It is so blindingly obvious that ignoring climate change will lead to calamity for all humankind unless drastic action is taken to prevent it. Governments have been unwilling to take radical action to transform public transportation infrastructure, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, change the way that we eat, reduce waste, and change our energy supply, though the list goes on. The perpetuation of the status quo is deeply harmful not only to the planet, but it also tends to disproportionately affect people along class and racial lines, particularly in the United States. Black Lives Matter can also be seen in the context of not only demanding social and economic justice, but also environmental justice. Environmental justice means that everyone should have access to clean water and pollution-free air regardless of race, gender, or class. Clean water and clean air to breath are human rights, and they should be a universal basic standard that governments must provide for their people.

I would now like to focus specifically on air pollution, which is caused primarily by human emissions. In fact, one of the few positives of the coronavirus pandemic have been the stunning images of what New Delhi, India would look like if it were not covered in smog because air pollution levels decreased so drastically. Surely, then, the coronavirus pandemic has shown us a glimpse of what cities could look like if humans could drastically reduce our carbon emissions. Around 30,000 pre-mature deaths every year in the UK are attributed to air pollution with increased risk of stroke, respiratory disease, and lung cancer for people exposed to it. The environmental and public health risks will continue to mount without action taken to curb air pollution.

One of the big culprits for air pollution is many people’s favorite mode of transportation. The car is without a doubt a huge contributor to pollution and carbon emissions. Cars are also huge risks to public health in terms of the number of deaths caused by both car accidents and the air pollution that cars produce. Another issue with cars is that they are hugely individualistic machines. Why does each person need their own contraption spewing toxic chemicals into the air? I will first outline a brief history of cars. Then, I will examine air pollution caused by cars, the threat to public health posed by cars (focusing more on the risks from car accidents), and the individualistic philosophy behind cars as a mode of transportation. I will conclude with a discussion about what alternatives to cars exist and why it is important that car use be limited (or ideally phased out altogether).

A Brief History of the Car

According to Christopher Wells’ Car Country: An Environmental History, the main producer of cars prior to the 20th century boom was France. However, the US quickly overtook France in the early 20th century as the main producer of cars. The ownership of cars in the United States, in particular, greatly expanded with the development of Ford’s Model T, and the Model T became the first car widely accessible to the American public. The Model T represented a lightweight and relatively affordable alternative to the bulkier cars, and most importantly it could navigate the United States’ poor country roads. Production could accelerate rapidly in Ford’s factories because his assembly lines could utilize low-skilled laborers, and this allowed him to lower the price of his cars, so that ordinary people could buy them. Ford also used the “five-dollar day” (a significantly higher wage than was paid to other unskilled workers at the time) as a way to stimulate his workers’ productivity. These higher wages would help to offset worker anger at exploitative conditions in his factories.

The Ford Model T Chassis. Source: Free Library of Philadelphia

The explosion of car ownership that this produced led the US federal government to build wider and better roads to accommodate the increased car traffic. By the late 1920s, infrastructure like traffic lights were more widespread, and this encouraged the standardization of traffic rules. Prior to the boom in cars, railroads had been the fastest way to travel around the country, but with the personal car, people were much more unshackled to travel wherever they pleased (since they were not limited by where the railroad lines were constructed).

According to Wells, starting in the 1910s and expanding into the 1920s and 1930s, gasoline filling stations began to fill up the American landscape. This filling stations began offering a wide array of services for motorists like repair, maintenance, and eventually car washes. One of the major factors behind this growth in filling stations was the prevalence of oil reserves in the United States and the increasing close ties between the filling stations and the oil industry. Oil began replacing coal and by 1941, according to Wells, oil and natural gas had reached 42.3% of the energy needs of the country compared with 54.2% with coal. In 1919, coal had made up as much as 78% of the energy consumption of the country. However, cars and the infrastructure necessary to support them would become even more prevalent in the post-war years.

