The private automobile kills millions annually. Every year about 1.2 million people die in crashes while hundreds of thousands more are felled by diseases linked to automobile pollutants. The greenhouse gases emitted by vehicles have also put millions at risk from diseases, disasters, and droughts tied to climate disturbances.
But the cultural habits of the automotive landscape may be the biggest killer. Millions die every year from diseases and health conditions related to a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, the World Health Organization believes physical inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths annually.
Exercise has been shown to protect against innumerable ailments—from osteoporosis to depression—all the while boosting cognitive functioning and helping to ward off Alzheimer’s. Under the headline, “L’exercice, le champion de la prévention contre le cancer,” Montreal’s La Presse reported that over 50 separate studies found that those who exercised regularly were less likely to get cancer.
Despite its benefits, exercise (particularly walking) has decreased dramatically. Nowhere is this more striking than in the U.S. The typical resident walked three miles a day a century ago, today the average is less than a quarter mile. Only 1 in 4 U.S. adults meets recommended levels of physical activity (defined as 30 minutes of any physical activity for 5 days per week or vigorous activity for 20 minutes 3 days a week).
The major reason for the reduction in walking is the built environment. According to one study, “people who lived in the most walkable neighbourhoods were 2.4 times more likely to walk for 30 minutes or more [a day] than those who lived in the least walkable communities.” Transit also helps. A study of a new light rail in Charlotte, North Carolina found that those who stopped driving and started walking to the light rail walked 1.2 miles over their 2 commutes and lost an average of 6.45 pounds. Sprawl and the suburban landscape are built to serve the needs of Homo Automotivis, the new species that’s resulted from a century of people living with cars and capitalism.
In large parts of cities, a splintered land has submitted to the car’s insatiable appetite for space—sidewalks are nonexistent or disconnected, crosswalks poorly marked or absent, and the velocity and volume of vehicular traffic overwhelming. Walking and biking are imprac tical, even dangerous.
There is another reason people have stopped walking: cars have made us lazy. The more we use them the more we cannot fathom traveling without them. One survey suggests the extent of psychological dependence is extreme. An average American is only willing to walk about a quarter mile and, in some instances, (such as errands) only 400 feet. Otherwise, Homo Automotivis takes the car. The true extent of auto- dependence is revealed by drivers willing to wait five minutes for the closest parking spot to where they are going rather than park a block away and walk. The car has produced a state of mind where walking a few extra feet is a defeat.
Even the rambunctious among us have stopped moving. Eighty-five percent of American children do not walk to school regularly. This is undoubtedly influenced by distance. In 1969, only a third of all children lived three or more miles from school; today the figure has risen to half. But it is not only children living far from school who aren’t walking.
In 1969, 87 percent of students living within a mile of school walked, today only a third make the same trek. It’s no surprise then that a quarter of all morning road journeys are devoted to driving children to school. Traffic jams at sprawl-driven mega-schools are increasingly common and sometimes require police direction. It is less that children cannot walk to school and more that Homo Automotivis parents, fearing for their children’s safety, prefer to drive them. The most commonly cited fear? Not bullying or kidnapping. The major reason cited by parents for restricting unaccompanied travel was traffic danger.
When parents use cars to protect their children from other cars, it results in notoriously dangerous schoolyard pickup areas. The automobile’s landscape is literally killing us.
Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler are the authors of Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Environmental Decay.