More than a century on from when Henry Ford changed America forever with the introduction of the Model T, the time has come to ask whether we still own motor vehicles or whether they now own us.
When driving on such cobblestone-like roads, the solution to protecting the equipment is to slow down. But Anchorage drivers, like those in the rest of the country, can’t slow down.
Motnormativity: A term a team of British psychologists coined to describe the “cultural assumptions about the role of private cars.” The psychologists were interested in “How social norms hide a major public health hazard,” according to the title of their paper, which examined how people now consider their car or truck a basic necessity.
This sort of thinking has reached the point that some even believe there is a “right” to drive. There isn’t, although in almost every case of bad driving other than that involving alcohol or drugs the authorities sometimes act like they believe there is such a right.
And such a belief is understandable given that motor vehicles, especially in the U.S., have for decades now dictated how cities and suburbs are designed, and the result is that many people today need some sort of motorized transport to get from their home to work or shops or the homes of friends or just about anywhere.
If cars and trucks had brains, you could accuse them of conspiring to addict Americans to driving so as to ensure generation after generation after generation of new cars and trucks would always be produced.
Not that this was their intent.
The first motor vehicles were like psychedelic drugs opening the mind to all sorts of new visions. No longer did people need to keep horses or dogs, which require daily care, to be able to travel distances greater than a day’s walk or to move goods.
Early motor vehicles were by no means maintenance-free, but there was no regular feeding or shit shoveling required when they were parked. And jumping into one of them to drive somewhere was a lot easier than harnessing up a dog team let alone a team of horses, oxen or mules.
Ease and convenience – or “greater utility and more luxury,” as a story in The Scientific American once put it – led to motor vehicles pushing aside horses and bicycles to takeover American roads only about a decade after mass production of the vehicles began.
Americans went charging into the 1910s in Ford Model Ts, and then came World War I to further speed the move to mechanization.
“The First World War,” according to the National Air and Space Museum, “saw a breadth and scale of technological innovation of unprecedented impact. It was the first modern mechanized industrial war in which material resources and manufacturing capability were as consequential as the skill of the troops on the battlefield.”
The Second World War coming so soon after only turbocharged these changes. The first Jeep, the forerunner of the sport utility vehicles (SUVs) now everywhere on the roads of the these unUnited States, rolled off the assembly line on July 16, 1941.
“More than 637,000 Jeeps were built by Willys and Ford during World War II,” AutoWeek observed on the vehicle’s 75th anniversary, and by the time the GIs came home from the war they were well-conditioned to how mechanized transport changed the perception of distance.
Construction of Levittown, now recognized as the nation’s first suburb, started in 1947. Los Angeles Times reporter James Peltz would decades later describe the development as “rows of relatively inexpensive two-bedroom houses ” going up “10 miles east of New York, on a potato field in Long Island” at “breakneck speed.”
Ten miles was a long walk even in those days, and still a pretty good distance by bicycle. But motor vehicles changed all that.
Levittown became a prototype for residential development to this day, and all that ever changed was the distance. To find cheap land, developers kept moving farther and farther from the hearts of cities.
The 10 miles from the centers of commerce and industry became 20 miles, 30 miles and more. By 2021, so many were traveling so far that the U.S. Census had to invent a new word to describe them based on data from the 2010-2016 American Community Survey.
“Extreme commuting has been increasing since at least 1990,” the Census said. “Extreme commuters are defined as workers who travel 90 minutes or more to work, one-way – a definition based on time. Additionally, this research defines long-distance commuters as workers who travel 50 miles or more to work, one-way. And mega commuters as those who combine these two definitions and travel 90 minutes or more, and 50 miles or more to work, one-way.”
As the number of commuters grew over the years, the number of people needing cars increased, and the volume of cars and trucks in turn changed cities and transformed shopping because if you are driving everywhere, you, of course, need somewhere to park.
“The first enclosed (shopping) mall was established in 1956 in Minneapolis,” according to the World Atlas, “and their growth followed the migration of population out of cities to the suburbs. The growth of shopping malls paralleled the growth of automobiles.
“There were 4,500 malls in 1960 accounting for 14 percent of all retail sales in the US. In 1975, there were 30,000 malls accounting for more than 50 percent of the retail dollars spent.”
Sam Walton took the 1956 mall concept, added discount pricing, and in 1962 opened the first Walmart because, according to a company history, opened a store in the northwest corner of Arkansas because, according to a company history, his wife “Helen wanted small-town living, and Sam could take advantage of the different hunting seasons that living at the corner of four states had to offer.”
Plenty of companies would come to mimic the Walmart model in the years to follow, leading to the death of a lot of neighborhood businesses as ever more Americans drove somewhere to do their shopping.
And the more people drove, the greater the demand for more and bigger roadways to accommodate all the cars and trucks, a demand that hasn’t diminished to this day because all the roads made it harder and harder to get around anyway except by motor vehicle.
Most American families had a car in 1960, according to The Geography of Transport Systems, but the number of them with more than one car was equal to the 22 percent of Americans still living without a car.
