Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “air pollution”

Cars and the Environment (Pt 1)


As an historian, my summer reading lists lean heavily toward nonfiction history.  As an advocate for bicycling, transit, and complete streets, it may strike some as odd that I’m interested in the history of the automobile, but there’s no question that, for better or worse, the automobile has reshaped our world and it behooves those of us who are critical of the car-centered transportation system to understand it in all its complexity.  To that end, I will be reviewing two recent scholarly histories on my summer reading list that explore the social and environmental impact of the automobile and my reflection on what this means for moving our culture away from its auto dependency.  I’ll provide these reviews serially, so that I can give sufficient attention to each.

The first study under review is Tom McCarthy’s Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (Yale University Press, 2007), which explores what McCarthy sees as Americans’ “love affair” with the automobile from an environmental standpoint.  According to McCarthy, this “love affair” was the result of millions of consumer decisions, and the car as a medium for Americans’ psychological and social desires.  In other words, the car has played a central role in 20th century American society, McCarthy argues, because it has been much more than a mode of transportation, it has been an expression of economic success and social identity, Americans’ “chief talisman of successful belonging.” (p. 47)  While McCarthy thinks Americans’ consumer-driven car culture has been significantly  influenced by the auto industry’s marketing strategies, he argues that consumers have not always been passive recipients of industry marketing.  He provides examples of consumers acting in ways that auto manufacturers did not expect, such as the rise of the simple Volkswagen in the 1950s and 1960s as a counterpoint to Detroit’s “bigger is better” mentality.  Thus, he sees cars as providing consumers with important cultural capital, beyond the utilitarian aspect.  As such, any effort to shift toward a multi-modal transportation system must grapple with the deep psychological attachment Americans have to their cars.

McCarthy’s assessment of the environmental consequences of the “love affair” with cars is the strength of this study.  By the 1940s, the environmental impact of the use of automobiles and the burning of gasoline for personal propulsion became obvious and prompted an unprecedented government regulatory apparatus to deal with it.  Los Angeles, “car capital” of the nation, not only had some of the nation’s worst smog, but led the effort to regulate it when it became apparent that the smog was negatively affecting the region’s carefully crafted image as a tourist destination. (pp. 116-17)  It is sobering to realize that the industry resisted smog controls for decades, meaning that effective reduction of smog in US cities did not occur until the 1970s following the mobilization of the environmental movement.  Ultimately, it was a mobilized citizenry demanding government regulation, rather than consumer choice and the free market that cleaned the air in Los Angeles. (p. 254-55)  There are important lessons in McCarthy’s book for the effort to regulate carbon emissions today, since it can be argued we don’t have the luxury to wait decades for the industry to shift away from business as usual.

Where McCarthy is at his most trenchant, is his unpacking of a major portion of the oversized environmental footprint of the automobile, from raw material extraction through manufacturing, use, and disposal.  While consumer demand may have driven the industry, McCarthy argues, that demand created unprecedented environmental problems.  By the 1920s, auto manufacturers were (and still are) among the world’s largest consumers of raw materials such as iron, steel, rubber, plate glass, leather, lead, zinc, and aluminum.  Modern strip-mining techniques were pioneered and expanded in order to meet the insatiable demand of the auto industry, deeply scarring the land.  Manufacturing cars produced unprecedented levels of industrial pollution:

Fly ash, iron oxide, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, and or course, millions of tons of carbon dioxide belched from the smokestacks of the coke ovens, blast furnaces, foundries, steel mills, and plants of American steel and auto industries.  Iron, sulfuric acid, cyanide, phenols, and heavy metals poured into the sewers and rivers that served as liquid waste conduits away from the plants.  (p. 46)

