How Cars Ruined Cities

A new book, Carmageddon, reveals how the automobile has made our lives more dangerous and less democratic. The alternative — reliable and publicly funded transport — must be at the heart of any progressive vision for the future.

Aerial view of Katy Freeway intersection in Houston, Texas. (simonkr / Getty Images)

On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train approximately 150 cars long derailed near the town of East Palestine, Ohio. Twenty of the cars were transporting hazardous chemicals that included butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl, and vinyl chloride, which are often used in plastics. To prevent an explosion that might further poison the surrounding environs, the railway conducted what the New York Times has called a “controlled release and burn-off” of some of these chemicals. This in turn created the kind of airborne toxic event that author Don DeLillo explores in his postmodern classic, White Noise. (In a DeLillian twist, much of the novel’s recent film adaptation was shot in Northeast Ohio, and several extras in the production hailed from East Palestine.)

The full extent of the damage wrought by the derailment likely won’t be known for years, but some of the town’s 4,700 residents have already reported headaches, rashes, and other ailments typically associated with chemical exposure. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, more than seven miles of stream have been contaminated. Yet as catastrophic as this disaster has been and may yet prove, it still pales in comparison to the kind of destruction wrought each year by the automobile.

This ubiquitous form of travel accounted for approximately forty-three thousand accident-related deaths in the United States in 2021 alone. What’s worse, we have come to accept the physical and environmental harm of cars as something immutable — the unfortunate but inevitable cost of modern life.

Enter reporter Daniel Knowles, whose new book Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About It seeks to shatter this pernicious myth and offer an alternate future in which we’re no longer dependent on steel cages for essential transport. Indeed, we may have no choice. Cars account for at least 25 percent of all carbon emissions, as Knowles himself acknowledges. Unless we radically reimagine our cities and their surrounding suburbs, he argues, we are recklessly careening toward climate catastrophe.

“That is why it is so damaging that so much new construction happens in sprawling, car-dependent places,” Knowles writes. “We are missing a massive opportunity to give people lives they would like — lives that happen to be far more sustainable, as well as more pleasant — in walkable cities, and instead pushing out to places that are developed entirely around the automobile.”

On the Road to Nowhere

For many, he contends, “carmageddon” has already arrived. In 1956, during the United States’ postwar economic boom, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which created sixty thousand miles of new road across the country. At $25 billion, or approximately 5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product at the time, the legislation represented a historic investment in public infrastructure — one that further modernized the United States’ economy and revolutionized its transport. But Knowles suggests that it locked the nation onto a dangerous path from which it has yet to exit.

Take the city of Houston, which has exploded in size since 1950 from a few hundred thousand in the greater metropolitan area to more than seven million. As Knowles points out, Loop 610 — one of the four ring roads that encircle the city’s center — covers an area that’s twice as large as Paris. (A single road junction on the Katy Freeway, the world’s largest highway, is bigger than Siena.) Because Houston has almost no public transportation system to speak of, nearly nine in ten people drive to work, emitting an average of fifteen tons of carbon dioxide per year, or three times that of their French counterparts. All of this asphalt has also made the city uniquely vulnerable to flooding, as the dozens of people who drowned during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 threw into stark relief. Yet for all Houston’s apparent design flaws, its people and the politicians who represent them remain in the automobile’s thrall.

“Designed is perhaps the wrong word,” Knowles writes:

Cities are not planned or designed for the most part. They grow organically from millions of decisions made by individuals. That is not an altogether bad thing — no government could perfectly decide how many restaurants or houses or shops any city must need. But the trouble with everyone acting in their own interests is that collectively we can all end up worse off.

He adds, “Once most people use cars, what tends to happen is that a city starts adopting policies that actually entrench car ownership.”

If Houston offers a dystopian preview of where urban planning could be headed, Knowles intimates, then Detroit lays bare the civic devastation that cars have already wrought. In one of Carmageddon’s most compelling chapters, Knowles details how the automobile quite literally served as the vehicle for white flight. Citing the work of Richard Rothstein, he explains how the federal government all but codified racial segregation by classifying majority-black neighborhoods as “declining,” denying their inhabitants the kinds of mortgages that enabled whites to move their families to the suburbs. These families took their taxable income along with them, and Detroit began a downward spiral that culminated in the city’s declaring bankruptcy in 2013. For Knowles, it was the federal government’s subsidization of roads and highways that helped make this racist redlining possible.

Now Is the Time of Monster Trucks

Carmageddon is especially effective in exposing the extant harm that automobiles pose to pedestrians. In 2018, Knowles notes, Ford Motor Company announced that it would cease manufacturing basic sedans in North America. The Ford F-150 is now the most popular car in the United States, and smaller vehicles simply aren’t profitable enough to ensure their continued production. This explosion of pickup trucks and SUVs — in the United States predominantly but also in Europe — has helped ensure that carbon emissions remain high even as electric vehicles command an ever-greater share of our roads. Meanwhile, the manufacturers of these vehicles are able to sell the credits they earn for beating fuel efficiency targets to rival automakers. Until last year, Knowles observes, Tesla earned more selling the “right to pollute” to companies like General Motors than it did from actual cars.

“When it comes down to it, the car industry is about profit, and not much else,” he writes. “They are ruthless extractors of government subsidies, which they get by also being firms that will happily close factories, destroying communities, unless they are paid off. I don’t really say this as a criticism. That is capitalism. Companies are meant to work for their shareholders.”

If this isn’t a criticism of the auto industry, then perhaps it should be. The subtitle of Carmageddon is “How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About It.” As nimble, engaging, and persuasive as Knowles is in arguing the former, however, he seems almost flummoxed by the question contained in the latter. In the author’s defense, there are no easy solutions to our dependence on cars and fossil fuels more broadly. The window to limit global warming to 1.5°C is rapidly closing, and yet the political will for transformative change remains limited, even as liberal democracies across the globe continue to convulse.

Still, it’s hard to escape the sense that Knowles’s proposals are fundamentally toothless. Along with urging the West to emulate Japan’s tolling and comprehensive railway system, he calls for greater investment in existing public transportation (which would induce more people to leave their cars at home or avoid buying them in the first place); adopting a French-style tax on heavier vehicles (which would slash the number of gas-guzzling SUVs on the road); and building more bike lanes in our urban centers (which would make them less dangerous and reduce pollution).

These kinds of technocratic solutions are welcome, but Knowles — a correspondent for the liberal Economist — ignores the larger political challenge of marshalling support for a humane and sustainable transit policy. President Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has set aside $110 billion for new roads but just $66 billion for passenger and freight rail, blunting the triumphant return of large-scale state spending. How then can we compel elites to organize society in a more rational way, and how do we convince workers that quality public infrastructure offers more freedom than a RAV4 or a Chevy Suburban? These are thorny questions, but ones that we should strive to answer if we hope to end our dependence on cars and release ourselves from the collective death drive that the automobile enables.