In modern capitalistic nations, the automobile is now the primary means of transport for most people. In many countries, especially in the United States, automobiles are a necessity for daily mobility.
The more this technology is used, consumed, and developed, the more the landscape is transformed to accommodate it. Furthermore, our social relationships and how we organize ourselves are affected as well.
Vast spaces that used to be reserved for social activities are covered in asphalt, steel, and concrete infrastructure that enable automobile access. To use automobiles on the level most modern nations have adopted requires expensive and elaborate infrastructure. As a result, the local landscape hosts fueling and repair sites, parking facilities, policing functions, traffic controls, highways, etc.
Auto transport has become a natural part of everyday life in every aspect, be it materially, culturally, socially, or physically. However, because our culture supports the automobile to this extent, any problems it may bring are not given as much attention.
Despite the meaningful and widespread impact transportation centered on the automobiles has on society, its policy and social implications aren’t given as much attention. In social sciences, transportation is one of the least studied parts of modern living.
Even in social or applied policy sciences, it’s neglected. For example, a British journal published 12 areas where social policy is a cause for concern, from income maintenance and social security to demography. Transport doesn’t fall into this list.
Ideals and assumptions we all share about vehicle transportation lead to planners and the public turning a blind eye to it. Most people use vehicles as part of their daily routines, so their perspective is skewed. It’s not just travelers that don’t see any problems, but even pedestrians and all those who live in social spaces that are dominated by automobiles. The way our activities and spaces are organized socially necessitates automobiles, so people will either downplay or ignore any problems.
In the United States, automobile usage is at its highest. It’s a consumer good and a technological object at the same time. More than 80% of urban citizens travel in automobiles, and the tendency is towards privatization and individualization as opposed to public transportation.
Despite this fact, auto transportation takes a large part of the public sector. Infrastructure, public provisions, etc. affect everyone regardless if they use an automobile or not. The consumption pattern surrounding automobiles combines using a private commodity with the collective/public usage of infrastructural resources and space. This is why it has a significant policy and social impact.
In this article, we will initially analyze transport systems that are based on automobiles while covering 2 problems they generate: health disadvantaged and mobility disadvantaged groups. Afterwards, we will analyze policy’s role in solving these problems and developing transportation.
Transport systems centered on automobiles
Transportation centered on automobiles is present in the United States and in many other western nations. Its main characteristics are the automobile’s prevalence in social spaces and people’s dependence on it.
At its highest level, the transport system depends on the automobile. Accouterments like roadways, consumption/production in the political economy, and cultural patterns like practices and beliefs, are organized around this system. Although there are motorcycles, trucks, and buses too, our current system is centered on the car. Around 75% of all vehicles are cars. 7 out of every 10 miles traveled in the US are done in a car.
The car isn’t important just as another technology. A huge number of people rely on cars for transportation (to shop, play, work, etc.).
Therefore, it’s not the auto culture or the automobile that’s the problem. It’s the system itself that leaves people with no choice but to depend on personal vehicles, where alternative transport options are under-utilized, underdeveloped, and overall neglected. While the situation is improving, there is still much to be done.
One of the signs of transportation centered on the car is the amount of travel someone must go through to participate. Most auto trips in the United States are functional or recreational. However, trips generated for the sake of transport are growing rapidly. They include trips needed to maintain/repair the automobile or to drive around non-drivers.
When suburbanization was completed after the Second World War and the Interstate Highway System was built, the United States became dominated by vehicles. People became dependent on this type of transport. The more this type of consumption expanded, the more a change appeared in social and spatial patterns.
The automobile quickly became a requirement. The more automobiles were used, the more areas were dispersed to make room for infrastructure. People had to travel farther, so an automobile was necessary.
It wasn’t just the consumer’s choices that lead to the spread of transportation based on automobiles. There were many public subsidies invested into auto infrastructure. Transport and urban policies were influenced by an industrial complex that centered on oil and automobiles. As a result, alternative methods were scrapped.
Although the national complex based on industry and automobiles may operate in different ways in different countries, its influence was felt in every nation that produces automobiles. In 1985, Yago wrote a historical analysis showing the vital role played by corporations in Germany and the United States. It led to transportation turning away from electric and rail means and towards oil and auto transport technology.
