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How cars drive us to disaster

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Much of the world that we live in has been built or adapted to accommodate cars. Nick Clark investigates how they became such an essential part of capitalism—and asks, in the midst of a climate crisis, whether it’s time to pull them over once and for all
Issue 2776
Cars remain kings of the road under this system
Cars remain kings of the road under this system (Pic: Dan Zen/Flickr)

One of the most ­provocative things you can do in Britain is block a road. Look at the weeks of hatred aimed at Insulate Britain ­protesters on the front page of national newspapers for holding up a few lines of traffic.

And look at the potential sentences too. Six months in prison and an unlimited fine—serious stuff.

It’s not just protesters who draw anger wherever cars are held up. Wherever there’s a plan to build a bike lane, pedestrianise a city centre or close off streets to cars, you’ll likely find a backlash.

In Birmingham, the council plans to turn much of the inner city into a “low traffic neighbourhood.”

But the councillor in charge, Waseem Zaffar, says he’s expecting complaints—just as there were complaints and protests when some were introduced in London last year. Some complaints have some merit (see right). Others are ­stalking horses for the right.

At the root of all of them is how ­transport in modern cities has been built around the demands of car manufacturers over the past 60 years.

Cars are the kings of the road. And despite the pollution, the congestion, the danger, and the space they take up, nothing can be allowed to encroach on them. In a high profile case, the Tory council of Kensington and Chelsea spent £300,000 on cycle lanes down posh Kensington High Street last year. It ripped them out again just seven weeks later, blaming them for congestion.

You might think congestion is because there are too many cars. Kensington’s councillors believe it’s because cars have too little space.

Yet it’s not as if roads were built for cars. It might seem an obvious point—or, given how car-centric streets are now, it might not—but roads existed long before motorised transport. That includes a lot of the roads we live and travel on today.

For the first few decades of its ­existence, the car was a luxury. It was a status symbol for the very rich, and a rarity on the roads where most people travelled by foot, coach, tram, horse or bicycle.


Car use became widespread not to ­satisfy any great need of ordinary people, but the need of capitalists to continually make ever larger profits.

In the 1910s, carmakers in the US such as Ford and General Motors found they could mass produce vehicles quickly using assembly line techniques.

This drop in production time meant they could sell cars far more cheaply to far more people and make far more money.

Profit hungry firms want more money for failing transport system
Profit hungry firms want more money for failing transport system
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They marketed cars as things that offered speed and convenience to ordinary people and the individualism, freedom, and success that American capitalism promised. Car ownership rose dramatically. In the US, the number of cars rose from one for every 19,000 people in 1910, to one for every 11 in 1920.

The same thing later happened in Britain and Europe. And though car production and consumption slowed down during the Great Depression and the Second World War, it skyrocketed from the 1950s (see graph). For bosses, ­building and exporting cars was a great way to make Britain a profitable place to do business again. And a vast array of industries have grown out of this.

There are the car manufacturers ­themselves, of course.

But there are also the industries that feed into it—not least the fossil fuel companies that rely on cars’ massive consumption of oil and gas. And there are the industries that feed directly off it—garages, petrol stations, car dealers, insurance companies.

That’s not to mention the industries whose operations depend on road ­transport. Most haulage firms and ­manufacturers rely on the road and HGVs for delivery and distribution, often to facilitate just in time production methods.

In fact, the needs of the growing car industry shaped so much of how we live and work.

In order to keep selling cars, manufacturers needed new road infrastructure to accommodate them better.

This was often at the expense of public transport, and often with direct lobbying of the motor industry, to make transportation more dependent on cars.


In 1963, the government in Britain ­published the Buchanan Report, Traffic in Towns, which recommended towns and cities should be rebuilt with cars in mind.

So tram lines were torn out of the streets to make way for cars, and ­motorways were built right through cities such as Glasgow and Birmingham.

