It is the first of the series of forthcoming articles describing absurdities of our world. I will write about their manifestation and how social and economic stratification produced them. Also, I will present some suggestions on how to avoid them, or at least reduce their effects. There are so many of them that discussing them all would take volumes, so I will focus only on the most obvious ones. For that reason, I decided that the visibility and negative impact of cars and trucks are the leading candidates to begin this discussion.
I am fully aware that calling cars and trucks an absurdity would provoke a very strong critical response. Something like that: “How he dares to call this greatest achievement of modern civilization an absurdity. Does he want to return to horses and mules! Without cars and trucks, our civilization would collapse within days. The last sentence is correct: our civilization as it is would collapse because it is absurd.
Humanity, like the vast majority of life forms, have to move and often also to carry various objects from place to place. In the beginning, for hundreds of thousands of years, humans themselves were doing both functions. Only about less than 10,000 years ago, oxen and donkeys became beasts of a burden while horses used for riding on them and during battles pulling war chariots.
These means of long-distance transportation on land had not changed much until the 19th century when they invented the steam and combustion propelled engines. The steam engine, among many others, prompted building locomotives, which pulled attached railway cars. Soon railway trains became a prevalent form of transport for both passengers and all sorts of goods. Steam engines also became the primary way of propelling the boats, replacing sails. The main source of energy for steam engines was, and to a lesser extent still is, coal.
The career of the combustion engine began over 50 years later. The motor car was invented towards the end of the 19th century, but for a while, it too expensive, clumsy, and uncomfortable to be used as an important means of transportation. It was rather an expensive toy for the rich.
Its importance grew during World War 1 but still was too costly for the masses. It all changed when Ford introduced the idea of the assembly line of production of the legendary Model T. From that moment on, Americans gradually falling in love and obsessed with cars. In Europe, until after World War 2, the car was still a somewhat luxury item owned by the upper class only. However, during the war, the importance of cars and particularly trucks increased explosively and continued afterward. Relatively quickly, the obsession of ownership of cars spread from the USA to the rest of the world.
It severely impacted other means of transportation, particularly the trains, They lost their role as the way of long-distance transportation of both people and goods and began to decline. By now, except for suburban lines, passenger trains are practically gone from North America. Similarly, electric tramways, which were the mainstay of urban transportation, to a large extent, became replaced by buses. The situation is somewhat different in some European countries like Germany or France, and also in Japan and China, where comfortable and fast passenger trains still play an essential role. However, freight trains are slowly dying everywhere and are replaced by large trucks and truck-trailers.
Presenting some statistical data will be useful to fully comprehend the enormity of the problem, which arises from the overuse of cars and trucks in our socio-economic system. Unfortunately, the data which I managed to collect using Google are very fragmentary. Nevertheless, the picture is clear and terrifying.
In 1900 there was in the USA no more than 4,192 passenger cars – no buses and trucks. They were kind of expensive toys owned only by the upper strata of society: very rich or highly placed in the administrative hierarchy. The car became a “real thing” when, in 1914, Ford began to use assembly lines to produce his Model T. From that moment on cars, and later light pick-up trucks became an American obsession.
In 2019 the number of cars and light trucks sold in the USA reached 17 million while the total number of registered motor vehicles (cars and trucks) reached 284,5 million. A comment: I am using the USA statistics because its data on the internet are easiest to find and usually most complete.
However, the car and truck domination of the USA ended, when in 2019, the number of motor vehicles used in China exceeded the USA totalling 350 million while among them, 260 million are passenger cars. The speed of this growth is breathtaking because, not so long time ago (40 years) during the Mao era, the idea of privately owning a car was as real as owning the land on the Moon.
In 2019 the number of cars and trucks in the world reached around 1,3 -1,4 billion. Any statistics do not provide their value, but we can safely assume that it exceeds 20 – 30 trillion dollars.
The ecological effects of the use of cars and trucks are shocking: in Europe and the USA, transportation via trucks and carsis responsible for 30% and 29%, respectively, for the emission of greenhouse gases in 2017. The use of cars and trucks is the only area where pollution increases while others like energy production, household use, industry, agriculture, and fisheries are slowly declining.
However, it is not all: cars and trucks need roads. The cost of 1km of two-lane road costs, depending on the country and location, from 1.5 to 3 million dollars while four-lane highway 2.5 to 6 million. In spite of my efforts, I have not got even close to finding data providing the total length or costs of all existing roads and highways in the world. However, to realize their costs, for example, to build a four-lane highway from LA to Boston would cost around 15 billion dollars. I leave to your imagination what such a figure would be if we total all roads build for cars and trucks around the world, but do not expect less than trillions. Of course, these roads have to continuously maintained, which would add an extra trillions year.
But it is not all, we must not forget fatalities resulting from car and truck accidents. The figures are terrifying: while the global number of death is 1.35 million, the crushes are #1 cause of death among people from 5 -25 years old.
How has it happened?
At the beginning of the 20th-century, when cars were hardly known, and trucks practically have not existed, long-distance land transportation of people and goods was performed exclusively by trains while in cities their role was replaced by electric tramways or their underground equivalents.
It began to change, particularly in the USA, where some car manufacturers conspired to replace electric tramways by buses produced by them. Gradually tramways became eliminated and exist only occasionally as relicts of old times. In Europe, this process was slower, but by now in big cities like Paris, they disappeared to make room for cars, becoming a rarity.
However, huge cities like New York, Tokyo, Paris, or London are too congested to use privately owned cars without chauffeurs. The main reason is that there is no place to park them and permanent traffic congestion. Consequently, they have to rely on taxis and various forms of public transportation in the form of underground electric trains, buses and, occasionally, electric tramways
Let us look at the example of Paris, which already 1934 had 332 metro (underground) stations, while the total length of the train network was 159 km. Now, after 86 years, not much has changed: there is a bit smaller number of stations (302) while the length of the network grew to 214 km. Nevertheless, for travelling inside Paris during rush hours, the metro combined with buses, which, together with taxis, have their own lanes is the fastest means of transportation. If, in Paris, cars would disappear, not too much would change except for the dramatic decrease in the pollution that has happened during COVID-19 lockdown.
With the arrival of the baby boomers generation and relative increase in income of the middle class began the urban sprawl, which continues until now, particularly in Europe. Later on, when the woman began to join the workforce, there arose a need for the second car, which further boosted the car population.
Now the governmental push to lower the pollution produced and inexplicable increase of the fuel prices encourages the ecology-minded buyers to dump the old and purchase the new cars. However, if that would not be enough, some governments are contemplating lowering the age-limit required for obtaining the driving permit. When that is accomplished, we may expect further growth in the number of cars.
The other new factor is the lightning speed of the economic development of China, which, as mentioned earlier, exceeded even the USA as far as the total number of cars and trucks is concerned. However, China’s market is not as yet as saturated as the USA’s, so we may expect its further growth.