After a century of the automobile, can we begin to assess the long-term effects of transport by internal combustion?
The last century will be remembered as the century that belonged to internal combustion engine. That four-stroke engine, that moves your car, invented by Frenchman Cugnot in 1896, is the driving force of economies around the world. Nearly every aspect of our lives has developed around this technology.
Cars are glamorous, sexy and fast. Everyone wants one. Their numbers keep increasing. In 1900 few people had seen an automobile, today there are 500 million cars worldwide - and it is predicted that the number will double in twenty five years.
Vvvrrrrooooom...we in India are going the same way. If our very own Prime Minister and Finance Minister are to be believed we Indians also must suffer from Carmania. Vajpayeeji is personally pushing for a grand four lane highway project connecting the four corners of the country. Yashwant Sinhaji is making cars cheaper and cheaper. Yet, just about 8% of the world population have a car at their disposal - a tiny, privileged fraction enjoys levels of speed which contribute to depriving most of the world’s people of their fair share in the world’s resources.
Cars promise mobility and freedom to all, they say. Do they? To run these cars we burn fossil fuels that cause global warming and climate change. To drive them we build roads that eat up precious cropland. According to Lester Brown of the World Resources Institute, "The United States, with its 214 million motor vehicles, has paved 6.3 million kilometres (3.9 million miles) of roads, enough to circle the Earth at the equator 157 times.
In addition to roads, cars require parking space. Imagine a parking lot for 214 million cars and trucks. If that is too difficult, try visualising a parking lot for 1,000 cars and then imagine what 214,000 of these would look like." Millions of hectares of cropland in the industrial world have been paved over for roads and parking lots. With developing countries with hungry populations sacrificing more and more farmland, Brown questions the future role of the car. Says he, "A country (India) projected to add 515 million more people by 2050 cannot afford to cover valuable cropland with asphalt for roads and parking lots."
But we all want to be like those cool Americans. Americans, who drive 2 trillion miles a year: double the distance of those in other industrial countries. Americans, who with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, consume a quarter of the world’s oil, half of which is burned in motor vehicles. Americans, who drive more and more and whose per capita motor vehicle use has tripled since 1950. For whom one car is just not enough: in 1990, there were 23 million more vehicles than licensed drivers. We wannabe fast, efficient and kewl. Push that pedal...
Cars, as operated now, are inefficient. Modern vehicles are designed for private ownership (meri maruti mera sapna) not for the public good. Need to go to the post office? You zip off in your new Matiz, while others have to jump out of the way as you speed past polluting a common atmosphere with toxic emissions.
Our cities are choking to death with air pollution and horrendous traffic congestion. Why? Because there are no controls, no incentives to limit the ever-increasing rise in automobile use precisely because the costs are not borne by the user. Everyone wants a free ride. Nobody wants to pay.
A history of automobiles must be equally a history of environment and behaviour
"Never in my life have I been cursed at so frequently as on my automobile trip in the year 1902. Every German dialect from Berlin through Dresden, Vienna, and Munich to Bolzano was represented, as well as all the idioms of the Italian language…not to mention all the wordless curses, shaking fists, stuck-tongues, bared behinds, and others besides"
Otto Julius Bierbaum (A sentimental journey by automobile: From Berlin to Sorrento and back to the Rhine), Munich, 1903
1769 ► The first vehicle to move under its own power (using steam) designed by Frenchman Nicholas Joseph Cugnot and constructed by M. Brezin.
1862 ►The development of the internal combustion engine awaits a fuel to combust internally. Frenchman Etienne Lenoir patents the first petroleum based or petrol engine and drives a car based on the design from Paris to Joinville in 1862. Lenoir died broke in 1900.
1876 ► Nikolaus Otto develops and patents the gasoline powered four-stroke engine. The process of bringing the gas into the cylinder, compressing it, combusting the compressed mixture, then exhausting it is known as the Otto cycle, or four-cycle
1893 ► The first Patent-Autocar Benz, developed by Karl Benz on the streets. Four-stroke engines used to run cars in Germany and France.
1896 ► Henry Ford builds and sells his first car Quadracycle, for $200 and used the money to build another one.
1912 ► Michael Freiherr von Pidol of Vienna published a “call to protest” in which he claimed for the public in general a right to the street.