In the post-war years, there was a huge boom in suburban housing in the United States as well as the construction of major inter-state highways. These two developments solidified the car as the main source of transportation for the country as well as ensuring that transportation infrastructure would focus on the car. Wells argues that this boom occurred because the Federal Housing Administration favored constructing new suburban neighborhoods. These suburban neighborhoods were heavily reliant on cars and did not really focus on public transportation networks. As someone who has grown up in a suburban community in the Chicago area, I can attest that owning a car is essential if you want to go anywhere.

The growth of car infrastructure (particularly in suburbs) around the United States has meant that the car is seen by many to be the best form of transportation and to be a necessary possession. However, while this brief history has been incredibly US-centric, other countries around the world also have widespread use of cars, particularly following the oil boom after WW2. Today, cars can be found in any country that you travel to, even in countries with good public transportation networks, like many countries in Asia and Europe. In terms of car production, the United States has not been alone in producing cars in the post war years. Japan (Nissan and Toyota) and Germany (Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz) have become major car producers. The environmental and public health impacts of so many people choosing to own a car should not be underestimated. It is vitally important for us to consider what role cars play in contributing to climate change and in contributing to polluting the air we breathe.

Air Pollution

The car industry continues to play a big role in contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. A Greenpeace report found that in 2018, the car industry contributed 9% of the annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs) and their increasing prevalence in the market is a big factor behind the car industry’s massive carbon emissions. From 2010–2018, SUVs contributed more emissions globally more than the carbon emissions of the Netherlands and the UK combined. While other car sales have slowed, SUV sales have not, with 35 million of them sold in 2018. The extent of car emissions, and particularly SUV emissions are very evident in the UK. In 2016, the emissions from the transport sector in the UK actually overtook the emissions from energy generation.

It is also pertinent to look at the United States, which is a country so thoroughly enamored with the car. According to a 2006 report by the environmental defense fund, the United States had 5% of the world’s population, with 30% of the world’s cars and 45% of the world’s emissions from cars. And even if the current share of automotive emissions is more evenly distributed, that is still a shocking amount of emissions. In 2014, a staggering 88% of Americans reported owning a car. Countries like Italy, Germany, South Korea, and Japan also reported high rates of car ownership. Car ownership seems to be yet another category where the Global North emits all the emissions it wants from its cars, while the Global South countries do not own very many cars. Bangladesh, for example, reported only 2% of people who owned a car, and Bangladesh is a country that is heavily affected by flooding made more likely by climate change.

Even aside from the environmental impact, what kind of health effects is this air pollution causing? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 4.2 million pre-mature deaths worldwide are caused by air pollution. There are also risks to pregnant mothers and their babies, since babies in the womb who are exposed to air pollution have low birth weight and even neurological problems. Cars are a huge contributor to this air pollution, and there can be adverse health effects for those who live near major highways. Often, neighborhoods close to heavy traffic are also neighborhoods where people of color live, particularly in the United States.

This is particularly encapsulated in a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States. This 2019 study found that in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic ( an area comprising mostly east coast states and Pennsylvania) that communities of color breathe in 66% more air pollution than white communities. The study suggests that a major contributor to this air pollution are cars, and that either adding widespread cars in bulk or, better yet, reducing the amount of driving would help drive down pollution levels. The idea that one’s race should make one more at-risk to the harmful effects of air pollution is fundamentally wrong and immoral. Everyone should have access to clean air regardless of who they are or where they live. This air pollution, though, is not the only negative health area in which people are affected by cars. I would now like to move on to the public health risk posed by cars from car accidents.

Public Health Risks

Some might argue now that electric cars could solve all the air pollution problems because they do not spew the same chemicals into the air as diesel cars. While it is true that electric cars are better in that sense, they also fall into the same area in terms of being dangerous to public health. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), road traffic crashes are the leading cause of death for US people, aged 1–54 and, each year, a staggering 1.35 million people are killed in road crashes worldwide. All of those deaths do not involve cars, but many do, and it makes one wonder why there is not more of a public campaign against the use of cars.

