Imagine that you are living in the late 19th century. Now, imagine that TV has already been invented. Not only that, but one of the most popular TV shows is Dragons Den, where investors decide whether they should put their cash into the new ideas that are paraded in front of them by eager inventors. It is 1876, and into the Den strides one Nikolaus Otto, who has been working to develop a practical four-stroke cycle engine. Otto begins his presentation, saying, “I have invented an engine that can be dropped into today’s horse drawn vehicles to enable them, with an onboard source of fuel, to be self-propelled. The owner of such a machine will be able to go wherever he wants whenever he wants.” He fires up the prototype and it performs flawlessly. The Dragons are impressed with the vision and with the machine. They reach for their chequebooks. Then one asks, “Is there a downside?” Let’s assume that Otto is not only a clever inventor, but also a skilled forecaster. He replies as follows,
“If we go ahead, my projection is that about a century from now there will be 600 million of these vehicles in active use. Unfortunately, they will be directly responsible for killing around one and a half million people a year. Their emissions will be a major contributor to the growing problem of global warming, which will threaten all life on earth. Accommodating so many of these vehicles will require that we spread tarmac over huge trenches of countryside, while many towns and cities will end up with much of their surface area devoted to roads. Not only that, but my invention will damage the social fabric of communities, cause social isolation and result in massive urban sprawl. The need to put fuel in the tanks of these vehicles will dominate foreign policy orientations of the major powers and lead to decisions that will cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and cost trillions of dollars. And did I mention the noise and pollution?”
The Dragons look at each other and sigh. They love the idea, but they put their chequebooks back in their pockets. One Dragon comments, “No politician, planner or policy maker will ever let this happen. Any health or environment minister would try to ban it. The scientific and medical advisors to governments would have a fit. And can you imagine what the health & safety guys would say?”
You know the rest. And now those same politicians, planners and policy makers are coming to the conclusion that something has to be done. Some countries are making some progress, but most societies have become re-structured around the car, which makes disengagement even more difficult – even assuming there is the political will for change. I have been carfree since 1995, and I’m now working on some initiatives, which try to persuade other people to go the same way. So what do I bring to the carfree party?
While I’m all in favour of people giving up their car for the greater good, it’s a sad truth that there aren’t enough of us out there willing to do this. So my focus is not on the impact of car ownership on everyone else. Instead, I’m concentrating on the costs of car ownership for the car owner: not just the financial costs, but the increasing evidence which shows that owning a car makes you fat, makes you unhealthy, and eats up your time. In fact, when you start to think about it, the total costs of car ownership often outweigh the benefits. It’s just that most people haven’t got round to doing the analysis. Yet.
As an increasing proportion of the world’s population live in urban areas, the scope for going carfree is increasing. So I aim to provide access to some of the facts which may persuade people to think differently: to think that a car-free life is a better life, that you can give up your car and have more money, more time, be fitter and thinner, be happier, and more free. It might even save your life.
By Stephen Young