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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.

Blaming the victim

June 2, 2011

This pisses me off. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/03/us/03bcbike.html?_r=1&smid=tw-nytimes&seid=auto

Here in the US, we blame the kids, because after, all everyone knows that kids should be more responsible. Other countries, where they would rather reduce the number of kids hit by cars, they fix the infrastructure, and tell the adults to be more responsible. Guess which works better.

And the dumbass reporter for the New York Times seems not to know any of this. Just another inflatable doll parroting the words of convention and authority.

Or as they phrased it in the Netherlands: “Stop the child murder“.
Perhaps you think that’s inflammatory, but guess which country has safer roads as a result.

From At War With The Motorist:

If it’s true that fuel prices are becoming a major problem for a significant portion of our population then it is an outrage that the government isn’t doing more to correct the failings that have forced so many powerless people into this expensive dependency. If it’s true that fuel prices are such a problem for you then it sounds like it’s time for you to stand up, admit that you have a problem, and scream at the government not for another short-lived high, but for the help that you need to kick the habit. If it’s true that this is such a big and urgent problem for so many people, then it’s time for Philip Hammond to put down the high-speed train set, stop pretending that this is a little unimportant job that our broke borough councils or the Big Society can handle, and come up with the big and urgent solution it needs. It’s time to seek help, and it’s time for the government to provide it.

Government’s supposed to take the long view, and watch out for bad games, like “Cars make the roads dangerous, that’s why I drive for safety”. Our plan for dealing with scarce oil and effective greenhouse gas reductions ought to be more than “pray for a technical fix”, especially when we must worry about other resource shortages (lithium, coltan, arable land, water), and when we are pushing up against the limits of thermodynamics in energy conversion.

It’s useful to remember, when you hear Republicans talking about their concern for a balanced budget, the party of the last president to balance a budget, and how much they avoid the policies that actually led to that balanced budget.

It’s useful to remember, when you hear someone talking about how high tax rates discourage productivity, that we have years of data on economic growth and upper-income tax rates. We can plot that information on a graph, and check this particular economic theory. The data says (in a very wimpy and uncertain way, that a scientist would never rely on, but a politician surely would, because politicians are mendacious that way) that raising taxes increases productivity. There may be theories that claim otherwise, but we have actual data on actual tax rates and actual economic growth, and they (weakly) contradict the beautiful conservative theory. We can raise high-end marginal tax rates with little fear that it will harm economic growth — it didn’t in the past, and may have actually helped.

It’s useful to remember, whenever you hear someone whining about scofflaw bicyclists (usually commenting on a newspaper story about a bicyclist who “collided with” a car), that we collect mortality statistics, and we know roughly how many pedestrians are killed by automobiles, and roughly how many pedestrians are killed by bicycles. (It is presumed that scofflaw cyclists primarily endanger pedestrians.) In the US, that ratio is roughly 3000 to 1. Admittedly, there is only about one bicyclist for every 100 cars, maybe fewer, so the bikes are only about 20-30 times safer than automobiles. But 20x safer is a lot safer. And consider, also, how cars travel many miles on highways from which pedestrians are carefully excluded, and consider that a pedestrian is much more able to see and hear cars, and much more motivated to avoid them. Yet nonetheless, bicyclists are an order of magnitude better at not killing pedestrians. So, if a driver offers “advice” on safety to a bicyclist, why would you think that they have any special expertise at all? The mere act of offering the advice, is itself evidence of ignorance.

It’s useful to remember, when you hear someone ranting about the evils of socialized medicine that (1) we have it here already, it’s called Medicare, it is effective, and people love it, and (2) everywhere else it has been tried (all over the world) it is cheaper than our system (the whole thing, not just the Medicare part) and in all the “modern” countries, people live longer, healthier lives under “socialized medical care”. We have a world of data, once again, the bee-you-tee-ful conservative theory is contradicted by the data. Would you really want to elect someone who either did not know this, or who would lie about it? Of course not.

A standard response, when people compare cycling ride shares between the US and Northern Europe, is that “we’re spread out, they’re not”.

Except, of course, that we’re not.

Update/correction: the census data lists both New York City AND its boroughs, which is a substantial glitch. I found this looking at Wikipedia’s list of cities by density (also uses 2000 Census data), and cross-checking made it clear that there was a big error. The graph, as yet uncorrected, needs to be shifted down by 6 million (minus 8 million for NYC, plus 2 million counting the contribution of the smaller, very-dense places). I would like to incorporate the smaller dense places more generally, but don’t know where that data is yet. Most of the conclusions remain the same; the 10% mark is now at 7600/square mile, and the 1/3 mark is now at 2000/square mile. Read the rest of this entry »