Cars give fantastic mobility, but we need to talk about downsides of mass car ownership and use

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: There’s often disparaging remarks for anybody who mentions the negatives around car use. The defence often given is that everybody knows the negatives. As the discussion goes it becomes clearer that everyone does not know the extent of the issues.

Critics of alternatives to car use will even say something like “with you, it’s four wheels bad, two-wheels good” when they want to gloss over the downsides. Here’s 9 issues that are often underplayed:

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(1) Car-dominated areas aren’t good for livability

Even if there was zero environmental or health concerns about cars, we have — mostly without proper debate — planned the way we live around cars when we know there’s better alternatives.

But, as outlined below, the reality is that there are massive environmental, health, and safety issues. And cars don’t even work well for travel within or into urban areas.

Less car dominated doesn’t mean there’s no cars. But a better balance of how space is used. The idea of change is scary, but more liveable spaces are healthy, more sociable, more accessible, more enjoyable, and even better for the economy.

(2) Cars are a major source of carbon emissions and electric cars alone won’t solve emissions issue

Experts outline how we need to take the ‘avoid-shift-improve’ transport approach to reduce climate emission. Just switching to all the cars we have to electric cars won’t be enough quickly enough. Often emissions from car use is talked about but not the production of cars, road construction, road maintenance, and land use.

In an article on this issue, Timothy Welch, a Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning at the , University of Auckland, wrote: “EVs are exciting for politicians, many businesses and a few drivers. They give us the illusion we are dramatically reducing our environmental impact while changing virtually nothing about our lifestyles.”

There’s many reason why switching from Internal combustion engine cars to electric cars alone isn’t going to cut it, as outlined in Welch’s article and others such as this one.

But maybe the main reason is electric cars are a big fat distraction to the amount of needed investment in and focus on in walking, cycling and public transport.

(3) Cars have turbocharged our inactivity crisis

Car use and car dependency has greatly contributed towards our inactivity crisis which is having wide ranging health impacts on individuals and helping put extra pressure on already overstretched health services.

As one paper in the Journal of Public Health put it: “Private cars cause significant health harm. The impacts include physical inactivity, obesity, death and injury from crashes, cardio-respiratory disease from air pollution, noise, community severance and climate change. The car lobby resists measures that would restrict car use, using tactics similar to the tobacco industry. Decisions about location and design of neighbourhoods have created environments that reinforce and reflect car dependence. Car ownership and use has greatly increased in recent decades and there is little public support for measures that would reduce this.”

The authors concluded: “Car dependence is a potent example of an issue that ecological public health should address. The public health community should advocate strongly for effective policies that reduce car use and increase active travel.”

They are far from the only ones in the area of health highlighting the issues. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough policy makers listening.

(4) Road deaths and injuries

According to the World Health Organisation, “Approximately 1.3 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes” and 50 million are injured.

Is more needed on this point? It shouldn’t be but policy makers say they want “Vision Zero” but few act like they do.

(5) Air pollution has serious affects on human health, including the development of babies

Internal combustion engines — ie petrol and diesel engines — are just one of the sources of air pollution from cars. There’s growing evidence that tires, braking and friction with road surfaces caused serious health issues. Electric car advocates can nitpick that breaking is often regenerative, so, it reduces the issue but if we’re serious about adapting the the shift-avoid-improve approach to all aspects of emissions, than fewer cars are needed as well as electrifying the remainder.

Electric car won’t solve these issues. This point by Sarah Woolnough, CEO, Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation, can be applied to much more than just the UK: “The threat posed by air pollution cannot be overstated – the air we breathe can have a catastrophic effect on our health, right from the moment we are born. More than a third of maternity units in England are in air pollution hotspots that fail to meet the World Health Organization’s 2005 air quality guidelines.”

