“More cars than drivers?” I repeated.
“Yeah,” said Yves, “for every person of driving age, there are 1.02 cars.”
Later this startling statistic was confirmed when we discovered that for every person with a drivers license there are 1.17 cars. According to the Globe and Mail, 246 million registered cars and trucks served 210 million licensed drivers in the USA.
Witnessing the growth of auto travel in my ancestral homeland, Uganda, and reading about China’s rapid adoption of the car, our interest in the subject grew. As we waded through stacks of books, journals and newspapers, it became clear that we needed to see for ourselves what the automobile has wrought in its favoured habitat. To see what could happen if Uganda and China followed the U.S. example in car culture it would be necessary for us to journey to that part of the planet where the automobile reigns supreme. We needed to go to the USA. It would be like a field trip to the British Columbia rainforest for graduate students in ecology. We would go from top to bottom, from side to side, to study the land of the car.
It didn’t hurt that Yves and I were knee deep into a snowy Montreal winter. We’d had a couple days that were colder than Siberia and believed some time in California, New Orleans, Las Vegas and Miami would thaw us out. Fresh out of university, working a dead end job and mired in existential angst, it was time to bust out of the North Pole. I gave my two weeks notice so we could hit the road, but a few details still needed ironing out. We didn’t have a car or valid driver’s license between us.
How were we going to discover the truth about automobiles? No vehicle, no licenses, no problem. We’d do this road trip car-less. The bus would be our viewing platform, an elevated perspective from which to survey the land of the automobile.
We have tried to take an “ecological” approach to discussing the automobile in its North American context. The private car is a key element of our transportation system, our economy and our environment; it has significant impacts on our health, geography, housing, education and culture. And, all these interact. The automobile is a player in a complex system. It has a place in that system in the same way that an elephant has a place in the complex ecology of the African savannah. To truly understand that place we must look at the system from the perspective of the elephant/automobile and from other points of view, including the overall system. We must understand the car as part of a system in which it survives and thrives. Just as living creatures require and simultaneously create complex habitats in which they interact with other living things, automobiles also require and create their habitats. While human beings may think cars are mere transportation devices — tools at our disposal — in fact they, and us, play a role in a complex transport-economic-social-geographic- environmental-cultural system.
This book is a warning to people who suspect cars might play a significant role in our planet’s unfolding environmental disaster: The automobile is much worse than you think. In addition it is a cautionary tale for the majority of our planet’s inhabitants. Learn from the “developed world” what good you can, but take heed from what we have done wrong. This book also contains a message for people who believe our current economic system will provide solutions to overcome the environmental destructiveness of the private car: Not bloody likely. Modern capitalism and cars go together like Minneapolis and St. Paul, like rubber and the road. One is very hard to imagine without the other.
This book is also a road story. Each chapter deals with an aspect of the automobile that is tied to a location we visited, but the book is organized thematically, not by geography. In Part One we describe the effects the car has had on its habitat. In Part Two we discuss why this intrusive species has been so successful.