If you are like most people in the U.S. your car is a thin you own, use daily, and don’t really think about. But did you ever wonder what the world would look like if the car were never invented? What would it mean for our environment, and our society? Let’s have a look, shall we.
Why do we even have cars?
The history of the car is long and complicated, with early variations including a horse and carriage-like vehicle, powered by a steam engine. A big landmark in what we think of as the modern car came in 1886 when German inventor Karl Benz patented his Benz Patent-Motorwagen. Since then, we’ve seen icons like the Oldsmobile, the Ford Model T, and the Californian classic, the Volkswagen Type 2.
But the history of the car has to do with a lot more than a box on four wheels.
The concept of the car, sometimes referred to as the socio-economic system of the car, encompasses everything that sprung from the normalization of personal transportation — in other words, all the stuff that you only use because the car exists.
These are things that we might not think about, but that are all woven into the fabric of an automobile world.
Here are a few examples:
- A no-brainer, but remember that most of our infrastructure is built around roads. Most products are transported via roads, whether you’re buying lettuces in the supermarket or ordering new socks via Amazon Prime, the things you buy are transported to you via automobile infrastructure. If we decided to stop having roads, supermarkets would be empty, delivery of goods would come to a stand-still, and our financial system would take a massive hit.
- Yep, Americans’ No. 1 preferred type of residential district. More than half of the U.S. population lives in suburban areas. Suburban living grew first with the expansion of a rail system in the 19th century, and then with the expansion of roads in the 20th centuries. This led to a sharp increase in commuting, which furthered investments in roads.
- Strip malls. Because all those people in the suburbs need a place to shop. As of 2016, there were more than 68,000 strip malls in the U.S. Each mall comes with its own microclimate, where trucks deliver goods and food to stores along the strip. Without the normalization of the car, strip malls would likely never have been popularized, as people would have fewer ways of getting to them.
- In-N-Out B Even before the drive-through restaurant was invented, fast food chains like In-N-Out Burger, and McDonald’swere placed at locations you could only get to by driving. And of course, as our lifestyle became evermore car-reliant, we no longer had to get out of the car to enjoy our meal.
- LA traffic If you’ve ever driven in LA, just the mention of the LA daily traffic is enough to make your hair stand. Without cars, there would be no traffic jams. In fact, LA as we know it would not exist. With its broad boulevards, and diverse and scattered neighborhoods, it’s almost impossible to imagine the City of Angels completely deprived of cars.
Some other, less captivating, consequences of the car are monoxide poisoning, traffic-related death, drive-bys, and much, much more. But one of the absolute biggest effects of the car is its environmental footprint.
California cruising — Sunshine, freedom, and CO2
We all know cars are bad for the environment, but exactly how bad are they?
As of 2010 there were more than 1 billion cars in the world. Now that’s passenger cars. We’re not looking at cargo trucks, buses, and other car-adjacent vehicles, just the passenger car.
comes from cars. Bear in mind that we aren’t looking at the effects of particle pollution, we’re only looking at greenhouse gas emissions.
And even though the U.S. is home to “only” 30% of the world’s total number of automobiles, it contributes about half of the world’s car emissions. Half!
Furthermore, nearly 50% of all Americans (around 150 million) live in areas that don’t meet federal air quality standards. This is due to a combination of factories, power plants, and, well, cars. In fact, cars are responsible for 75% of the smog in LA. Our cars are killing us, and the planet.
California— what if there were no cars?
In 2016, there were approximately 14.5 million cars registered in California.
Let’s try and imagine what would happen if we removed those cars.
If we snapped our fingers and removed all cars, there would be some very mixed results.
The air would clear in a few days, making life much easier for people suffering from allergies, asthma, bronchitis, and more. The noise level would drop significantly, reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and creating a better habitat for insects and other pollinators who navigate via sound.
And then, of course, the emissions. I’ll remind you that the U.S. emits half of all the world’s car-related carbon emissions. If every car in the U.S. were offset, it would reduce the total global carbon emissions with 7%.
But removing all the cars from the roads with a snap of the finger has some downsides. Like, Thanos-style downsides.
Millions of people would not be able to get to work. Produce would not be delivered to stores, and all mail and packaging services would stop. There would be no ambulances to take people to the hospital, just like there would be no fire trucks, no police cars, and maybe worst of all, no food truck.
As much as we want to get rid of the negative aspects of cars, we are currently locked into a system where removing them would cause more harm than good. A structural transition is needed, and that takes place on a governmental level, not an individual level.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t snap your fingers and make the negative effects of your car go away.
In theory, if every car owner in California offset their car, we could cut the world’s carbon emissions by at least 66.7 million metric tons of CO2 (with an average of 4.6 metric tons per car). That’s the equivalent of 18 coal-powered power plants, or what 12.2 million homes would use in electricity per year.
That’s not an insignificant amount. It’s up to all of us to take the actions we can to lower our carbon footprint. Waiting for a bipartisan agreement from our government to reshape our society away from the current use of cars in time that could be better spent lowering your carbon emission while still swinging through an In-N-Out Burger.
Offset your car now, and help make California “carless”.