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Banning Cars as a Thought Experiment

February 21, 2016

Most times you see discussions on the internet of global warming, traffic congestion, and road safety, the advocates of the status quo are quick to claim that “we cannot ban cars, because [reasons]”. I’ve got no respect for this style of arguing the point because #1, even pseudo-serious calls to actually “ban all cars” are quite rare ( this recent article is the strongest statement I’ve seen, and that’s just one writer at Gizmodo ), #2 the reasons all assume that we’d do nothing to adapt and when possible remedies are proposed, new reasons are concocted (we can play this game all day), and #3, there’s real live reasons to reduce car use by quite a lot, and those cheerfully get ignored.

Just to motivate this, here are some very good reasons to drive a whole lot less. It’s also helpful to keep this in mind when considering alternatives; if they’ve got the same problems, then maybe they’re not good alternatives.

  • Cars kill thousands of people in crashes, including over 4000 pedestrians per year.
  • Cars kill their drivers through lack of exercise, enough to raise their annual mortality risk by about 25-30% 

    (summed over the population of car commuters, this is probably more early death than results from cigarette smoking ).  As long as exercise is its own separate activity, you’re unlikely to get enough of it.

  • Ignoring the less-death part of the equation, the regular exercise that you get from not-driving to work and results in just plain better health; you get more wind, more stamina, more flexible joints. It tends to help you keep weight off, tends to help blood pressure, tends to help blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, tends to ward off type 2 diabetes.  None of this is guaranteed for any one person, but it’s a really good bet.
  • Cars are a source of both particulate and noise pollution, which both contribute to poor health. Noise pollution from cars makes public spaces more annoying and less useful; you can’t hear as well.
  • Cars use roads very inefficiently. In urban areas the resulting congestion is so serious that one additional car added to Manhattan traffic is calculated to have an aggregate cost of $160 through delays to others on the roads.
  • Cars are a major source of CO2 emissions which contribute to global warming and climate change.
  • Paying for fuel for cars puts money into the pockets of nations and groups that do not share our values. Al Qaeda was mostly funded from oil money. Daesh is funded from oil money. Iraq would have been a non-issue without oil money (murderous dictators of poor nations don’t get much attention from us). Iran, officially an enemy of the US and ally of our enemy in Syria, runs on oil money.
  • From an economic-theory point-of-view, cars are a poster child for market failure. Their use is not independent of other people’s choices; if I want to take the bus, traffic from cars makes my bus ride slower and more expensive. If I want to ride my bike, cars can make the ride so much more unpleasant that many people won’t ride a bike. Even if I want to compromise and just drive a smaller car, the mass of larger cars makes me less safe in any collision; even for cars, it is a safety arms race. These externalities (pollution, noise, risk) are not accounted for in gas taxes. Even the direct costs of driving itself–repair and expansion of the roads–is not fully paid by the gas tax. The one reason that economic theory says ought to motivate people not to drive–that driving is very bad for your health–falls victim to human over-optimism about their good intentions and future luck; we won’t invest rationally in our (near-) future health, because we think we’re “healthy” and don’t need to do more. All this means that you can’t use hand-waving appeals to popularity and market outcomes to prove that profligate driving is what happens in the best of all possible worlds.

Given this motivation, let’s suppose we did ban cars. The question I’d like to see thought about and answered is not “why is this impossible?” but rather “what changes do we need to get by in a hypothetical car-less future? What changes would a lack of cars allow us to make?” My hope is that we would make some of those changes now, so that more of us won’t feel like driving a car is our only option. If the assumption is “cars are banned”, that removes the option of not thinking about a problem by assuming “well of course, for that we would use a car”.

One problem with using the thought experiment for this purpose is that there’s a difference between cars-banned and cars-reduced. If we actually banned cars, we wouldn’t need “bike lanes” because we’ve already got bike lanes. They’re called “roads”, but right now they’re full of cars. But if there’s still many cars on the road, we don’t get those “bike lanes” for free.. So keep that caveat in mind; if we’re planning to use tools from the hypothetical world in the real world, because some might not survive translation.

Another problem is: “what about the car-like things?” This might mean delivery trucks, golf carts, buses, trikes. What about self-driving cars? What about really big “bicycles”? Are those cars? Do we ban them too? I think what makes sense is to look at the costs of each and how they interact with what’s around them. Anything heavy tends to impose unusual wear-and-tear on the roads; this includes city buses. Anything human-guided has the potential for inept or careless use, so there should be some combination of small size, low speed, and/or safeguards to mitigate that risk. Inefficient transportation will produce excess CO2 until our energy supply is properly carbon-free. Even if a motorized robot-guided chair is carbon-free, safe for others, and kind to roads, it is still a motorized chair and will have the same detrimental health effects for its passenger.

 

So, to consider some of the problems:

There are people who cannot ride a walk long distances or ride a bike.

Anything that assumes bike riding or increased use of transit by default assumes some basic fitness, and some people lack that. How should they get around? In practice I think quite a few of them would use mobility scooters of some sort; modern electric wheelchairs travel as fast as 5mph (according to a wheelchair user I asked) but if they could be made stable we’d want more than that. I think they could be made stable. A larger, faster real-world example is a golf cart, though this is cheating slightly on the “ban cars” assumption. For people who lose their balance a tricycle sometimes works.

There are people with very long commutes.

Back before cars were so popular we tended to use a lot more rail; people would take the train in to urban areas to work. Would we restore our train networks? If the rail line doesn’t pass close by home and work, how are those endpoints connected? My default answer is “bicycles”. Another answer is to modify the zoning regulations that prevent people from living close to transit and work; artificially restricting that supply drives up prices and forces longer commutes. I expect this is one of the harder changes to make because it involves change near where people live; allowing greater density near transit would financially benefit anyone owning that property, and it would also provide an advantage to those somewhat near transit who wanted to use it (higher density allows transit to function efficiently allows better service). However, widespread density increases closer to urban centers might have the effect of reducing property values sufficiently far out as a simple consequence of increased near-urban supply reducing far-suburban demand.