By 2020, the number of households without a car was down to 8.5 percent, and the website reported, “the number of households with two or more cars has increased substantially, from 22 percent in 1960 to 59 percent in 2020.”
In a lot of American homes today, mom has an SUV; dad has a car or truck; and one or more teenagers have some sort of motor vehicle. And most family members use that vehicle like most Americans once used the bicycle to get themselves around town.
“Single-occupant vehicles (a person driving alone) accounted for 40 percent of all person trips,” the Federal Highway Administration reported in 2010, but that was later found to be an obvious undercount of how many one-passenger motor vehicles were on the road.
The “actual mode of travel shows that 93 percent of workers who reported that they usually drive alone did indeed drive alone on their assigned Travel Day. On the other hand, only about 80 percent of workers who said they usually walk to work actually walked on their assigned Travel Day,” a 2013 Conditions and Performance Report said.
“Carpoolers showed the greatest change in their comparison of usual to actual travel between 2001 and 2009; in 2001, 75 percent of workers who reported they usually carpooled did carpool on their travel day, but by 2009, only about 55 percent of those who reported that they usually carpooled actually did carpool, and 43 percent of those who reported that they usually carpooled actually drove alone. Finally, for those who said they usually took transit, about 68 percent actually did take transit on Travel Day, and when these individuals did change their mode, about 13 percent of these then switched to driving alone and another 9 percent carpooled.”
An explosion of drivers
All these people driving alone to all the places they now have to drive to, or think they have to drive to, helps explain why the number of vehicle miles annually driven in the U.S. grew by 300 percent from 1.1trillion in 1971 to 3.3 trillion in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, even though the nation’s population grew by only 38 percent over the same span of years.
The U.S. answer to this has been to build ever more and bigger roads that encourage ever more driving which, if polls are to be believed, leave Americans ever more frustrated.
“Americans’ dependence on cars appears deeply entrenched, with more than eight in 10 U.S. adults reporting that they personally drive at least most days in a week and nearly two-thirds driving every day,” Gallup reported in 2018. “While most Americans enjoy driving at least a moderate amount, far fewer say they enjoy it a great deal.”
The Zebra, an insurance shopping website, said it surveyed drivers across the nation earlier this year and found a lot of frustration. A majority, 52 percent, were angry about being cutoff; just under half (49 percent) were fed up with tailgaters; 46 percent had had it with distracted drivers; and plenty of others had complaints about the others ills of their fellow drivers.
The only good news in the Zebra survey, if it can be called good news, was the report that “92 percent of people said they had observed at least one incident of road rage or aggressive driving in the past year, and 89 percent said they had been on the receiving end of it. While that’s obviously the vast majority of people, it was down 3 percent from when the survey was conducted in 2021.”
Road-rage-related deaths, however, appear to have gone up.
Everytown Research & Policy said its search of the Gun Violence Archive database found that “the number of road rage injuries and deaths involving guns has increased every year since 2018.
“In that year, at least 70 road rage shooting deaths occurred in the United States; in 2022, the number doubled to 141. The same trend occurred with gun injuries: at least 176 people were injured in a road rage incident in 2018, with a staggering increase to 413 people in 2022. These incidents translate to a person being shot and either injured or killed in a road rage incident in 2022 every 16 hours, on average.”
Those deaths and injuries are on top of the 25,000 or so deaths each year linked to aggressive driving, which the Arizona State University for Problem-Oriented Policing has fingered as involved in “two-thirds of traffic fatalities.”
This shouldn’t come as a big surprise given some of the results of American Automobile Association (AAA) polling of driver attitudes. Triple-A as it is called found that more than a third of drivers aged 19 to 39 disagreed with the idea that it is “very or extremely dangerous” to speed through a red light, and more than half in that age group disagreed with the idea that it is “very or extremely dangerous” to drive 10 mph or more over the speed limit on residential streets.
The latter belief might help explain why, in part, the national Governors Highway Safety Association reports “pedestrian deaths have surged 18 percent, or 519 additional lives lost, between the first half of 2019 and 2022.”
A pedestrian hit at 20 mph, the speed in American school zones and in residential neighborhoods in some cities, has a better than 90 percent chance of survival, according to the AAA. Survival odds drop to about three in four at 30 mph – 10 miles faster.
And in the many urban areas where speeds are posted at 30 mph, driving 10 mph faster nearly doubles the chances that a driver who hits a pedestrian will kill her or him. And if a motor vehicle going 55 mph in a 45 mph zone – a pretty common occurrence on Anchorage’s Northern Lights Boulevard – when the driver hits a pedestrian, there is about a 90 percent chance the pedestrian will end up dead.
Cars don’t kill people….
As with firearms, so too with motor vehicles.
Motor vehicles don’t kill people; people driving motor vehicles kill people.