1913-14 ► Af-ford-ble cars – ‘fast, good, and economical’. Henry Ford introduces the assembly line method of production. Cars are finally massproduced, reducing costs and providing employment. This revolutionised everything.
1928 ► In Europe, new street regulations and rights and duties for the pedestrians.
1933 ► “The motor vehicle has become, next to the airplane, one of humanity’s most ingenious means of transportation” – Adolf Hitler at the National Automobile Show in Berlin. He prompts design of streets suited to motor transport. The famous Autobahns built in Germany.
1938 ► In Germany, thirty test models of the Volkswagen Beetle —'the peoples car' presented.
The Bug went on to become the most successful automobile in history, twenty million sold worldwide by 1981 ►
1970 ► Kyoto’s petrochemical ‘white smog’ causes tens of thousands of cases of skin, eye and respiratory irritation. Nitrogen and ozone smogs in both winter and summers in Tokyo. One of the world’s first programs to fit catalytic converters to cars begins to improve the quality of urban air.
1974 ► The world oil crisis prompts Ivan Illich to write the influential essay 'Energy and Equity' in Le Monde newspaper. He argues for the use of appropriate technologies.
1977 ► Ed Passerini builds the first, totally solar-powered car, the Bluebird. New improved 'green cars' developed.
1992 ► Cyclists organise the first Critical Mass ride in September in San Francisco to counter the car culture. There were 48 people.
1996 ► On February 11, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace UK co-ordinate Britain's largest ever anti-roads protest. Six thousand people, including television celebrities and members of the British aristocracy, turn out to walk the proposed route.
1998 ► To clean up the capital city's dirty air, the Supreme Court of India orders all public transport in the capital of Delhi to convert to CNG by April 1, 2001
2000 ► World Carfree Day, 21 September. The first ever Global Day of Action against Car Culture
Is faster better?
...asks Wolfgang Sachs, a German environmentalist
Looking back into the history of transport and telecommunication one remains even uncertain if the Herculean battle against the shackles of time and space was really worth the noble effort. True, nothing is more frustrating than waiting in the slow line, but is faster always better? Does more acceleration make our lives richer?
There is obviously no straightforward answer to this kind of question, but it would be a possible point of departure to wonder why it is that despite the ever expanding number of time-saving machines we feel more pressured and driven by the lack of time than ever before? The automobile can serve as a case in point. Right from the beginning, it had been hailed as the ultimate time-saver, marvelously shortening the time to reach a desired destination.
What has happened to that promise? Indeed, contrary to popular belief – and this is proven by a multitude of studies from many countries – car drivers do not spend less time in transit than non-drivers. Nor are drivers more frequently on the move; they leave the house slightly less often than non-drivers.
Where has the time gained been lost? Those who buy a car don't take a deep breath and rejoice in extra hours of leisure, but they travel to more distant destinations. The powers of speed are converted not in less time on the road but in more kilometres. The time gained is reinvested into longer distances.
And as time goes by, the spatial distribution of places changes and long distances become the norm. People still go to school, to work, to the cinema, but are obliged to travel longer routes. As a consequence, for instance, the average German citizen today travels 15,000 km a year as opposed to only 2,000 km in 1950.
The automobile is no special case. Across the board, from mobility to communication, from production to entertainment, time saved has been turned into more distance, more output, more appointments, more activities. The hours saved are eaten up by new growth. And, after a while, the expansion of activities generates new pressure for time-saving devices – starting the cycle all over again. Time gains offer only temporary relief; acceleration is therefore the surest way to the next congestion.
Extract from a paper titled 'Why Speed Matters' by Wolfgang Sachs
Are we energy addicts?
…asks Ivan Illich, well known writer and critic
More energy fed into the transportation system means that more people move faster over a greater range in the course of every day. Everybody's daily radius expands at the expense of being able to drop in on an acquaintance or walk through the park on the way to work. An elite packs unlimited distance into a lifetime of pampered travel, while the majority spend a bigger slice of their existence on unwanted trips.
The captive tripper and the reckless traveller become equally dependent on transport. Neither can do without it. Occasional spurts to the mountains or to a party congress dupe the ordinary passenger into believing that he has made it into the shrunk world of the powerfully rushed.