For an all-bicycle commute, from personal experience I’d say 6-7 urban miles is fine, but 10 miles is pushing it, though that depends on conditions. The median commute is nearly 9 miles, which means that half might be done on bikes, but half also almost certainly will not. It’s possible to make biking somewhat faster — current bike routes often contain many gratuitous stops or are far from direct, and bikes with aerodynamic fairing or modest electric assist can cruise at 20mph (a human doing this without “cheating” is likely to get very sweaty) which reduces the time for a 10-mile ride to 30 minutes, which is about what my 6-mile commute-with-stops-and-old-legs takes.

There’s weather.

Sometimes it rains, sometimes it snows, sometimes it’s hot. As a general rule the only truly difficult weather is hot weather; we can add rain coats, umbrellas, gloves, boots, and hats for the wet and cold. Some cities have building codes that allow for pedestrian awnings, and those help with sun, snow, and rain. We’d probably do more of that in a car-less world. One useful thing about banning cars is that you no longer need to deal with your car and the weather; no need for car washes, no need for digging cars out of the snow. A pedestrian or a bicycle can fit down a narrow lane, or if in a hurry, can simply push through/over a snow pile rather than shovel out a wide path.

There’s kids.

It turns out bikes work pretty well for hauling tiny kids, and once they’re too large to haul, they can ride their own bikes.  With cars banned it’s vastly safer for little kids to ride bikes (turns out a ban isn’t even necessary if you design your infrastructure right).

Grocery shopping.

Not much need to adapt here. People who walk already use folding carts. My old retired now-deceased neighbor just carried his bags. People riding bicycles have many options, everything from backpacks to huge messenger bags to front racks to baskets and panniers mounted on racks. Even on a “normal” bike proper equipment allows six bags of groceries (2 front panniers, 2 rear panniers, 2 in basket). Actual intended-for-cargo bikes carry more.

There are heavy things that require heavy machinery to deliver.

True, but this is far from the common case. Delivery vans nowadays are large to amortize the cost of the driver who guides them, and then they drive as fast as allowed to also amortize the cost of that driver. The van is large, but the delivery generally is not. Consider the potential capabilities of self-driving delivery vehicles that need not to be large and fast. We can estimate this somewhat by looking at what humans on bicycles and tricycles are able to deliver. The point is not “this is what humans should be doing” or “look at those crazy people”, but rather, with a small vehicle and a small motor, it is possible to deliver this much stuff if you aren’t in a terrific hurry. Examples: Haley Trike and 400 lbs of sand (video); a chicken coop; a trailer full of Citibikes; a ludicrously large pile of stuff; a mattress, table, chair, and box. Robots could deliver loads of this size, and if it becomes economical for self-driving cars to ferry people around, then it will also be economical for self-driving carts to ferry cargo around in smaller batches.

Emergency vehicles

Well of course, for that we would use a car.  With all the other cars and trucks banned, they should be able to move really quickly through the traffic that’s not there.  (Bikes don’t take up much space and you can haul them completely off the road if you need to clear a path for an ambulance.)

Steep Hills

There is already (one) cable-lift assist for bicycles.  E-assist also helps, if a hill must be crossed regularly.  For one-shot annoying hills, walking works.

Rural Areas

No good answers here yet.  Horses?  Even electric vehicles are dicey, for sufficiently cold and remote values of rural.

3 Responses to “Banning Cars as a Thought Experiment”


  1. […] Baltimore Campaign Looks Like It Comes Right Out of Teach for America’s Playbook Banning Cars as a Thought Experiment Michigan Republicans are secretly admitting that “running state like a business” has failed and […]

  2. kaleberg Says:

    We are already seeing some of the impact of the decreasing desirability of the automotive lifestyle. It’s called gentrification. As driving to work has become less and less pleasant, wealthier people have been squeezing poorer people out of the job rich city cores. Where those less well off move depends on where transit runs. The less well off you are, the further you have to move from public transportation to afford safe housing. Right now, it is possible to be relatively poor and still afford an automobile which mitigates this somewhat. Banning cars would mean this entire lower middle could be frozen out of the job market, but more likely retained in the job market, but with longer and longer commutes.

    In a nirvana, we would be able to run public transportation, rail and buses, to serve the new less well off bedroom suburbs, but it would be costly. Rail lines and subways would be especially important as housing patterns restructure, and they are not cheap and require a lot of political ground work to make happen. I’m sure some folks would bicycle, but these are the people with those crappy jobs who have to be on their feet all day. They already have work related mobility problems, like being physically, not mentally, exhausted at the end of the day. They are not looking forward to a relaxing bike ride home. Worse, these poorer suburbs would become food deserts as supermarkets and the like follow the money. Subsidized housing closer to the urban core is a possibility, but that would require a lot of political restructuring and a lot of money. It is challenging to seize expensive land by eminent domain and I double dare you to propose more landfill.

    I’m not saying that going car-less would be impossible, just that it would require a lot of thinking and spending to make it work, and we know just who would get shafted whenever someone decides to cut corners.

    • dr2chase Says:

      I think you missed the point. I’ve already heard what you say here, which is “reasons” why life without cars is impossible. Suppose we banned them. What must we then do to adapt? I’m not saying it would be nirvana, I’m not assuming nirvana, I’m assuming that we look at the costs of auto uses and decide that those costs are so high that cars are by default not allowed.


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