Birth control for the car population explosion?

Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez

The world’s car population has exploded in recent years.  The US has led the charge, for almost a decade now boasting more vehicles than licensed drivers.  Fully a quarter of a billion cars and trucks compete for space on its roads.  India and China are famously creating new legions of car consumers and mega-bucks’ worth of car infrastructure.  All told, the world’s population of private vehicles, now at one billion, is expected to reach two billion by 2030.

A survey of drivers in 20 cities around the world, just released, found an astonishing amount of suffering and socioeconomic dysfunction simply on account of the traffic congestion all these cars produce.  The poll--the straightforwardly named IBM Commuter Pain Study--shows that the global car population explosion has come home to roost in higher stress levels, diminished family life, and lower productivity.  The pollsters found that two-thirds of drivers say their daily trip to work makes them angry and stressed out, causing a loss of both sleep and family time.  Almost a third felt that their tough commute made them less effective on the job.  Large numbers even testified that they sometimes turn around and go home after trying unsuccessfully to get to work. 

"Even though commuters say the traffic is getting worse, for some reason people seem fond of their cars," a spokesperson for the study was quoted as saying by way of explanation for how people continue to use cars to commute despite distress.

While fondness may be the right word for some owners’ feelings about their cars, anthropologists would identify people’s acceptance of this level of traffic congestion as the outcome of a process of “normalization.” This is where activities or customs that might be considered bizarre, hurtful, or at the very least, remarkable, become taken for granted as one’s reality, unchangeable and tolerable even if painful.  Then there’s the effect of ubiquitous car advertising, in which vehicles are rendered sexy, status-enhancing, and a solution to, rather than cause of, traffic.  Drivers in commercials are prone to moving in luxurious comfort and ease across empty roadways.  Together, these forces allow communities to continue slowly choking to death on cars. 

The Commuter Pain Study suggests at least part of the solution to the problems the car creates – from global warming to deadly crashes to congestion--is to be found by tapping into this broad public discontent to forge better transit policies and commuting alternatives for the world’s cities and suburbs. 

Many countries already light the way to more happiness--40 percent of Holland’s population commutes to work by foot, bike or transit – and many US cities, like Portland, Oregon and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania offer residents shorter commutes based in good part on transit.  Portland has a light rail system more extensive than those in many much larger cities and Pittsburgh has one of the largest rapid bus transit systems. Then there’s the surprise of Provo, Utah, where the people have an even shorter and cheaper commute because more than 13 percent of them can walk to work. With heightened awareness of car commuting costs pushing and with improved alternatives pulling, we can bring the car population under control.

Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at the Watson Institute, and Anne Lutz Fernandez '84, a former marketer and banker, are the authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan). They are sisters.