Today I would like to share with you some considerations I made in first semester Sociology. We were talking about car driving. Why do people drive cars? This is an essay very focused on the transportation in Germany. I’m completely aware that my suggestions wouldn’t work everywhere. The problems are varying in each country and a similar evaluation would have to be for every region. However, I found it quite interesting and wanted to share it with you because I believe that you wouldn’t normally think about the many aspects of driving your car.
My writing style changed a lot over time and I’m so happy about it. It’s great revisiting that text that I handed in one year ago, to see how my thought processes were back then. My voice has changed, too! Even after lots of editing, you will still be able to see how I wrote back then. Progress is possible, people!
(I’m cringing so much, reading what I did back then. Ouch! a) incredibly long sentences b) my excessive use of the word “the” c) sentences so complicated I didn’t unterstand them… even though I wrote them!)
To get to work quickly, to buy groceries, to simply drive – there are a lot of reasons why we take our car. Often, we are not aware of the damage cars do to the environment. One reason is, that carbon emissions are invisible. Climate change is abstract, not connected to something as common as driving. We don’t develop a strong responsibility for the environment around. There are a lot of other factors concerning car driving which can be discussed on a sociological basis.
Going on holidays or on longer trips, we tend to ignore the fact, that these journeys are often the most fuel consuming. In Germany, there is no speed limit on motorways. From a velocity of approximately 130 km/h on, the petrol consumption rises dramatically. Many people drive much faster on the streets, because they want to get to their destination quicker.
Oil got more expensive over time because it is a limited resource. As a consequence, the price of fuel also rose. In the end, taking the train could be much cheaper. Not only the price is a factor for choosing to drive the car, though.
In rural areas there is often no public transport available to get to work every day. Taking the bike would take too long. Car-sharing would have to be organised thoroughly and is not as flexible as driving the own car. Eventually, people just take their car to the city.
Consequently, we have to ask ourselves, how this is going to change modern cities. If car driving gets more expensive, people from the countryside will also move into the cities, making them even more crowded. Living space will get more expensive. This might lead to a complete depopulation of rural areas. Therefore we have to search for other alternatives to fuel consuming cars. Expand public transport. This would counteract the movement to the city.
There are two main alternatives to petrol-driven cars. Electric cars based on accumulators and hydrogen-powered cars. I am focusing on the electric cars because the technology is a little simpler. More and more electric and also self-driving vehicles were developed in the last decade. The problem with these is, that we don’t really trust them. They are new, not as carefully long-term tested as “normal” cars. A lot of research has to be done to make them more reliable. However, electric cars tend to be much saver, there are no flammable substances involved. Not as many wearing parts.
After being introduced to the potentials of electric cars, people often say that power for these cars has to come from somewhere. One way to generate energy is using fossil fuels. In this case they are right: Deriving energy from this process wouldn’t change anything in the equation. Nevertheless, we can use alternative energies. We would not sacrifice our environment for the benefit of mobility. Solar, wind or any kind of green energy can be saved in accumulators. If there was a network of self-driving electric cars, we could even charge them and use them as transport mechanisms for the energy. We could store the energy in those cars. Introducing electric cars would change the cities and our ways of life drastically.
Costs and Benefits
There are many benefits of cars. Transporting goods, especially heavy and voluminous objects. Some people have a car just for buying groceries. Alternatives are delivery services of supermarkets. In recent years, they have been improved significantly. Through well developed networks, only one car for several households is required. In the future, self-driving cars could be used for this purpose.
Cars are comfortable. They can get us from one place to another much faster than a bike. We are not dependent on good weather. Independent from seasonal changes. Public transport like trains often have problems in winter. They are simply not perceived as reliable as cars. When driving a car instead of a train, we have our own private space. We like to have a known environment around to feel save. Train driving can be frightening, especially at night.
Another fact that has to be considered is that for handicapped people it is very difficult to use the public transport. There are not always lifts on station platforms. That makes it sometimes impossible for them to take the train.
Moreover, there are a lot of people who like to drive. They often do not think about the impact that may have. Long term consequences are not taken into consideration. Petrol consumption and emission of CO2 contribute to the green house effect and therefore to global warming.
Driving without a speed limit on the highway may pose problems. Drivers who exceed the average speed a lot are more likely to brake suddenly, which may cause congestion or lead to accidents. In the end, people get to their destinations slower and carbon emissions are much higher. The most efficient speed is 80km/h. The ratio between safe distance and speed is the best, the line of cars is most elastic.
Driving cars leads after all to visible negative consequences. Cities get more crowded and noisy. The air is polluted, by means of acid rain also the drinking water. Small spaces that are now parking lots could be free or green parks.
The environmental attitude is very important to change our behaviour concerning cars. We need to understand, that even small changes can lead to bigger positive impacts. We just point to other countries and say: You have to stop emitting carbon first! We deny our own impact on global climate. In the end we all live on this planet together. It should be a topic we are all involved in.
One could argue that other practises are much more CO2 intensive, for example factory farming. However, taking the bike for a small distance has also an impact. We have to understand, that every action we do to reduce carbon emissions is a good one. Not doing anything and delegating responsibility makes it worse.
Especially in Germany cars are status symbols. We have to have a car. Most people grew up not thinking about why their parents have a car. Early education did not point out the harms cars can do. Parents drive children to school. Later in life, we see it as a necessary object, that we must have.
Also, the media tell us so. There are many car advertisements on TV, on the radio, on the internet. Cars are everywhere. We ask ourselves, if we also need one. There are more and more advertisements for ‘environmental friendly’ cars, but rarely for electric ones. They are simply not as present. That is another reason why we don’t buy them. We are simply not confronted with them on a daily basis.
Owning a car gives us a freedom that trains and busses cannot provide. Changing and getting to certain stations on time can be very stressful. Taking the public transport is often just seen as an ‘alternative’. Not as the first option.
Car driving is not a rational choice. It is not carefully considered if the carbon emission is more important than the length of the way. If it is snowing, rarely anyone even thinks about taking the bike. We just drive and pay the petrol, being surprised about the price afterwards.
Many people are not as knowledgeable on the alternatives to petrol-driven cars. It is not a rational choice between them. The presence of electric cars is so little, yet the costs so high. That means we don’t even think about buying them at all. Mental framing in this case is, that we are used to buying petrol-driven cars. Everyone around is, too. We are not going to change that.
The low-cost-hypothesis produces another aspect. Environmentally friendly cars are still very expensive. Not enough resources are used to develop them and do research. The behaviour is constrained by economic aspects. Furthermore, public transport is very expensive. We think our cars are cheaper, more comfortable. We choose them. If there were no costs for public transport, we would rethink our choices.
Possible Political Intervention
There are lots of ways we could reduce petrol consumption.
First there are economic possibilities: Higher costs of petrol, higher taxes on cars. There is already a very high tax for big cars. The ‘pollution badge’ in Germany makes it impossible for inefficient, highly polluting cars to get into the city centre.
However, higher taxes would lead to a division of society into those who can afford driving and the ones who cannot. This division is not desirable. One way to avoid it would be to make public transport free. It could be financed from the taxes that the remaining car drivers pay.
Another economic opportunity would be to award people money to change from bigger to smaller cars. To more efficient or even electric cars. It would make the change much more attractive. Besides, it would focus the view on environmental issues. Make us much more aware of the problems with carbon emitting vehicles.
Investment in public transport would make it more reliable. The maintenance would be much easier, which is a big problem at the moment. Changing it in a way also handicapped people can use it. There has to be a high functioning system of transportation. It could involve self-driving electric cars that take people to train stations. Less traffic jams would occur because their navigation is much better. They can be programmed to not go faster than a speed limit. Road transport would be much safer. These cars will also pose alternatives to getting groceries.
Finally, there can be political campaigns and changes in governing, in urban management.
Information on environmental problems is essential. Huge campaigns can help. Climate change has to be something that is not as abstract anymore. We have to recognise that certain changes have to be made so that life can continue as we know it. The term of ‘sustainable development’ has to be something everyone agrees on. That life is lived in a way that allows the current needs to be met. But also those of future generations to come.
One of the most radical changes would be to make city centres absolutely car free. It would be of use to turn parking lots into green spaces. This could contribute positively to city climate and force people to leaves their cars at home.
The best way to reduce fuel consumption is to make electric cars more attractive, reliable and less expensive. To not have cars at all, public transport had to be free. The argument of the comfortability can be solved by better urban services. In the future, petrol-driven cars can be abandoned completely if new sustainable sources of energy are used and alternatives are attractive enough. People’s behaviour will change and that will have a huge positive impact on the climate and life on our planet.
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