To satisfy individual consumers, transportation in the United States is planned with the goal of obtaining technical market application over the short term. Transport policy and technology is currently in the following situation: The transport system is centered on the car. It’s hyper developed and embedded. The investment in the auto industrial complex and in the physical infrastructure it necessitates is huge.
The reasons why this system was even possible are: cheap petroleum and large public subsidies. These subsidies represent 2/5 of transportation’s costs.
Ever since the 1960s, there has been accumulating and widespread empirical evidence regarding the mounting costs of automobile transportation in:
- Resource (land included) and energy consumption,
- Inefficiency costs like traffic congestions,
- Human injuries and fatalities,
- Environmental pollution through toxic substances and noise.
Even so, transport systems centered on the automobile are now growing faster than ever. In the United States between the years 1985-1994, the population grew by a little over 9%. On the other hand, automobile usage grew by 15%. During the same period, the globe’s population grew by a little over 15% while automobile registrations were up by 29%.
The problems a society centered on the automobile can cause fall into the following categories:
- Social: life quality on a social level can degenerate and it can lead to inequality;
- Health: accidents and pollution increase health costs and are a leading cause of death;
- Ecological: the environment is slowly being degraded as a result of automobile usage;
- Economic: Auto technology is very expensive. We must also take into consideration congestion costs and consumption intensity.
Because the ecological and economic issues brought about by car centered transport have been studied the most, we will not go through them in this article. We will instead focus on social and health problems.
Auto-mobility’s social problems
It’s been generally considered that cars have improved social relationships because they made it easier for people to reach each other. In semi urban and rural areas, cars have been especially beneficial.
However, there are also negative effects on social relationships. To examine them, we need to take a closer look and to consider groups who cannot afford automobiles.
In our current society, the car’s effect on relations between individuals is significant. In the United States, auto space infrastructure has increased race and class segregation within cities. Skyscrapers, parking lots, and freeways fill modern cities.
Skyscrapers are very secure, regardless if they’re used for commercial or residential purposes. Various constructions, telecommunications and surveillance technology, and even private security forces are used to ensure safety. However, their creation also encourages the individual’s personal isolation and the lack of space for social groups.
In 1990, Davis wrote that the Los Angeles redevelopment process led to a fortress city. Freeways were physical barriers or moats separating territories of Anglos, Latinos, and African Americans. Although the automobile isn’t the biggest factor here, its technology is key. In 1991, Peter Calthorpe noted that the automobile leads to culture’s segregation. The old are separated from the young, the store or job is separated from your home, the renter is separated from the owner, and the poor are separated from the rich.
Often times, roads are barriers that separate areas, cutting neighbors away from each other. This separation is a contributing factor to social isolation. Groups, like the young, the elderly, and the poor, are especially vulnerable to this system because of their lack of mobility.
Mobility disadvantaged groups
Our cultural beliefs that connect auto-mobility with personal freedom take away our mind from the social inequalities which don’t allow many people to own a vehicle. Despite their popularity, many still can’t afford an automobile. Some may find it burdensome to own a vehicle or may not be able to drive one.
The automobile and the spaces related to it are created for a specific kind of individual. In 1981, Relph said that our modern cities are created to suit healthy males 40 years of age who can drive cars.
Although automobiles are viewed as a democratic technology, many people are disenfranchised by it. The various societal groups don’t identify themselves as mobility disadvantaged. Low income individuals, unemployed citizens, the elderly, and females are far less likely to own a car than the rest. Children are excluded completely.
Because of this, in 1981 Adams said that even when assuming that everyone can afford a car, the percentage of people who won’t be able to join the auto democracy is higher than 40%.
Most people know that poor people can seldom afford vehicles. However, it’s a less common fact that lacking access to public or auto transit contributes to poverty and unemployment. A person’s ability to physically access a certain job depends on his and the job’s locations. The distribution of jobs has always been bad, but in recent years, the poor have found things even more difficult.
It’s expensive to purchase and operate a vehicle. In 1990, the Labor Statistics Bureau’s data showed that purchases of motor oil, gasoline, and vehicles, amounted to 11% of consumer’s total expenditures. Health care received less than half this number.
After the 1930s, when mass transit lowered in the United States, the price of transportation compared to a person’s total expenditure tripled. The poor cannot handle this burden.
