People Don't Know the True Impact of the Automobile

A manifesto about the impact of cars on our cities and society.

Cars are freedom!
Freedom is a 1974 Plymouth Valiant Duster.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Cars have been cultural touchstones almost since they were invented. In his 1909 "Futurist Manifesto," Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote:

"We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace."

Anthropologist Krystal D'Costa wrote in 2013:

"Cars have long been symbols for personal freedom. With the open road before you you can go anywhere—from behind the wheel you really take control of your destiny. In this regard, cars are empowering. Ownership means that you have the means to be independently mobile, that you own not just a vehicle but choice as well."

Many think otherwise and are not so enchanted with the beauty of speed or are not convinced that automobiles let you take control of your destiny. Matthew Lewis is the Director of Communication for California YIMBY, an organization that has "been at the forefront of major legislative victories that will help end the housing shortage and make California a more equitable, affordable, and livable state." He is also a prolific tweeter on urban issues, telling Treehugger that "the words just pour out of my fingers."

He recently unleashed a stream of tweets that, when read together, formed a manifesto about the impact of the automobile on society. It is as powerful—and some will probably say as wrongheaded— as Marinetti's.

I asked for his permission to repeat the thread here, lightly edited for profanity and obscure science fiction references, and links added to relevant Treehugger posts. There are many people, including Treehugger readers, who love their cars, and our society is pretty much built around them. But as Matthew Lewis explains, people don't know.

Matthew Lewis on a mountain

Matthew Lewis

Matthew Lewis' Manifesto: People Don't Know...

One thing that stands out is how people who are accustomed to driving their car everywhere have never even really given car culture any thought.

Like, no part of it.

People don't know how roads are paid for—or that their taxes don't cover them. People don't know driving is the leading cause of climate pollution in the US. People don't know cars are the leading killer of children on earth, and the leading cause of hospitalization for all humans.

People don't know that their suburban, car-oriented lifestyle leads to virtually guaranteed municipal bankruptcy. People don't know that it's not actually cheaper to "drive 'til you qualify" when you include the cost of the driving.

People don't know carmakers target their products/advertising to that part of the human brain focused purely on survival—which includes the instinct to kill perceived threats.

People don't know that the only difference between a $75,000 car and a $25,000 car is your ego.

People don't know most cars sold today could be made lighter/more fuel-efficient—easily 50 miles per gallon, arguably ~60 mpg, but carmakers don't care about pollution & so add heavier features to their models instead of capturing fuel economy gains in the powertrain.

People don't know one of the stupidest ideas any human has ever come up with, during any time in our history, is putting a video screen in front of the driver, even if it's at an angle off to the right. People don't know the other stupidest idea is letting cell phone users drive. 

People don't know the reason driving is so deadly in the US is we have a traffic engineering profession that mandates death. Like, actually has a manual that says that unless a certain number of people are killed on a street/intersection each year, it is not dangerous enough

People don't know there's no such thing as "free parking" because someone has to pay for that land/concrete—but they do know to get insanely angry if someone asks them to pay for it.

People don't know the housing crisis was caused, and is exacerbated by, car culture. 

People don't know that almost everything they claim to want—good health care, schools, streets safe enough to let their kids walk to school, affordable housing, jobs that aren't 3 hours away, parks/open space, walkable neighborhoods—can't happen in cities dominated by cars.

And of course, people don't know how to drive. They don't know the laws about turn signals, or sudden braking, or yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks, or staying in their lane, or checking their blind spot, or not tailgating, or how to parallel park.

And so it strikes me that, the thing almost everyone does, that people risk their lives for every day, that costs people millions of dollars over their lifetimes and utterly destroys their well-being, their neighborhoods, the climate.

They've never really thought about it.