One side effect was that this made walking and cycling more dangerous too. At the end of the 1940s, cycling was second only to the bus as a way of getting to work. That plummeted from about 1955—almost precisely mirroring the sharp rise in private car ownership.

The legacy is a transport system that prioritises travel by car—for both short and long journeys.

Today, 68 percent of people who commute to work do so by car. Just seven percent go by bus. This isn’t to do with individual choice, or about finding ways to “encourage” people to travel differently.

Partly it’s because public transport is often unreliable, under-resourced, overcrowded or expensive. And partly it’s because so much of cities, towns and suburbs are designed to be accessed primarily by car.

A commute might involve a drive into city centres from suburbs and commuter towns or towards business parks and industrial estates on the outskirts.

There’s a whole urban sprawl built around access to roads—and is ­therefore dependent on cars.

It’s this built-in dependence that makes city roads so congested.

Car adverts still promise freedom and speed on empty roads. But, far more often, the reality is angry queues of slow moving traffic on busy roads that ­crisscross the neighbourhoods of polluted towns and cities.

It would be better for everyone if cities prioritised a cheap, reliable, ­properly funded public transport system along with safer, nicer walking and cycling routes.

We can demand and fight for this now.

But because so much of industry and infrastructure has been built around the car industry, breaking from that inevitably means a more radical reorganisation of society.

Electric cars—a ‘green solution’ that spreads pollution

Electric cars are often touted as a “green” solution to transport pollution. But handily for bosses, they also seem to offer plenty of profits.

Sales of electric cars in Europe have jumped from 198,000 in 2018 to an expected 1.17 million this year.

Within four years, one quarter of new cars bought in China and nearly 40 per cent of those purchased in Germany are expected to be electric.

Global sales of electric vehicles are forecast to reach 10.7 million by 2025 and then 28.2 million by 2030.


The Financial Times newspaper reports that this is partly because of governments looking for ways to say they’ve reduced carbon emissions.

But, as ever, this is more a way of masking and pushing pollution around rather than ending it.

Electric cars still rely on the fossil fuel industries that still produce most of Britain’s energy supply.

And the mass production of electric cars still means ripping a tremendous amount of materials and resources out of the earth.

Bosses and politicians like the electric car because it seems to present a way to save the car industry—when really we need to kill it.

Air pollution - a deadly truth about dirty capitalism
Air pollution – a deadly truth about dirty capitalism
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‘Low traffic’ areas move congestion to major roads but don’t cut it

Local councils say they’ve found a way to fix congestion, cut car use and encourage walking, cycling and public transport.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs)—where residential streets are blocked off to most motorised traffic and cars—sound like a nice idea.

Plenty of city and borough councils already tried it during lockdown. But in many cases they provoked protests, and not just from the usual right wing, ­pro-car suspects.

In inner London boroughs such as Lambeth and Lewisham, residents complained that the road closures had simply diverted traffic elsewhere, creating new “rat runs” and sites of congestion.

Some suggested that traffic had been diverted away from more affluent ­neighbourhoods towards main roads and poorer residential areas.

Rosamund Kissi-Debrah—who became one of the most high profile campaigners against air pollution after her child Ella, died of severe asthma attacks—is against them.

She lives near the South Circular ring road in Hither Green, south east London. “When my daughter was alive the congestion on the south circular was bad,” she said. “But since the introduction of LTN schemes around the route it has become far worse. The congestion is terrible.”


A study published in March this year suggested that LTNs were not found disproportionately in more affluent ­neighbourhoods. But it’s still the case that rather than reduce traffic, they simply move it around.

The same goes for congestion charge schemes such as London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone, which will be expanded from 25 October.

This charges drivers £12.50 daily to use their vehicles inside the zone.

But while businesses and haulage firms can absorb the cost, ordinary people who rely on cars to commute won’t take the hit so painlessly.

LTNs and congestion charges fail because they don’t address the root of the problem. Taclking pollution in cities means halting car use—not trying to push it around.

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