The United States Census Bureau’s data shows that poor families own fewer cars than families with larger incomes. Furthermore, they use less fuel and drive less. However, even with this reduction, a much higher proportion of a poor family’s income goes to transportation than that of a richer family (around twice as much). There is a similar situation regarding income spent and income owned when it comes to auto transportation in other countries.
It may be due to the fact that children’s relative powerlessness and dependence in most life areas is expected, that their problems regarding auto-mobility aren’t noticed.
Children cannot participate in the auto-mobility system, so they have no choice but to rely on their elders. Either this or they can use mass transit, biking, or walking. Mass transit is often inadequate and biking/walking can be dangerous and difficult in our current automobile centered areas.
As such, obtaining a driver’s license is a very important moment in our current industrial cultures. Because children don’t have any powers and the special arrangements aren’t questioned, city planners and adults in general don’t take notice of their disadvantage. However, children being unable to safely move within cities, as well as turning areas where they can play into auto spaces, affects them and is a type of social inequality.
The ability of children to move independently is now one of child development expert’s ways to measure maturation. By 9 years old in 1940, even children that were slow to mature were expected to travel using a bus. Because today’s world is centered on the automobile, many youngsters don’t leave their neighborhoods on their own until they learn how to drive.
According to a British study, between 1990 and 1971, children between the ages of 7 and 15 have been provided increasingly less usable space. Parents motivated their children’s decreased mobility by the increased traffic.
According to the study, car ownership has provided personal choice and freedom to many people, but it was in exchange for the choices and freedoms of children. As a result, more and more parents have to escort their children to school, and the costs of doing so have increased considerably.
At the opposite side of the spectrum, different challenges face the elderly. After health care and health itself, transport is the biggest problem the elderly have to deal with. The 1987 Census Bureau Data showed that just 11% of US houses didn’t have a van, truck, or car. However, when it came to homes owned by the elderly, around 24% of them didn’t have automobiles.
There are 3 evidence lines that show mobility’s importance to the well being of the elderly:
- Older people’s views regarding its importance and the dissatisfaction they have with it.
- The fact that housing quality for older people depends on whether there is safe access to facilities and services nearby.
- According to research, well-being and mobility diminishes with age.
In 1971, the Aging White House Conference concluded that one of the greatest needs the elderly generation has is transport. However, there are still many deficiencies to assisting elderly transport. Land use patterns are dysfunctional and human services aren’t targeted appropriately.
When it comes to auto transport, the elderly have to go through significant environmental, financial, and physical obstacles. From these problems, environmental issues, such as how older drivers are discouraged by roadways, are the easiest to improve. Furthermore, there are great environmental barriers facing the elderly when they try to access other travel means.
Oftentimes, public transit cannot be accessed and traffic conditions make walking dangerous because they favor the automobile. There are also wide roads with brief green lights during which the elderly can cross the street. As pedestrians, the elderly face more risks than others. Out of all the pedestrians that were killed by motor vehicle accidents in 1991 in 17 European countries, more than 35% were elderly (5.440 seniors). In these countries, the elderly represented more than 14% of citizens, and more than 16% of people killed in automobile accidents.
Seniors have a hard time walking through the urban landscape. In Los Angeles, a study showed that 27% of seniors couldn’t cross the street in time before the traffic lights changed colors. Furthermore, despite walking being a good way to exercise and transport for seniors, in many places there are no pedestrian facilities, and where they do exist, they’re inadequate.
Due to social and demographic changes, seniors will inevitably have higher transport needs. It was estimated that in 2000, the 65+ population’s need for transport amounted to more than 24 billion trips.
Planners have many tasks on their plate. The goal is to diversify the transport system in order to provide good alternatives, like cycling and walking. However, there are also specific tasks that must be completed by social service planners, like developing paratransit and mass transit systems, and bringing services closer to customers.
We must recognize that the mobility disadvantaged category is a result of our society and caused by a transport system that favors a single method of transport which cannot be accessed by all. When alternative methods of transport have declined, the mobility disadvantaged group has grown in numbers.
This diswelfare is the result of a market system where individual choices were formed and guided by economic interests: oil companies, car manufacturers, etc. At the same time, other interests were marginalized and ignored.