In the US, in particular, the use of cars is so normalized, especially with the lackluster public transportation networks meaning that it would take longer to travel anywhere without a car. I understand that cars form a crucial part of people’s daily lives, but is it ethical to produce machines responsible for killing 1.35 million people per year worldwide? While cars and diseases are certainly not the same, there is not the same drive to limit the use of cars when compared with wiping out a disease. If a disease were the leading cause of death in the US for those aged 1–54, there would presumably be pharmaceutical companies working on coming out with a vaccine or treatment, even if they were only doing it for profit reasons. In contrast, car companies continue to produce cars, and there is a continued demand for these cars despite the deaths that result from crashes.

It seems crucial, then, to create a society where the car is not valued as much and then build the infrastructure to support that society. The combination of air pollution and the public health risks means that supporting electric cars is a start, but the use of any cars needs to be limited. I would now like to look into why people like cars and why, especially in heavily capitalist countries like the United States, it will be hard to convince people to limit the use of cars even if infrastructure exists to replace them.

Individualism and the Dream of Owning a Car

Individualism can be defined as putting your own needs ahead of others even when those needs harm the society as a whole. It also refers to generally putting you, as the individual, on a pedestal as the most important person. The issue of addressing climate change, in general, is plagued by overcoming individualism. The oil companies who profit off the destruction of the earth do not want to stop extracting oil even if doing so will cause worldwide calamity in the future. The idea of individualism can also be applied to the car, particularly since the car is often (though not always) a solitary form of transport.

Cars, are by their very nature, individualistic because they are taking one person (at most a few people) to their destination. For people who drive by themselves to work, there is no need to ever interact with anyone else, and there is more individual control over how to go to work and when to leave than with public transport. While this may be less true in the United States where owning a car is seen as nearly mandatory, the ownership of a car can also be seen as a class issue.

The Oscar-winning film Parasite shows this class divide clearly in terms of those who ride in a car and those who take public transport in South Korea. I will not spoil the ending of the film here, but there are two scenes, which come to mind when thinking about who drives a car in terms of class. Kim Ki-Taek, the father of Kim Ki-Woo (the main character) who is from a low socio-economic status becomes the chauffeur of Park Dong-Ik who is quite wealthy. When Kim Ki-Taek is driving Park Dong-Ik around, Park Dong-Ik comments to Kim Ki-Taek that people who are poor and take the subway smell differently. In a different scene, Park Dong-Ik also comments to his wife that Kim Ki-Taek smells bad. These scenes from Parasite really strike at the heart of the class issues between taking a car and taking public transport. Rich people feel that they are entitled to their own personal transport, which inevitably involves a car where they will not have to associate with the “common” people. But it is not only rich people who own cars. Many people see owning a car as being part of their goals in life and evidence that they are successful (with luxury cars also denoting a higher status than other cars).

At this point, the American Dream is famous the world-over for being about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and getting a good job, a suburban house, a family, and also a car. The attainability of this dream in these times is very much in doubt, and the so-called dream was never possible for most people in the United States anyway, particularly people of color. The lasting injustices of slavery and then Jim Crow after Reconstruction ensured that many black people were denied access to the wealth that America had created (even though the slaves had been essential in creating that wealth in the first place). This dream of owning a car, a house, and starting a family is not unique to the United States. Where I currently live, in Singapore, this dream is also very real.

Singapore is a particularly interesting example because it has a robust public transportation network. Singapore is quite small at 724.2 km2 as of 2018 in terms of total land area. The entirety of mainland Singapore is accessible by public transport, and the bus lines and MRT lines are extensive. Not only is the public transport extensive and cheap, but it is also extremely expensive to buy and maintain a car in Singapore. Singaporean cars have to be registered with a certificate of entitlement (COE), which enables one to own a car in Singapore for 10 years. When you combine the value of this COE with other registration fees and the cost of a car, a Honda Jazz in 2020 would cost you SGD$69,999 or roughly USD$51,000. The Honda Fit, a similar car in the United States, would cost USD$16,190. In fact, Singapore is one of the most expensive places in the world to own a car. So then, with extensive public transport networks, why would anyone in Singapore ever want to own a car?

