Daniel Knowles, Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About It

IssueFebruary - March 2024
Review by Andrea Needham

This morning I got up very early, went outside in my pyjamas, and asked the man who had been idling his car right outside my bedroom window for 10 minutes if he could please turn his engine off.

He did, but, when he left a few minutes later, he slammed the car door hard several times before revving away. Just to show me.

Of course, most drivers aren’t like this but it illustrates the key problem with the car: private benefits, public disbenefits. And those of us who don’t own a car get the double whammy: all of the bad stuff without any of the benefits of owning a car.

This fundamental unfairness, as well as the utterly unsustainable nature of our society being structured to make owning a car more of a necessity than a choice for many people, is at the heart of Carmageddon.

Though largely written from US point of view, it also brings in the experiences of many other countries, including the UK.

Author Daniel Knowles is the Midwest correspondent for the Economist. He lives in Chicago in the US, but grew up in England, in Birmingham – a city which has plenty of car troubles of its own.

Knowles is eloquent on the problems which cars create for all of us, but also on the almost total lack of political will to do anything about them.

He also tackles the myth of the ‘war on motorists’.

In this widely-believed fairytale, motorists are paying through the nose to drive while cyclists get to use the roads for free. And, to make it worse, there is now an evil plan (the ‘15 minute city’) to stop motorists from exercising their human right to drive whenever and wherever they want. Add to that the supposedly huge subsidies given to public transport, and you have a recipe for outrage.

The reality, as Knowles points out, is very different.

For one thing, motoring is massively subsidised by the government. Not just building roads, but maintaining them, picking up the cost to the NHS of car crashes and ill health caused by air pollution, the cost of congestion to the economy and the cost of providing land for parking which could otherwise be used for vitally-needed housing in our town centres.

There are also costs which are harder to reckon in monetary terms: the loss and fragmentation of habitats, the loss of biodiversity, the loss of independence for children who can no longer play out or walk to school because of traffic.

Motorised transport (primarily cars) accounts for nearly a quarter of worldwide carbon emissions and is therefore a key target for emissions cuts.

Yet the fastest growth in car sales worldwide is in huge cars. SUVs and trucks now make up 80 percent of new car sales in the US, and over a fifth in the UK. [An ‘SUV’ (originally a ‘sports utility vehicle’) is a large, powerful, four-wheel drive vehicle that sits high off the road and has a massive front that is more deadly to pedestrians and cyclists – ed.]

Astoundingly, if SUVs were a country, they would be the sixth-most-polluting in the world.

Clearly, we can’t tackle the issue of climate change without putting a big focus on cars – and these monstrous cars in particular.

So the problems we face are enormous. We have too many cars, and our public transport system is woefully underfunded, expensive, and inefficient. Is it reasonable to expect people to reduce their car use in such circumstances?

Here’s where we come back to political will.

In Amsterdam (in the Netherlands) and Copenhagen (in Denmark), the majority of people cycle – not for leisure, but just to get around. But when these cities are mentioned, you can guarantee that someone will pipe up to say: ‘Ah, but those cities are flat. It wouldn’t work in X or Y city.’

But when you look into the history, the reason for cycling being so normalised in Amsterdam and Copenhagen is – guess what – political will.

Decisions made by city governments in the ’70s and ’80s (‘a leadership that decided enough was enough’) included bans on driving on certain days; the provision of safe bike lanes; street closures; and the promotion of alternatives to the car – all of which ultimately led to the cycle-friendly cities we see today.

Carmageddon also looks at the example of Japan, where most people in big cities don’t own cars.

Street parking is illegal and you’re only allowed to buy a car if you can prove that you have somewhere to park it, off-road.

95 percent of Japanese streets have no street parking at all, which sounds like paradise to me. In addition, Japan has the world’s most expensive road tolls, alongside one of its most efficient public transport systems.

The upshot is that, in Japanese cities, most people don’t drive.

What Japan, Amsterdam and Copenhagen have in common is that decisions made by government have made it easy not to drive.

Here in the UK, we’re still in the dark ages, building ever more roads as the planet burns. If you build more roads, you get more traffic.

As Knowles puts it: ‘If you give away something that costs money to provide, you will almost always get more demand than you can ever possibly meet’. This is true for bike paths as well as for roads. Build more of them, and more people will use them.

It’s not rocket science, but the leaderships of both major parties in the UK are firmly in the pro-car lobby. Recently, we’ve seen Rishi Sunak caving in to demands for a review of low-traffic neighbourhoods, saying that he is on the side of motorists, while Labour is beating a hasty retreat from green policies in the wake of the Uxbridge by-election which the party blamed on opposition to the expansion of London’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ).

So the main takeaway from this fascinating – if occasionally depressing – book is that we can do something about the huge issue of cars – but that it needs political will.

The way we live now is a choice, and we can choose to change it.

Knowles sums up the problem: ‘We talk about traffic like we talk about the weather, as though it is something natural, outside of our control, to complain about but not to fix.’

Our job now is to show that we can start to fix the problem with cars – and the sooner we do it, the better for all of us.

Topics: Transport