The monomodal transport system was promoted by the industrial and auto complex. However, experts in transport policy have also been complicit. Only recently, due to increased environmental concerns, is the transport policy discourse shifting from focusing solely on automobile transportation to alternative methods.
Health disadvantaged individuals
The poor aren’t disadvantaged just by auto-mobility’s cost. Auto pollution’s health effects affect populations differently. Minority and poor homes are more likely to be exposed to pollution, since in numerous countries they tend to be concentrated near or in city centers, places with the most intense traffic.
In 1992 in the United States, numerous African Americans and Latinos lived in polluted areas (46% and 57% respectively), while just 34% of white people lived in similar conditions. Southern California’s University conducted 100 autopsies on youths that died from accidents or violence, and in 80% of cases, their lung tissues showed abnormalities.
There were large lung lesions in 27% of cases. Other contributing factors may have been frequent infections, smoking, and poor nutrition. Still, the youths in this study were all poor Latinos that lived in polluted and highly trafficked areas of Los Angeles. So, air pollution as a factor cannot be dismissed.
Besides health costs and pollution caused by car centered transport, death caused by accidents affects social classes differently too. Men between the ages of 15 and 64 had an 84% higher mortality rate in auto accidents if they were among the 2 lowest social classes in a study done by the Surveys and Population Census British Office.
Their study had a number of 5 classes. Similarly, when it came to pedestrians, the mortality rate was 6 times bigger if you were part of the 2 lowest social classes compared to the highest 2.
The same difference appeared in child mortality caused by automobile accidents. If part of the lowest 2 social classes, children were 2.3 times more likely to die in a motor accident the highest 2 classes. The mortality rate for child pedestrians was more than 3 times higher for those who were part of the lowest social classes.
These numbers may be due to various factors, like poorer organization in areas where poorer classes live, despite the traffic being much higher. Them driving older cars which are not as safe may be another factor. Child pedestrians from the lower classes are more likely to walk alone and in not so safe areas.
In conclusion, car centered transport’s interactions with poorer people living in highly trafficked areas can lead to health and social problems. Because the cost of buying and owning a vehicle are high, many cannot participate in this system. Furthermore, safety risks and pollution created by a car centered society affect these communities the most.
The road safety policy serves as a great example of a windshield perspective which appears predominantly in transport policies. We use a knowledge sociology approach with the central question being how thought frameworks in a certain professional field organize our world understanding. But, besides being professionals, drivers themselves are the transport experts. Because of this, they hold a bias for car centered transportation as consumers and experts.
Traffic safety discourses revolve around frameworks which assume the value of car centered transport. These assumptions are taken as facts that don’t require more examination. In 1993, Schiller believed that radio traffic reports during rush hour are a constant reminder of how the automobile is the primary means of mobility.
Highway maps also assume auto-mobility holds a key role in transportation. These assumptions that lie in the background influence expert and lay ideas regarding transport and transport problems.
Knowledge bodies are included too besides the assumptions and ideas contained in auto ideology. They influence how events are described and the relationships between them, the description of various activities, and of accidents including their consequences and causes.
The type of activities and events picked to describe reality embody ideology. The same goes for the way their consequences and relations are explained.
Therefore, cultural typifications may lead to categories which characterize dangerous situations and people (ex. a drunk driver as a menace). At the same time, products of the system are ignored (ex. few alternatives for driving). The discourse’s ideological framework influences what people define as problematic.
It’s not that discourses are incorrect. The problem is that they are refracted and partial accounts. Some aspects are glossed over limiting their scope.
Current discourses on transport, from commuters’ reflections to expert analyses, imply an acceptance of the automobile as a means of mobility. The affirmation and acceptance of the automobile is legitimized partially by the silences and stresses of discourses. In conclusion, the weakness traffic discourses face is that they cannot go beyond the scope of an automobile bounded world.
Transport’s social organization leads to an auto culture which includes ways to deal with car related problems like accidents, pollution, accidents, etc. Because car transportation is a dominant part of the way we live, emerging discourses naturalize and legitimize the system.
Naturalization happens by putting the focus on individuals and their behaviors or on cars and the technologies behind them. These 2 are seen as the only possible problems, and not auto use’s systemic patterns or the pressures that result from them. This naturalization isn’t shaped by just the things that are discussed, but by what is kept silent too.
