car sharing, e-bikes and scooters are all hastening the car’s demise. City leaders, along with health, transport and environment groups, are now calling for it to be easy and affordable for people to leave the car at home or get rid of it – and for cities be redesigned so that people can access keys to things like food and health centers on foot or by bike.
It is time for cities to take lessons learned from the pandemic and the ongoing energy, environmental and cost of living crises, and start designing themselves not around the car, but around the bike and the pedestrian. But it’s also time for those who deify the car, and who continue to aggressively assert its place in our social and economic hierarchy – and its unconditional right to road space – to realize that a page has been turned. The sooner they accept this, the easier the future and their part will be.
The car as we know it is rapidly disappearing; it is a relic of a bygone era. Sitting in a traffic jam in a ton of metal that spits pollution and costs a fortune will surely be viewed by future generations as not only stupid, but criminal.