  A full environmental accounting of the automobile industry would indeed be a vast undertaking, involving an assessment of the environmental impacts not only of the major manufacturers, but the thousands of smaller suppliers the industry relies upon.  A total environmental accounting is beyond the scope of McCarthy’s study, but even focusing on one manufacturing plant, Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, MI, offers evidence of the profoundly troubling environmental legacy of the industry.  McCarthy helps us see that a major portion of the automobile’s environmental footprint came from its raw material extraction and refining.  That relative environmental impact remains true today whether the car burns gasoline or uses electricity to power its engine. Consider the amount of strip mining that will be necessary to provide lithium ion batteries for literally hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of electric vehicles and the toxic legacy of their inevitable disposal.  McCarthy’s historical analysis provides an opportunity for us to see why it simply may not be possible to manufacture cars on the massive scale necessary for even a fraction of the world’s population to drive and not cause serious damage to the earth and its climate, even if they don’t burn gasoline (and this doesn’t take into account the carbon footprint of sprawl attendant to the automobile lifestyle).  McCarthy traces the efforts over the decades after World War II to reduce the industrial pollutants flowing from smokestacks, but large quantities of pollutants and tremendous energy consumption (often fossil-fuel derived) will continue to be an inevitable by-product of large scale automobile manufacturing.  Viewed as an entire system of resource extraction, energy intensive mass production, distribution, use, and disposal, we might reasonably conclude that there is no such thing as a “green” car.

McCarthy helps us see the larger environmental impact of the car beyond tailpipe emissions, helps us understand that we shouldn’t expect these environmental consequences to be addressed by consumer choice alone, and suggests that our society may need to rethink its “auto mania.”  If there is a blind spot in McCarthy’s analysis, it is that by placing so much emphasis on consumer choice as a driving force for automobility, he leaves little room for analyzing the way in which the radical redesign of the built environment around the automobile in the 20th century provided the context for those consumer decisions and eventually precluded virtually any “choice” not to drive.

It is to that aspect we shall turn in my next review.


Cars and “Freedom”

DODGE_letfreedomrev copy

Any casual glance at television in the United States brings a reminder from the oil and auto industries that cars equal “freedom.”  Usually it’s a subtle, implicit association, showing images of smiling drivers on an open road, usually along the coast, a beautiful mountain road, or other open space.  Watching these ads you’re not supposed to remember that cars bring with them sprawl, and sprawl destroys those open spaces and those uncongested roads the viewer is so nostalgic for.

Other times the association between freedom and cars is more explicit, as in Dodge’s use of a George Washington lookalike to suggest cars helped win America’s independence from the British [see above].  Another entry into this over-the-top category is country singer Tim McGraw’s recent commercial for an oil company in which he comes as close as a person can to actually making love to his car and refers to cars, with complete lack of irony, as “living, breathing organisms.”  The commercial shows the all-American image of McGraw driving a Jeep along a dirt road by a placid lake, while his voiceover calls cars the very embodiment of “American freedom.”  The ad, titled “Tim McGraw Freedom,” actually ends with McGraw holding a quart of engine oil, looking into the camera saying “long love cars.”

If there was even a hint of irony there, it would be hilarious, but Madison Avenue is not known for irony when it comes to cars.  I think here of the Mercedes ads of the 1990s and 2000s that used Janis Joplin’s anti-consumerist song “Mercedes Benz” as a completely unironic soundtrack.  Joplin’s song was originally recorded just days before her death and she intended it to be a reminder that material goods don’t bring happiness, despite what the admen and women try to sell us.  The wonder is that anyone with half a brain could listen to that song and think it was appropriate as a jingle for a car commercial.

So far as I know, no one has studied the specific cultural impact of the pervasive and unending barrage of images equating cars with freedom in our society, not to mention the economic impact of all those ads on media coverage of issues related to the automobile, the environment, and public health.  It would not surprise me at all if the effect of all this repetitive automobile propaganda on the collective psyche and the media was profound.

Juxtaposed with these images is a recent study I came across this morning, concluding that air quality near freeways may be worse than previously thought.  The study, by researchers at UCLA and the California Air Resources Board, found unhealthful levels of air pollution within a mile of freeways in the hours between 4:30 and 6:30 am.  People living a mile downwind of a freeway are thus exposed to unhealthful levels of particle pollution, nitric oxide, and hydrocarbons during these hours, all of which have been shown to contribute to asthma, heart disease, and other health problems.  The study is yet another in the already large body of scientific evidence showing the price we pay for our addiction to cars.

Because of these health dangers, the L.A. Times noted, the report urged people who live near freeways to

keep your windows closed in the hours just before sunrise.  Use air conditioning.  Install HEPA air filters.  Postpone outdoor exercise until later in the morning or exercise farther away from the highway.

Yup, shut yourself up in your house, close the windows, and don’t go outside to exercise.  That’s American Freedom for ya.

Long Love Cars.

More Carmageddon?

Associated Press photo, Carmageddon 2011.