The occasional chance to spend a few hours strapped into a high-powered seat makes him an accomplice in the distortion of human space, and prompts him to consent to the design of his country's geography around vehicles rather than around people. If that relationship is determined by the velocity of vehicles rather than by the movement of people, man the architect is reduced to the status of a mere commuter.
The model American male devotes more than 1,600 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 installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets.
He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources or it. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five 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 3 to 8 per cent of their society's time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent.
What distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of life-time for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry.
Extract from an essay titled 'The Industrialisation of Traffic' by Ivan Illich
Earth Car Free Day 2001
Riding a bicycle or plain walking makes you and your earth healthier. This year the first ever Earth Carfree Day was held on April 19th as a part of Earth Day events. People in 200 cities around the world participated by not using motor vehicles.
This year, tens of millions of people from around the world celebrated Earth Day 2001 on Sunday April 22nd, by organising symposiums, walks and river clean-ups. The Earth Day Network urged those attending Earth Day events not to use their cars on Thursday, April 19th.
Interestingly, it was decided that Earth Carfree Day would always fall on Thursday, a normal weekday. This was because it would allow people to see the difference. Observing it on a Sunday or a holiday, would tell us nothing about the effect of cars on our city.
Led by The Commons together with the Earth Day Network, the goal of this international cooperative project is to spark and support thousands of events and demonstrations around the world: all based on the common theme of personal responsibility and vital public, private, community partnerships.
Earth Carfree Day 2001 is not a day in which all cars are officially pulled off the streets in all places by officials. It is rather a day of open and cooperative thinking on the problem of cars and traffic in cities. This also allows people to think of the alternative ways of travelling in a less-car environment.
The 2001 theme for this first year: "No project is too small". Not many people know this but even before the Earth Carfree Day, September 21st was designated "World Carfree Day" by several international groups and European governments. Among the celebrations for Earth Carfree Day were a 50-kilometre bicycle race in Manila, Philippines, an exhibit on the impact of cars on city life in Prague, Czechoslovakia and a pledge by the city government in Singapore to make public transit free for a day.
Sierra James of the Earth Day Network is co-coordinator of Earth Carfree Day. "It can change people's way of looking at things," says Ms. James. "It can get people to become more aware of their transportation choices and how those affect other people and the environment." Sierra James says Earth Carfree Day can empower citizens to take a more active role in lowering auto emissions like carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of the greenhouse gases thought to cause global warming.
Taiwan President Chen Shui-ban biked to work to mark Earth Day on Sunday together with top officials from Taiwan's environment and transportation agencies. Meanwhile, environment ministers from six countries (the Czech Republic, Finland, Norway, South African, and Sweden ) took a quick bike ride around the UN complex in New York City to call attention to the benefits of bicycles over cars.
The first group to call a meeting of NGOs in Pune for a Carfree Day was Econet. Parisar, Econet, Gomukh and Radicalz were the groups who planned and carried out this whole programme. Their intention was to link the Earth Carfree Day with the whole issue of Urban Traffic and Transport Policy, and to make the policy makers aware that it is not enough to simply build more flyovers and underpasses.
There are several groups who advocate cycling as an environment friendly mode of transport in Pune, which was a cycling city not too long ago. It was only right that it should observe the Earth Carfree Day. It was called Earth Automobile-free Day instead of Carfree day as 70% of the vehicles in Pune are two wheelers. About 150 individuals participated in a cycle rally.
Girl guides in Dhaka (below) support a ‘two stroke vehicle free street’ demonstration in Dhaka, organised by ESDO. Children cheer participants of a Earth Day cycle rally in Pune
There are arguments both for and against cars. However much we would like cars to be off the roads forever, we know that this is not possible. What you can do is instead of waiting for the Earth Carfree Day, organise School carfree days when those of you who usually come to school on cars do not. Also, you can organise bicycle rallies during the holidays. Cycling is one great way to have clean and healthy fun. So, are you still waiting for the next year?
If it’s cars in Europe, it’s twowheelers in Asia. Pune and Dhaka observed the Earth Carfree Day or rather Earth Automobile-free Day as 70% of the vehicles in South Asia are inefficient, polluting two stroke scooters and bikes