But machines do alter how people think, and in that regard, motor vehicles – which killed a reported 42,795 Americans in 2022 – might be more dangerous than firearms – which were involved in 20,958 deaths the same year – in that the latter are recognized as deadly weapons and their used treated accordingly while the former are seldom recognized as deadly weapons and rarely treated as such.
When South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg drove onto the shoulder of a state highway there in 2020 and hit a pedestrian who he left to die, there was outrage that his punishment was a $1,000 fine after pleading guilty to charges of an illegal lane change and using his phone while driving.
But South Dakota Public Broadcasting, one of the few news organizations in the nation willing to dig into how motor vehicle fatalities involving so-called “vulnerable road users” are treated, dug into state records and discovered that “the attorney general did not receive lighter charges or punishment than other South Dakota drivers involved in comparable fatal accidents. ”
Between 2016 and 2020, the outlet reported, “Ravnsborg was among at least 31 other drivers who were not legally intoxicated when they accidentally hit and killed pedestrians during this time period.
“Twenty of these drivers – or about two-thirds of them -were not charged with any offense or crime related to their driving. The remaining 11 drivers were cited for traffic offenses or charged with low-level misdemeanors.”
The story is much the same all over the country, and in much of the Western world, which is what led those British researchers to coin the word motonormativity to describe a machine-driven problem that goes far beyond deaths in collisions or the damage done to natural ecosystems.
“Here in the United Kingdom, like in many societies around the world, we are in the midst of environmental degradation and no fewer than three parallel health epidemics thanks to the easy hypermobility afforded by private motor vehicles,” they wrote.
“We have an epidemic of collisions, with 1752 deaths and 25,945 serious injuries in 2019, the last year before the Covid pandemic; we have an epidemic of physical inactivity – responsible for 22 to 23 percent of coronary heart disease, 16 to 17 percent of colon cancer, 15 percent of diabetes, 12-13 percent of strokes and 11 percent of breast cancer despite 24 percent of car trips being under two miles and so mostly amenable to walking or cycling; and we have an epidemic of pollution with vehicle exhaust fumes causing cancer, heart disease and diabetes at such levels that estimates have put the United Kingdom air pollution death toll at 40,000 per year (Royal College of Physicians, 2016).
“Even a future switch to electric vehicles would address only one of these three epidemic. It is clear we must acknowledge a simple fact: transport issues are not just environmental issues: they are also inherently public health issues.”
The researchers did not mention Covid-19 deaths during the pandemic, but they could have given that death rates have been directly tied to lack of physical fitness, which helps explain why America has among the world’s highest pandemic death rates despite the generally held American belief that the nation has the best health care in the world.
On our butts
Unfortunately, medicine couldn’t overcome the fact that so many Americans when not sitting behind some sort of viewing screen are sitting behind the wheel of a car. The newest research, published last year, concluded that Americans are now “spending an average of 9.5 hours sedentary each day.”
Sitting time has been steadily increasing year by year with apparently few paying attention to a 2018 study by the American Cancer Society that found prolonged “sitting was associated with a 19 percent higher rate of death from all causes combined compared to sitting less than three hours per day. The study defined prolonged sitting time as six or more hours a day.”
The study blamed “screen time” for much of this, but according to the website Ridester, the average American commuter is now spending almost an hour per day behind the wheel and 17 percent are now spending more than an hour and a half per day commuting.
And that is only the count on hours for commuting. Time spent behind the wheel to run errands or drive for pleasure just adds to the sitting time. Ridester also suggested some are not overjoyed about all this driving.
“Though we all hope to see reform and improvements in the tortuous daily commutes, we can still make the best of our lot until quicker and more efficient methods are introduced,” Ridester added. “Perhaps the best remedy to the curse of a long drive is to transform your attitude about it.”
What those “more efficient methods” might be the website didn’t say. Mass transit over various sorts is much discussed in many places, but it took a pounding from motor vehicles in the 1920 and 1930s, and has never really come back despite the efforts of some cities to revive it.
“In 1926, American transportation systems carried 17.2 billion passengers,” Nicole Gelanis reported in City Journal this spring. The number was down to less than half that – 7.5 billion – by 1993″ despite the nation’s population more than doubling in the intervening years.
“…National transit ridership started a steady upswing, peaking at about 10.5 billion in 2015,” she added. “(But) America remains a car country. Even at the 2015 national peak of transit usage, fewer than 7.8 million workers regularly used public transportation to get to work, census data show – just 5.3 percent of commuters, the large plurality of them in or near New York.”
In most of the country, motor vehicles own us, and electric cars – the great hope of the climate change fearful – aren’t going to change that. Neither are more and bigger roads because no matter how many more we build or how big they get, they seem to end up congested for significant parts of the day.
Working from home seemed to help, but Americans are returning to cubicles and offices because people are social animals and because it is really hard for middle managers to manage people remotely.
Redesigning cities to make them friendlier and safer for pedestrians and cyclists could help, but Americans seem to hate getting around under their own power – or their fellow citizens doing so – even more than they hate mass transit.
We’ve become a country of addicts, and addictions of any kind are hard to break.