This paper is an analysis of the impact of the increasing number of automobiles on the global environment, people’s lives and health, and the structure of Western society. In addition to exploring the impact of automobiles, technologies that have been developed to cope with the problems will be examined, as well as potential long-term solutions to the social and ecological problems caused by automobiles.
While the ecological impact of automobiles on society may be perceived in more concrete terms, the measurement of its social impact is more abstract in its definition. Mark Delucchi suggests that “the total social cost of automobile use is the welfare difference between the current motor vehicle system and a system which provides exactly the same services (that is, moves people and goods to and from the same places as do motor vehicles) but without time, manpower, materials, or energy – in short without cost” (Delucchi 1997: 136) This interpretation of the social cost of automobiles eludes to several general categories of impact, such as personal non-monetary costs, bundled private sector costs, government costs, and various externalities.
More specifically personal non-monetary costs of automobile use refer to any unpriced costs of traveling such as time spent during a commute or the risk of having an accident. (Delucchi 1997: 138) Bundled private sector costs are generally large costs which are not explicitly priced into the automobile such as ‘free’ non-residential parking, the cost of home garages and of local roads provided by private developers.
(Delucchi 1997: 138) Government costs refer to taxpayer funding which is being used to support the highway infrastructure; funding which would otherwise be used for another social purpose. Finally, the social cost of externalities refer to uncompensated pain and suffering from accidents, traffic delay, and any mental anguish, rage or stress resulting from automobile use. (Delucchi 1997: 139)
In addition to these specific social costs, the automobile also has a serious impact on our environment and our health. Michael Eric Bronner argues that the seriousness of the automobiles’ impact on our lives is intensified by its increasingly rapid rate of expansion. He notes that between 1960 and 1980 while US population increased by 26%, the auto population grew by nearly 100%, or to one car for every two persons.
(Bronner 1997: 492) These rapid increases in automobile population have not been without consequences to human health and the environment as “the automobile is a toxic machine whose emissions indeed kill many of us, though we often fail to make a solid connection.” (Bronner 1997: 495)
The four primary types of automobile emissions that are causing infections, breathing problems, and death in humans and other animals are carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HC), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and tropospheric ozone (O3). Bronner notes that CO is primarily caused by the incomplete combustion of fuel in engines, which commonly causes dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, and impaired coordination in busy intersections, in cities and along the highway.
(Bronner 1997: 496) HC are also produced from incomplete combustion and through wearing tires, and these molecules react with sunlight and NOx to form O3 which is the primary component of photochemical smog. Smog is the most visible component of air pollution, and it is known to commonly cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, cause chest pain and headaches, and worsen existing conditions of asthma and emphysema in those exposed.
In addition to the emissions of NOx, automobiles regularly emit low levels of sulfur oxides (SOx) which combine with moisture in the atmosphere to produce acid rain, and with moisture within our lungs to damage mucus membranes. (Bronner 1997: 497) In regards to our global environment Bronner explains that modern society has been slowly boiling the atmosphere and changing its composition over time. The automobile in fact, has been the primary source for many of the toxic and insulating emissions which are altering the global ecosystem by causing the greenhouse effect and global warming. (Bronner 1997: 495)
Before discussing the structural changes to society that the auto-mobile has caused, it may be helpful to address why the automobile has persisted as a primary method of transportation despite its obvious impact on heath and the environment. Some theorists argue that it could be because most of the problems of automobile use are disproportionately effecting those who are the least likely to own an automobile, that is those of lower social economic status. For example Carter Brandon notes that “the poor are disproportionately the victims of (automobile) pollution because they are less buffered than the non-poor from water pollution, toxic wastes, solid wastes, congestive traffic, and air and noise pollution.
(Brandon 1996: 202) Another possible theory points to the psychological effects of driving an automobile, in which the feelings of power and control may outweigh the environmental and financial consequences. Rudi Volti notes that “much of the appeal of the automobile stems from its ability to confer a measure of insulation from the outside world while providing at least the illusion of power. The private automobile is a greedy creature that makes vast claims on space, resources, and the budgets of its owners; only a device that promised more than transpor-tation could have been so successful. (Rudi 1996: 667)
The rapid increase in the number of automobiles has caused major changes in the structures of Western societies. Michael Carley notes that urbanization patterns have evolved beyond the sub urbanization housing of the early to mid-20th century, which was still focused on jobs and shops in the city center, to the wholesale shift of employment, retailing, housing and leisure to a dispersed, car borne lifestyle, completely detached from the city. (Carley 1992: 209)
He continues by noting that this dispersal in habitation which is facilitated by the automobile, results in tremendous increases in suburban vehicle use, as many as 2400 daily car trips per acre of office space, and 24000 trips per day to and from a typical shopping mall of 900 000 ft2. (Carley 1992: 209) Volti seems to support these
claims as she notes that “modes of transportation have done much to shape residential patterns … trolley suburbs tended to a radial form, as residential lots had to be within a walking distance to the tracks; with … mass auto-mobile ownership, suburbs could sprawl over all available land.” (Volti 1996: 684)