The Honda Jazz. Source:

The answer to that question boils down to the status of owning a car. Owning a car differentiates you from those who only take public transport. Since cars are so expensive, owning a car means that you must have truly made a lot of money to be able to afford a car. Owning a car means that you do not have to stand in a crowd with others waiting for public transport and can go anywhere you please in a faster time. But just like in South Korea or the United States, owning a car is a highly individualistic thing. In countries around the world, a car is not cheap, so owning one conveys to everyone else that you must at least have been successful enough to afford the car. It just saddens me that in Singapore where public transport is so good and very affordable that so many people still choose to own a car. There are alternatives out there to cars that can help limit their use but replacing cars will also require a shift in mindset to thinking of the car as harmful to the planet and to public health.

Alternatives: Limiting Cars

An excellent opinion article in the New York Times by Farhad Manjoo entitled: “I’ve seen a future without cars, and it’s amazing” outlines some alternatives to cars within New York City and specifically within Manhattan. As Manjoo points out, the electric car is not really a great alternative because people will still be killed in car crashes. A possible idea is banning the use of private cars in the major thoroughfares. This would also allow a substantial amount of space that is now devoted to the car to be devoted to other causes. For instance, car parks, parking garages and roads take up substantial portions of land in cities around the world. The roads could be transformed into pedestrian walkways with the creation of new bike lanes. The parking garages and parking lots could be transformed into affordable housing, so that more people can live in the heart of the city near amenities. The absence of private cars would also make riding bikes and being a pedestrian much safer as well as speeding up bus travel.

A way to limit cars without banning them all together has already been implemented in London. In London, they have implemented the congestion charge, where if you drive within the heart of the city in the congestion zone, you have to pay a £15 charge each day you drive through it. This kind of charge is definitely a start and a good deterrent, but ideally cities need to reach a future where private cars are completely banned from most areas of the city. In addition to improving pedestrian walkways and bike lanes, a good way to encourage this is to build excellent public transportation infrastructure.

A clear place where public transportation infrastructure is in poor condition is in the United States. The poor quality of this infrastructure is particularly apparent when trying to travel between cities. I rode the high-speed train in China, and I can attest that it feels very good to be able to travel long-distance without needing to get into a car or take a plane (both of which are activities that produce a lot more carbon emissions). More recently, Massachusetts congressman Seth Moulton has proposed the construction of a high-speed rail train networks in the United States, and he claims that this can be a good way to create jobs during the pandemic and would help avoid further environmental damage. However, while the construction of these rail networks would certainly help in terms of reducing inter-state car travel, there still needs to be a significant reduction in city car travel.

Chicago, for instance, under Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, the “L” train system saw 90 miles of track replaced and 40 stations upgraded. The upgrading of the “L” network was very welcome and needed, but it will still not be enough to convince drivers to use public transport instead. However, generally the US’s public transportation infrastructure is very old and not in the best shape (which is still true in Chicago, especially when compared with subway networks in Asia). And there is also the status and race division. Many wealthier people would prefer to drive because they feel that the money they have earned means they should not have to travel on public transport. This problem comes up time and again around the world where people do not want to take public transport because they see it as something people from a different race or class take and because they feel it is not as convenient.

I would like to point out here that I think it is unlikely that cars will be replaced anytime soon and that a major phaseout of cars would most likely require a new transportation technology. I also understand that many people need a car for their daily life, and I am not advocating for their car to be taken away from them. I wanted to point out how dangerous cars are from both an environmental and a public health perspective. Cars will remain for a while yet, but it is important to acknowledge that cars come with a major price, particularly to communities of color and could provide an interesting avenue of study for those looking into environmental justice issues. The climate crisis demands that we look into every way that we produce emissions, and we could make a serious dent in reducing our emissions through limiting the use of cars. Not only would there be less air pollution, but the world would also be a safer place. At the very least, the world needs to seriously reconsider its dependence on the automobile and seek to invest more in cleaner alternatives like cycling, walking, and public transport.




MSc Environment and Development Student at LSE. I write about political issues and personal things from a left-wing perspective.

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Andrew Barnett

Andrew Barnett

MSc Environment and Development Student at LSE. I write about political issues and personal things from a left-wing perspective.

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