She added: “This means that every two minutes, a baby is born into areas surrounded by toxic levels of air pollution. Children are then likely to grow up, learn and play in these areas of lethal pollution. If we’re going to stop babies being born into toxic air, more electric cars won’t cut it. We need fewer vehicles on our roads altogether, not just cleaner ones.“

(6) Noise pollution has serious affects on human health

Noise pollution — which comes from not just engines, but also movement and contact with road surfaces — can be the cause of sleep disturbance, effects on the cardiovascular and metabolic system, and cognitive impairment in children. Its effects are often underplayed.

According to the European Environment Agency: “Twenty percent of Europe’s population are exposed to long-term noise levels that are harmful to their health. That corresponds to more than 100 million people within Europe. The data also suggests that policy objectives on environmental noise have not been achieved. In fact, based on our projections, it is unlikely that the number of people exposed to noise will significantly decrease in the future due to urban growth and increased mobility demand..”

Electric cars are nearly silent at low speeds, but — as research shows — as speeds increase the engine noise stays the same between 20km/h and 80km/h, but the rolling noise increases after around 30km/h and becomes the dominant source of noise. This is another issue not solved by electric cars:

(7) Car tires are a major source of microplastic pollution in oceans

While cars tires can hardly be said to be the only source, microplastic have been found in Arctic snow, Alpine soils and the deepest oceans and car tires are a major source.

A recent study points to wind-borne microplastics from tires as a bigger source of ocean pollution than what’s washed down via rivers.

Andreas Stohl, from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, who led research on the issue, was quoted as stating: “Roads are a very significant source of microplastics to remote areas, including the oceans… [a loss of 4kg during in a tire’s lifetime] is such a huge amount of plastic compared to, say, clothes. You will not lose kilograms of plastic from your clothing.”

(8) High car use is inefficient and causes congestion

This a point made visually… nitpickers will nitpick regardless, but the evidence is there in cities around the world that this is broadly correct:

(9) The cost of forced car ownership, second car ownership and usage

Recent research, titled ‘The lifetime cost of driving a car’, found what we should all know: “…car ownership is only affordable to lower-income households that have minimal housing costs, and many moderate-income household can only afford one car that is shared by multiple drivers, and are burdened if every adult must own a personal vehicle.”

In the paper published in ‘Ecological Economics’ in April, the authors wrote: “This analysis indicates that most lower-income and many moderate-income households are harmed overall by policies that favor automobile travel over more affordable and resource-efficient modes. Such policies force many households to own more vehicles than they can afford, and imposes large external costs, particularly on people who rely on walking, bicycling and public transit.”

The researchers concluded: “Because vehicle value and mileage tends to increase with income, automobile subsidies tend to be regressive. Company car benefits, low fuel taxes, road and parking subsidies, and electric vehicle subsidies primarily benefit wealthy motorists. As a result, people who drive less than average essentially subsidize the automobile travel of others who drive more than average, by subsidizing their road and parking facility costs, and bearing congestion delays, crash risk and pollution damages.”

Even if you can afford one or two cars in your household, it’s money can could be used elsewhere.

Sometime also discounted in car-dominated society is that even in cities and countries where car ownership is higher, car use can be lower. Forced ownership and use due to lack of alternative means the costs are forced. Time is also wasted when parents have to taxi their children and teenagers everywhere rather than them being able to walk, cycle or take public transport at an appropriate age.


Nobody — or at least very few people — think we can get rid of cars. Cars offer, as the headline states, some fantastic mobility.

But we don’t talk half enough about the downsides, such as those mentioned above. If we really examined the downsides, there might be more of a focus on not just promoting but enabling alternative.


  1. Great article clearly outlining the broad issues related to unsustainable car ownership and use! But it is worth reading the 2020 Stockholm Declaration on Road Safety – – signed by Transport Ministers internationally, including our own, which describes road deaths as a ‘preventable epidemic’…..YES, an actual epidemic! Check out this paragraph below from the Declaration

    Road traffic crashes kill more than 1.35 million people every year, with over 90% of these casualties occurring in low- and middle-income countries, that these collisions are the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5–29 years, and that the projected up to 500 million road traffic deaths and injuries worldwide between 2020 and 2030 constitute a preventable epidemic and crisis that to avoid will require more significant political commitment, leadership and greater action at all levels in the next decade


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