Could Carmageddon be good for us?  When a stretch of the always-gridlocked 405 freeway was closed for one weekend in July 2011, it spawned apocalyptic visions of L.A. drivers stranded in a sea of idling cars.  But, a funny thing happened.  Lots of people—especially on the Westside—didn’t drive that weekend.  They stayed near home.  They walked.  They rode their bikes.  They took transit.  In the end, traffic on the Westside was almost eerily light that weekend.

Now, a new study shows that keeping all those cars garaged had an astoundingly positive impact on air quality.  A research team at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability found that the L.A. basin experienced “a dramatic reduction” in air pollution the weekend of Carmageddon I.  The study found that there was a 25% reduction in pollutants across the entire basin compared to a “normal” weekend.  On the Westside, air quality was 75% better than normal and, in the neighborhoods near the 10-mile stretch of the 405 closed for the weekend, air quality was a whopping 83% better than a typical weekend.

Public health researchers have long known that exposure to air pollution from cars and trucks causes a host of health problems, including asthma, heart attacks, strokes, premature births, and other problems.  The closer one lives to a freeway, the more one is exposed to these pollutants, and the higher these rates of disease become.  These increased health risks, in turn, cost billions of dollars in health care-related expenses and lost productivity every year.

Now, here’s a modest proposal:  instead of spending billions of dollars to widen freeways to accommodate more cars (the purpose of the 405 closure), why don’t we use that money for expanding light rail, bus service, bike paths and bike lanes in the L.A. basin?  Why don’t we also factor in the health costs associated with air pollution into the gasoline tax, and use that money to help pay for health care?  We’re already paying those costs, we just don’t do enough to reduce our car addiction—the very thing that causes them.


Scenes from Autopia

Last week I was riding my bike home from the market with some groceries, when I saw a friend leaving her workplace, which is about a quarter of a mile from her house just up the same street.  She walked to the street, got into her SUV, made a U-turn, and drove home a distance of roughly 1,500 feet.  The street is not terribly busy, not too steep, and has a sidewalk.  Yet, instead of walking or riding a bike, the default mode of transportation for my friend, and for most Americans, is a car.  That used to be me, until I discovered how easy, healthy, and fun it could be to get around on my bike.

This begs the question of whether it is really necessary for an able-bodied adult to drive a 3,000-lb SUV to a destination 1,500 feet away.  There may be times when it would be necessary to drive that short a distance, perhaps if one had an oversized load, a broken leg, or if weather was really bad and you had small children with you (though some people with small children have gone car-free and loved it, like this family in Portland).  But surely we can drive less and be healthier (and happier) for it.  Would it really be so hard to substitute one short car trip per week for walking or bicycling?  Just one?  The sad part is, my friend, like most Americans, probably never thought twice about firing up the SUV for a 1,500-foot trip down the street on a pleasant, sunny morning.  It just becomes habit.

In this case, it is not primarily the lack of bike or pedestrian-friendly infrastructure that is the problem, or time (on my bike, I passed her house roughly 15 seconds after she got there in her car).  I hate to say this, but a big part of the problem is laziness, mental and physical laziness that our car-culture encourages.  Why exert your own energy, when there is plenty of gas to burn and it will do the work for you?  And, there’s the wrongheaded assumption that riding a bike or walking is for losers (remember the Missing Persons song “Walking in L.A.”?  . . . only a nobody walks in L.A. . . .).  But, really, have we become so dependent on cars that we don’t even think twice about driving 1,500-feet rather than walking or bicycling?

And, of course, there’s the traffic and pollution such short trips produce.  Our cars spew more pollution and greenhouse gasses in the first three miles when their engines are not warmed up, than they do after.  And there’s the lack of exercise we Americans get.  Perhaps, like many Americans, my friend pays to go to a gym (doubtless she’ll drive there) and walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike.  Paying money and burning gas to go nowhere and get the exercise our driving deprives us of.

Now, I’m not advocating that everyone give up cars completely (I haven’t).  There are times they may be necessary, especially in many suburban neighborhoods where distances are great, but it is time to recognize the physical, economic, and environmental costs of our driving habit, and rediscover the healthy, economical alternatives of walking and bicycling for some of our short trips.

Take the step.  Leave your car at home for one short trip per week–just one.  It makes a world of difference.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: