The U.S. Department of Transportation tells us that, as of 2004, there were more than 243 million passenger vehicles registered in the United States. That’s very nearly one car for every man, woman and child in the nation. In fact, it’s some 13 million more cars than there are licensed drivers to drive them.
Thanks to such mind-numbing figures, historians will someday regard the 20th century — though hopefully not much of the 21st — as an absurdly auto-infatuated era. After all, ours is a time in which cars are at the very core of American identity. They’re central to our coming of age and integral to our self-image and social status — not to mention being all but mandatory to get around in the asphalt-paved, commute-saddled world we’ve created for ourselves.
Still, future historians may have quite a bit of trouble understanding the supposed romance of a machine whose thirst for petroleum led us to befoul our own skies and oceans, and made us tailor our foreign policy in large part to keep our gas tanks cheaply filled. They’ll be even more mystified at how we Americans could panic over the supposed health risks of asbestos, electromagnetic fields and radon gas, while more than 40,000 of us died every year in the comfort and perceived safety of our own automobiles.
We shake our heads at our ancestors, who fought long, brutal wars over water, salt or patches of worthless land. But once oil-powered vehicles join the paddle wheeler and the steam locomotive as stone-dead technology — a moment that’s coming much sooner than we might think — future generations, too, will shake their heads over our own century-long addiction to automobiles, oil and the troubles that went with them.
The fact that cars have also taken over our built environment may be a less immediate threat, but it’s equally dismaying. Among city planners, not to speak of traffic engineers, the logistics of accommodating motor vehicles long ago took precedence over the needs of mere humans on foot. And since a car takes up about 20 times more space than a person does, making room for those 200 million-plus motor vehicles has led us to pave over some 40 percent of our cities (in Los Angeles, this figure is said to be closer to 60 percent). Inside our own homes, about one-fifth of our hard-earned living space is given over to keeping our four-wheeled friends warm and dry. A century ago, not even Henry Ford could have dreamed that our automobile obsession would lead us to this state of affairs.
So there you have it: Another tract decrying those awful automobiles, written by a tree-hugging car hater, right? Not quite.
I’ve been a hardcore gearhead my whole life. I own four cars, three of them being what car nuts rather amusingly call “classics.” I’d stay up all night talking about spread-bore carbs and roller cams if I got half a chance. But even this degree of motor mania can’t overcome an obvious fact: We’ll all be better off when petroleum-powered cars have cruised off into history.
Next time: Why no one walks anymore.