In 1981, Gusfield observed the attitudes of offenders, officials, etc. in a research conducted in courts from San Diego regarding drunk driving. He noticed 2 problems that rarely appeared:
- Drinking as supported by institutional contexts,
- Drunk driving as a transportation problem.
Safety experts and officials consider risk an inevitable part of life. At the same time, they believe that technical and legal interventions can minimize injury and death. But, their attempts to improve safety are slowed down by the belief that traffic must be maintained as constant and as quick as possible.
To ensure that traffic doesn’t get slowed down, transport policy officials have released several decrees which rationalize the behaviors of drivers, classifies and differentiates them into categories and types, punishes some of them with prison, and sends others to rehabilitation (retraining courses).
However, in order to significantly change the number of accidents, the space where they occur must be changed. The current safety measures aren’t technically wrong, but they focus on individual and technical interventions that don’t address social and collective factors.
Discussions regarding accidents are conducted in politicized environments where there is a need to give credit or blame. The current trend is to make interventions on technology and human behavior, but the transport system isn’t addressed.
Organizing space from a social perspective is also included in transport systems. Social space is embodied materially, something that risk experts have a hard time incorporating into the value frameworks they operate through.
In 1994, Coggan and Roberts concluded that contributions to casual factors regarding the transportation system come out of the moral arbitration process unscathed. The economy depends on car centered transportation. Therefore, analyzing road safety in a way that affects road infrastructure is inevitably an economic threat. Their findings regarding the safety of pedestrian children fits in the context of car centered transportation systems that constrain and shape mobility for everyone.
Car centered transportation is now a consumption mode too. People depend and are committed to it in order to meet their mobility needs. Because car centered systems feel natural, most people find it a necessity to learn how to drive. Furthermore, discourses and experts regarding safety are silent on these matters.
Besides those who are dependent on the production of vehicles, like manufacturers, road builders, and oil companies, due to the car centered system’ development, an auto-mobility subculture has emerged. Those who create discourses with great influence over policies hold privileged positions in the system. Experts are usually not poor, older people, disabled people, or women, but mostly middle aged and middle class males that don’t suffer from car centered transport’s problems.
Everyday life and personal experiences reinforce and form safety discourses. Daily transport experiences are discussed from the point of view of an organization’s movement, time, and space that’s based on auto mobility. Not only are safety experts a part of this auto-mobility world, but they sometimes work in biased settings like highway departments which must ensure auto transport flows smoothly.
Discourses on traffic safety have their base in a reality of a car transport space that was constructed socially. The auto-mobility culture supports its desirability and naturalness. Diversified transport and other alternatives, paradigms, and visions, are taken out of the perspective. There is great potential in diversified systems of transport to reduce deaths from traffic accidents, since they give safer auto-mobility alternatives when these are needed or desired. But, traffic safety cannot improve until we analyze critically and fully our current car centered transport structures.
In our modern world, the car is at the forefront of transport policy. Currently, most resources and planning provided by transport policies are designed to modernize, extend, and consolidate systems centered on the automobile. Although, ever since 1960, there have been setbacks on a regular basis due to national concerns regarding the consumption of energy, due to the efforts made by environmental lobbying, due to consumers which pointed out safety concerns, and due to the community’s protests regarding taking away public spaces, vehicle usage is expanding continuously in the modern world, even faster than countries’ populations.
There have been steps taken towards reducing the problems car centered transportation causes, like improved safety, emission control, and fuel efficiency. But, there is a limit to such technological fixes.
Because transport systems centered on the automobile keep expanding, the fixes technology provides us with are limited. While fuel efficiency has been improved, the consumption is still high and constantly growing. While emissions have been put under control to some extent, the level of pollution is still far too high. While safety equipment has improved considerably, injuries and deaths caused by traffic accidents don’t seem to lower. While we continue to try to manage traffic, there’s a growing problem with congestion.
Because motor vehicles are becoming more and more popular, technological advancements have not managed to make much of an impact. In the United States, between 1969-1990, automobiles in each household increased by 0.6, trips taken with a vehicle each day have grown be 0.9, and miles traveled by vehicles have increased by 7.4.
