Traffic Congestion - Car Environment


“I couldn’t manage without my car, it saves me so much time” - Well yes and no !

We are told that the car saves time - but this is not really true! The frenzy of movement convinces us we are doing something useful, and the hurry and frustration we feel convinces us it must be something important; after all we are racing around as fast as we can. So why don’t we ever seem to have any spare time? One of the reasons is that we spend so much time working to pay for a car or are trapped inside one.

The time society sacrifices to the car is not an environmental issue. It is a social issue but we include it here because it is such a powerful illusion. There are situations where the private car does save time, but in our modern society they are actually quite few.

"the typical American male devotes more then 1600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly instalments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering the resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts and garages: time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than 5 miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only three to eight per cent of there society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 percent” (Ivan Illich as quoted in by lLnn Sloman, Car Sick, p9)

People don’t travel miles - they travel time, surveys on the time spent commuting to work across many cities and over many periods in history return the same results. People throughout history have been willing to travel 30 minutes on a regular commute with the mean being 20 to 40 minutes (2). If you increase the speed people travel at you don’t save any time you just spread them over a larger area. This is why city’s like LA still grind to a gridlocked halt after half a century of motorway building, building which has turned the city into a tragedy.

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Photo; Shutterstock

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Photo; Fotosearch

Working machines do save time, the private car in the rural environment can save time (But not always), however within the urban context the private car simply consumes time.

When the built environment is created for the automobile it is nearly impossible to manage without one, the question of how it got to be this way is too abstract, its none of our business and anyhow there is no time to even think about it. A car seems the quickest way to get anywhere and indeed may be the only way. But something is not right and we know it - the faster we go the less time we seem to have.

What was once less then 8% of societys’ time budget is now more then 28% - And actually a lot more, When we include the human and economic cost of oil wars, pollution, global warming, the social, health and legal costs, the degraded property values, the costs imposed upon non car owners, then the cost to society could be between 30-40%. No one can honestly look at these figures and still claim that the private automobile saves time.

The choice we are really making as a society is whether the extra reach of increased distance outweighs the cost, if we gained much by this extra distance it might be a fair trade but actually we lose more then we gain.

“Houston is the modern world per excellence,” architect Daniel Soloman has put it. “The young man who drove me to the airport says he lives thirty miles from school, a one hour drive each way,” he observed. “his two and a half year old truck has 78,000 miles on it and he hasn’t been anywhere. Fifty times the odyssey, eight times the travels of Marco polo, how many hundreds of times the walks of Leopold Bloom? And with what density of experience, what learned in his 78,000 mile journey?”. Asphalt nation, Jane Holtz Kay, p 32

When we step into the private automobile our connection to the world outside is lost, leaving only the gray view on the other side of the windscreen. The world outside becomes an obstruction to be wished away, just a nuisance that comes between the car park you are leaving and the one you are heading for. The car has spread things out over ever increasing distances and what were once living communities have been replaced by distant and impersonal “mega mall” destinations. 

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Photo; chris-rocket,

In the depressing and unwalkable world of the automobile we drive to the health club and then pay for the privilege of walking or cycling on a machine that goes nowhere, In a further irony we then deflect the boredom of the go nowhere walking machine by watching car adverts on a giant plasma screen.

We sense something is wrong. That something is “connection.” We are adrift in a world of exit ramps and big box retail, isolated destinations which are populated by people we don’t know, a landscape which is often described as “no where special”. There is genuine need for connection to community and nature. Returning to a human scaled environment would bring us back into contact with community and connect us to the places where we live, but we don’t get that choice because our communities have been largely replaced by the space demands of the car. (3)

The time we once spent living in the community and public domain has simply been substituted by at least the same amount of time now spent in isolation in the automobile, operating heavy machinery and navigating the automobiles’ lifeless landscape but with the added burden that we now have to devote a quarter of our working life to pay for the “privilege”.



Soccer mums and moms taxi ! 

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Many people have been isolated within the automobiles landscape, among them the old, the young, the poor, the disabled, people who do not own their own car or who cannot drive themselves. Within the family the movement of those who are marginalised has in effect become a dependence on those who care for them and this “burden” of dependence falls mostly on women.

“mothers often derail their careers so that their children can experience a life beyond the backyard. The role of the journalist, banker or marketing director is exchanged for that of the chauffeur,in the vain hope that there career will resume when the last child turns 16”. Suburban Nation, p117.

It can feel like a full time job ferrying children to football, drama, parties, schools, crèche, scouts and friends - the average American mother living in the suburbs makes 14 car journeys every day (4), The culture of the car has replaced what was once a childs free and autonomous movement. When you add to this the “burden” of isolated parents who may no longer be able to drive or walk to destinations, now separated by large distances and often unreachable by foot due to the dangers imposed on us by the automobile, is it any surprise that so many “can’t imagine how they would manage without their car” ?.

“The more we drive, the less we get done. We become amateur chauffeurs, paying rather than being paid for the privilege, and we throw away precious minutes of our lives that we could spend in transaction, or in company--including the company found in buses and trains and on sidewalks - we spend our minutes in the numbing sameness of the car and traffic.” .  RichardRisemberg,