WITH one of our two cars in the shop for the past week or so, our three-driver family has had time to contemplate the place of the automobile in American life. The garage is filled with other modes of transport - mountain bikes, skis, kayaks, and a canoe - and we can (or could) walk most places in a town that's safe and charming. But we sure do miss the old Subaru!
This attitude is typical of most Americans, it seems. Roads and highways go just about everywhere. Fuel is relatively cheap (less than before the "oil shocks," when inflation is factored in). We can easily rationalize the time saved in comparison with waiting for the bus. Driving is just so convenient and efficient.
But is it? In "Energy and Equity," writer Ivan Illich figured out that the typical American male spends more than four hours a day in activities related to his car - driving, parking, and idling but also earning the money to pay for it plus its fuel, insurance, upkeep, etc. In the end, Illich wrote, "The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles an hour."
Economic productivity losses due to traffic congestion, according to the General Accounting Office, cost the United States some $100 billion a year (only marginally offset by car phones and fax machines). Photochemical smog is estimated to cause annual losses of up to 20 percent of important California crops like cotton and grapes, reports the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
And what about the other negative impacts of the automobile, particularly on the environment? A recent report by the Greenpeace organization gathers together some of the bad news:
Motor vehicles are the single largest source of atmospheric pollution, including 47 percent of nitrogen oxides, 39 percent of hydrocarbons, and 66 percent of carbon monoxide emitted in the industrialized countries of the OECD. Greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, acid rain - all are higher than they otherwise would be thanks to the internal combustion engine that powers cars and the air-conditioning systems that keep their drivers comfy.
"Extremely low fuel efficiency, excessive automobile dependency, incomplete combustion of gasoline and diesel fuel, fuel evaporation, and the use of fuel additives cause a major portion of the world's air pollution problem," the Greenpeace report states.
To bring such hard-to-grasp figures and pronouncements down to earth, consider this: Every time you or I burn up a 15-gallon tank of fuel, we release 300 pounds of carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. On average, that's five tons of CO2 per car over the course of a year. (The figure for Western European countries is about half that amount.) Whether or not global warming turns out to be a big deal, that's something to worry about.
Within the past seven weeks there have been four major oil spills at sea, two of them much greater than the Exxon Valdez. Were those at least an indirect result of Americans' love affair with motor vehicles - which use one-third of the world's oil?
Aside from fuel, there's the environmental impact of building and disposing of autos - hundreds of millions of tires, batteries, and other nonrecyclable parts filling up landfills every year (much of this waste toxic). Plus the effects of road-building and highway maintenance, and the use of raw materials dug up from environmentally sensitive areas like river banks.
Great strides have been made in reducing auto pollution, thanks largely to the phase-out of leaded gasoline and government-mandated fuel-efficiency standards.
But as the Council on Environmental Quality points out, "These gains have been offset by increased numbers of vehicles on the road." Over the past 40 years, the world automobile fleet has grown 10-fold to nearly half a billion cars, and while the annual production rate has slowed recently because of recession, it's still about 35 million a year.
Yes, we're looking forward to being a two-car family again. But having thought through the impact of the miles we pile up - and especially the cumulative effect of all those autos making trips of marginal importance here and there - we'll also think hard about leaving it in the garage more often.