Both political arenas and policies continue to promote the automobile regardless of its problems. In the United States, from 1980 to 1990, the federal government has increased funding towards highways by 45%. Funding towards public transit has lowered by 20%.
In 1991, the Intermodal Surface Efficiency and Transportation Act was developed which tried to moderate the allocation of resources. But, the industrial and auto complex’s opposition, as well as budgetary constraints threaten the Act’s continuation.
Although people are reluctant to change, the current period is perfect for evolving transportation systems. Transport policy interpretations and analyses have been consolidated on a significant scale. Sustainable development and transport impacts have also been covered extensively.
Western Europe is currently making the most progress towards changing transport policy. The cause may be due to the fact that in the United States, car centered transport has a stronger foothold.
However, Western Europe too is struggling to restrain car centered transport’s continued growth. In 1990 in the United Kingdom, it was recognized that not enough road space could be allotted in towns to satisfy demand. Since the supply was lower, the demand had to be reduced as well. Currently, there are many urban environmentally friendly transport policies being presented, but they are still a long ways away from taking hold.
Reducing transportation via the automobile is difficult. Through the large consumption of transport systems centered on the automobile, an embedded social and material infrastructure was created. Therefore, a transport system centered on the automobile can be considered a social structure that’s been materialized. The basis of this structure is the auto, a technology with great implications on our society.
According to Winner, technologies are methods with which we bring order to our planet. Our choices have the tendency to become fixed in social habits, economic investments, and material equipment. As a result, after a primary commitment is made, the flexibility of the past is eliminated.
Seeing it from this perspective, technological inventions and legislative acts are the same, since they build a framework that maintains public order and stays in place for generations. The problems that unite or divide citizens in our modern society are not created just through political practices and institutions, but also through concrete, bolts, transistors, wires, and steel.
Car centered transport can be considered a path dependence example, which states that tiny occurrences at important moments can lead to certain choices that are very hard to change. The historical events that shaped car centered transport started at the beginning of the 20th century, when internal combustion engines were picked to power up vehicles. It’s only now that we start to realize the amount of effort we will need to change the auto dependence path we are currently on.
However, transportation centered on the automobile is essential and integral to global capitalistic economies. Although auto companies are trying to diversify, and there are various shifts in power in the world, the tendency is towards starting new markets and capital concentration.
This indicates there’s a continued trend to spread car centered transportation systems worldwide. Car centered transportation is an organized consumption mode that even receives social subsidies. Costs can be easily externalized, unlike rail and other systems, into the public sector.
Cars can be split from their platforms, which cannot be done with rail. The cost of an automobile is private, but the platform it runs on is public. Therefore, although vehicles seemed to be consumed privately, there’s a social aspect to them too.
There are major impacts on society brought by car centered transport. When it comes to classes, advantages and disadvantages are accessed differently. Problems brought about by car centered auto transport are congestion, space organization that separates groups, health concerns, pollutions, highways going through communities, etc.
When people contest them, they lead to social protests, like anti highway and grass roots groups, and those who try to clear up city centers of cars. These kinds of protests in the United States are led by the middle class and have environment related demands. While protesting environmental injustice, the Los Angeles Community/Labor Strategy Center deals with production issues, race issues, transport issues, and working class issues as well.
Injustice comes in many forms. For example, ecological sinks from car transport systems are disproportionally concentrated in areas where people of color in poorer households live.
In the end, through transport policies, society must find a way to reconstruct the current ecologically and socially destructive production/consumption mode, so the citizens’ broad pleasures, economic security, and transport needs are met.
By reconstructing the current system, a more appropriate one, from a social context, can be created. Such a system will transcend temporal and spatial barriers while not confusing mobility and access, distance travelled/speed and movement freedom.
The transport system of the future must be intermodal and multimodal, and allow a much larger number of people to have daily mobility. It must also consume far less energy and resources. Of course, whether this new system can be implemented in a global economy based on markets that rely on car centered transportation remains to be seen.
Fortunately, while our transport system still primarily relies on cars, innovations such as electric powered and self driving vehicles may solve or at least diminish some of the problems we face. Furthermore, while car usage and sales continue to rise, the number will inevitably level out in time. As for lower income households that cannot afford vehicles, this is a problem we are still facing today.