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By November 8, 2016Culture, Random/Rants

The damage is done. By the automobile. The most destructive, harmful, wasteful, aggravating invention in history. We took a major wrong turn when we committed to travel primarily by single-occupancy vehicles rather than mass transit. Instead of improving quality of life by any economic or social standard, our century long obsession with and reliance on cars and roads and fuel is literally killing us.

The automobile is the worst invention ever. The cigarette is a close second, if judged solely on annual related deaths of 480,000 (and guns warrant separate consideration), but otherwise nothing comes close. The Time Magazine list of “50 Worst Inventions” – on which the car and smokes and weapons are conspicuously absent — offers little additional competition: subprime mortgages, Segway, hydrogen blimp, asbestos, pay toilets and other random beverages and novelties.

But what makes the car singularly dangerous, and the worst of the worst, we’ve taken the invention so far in the wrong direction that we may never find our way out of the mess it has manufactured. In fact, instead of attempting to extricate ourselves from this self-destructive auto-dependency by allocating resources to innovative mass transit solutions, we’re doubling down on the stupidity by pursuing nonsensical driverless vehicles.


DANGER: Best case scenario, you’re speeding along in a two-ton metal can at a mile per second, separated by less than 10 feet, heading in opposite directions. In 2014, 3,179 people were killed, and 431,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, according to the Official U.S. Government Website for Distracted Driving. Overall, there were 30,000 traffic accidents in the United States in 2014, including drunk-driving accidents, which resulted in 32,000 related deaths. Besides being the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the CDC the annual “cost of medical care and productivity losses associated with injuries from motor vehicle crashes exceed $99 billion.”

PUBLIC COST: Road construction and maintenance takes a huge chuck of our tax dollars. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s annual budget is just south of $100 billion; half of which goes to the Federal Highway Administration.

PERSONAL COST: The annual cost to own and operate a vehicle is $8,698, according to AAA’s 2015 Your Driving Costs study. This research examines the cost of fuel, maintenance, tires, insurance, license and registration fees, taxes, depreciation and finance charges associated with driving a typical sedan 15,000 miles annually. In the United States, a driver can expect to spend 58 cents for each mile driven, nearly $725 per month, to cover the fixed and variable costs associated with owning and operating a car in 2015.

AIR POLLUTION: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimate motor vehicles produce roughly one-half of pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. Seventy-five percent of carbon monoxide emissions come from automobiles. In urban areas, harmful automotive emissions are responsible for anywhere between 50 and 90 percent of air pollution.

INEFFICIENT: Few things unite strangers more than the frustration and anger of sitting in stationary traffic, with no discernible reason for the blockage and no end in sight. The causes of traffic jams are well understood – among them accidents; urbanization; poor infrastructure; peak hour traffic; and variable traffic speeds on congested roads. The cost of our wasted time is calculated, too. As reported by The Economist (11-3-14), the Centre for Economics and Business Research in London and INRIX, a traffic-data firm, estimated the impact of traffic congestion on various economies by measuring 1) how sitting in traffic reduces productivity of the labor force; 2) how inflated transportation costs raise the prices of goods; and 3) the carbon-equivalent cost of exhaust fumes. Two-thirds of the costs incurred are the result of wasted fuel and time that could be better spent elsewhere, and the remainder from increased business expenses. In the United States, the average cost of congestion to a car-owning household is estimated to be $1,700 a year; but traffic is so bad in Los Angeles that each resident loses around $6,000 a year twiddling their thumbs in traffic.


Think what could have been done to invent and advance more efficient, safer, healthier mass transit (along with station-to-destination conveyances, including people-movers, shuttles, rental bikes, etc.) with all the money spent to build and maintain our aging transportation infrastructure (170,000 miles in California) and the 10 million cars and trucks purchased annually.

Too much, too late … judge for yourself.

SUBWAYS: New York Subway, one of history’s most visionary projects has an annual budget of $14 billion, less than half of which is covered by fares. It would cost an estimated $2-3 trillion to build today.

HIGH-SPEED RAIL: California’s proposed 200 mph high-speed rail (the so-called bullet train) from the Bay Area to Los Angeles (and eventually Sacramento to San Diego) is running at least four years behind schedule (no joke) and the original cost estimated has more than doubled to $68 billion, reported Bloomberg News (6-28-16) in a less-than-encouraging article titled “California Hits the Brakes on High-Speed Rail Fiasco.”

HYPERLOOP: A sleek pod inside a vacuum-sealed tube, floating above rails (“magnetic levitation”), racing at speeds up to 800 mph could be the next best thing to teleportation, if it were ever to happen, which is unlikely. If perception comes anywhere close to reality, the project is on shaky ground. Sources quoted in a recent USA Today (6-27-16) article, “Hyperloop may be a transportation leap too far,” describe it as “hucksterism,” “boondoggle,” “moonshot,” “money-losing proposition” and “vomit comet.”

Sooner than later the social and individual costs of driving will become intolerable and we’ll be forced to commit to better models of mass transportation. In the meantime, we’ll continue “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” which is Albert Einstein’s infamous definition of insanity.



  • Ed says:

    Nice insight again, keep them coming.

  • Gary says:

    I never really thought about cars in this way. Very insightful.

  • Lesley K says:

    Also quite isolating. It has allowed for the suburbs phenomenon. I had an environmental studies professor who thought that someday all the highways would eventually become platforms for train tracks. Then small buses would take us the rest of the way…. He told us about the ripping up of the train tracks in LA in the 20’s and 30’s by the car companies. It was done clandestinely and when discovered they got a “$5” fine. I favor my horseless carriage but we could have developed this country w public transit. But then look at all the jobs individual transport has created. You’re right. Transitioning at this point when our economy is based on the auto industry seems impossible. Hence the driverless horseless carriages of the future. Western thinking is not long range. We’re all lone Rangers and I’m afraid we like it that way. For now. Thanks for a great article Stu.

    • Excellent observation about the suburbs being another consequence / contributor to our dependency on autos. As for jobs gained and potentially lost do to auto industry, progress has a way of balancing out economic challenges.

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