The motor car has become a victim of its own success: there are now almost a billion vehicles on the road worldwide. True, a privately owned car is a very convenient means of travel, and in areas where other infrastructures are scarce it may be the only one available. But cars tend to cause congestion on urban streets and their progress is hampered by traffic jams. Ivan Illich, a German philosopher, calculated that when you add together the working time necessary to purchase a car and the time wasted sitting in traffic jams, taking the car is in fact no quicker than walking.
Moreover, road transport is the principal cause of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the West (accounting for almost 25% of France’s emissions). Road traffic accidents are also responsible for more than a million deaths in the world each year, while road building, the extraction and refinement of petroleum, and the disposal of used tires are all linked with damage to the environment.
None of this is inevitable. The towns of northern Europe, for example, still have pleasant, narrow streets, refusing to bow to the need for a “car at all costs,” and promoting the bicycle as an alternative means of getting about on a day-to-day basis. And Bogotá, in Colombia, has put in place an extensive network of fast and efficient bus services. The aim in all these cases is not to do away with the car, but only to use it when it is genuinely the best solution (while developing greener alternatives as well as encouraging car sharing). One possibility is to combine different forms of transport, driving to a station or a bicycle park, for example—a system known as intermodal transport.
The problem is that the majority of today’s towns and cities are designed around the car. When people live in suburbs several miles away from their work place, or from the nearest shopping center, and when public transport is poor, there is genuine need for a car. To create real change, it is not enough to suggest that everyone rides a bicycle; what needs to change is the city itself. We may have to throw out the blueprint and start again.