The World's Unsustainable Love Affair With Automobiles
United States: Home of Car Culture
Car culture was born in the United States. In no other country does the automobile have sway over the national psyche. Iconic films like "Rebel Without a Cause", novels like "On the Road", and even classic music albums like Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited reveal how central the individualism and the freedom of the automobile and the open road are to American culture.
Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner went so far as to claim, “The American really loves nothing but his automobile: not his wife his child nor his country nor even his bank-account first.”
Car Culture Around the World
Luxury cars, like this Lamborghini parked on the streets of Shanghai, entice a new class of Chinese consumers. Photo by Nat Bane.
The love affair with the automobile is not purely an American phenomenon. Across the world, consumers are racing to buy more and bigger cars. Between 2000 and 2009, car sales went up ninefold in China. Now, the country sees 1,000 new cars on its streets every day.
More importantly, the spike in car ownership is not simply a response to underserved transportation needs. Car ownership is also a status symbol for the new capitalist class. For example, sales of SUVs went up in China by 43% in 2008. As Zhang Linsen, a Chinese businessman told the Washington Post, "In China, size matters. People want to have a car that shows off their status in society. No one wants to buy small."
Why is Car Culture a Problem?
Scooters, bicycles and pedestrians are getting crowded out by cars in Nanjing, China. Photo by Let Ideas Compete.
While automobiles are a critical part of any transportation system, car culture makes it difficult to create sustainable urban transport. When consumer demand calls for size and horsepower -- not mobility or sustainability -- fuel efficiency is quickly sacrificed. Moreover, when cars become so culturally valued, rather than simply functionally important, necessary reforms for sustainable transport become difficult.
Reclaiming space from cars for bicycles, buses or pedestrians, for example, incurs predictable complaints from car drivers who feel that their mode of transportation is specially privileged over all others.
Automobiles are heavy polluters, spewing both greenhouse gases and local particulate pollution into the air. Automobile accidents are also major causes of death around the world. In 2005, in India, there were 80,000 traffic-related fatalities with only 6.2 million cars on the road.
While there are also distinct benefits to automobile transportation, equating cars with a privileged culture and status hinders necessary improvements in bicycle, bus, rail and pedestrian infrastructure that help create sustainable transportation systems.