By John Blegen
Photo by Austin Schofield
In 2018, the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, comprised of 43 national trade organizations (virtually the entire automobile market), compiled a bulk of data that revealed the astonishing estimation that over one billion different passenger cars travel the roads of the world every day.1 That is one vehicle to about every seven or eight people, excluding commercial vehicles and buses.
By any product standard, these numbers are surreal. For comparison’s sake, in 2015, the international non-government-run organization, WaterAid, released a report titled, “It’s no joke: The state of the world’s toilets in 2015” that found that over 2.3 billion people are without access to a serviceable toilet (2). In other words, about five out of every seven people have access to a toilet—only five times as many that drive a car every day.
Of course, there are circumstantial considerations to mention; a whole family, or even a whole floor of apartments, might use the same toilet and the same one car. But the point is that the automobile has become nearly as ubiquitous a utility as the toilet in just over a century of popular use.
The year 2008 was the centennial of Ford’s Model T automobile. Before Henry Ford and the Model T assembly line process, which could produce a car in under two hours at a commercial price of $300 (about $4,500 today), automobiles were novel things, almost exclusively owned by the mega-rich. After Ford, automobiles surged in popularity, and the basic experience of living was fundamentally revolutionized. Perhaps no generation has been more immersed in this automobile-focused world than our own.
In the May 1927 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Katherine F. Gerould, a contributing writer, gives a fascinating firsthand account of this change in livelihood: “I do not like motor cars, myself, and never use one except for the definite purpose of speed or convenience ... The motor car enables us to visit places with ease that once were visited only with difficulty. Above all, [the motor car] enables us to move faster, to keep a dozen engagements where we kept one before" (3).
Already, in 1927, the rumblings of an utter revolution in livelihood were sounding. In this quote, Gerould seems to have predicted both the “ease” of once unimaginable tasks that the automobile would allow for, as well as the very unintuitive, but all-too-familiar consequences: a dozen things to do where there used to be just one. In this sense, Gerould’s complaints sound more like an early description of the anxiety that modern life is so rife with.
Indeed, our modern, fast-paced manner of life was founded on the expediency of the automobile. In one day, a person is expected to be in twelve times as many places as they would have been a century ago. This does not translate to all good. For one, instead of self-sufficient households, which were forced by necessity to be able to maintain themselves, the solution in the modern age became to drive to a store to pick up supplies and groceries, and to send for technicians to come and fix the issue. A certain intimacy between the homeowner and the home had been lost. At the same time, households began to be able to exist at much greater distances from communal hubs. This led to a strange evolution of the individual-communal dichotomy, where the market was given a much more intrusive presence in the household out of necessity (that would translate into the overreach of cable companies, Internet, etc.), as well as an alienating effect on the individual, in how far away households now are from one another.
While some might call the effects of automobiles “liberating,” in that they allowed for transportation into the cities from rural areas, many studies into the health effects of long-term traffic exposure paint a much bleaker picture. In “Environmental Health Perspectives,” researchers found “residential proximity to high traffic and traffic noise exposure” corresponding with “increased arterial BP [blood pressure]" (4). In “Occupational and Environmental Medicine,” researchers found that long-term exposure to “road traffic noise” was “significantly related” to increased levels of obesity.5 And in “Association of traffic-related air pollution with cognitive development in children,” road-traffic exposure was shown to have an adverse effect on childhood neurodevelopment.6 All of this has yet been without touching on the automobile’s environmental impact, which for the past century has been beyond dire.
Through these studies and countless others like them, a bleak picture is drawn; automobiles seem to exude a detrimental ambience. Micro-toxins they put into the air are harmful to lungs, when breathed in for extended periods. And the ramifications don't end there.
By observing these studies my aim has not been to suggest an end to automobiles. The modern world and our modern way of life is too steeped in road-travel for such a proposition to be anything but quixotic. My aim has rather been to point out the fact that automobiles and their ubiquitous presence is not as harmless as we might think. Cars are like a taxing ambience, depressing both our physical health and the environment, and it is easy to overlook this. An apt metaphor is that of noise pollution. As the aforementioned studies found, just the rough, industrial background noise of traffic is enough to cause serious health ramifications in people. Growing up around cars (which is now virtually impossible not to do), carries the risk of permanent cognitive issues. It is a baleful ambience the world is now overrun with, and one that did not exist for more than 99 percent of humanity’s tenancy on the earth.
It should be these subtle, ambience-like features of our modern environments that are pointed to as instigators of the mass mental health epidemics nations of all economic grades are now faced with: unnatural climates our bodies are fundamentally ill-suited to adapt to—like the perpetual sound of a running motor. There are many developments technology has introduced that are not agreeable to our bodies. One need only look at cigarettes to see that sometimes all it takes is enough voices to say this invention is in fact harmful for social change to result.
To the point, defeatism is not a necessary attitude here; humans are staunchly adaptable. If we perceive a problem we engineer a solution; the same has already been done concerning automobiles. Electric-powered cars would nullify most, if not all, of the distressing byproducts of the gas-powered car.
1 “Cars Produced This Year:” Worldometers. <https://www.worldometers.info/cars/>
2 WaterAid. “It's No Joke: The State of the World's Toilets 2015: WASH Matters.” Wateraid. <https://washmatters.wateraid.org/publications/its-no-joke-the-state-of-the-worlds-toilets-2015?id=c8e9d0b5-3384-4483-beff-a8efef8f342a>
3 “The Automobile.” How Did Living Standards Change in the 1920's? <http://livingstandards1920s.weebly.com/the-automobile.html>
4 “Long-Term Urban Particulate Air Pollution, Traffic Noise, and Arterial Blood Pressure.” Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 119, No. 12 (December 2011), pp. 1706-1711
5 “Exposure to traffic noise and markers of obesity” Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Vol. 72, No. 8 (August 2015), pp. 594-601
6 “Association of traffic-related air pollution with cognitive development in children.” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (May, 2009)
7 “Timeline: History of the Electric Car.” Energy.gov. <www.energy.gov/timeline/timeline-history-electric-car>
8 Glorfeld, Jeff. “Did Nikola Tesla Build a Revolutionary Electric Car?” Cosmos. 15 July 2018. <cosmosmagazine.com/technology/did-nikola-tesla-build-a-revolutionary-electric-car>