March/April 1995, p.2

The Spreading Plague of the Automobile

RALPH SLOVENKO

The automobile plague is spreading worldwide. At a recent social gathering I heard automobile executives in Detroit speak exuberantly about prospects in China. China's lure is easy to understand. "One-tenth of China's 1.2 billion people now have disposable income," they said. It's the world's largest untapped car market.

A few days later a page-one article appeared in the New York Times, "China Planning People's Car to Put Masses Behind Wheel." It reported that China's state planners have seized on the auto industry to help sustain the country's economic expansion.

Is it insanity? The United Nations Population Conference in Cairo did not say a word about the automobile population. It poses a far greater danger than the population of people.

We are inundated with cars. Nationally, the number of cars is multiplying twice as fast as population growth.

We have become a junky nation, and the Automobile industry is the pusher. To accommodate the automobile, the nation has been covered with concrete. America the Beautiful is now America the Parking lot.

There is hardly a public space that the automobile has not taken over or compromised. A single car requires 1,400 square feet of space, equivalent to the living space of an average family, for maneuvering and parking. Accommodating all the cars in the U.S. now requires 40 to 50 percent of the land area of a city. Detroit's conception of a "renaissance center" is parking along the river front.

People find delight in tree-lined sidewalks and traffic-free zones. Pedestrian space is liberating space to saunter, stroll and sit. The automobile, on the other hand, is isolating. It desocializes a community. George F. Kennan wrote, "The automobile has turned out to be the enemy of community. Wherever it advances, neighborliness and the sense of community are impaired."

The automobile way of fife is making millions of people miserable and may even put us out of business as a civilization. The automobile is wasteful of material, of energy, and of space, and it is expensive to the individual owner and to the economy at large.

The automobile's apparent liberating effect -the feeling of power and the sense of personal freedom turn out to be illusory. Quality changes with quantity. As their numbers increase, they negate themselves.

To deal with the plague, why not brand every automobile as if it were a cigarette packet? Every car should carry a message: "This machine ruins the environment, pollutes the air, and can maim, kill and turn you and your children into paraplegics." The warning would be more honest than the advertising that shows the automobile in a sylvan setting.

Laurel and Hardy, in one of their comedies dig a hole, refill it,then again. Its useless, but its not counter-productive like car manufacturing. China's leaders would do better to imitate Laurel and Hardy.

Ralph Slovenko is professor of Law and Psychiatry at Wayne State University Law School.

Read the latest news on this subject.