Review of “Want to cut air pollution? Get rid of your car”

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

Recently John Vidal published an article in The Guardian entitled, “Want to cut air pollution? Get rid of your car” (Sept. 19, 2018).

The argument focuses on environmental issues—just one of many reasons to drive less. He writes the article from St. Marin’s, a beautiful island off the coast of Cornwall (UK). The air is clear and the streets are almost entirely void of cars. Vidal of course knows this is an easy achievement in a small, insular tourist town. Much harder for London, for example, where toxic levels of air pollution occur. But he also knows that “Oslo will permanently ban all cars from its city centre by 2019; Madrid will free up 500 acres of its centre by 2020; and Copenhagen, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Mexico City, Bogotá and Kigali all have ambitious plans for permanent bans.”

His argument cites multiple studies on the dangers of automobile air pollution, so that even if one dismisses a few studies, the evidence remains hard to ignore: in high density populations, the use of automobiles is poisoning persons:

A few days ago came reports suggesting hundreds of thousands of young people in Britain are being exposed to illegal levels of air pollution from diesel vehicles. Then there was new evidence showing that toxic air travels through pregnant women’s lungs and lodges in their placentas. A third study showed how air pollution affects intelligence, and another showed it to be the biggest environmental risk in Europe, causing an estimated 400,000 premature deaths a year. Today, there are reports of a new study suggesting that air pollution increases the chance of getting dementia.

While he acknowledges the merits of an increasing number of electric cars, he includes the important caveat, “This may not dramatically reduce pollution unless the electricity they run on is renewable, but individuals should at least be able to opt to “fill up” on clean electricity.” The truth he maintains is that automobile use, either that which uses fossil fuels or that which uses dirty electricity, will continue to outpace technological changes.

The real solution is to get rid of cars wherever feasible. Psychologically, of course, it is never feasible to make life inconvenient, just as it isn’t feasible to suffer at one’s own expense in order to aid others—not at least as long as we accept the terms of the industrial complex.

But, hey, we are people, not machines, and we can make changes that surprise the world. The Dutch, for example, not only have flowers, but clean air through which to view them: “Countries that have invested in pollution-free transport have reaped the benefits. Academics calculate that Dutch investment in cycling not only prevents about 6,500 deaths each year, but saves government spending of nearly £20bn a year, as well as lengthening average life expectancies by six months.”

Come on, America, wake up to your potential to become clean again! (Yes, that’s my bid for the presidency.)