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The Wastefulness of the Automobile


The U.S. healthcare and transportation systems share something in common. Both are extremely inefficient.

But, while many politicians have loudly acknowledged that the U.S. spends a much greater proportion of its GDP on medicine than any other wealthy nation to achieve worse health outcomes, few have even whispered the dirty little secret about the country’s transport system.

While tens of millions of Americans understand that their country’s health policy is largely designed to maximize profits rather than improve people’s well-being, few get that something similar can be said of the country’s transport system.

There are 1.17 vehicles in the U.S. for every person with a license and 88 percent of U.S. residents drive to work. Yet the average private car wastes at least two thirds of the chemical energy of gasoline with most “turned to heat before reaching the drive train.”

In addition to the car’s inefficient use of gasoline, these 3000-pound metal boxes carry on average one and a half people, approximately 300 pounds — a mere 10 percent of the vehicle’s weight. Let’s do the math: If only 30 percent of the gasoline energy is used by a vehicle carrying 10 percent of its weight, then only three percent of the fuel’s energy actually moves what needs to be moved.

“The wastefulness of the automobile is staggering,” concludes Don Fitz, editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought.

Even at a standstill, automobiles remain inefficient. This time it is not energy wasted, rather living space. The average car is parked 95 percent of the time. Buses and trains, on the other hand, transport passengers well after individuals arrive at their destination (and pedestrians hold onto their legs after their journey is done). Buses, trains, streetcars, bikes as well as pedestrians use space and infrastructure more efficiently than personal cars, whether moving or at a standstill. At approximately four meters across, road lanes are roughly the same width as railroad tracks, yet an equivalent length of rail can carry 20 times the number of passengers.

In Les Québecois au Volant, c’est mortel, Montreal city council, Richard Bergeron, argues that contrary to popular understanding, mass transit was condemned for being too efficient. It gave too much service for too little investment. Spending on buses yields significantly more travel than an equivalent investment in cars since they are used more intensively. A $250,000 bus can carry individuals on about 100,000 major person/journeys annually, while a $25,000 car would probably not make 1,000 such journeys in a year. In other words, the investment on the bus is ten times as efficient as the spending on the car.

With a skinny frame and two narrow tires, investments in bikes may be a hundred times more efficient than cars. And investing in shoes and socks is probably a thousand times more efficient (regular walkers get more holes in their socks but that’s not too expensive to deal with).

Huge amounts of U.S. capital are sunk into the automobile. Most developed countries spend much less on transport than the U.S. due to greater reliance on subways, buses, bikes, walking and trains. The average European Union household, for instance, spends 11.9 percent of its income on transportation vs. 17.6 percent in the U.S.

Automotive reliance has meant massive waste. But, as author Daniel Lazare says: “True efficiency is the last thing a waste-addicted economy can tolerate.” The logic of corporate profit is conspicuous consumption, a trait embodied by the automobile’s endless need for space and resources.

The car’s inefficiency may be good for those who profit from it, but it’s costly, unhealthy, unsustainable and it makes it damn hard for those of us without one to get around.

Yves Engler and Bianca Mugyenyi are authors of the recently released Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism: On the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay. http://stopsigns.fairtrademedia.com.

  

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