It's Time to Admit It: We Are Addicted to Cars

- “My name is humanity, and I’m addicted to cars.”
- “We love you humanity!”

There’s no easier way to say it, and it’s always better to acknowledge that the problem exists than to ignore it. We are addicted to cars. We suffer from traffic, hate sitting in endless traffic jams, and get anxious looking for parking. Nonetheless, we can’t quit the habit of driving. And worst of all, we refuse to cure ourselves of this addiction, despite a proven way to recovery. More on that later.

Addiction is defined as habit patterns that are ‘typically characterized by immediate gratification (short-term reward), often coupled with delayed, deleterious effects (long-term costs).’ Our century-old driving addiction fits perfectly to this definition. Every morning, one chooses to drive to work because it’s the easiest thing to do. By doing so, we are suffering from ill effects: air pollution, accidents, obesity, decay of cities, rise of suburbia, and many more. It’s hard to think of another addiction that has such a severe combination of side effects, especially considering its widespread occurrence, which can easily qualify as an epidemic.

The saddest thing about this epidemic is that individuals get hooked not because they want, but because society leads them to use the cars. In many countries, driving is the most convenient way to get around, since we have shaped entire cities that make people choose the worst transportation option. Imagine building a city that works only for people under the influence of heroin. That’s a recipe for a colossal drug crisis.

There are two feasible routes to cure the problem: treating all addicted individuals or fixing system. The first option is doomed to fail. Unless you already live in a place that allows you to walk, cycle, or ride the bus safely and affordably, there’s absolutely no short-term reward for reducing car use. Educating drivers on the disadvantages of driving is also fruitless. Remember that addicts disregard long-term consequences of their addiction, just like smokers don’t quit when hearing about the danger of cigarettes.

Amsterdam, a former car-addict.

Amsterdam, a former car-addict.

That leaves us with a systematic solution. If people choose to drive because it’s the easier way to get around, we must change our cities. We need to block roads, add bicycle and walking infrastructure, create great public transport networks, build denser cities, with a mixture of uses. In that sense, I’m offering nothing revolutionary. For decades, urban thinkers have been offering the same. And yet, decision makers who try to implement these policies encounter resistance of residents, shop owners, and even traffic planners.

The resistance to less car infrastructure is irrational, just like a drug addict that we do anything to get another fix. “Don’t take my parking!” they will beg you, without realizing that life in the city can be much better without driving everywhere. The short-term cost of not having the drug seems high, but it’s just withdrawal symptoms. On top of that, their fear is maintained by the auto industry lobby, since its business model is to keep selling the drug in high quantities.

In our political climate, this short-term rage can be the difference between winning and losing an election. The process of making better cities can be long, painful, and unpopular. That’s the trickiest part, as decision makers must be popular if they want to keep their job. It takes true leaders who can see the light at the end of the tunnel, to turn our cities around.

Luckily, there are proven rehab programs. First, we can get inspired by cities that have successfully given up on the addiction. Cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, that since the 60s have been removing car infrastructure in favor of human-friendly streets. Second, the process should not be entirely painful, as making better cities can be fun. If you close a road, turn it into a pedestrian festival, like Bogota’s Ciclovía or Rotterdam’s Happy Streets. Lastly, the firmest opposition naturally comes from those who are strongly hooked. It is crucial to give voice to the silent majority that wants better, safer, and happier cities.


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Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter.