Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Evil Machine

On a couple of occasions I have referred to all the badness associated with the automobile, and made banal observations about how a great country that doesn't want to be shipping trillions of dollars abroad to pay for petroleum, invading foreign lands to secure access to same, spewing toxins and particulates into the air and thence to its citizens lungs, filling the atmosphere with C02 thereby melting the polar caps and wiping out the world's amphibians and coral reefs, and getting everybody stressed out driving over congested streets and highways for two hours every day to get to work and back, etc., probably ought to have excellent public transportation, and encourage patterns of development whereby people live and work close to transit stations and can walk to the grocery store. But you don't have to take it from me, of course, you can take it from the hypertensive ranter Jim Kunstler who says it all so much better.

But our friend Keeping Eyes Open, formerly known as MAR, tipped me off to this essay by the dynamic community organizer Meizhu Lui, who emphasizes the relationship of car dependency to inequality and social injustice. Meizhu takes off from the New Orleans evacuation plan, which as quickly became grotesquely obvious, didn't take into account all those folks who didn't happen to own cars -- who, as it turns out, were just about all poor, and African-American. She points to the unaffordability of car ownership for low-income people, and how this cuts people off from jobs, various forms of self-employment, and even medical care. (In rural areas, lack of transportation is a major barrier to health care access.) So car dependency just entrenches and exacerbates poverty and inequality.

In the public health community, we took on the tobacco companies, we were tenacious, and we are finally gaining the upper hand. Now we are taking on the "food" companies. (At least the stuff Phillip Morris sells really is tobacco.) But we have dealt with the car problem in a half-assed manner. (That's a technical term from poli-sci.) We've pressured the companies to make cars safer and more fuel efficient, but you know what? We never accepted the idea of a safer cigarette, we insisted that tobacco marketing should be stopped, and people should stop smoking.

It's little remembered nowadays, but General Motors actually purchased all the urban street car companies in the U.S. and shut them down, to get rid of the competition. Turnabout is fair play. We won't eliminate the automobile, obviously, but we can make it unnecessary for most people most of the time. I can't think of a single area of public policy that promises more benefits -- to public health, to our quality of life, to our economic security, to the planetary ecosystem, and oh yes, to world peace. Of course, it also requires a major public investment, but the U.S. only invests in warships and fighter planes. That's called the Free Market System.

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