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11 March 2019
T&E Annual Report 2016
T&E Annual Report 2016

Why the car system is environmentally destructive and how we can foster sustainable mobility

Climate change is the greatest challenge of our century, and mobility is an essential feature of our globalized world. In the face of environmental urgency, it seems that today’s transport options and sustainable mobility are incompatible. In fact cars, today’s first means of transport in the UK (Department for Transport 2017), appear unsustainable given the system on which it relies. The transport sector accounts for 13% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions; cars alone account for two-thirds of that (Greenpeace). This blog article assesses the role of cars in a time of environmental urgency and analyzes an alternative transportation system, one that is both sustainable for our world and meets the challenges of our globalized society. Ultimately, the blog also serves as an argument to my mother’s claim that I need a driving license.

The car system and Auto-mobility: a drive towards catastrophe

International Sustainable Solutions. 2005

The car has asserted itself as the first means of transportation: in the UK alone, car trips represent 62% of modal share (Department of Transport 2017). These figures stress an ecological challenge: the use of cars, more importantly their production and the emission of pollutants (such as carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, particular matter and nitrogen oxides), contribute to the increase of greenhouse gases that drive climate change and air pollution. In fact, cars are responsible for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe (T&E 2016), and this is likely to worsen, as experts say that by 2050 transport emissions will double (IPCC 2014). This alarming figure underlines the extent to which automobiles and their industrial sector cannot reasonably meet the challenges of sustainable mobility. Car transport perfectly reveals how “politics is the management of contradictions” (Goulden et al 2014): there is indeed a schizophrenic behavior between environmental goals and the individual-car- based society. Given the actual disastrous environmental performances, there is no chance that the car can be considered as a viable means of transport.

Most international reports place great hope in technology’s capacity to face environmental challenges. In fact, the United Nation Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE 2017) underlines the ability of innovative vehicle technologies to enable a greener way to use one’s car. Does that mean that the car can be environmentally friendly? Well, not really. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (BBC 2012) found that given the production phase, the use of toxic materials and the different sources of energy, the “global warming potential from electric vehicle production is about twice that of conventional vehicles”.

In fact, it is not so much the car in itself that is the problem, rather it is the system it serves and how it harms ecology. Wether it is called car culture (Paterson 2000) or the car system (Urry 2004), there is a structure behind our everyday reliance on the car. This structure promotes a “powerfully seductive culture that promotes individual acquisitiveness” (Goulden et al 2014) and has shaped our world, our relationship to mobility and the intervention of the state since Henri Ford’s Ford T in 1908. As in any structural frame, this car system has its own actors who promote directly or indirectly the car industry. States have helped the car industry because of their dependence on growth and have built infrastructure on a “predict and provide” basis (Owens 1995) (“predict” car consumption and “provide” infrastructures accordingly), and in doing so they have empowered the car industry. These businesses, on the other hand, only advocate for reform that maintains their position. Taking a sociological perspective like Lahsen (2008), the industry’s political engagement can be understood as an attempt to maintain influence over environmental policies; it is in their best interest to advocate for a “weak form of ecological modernization” rather than a “strong” one that would mark a shift from one transport system to another (Gonzalez 2005). 

Engineering sustainable mobility

Former UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon urged the need “to transform our transport systems in a sustainable manner that will improve human wellbeing, enhance social progress and protect our planet” (2016). If the car system is a structure that has been made by political design, then it can be undone: we need to find our turning point through “political, policy and social transformations to create a veritable new urbanity” (Urry 2004). In order to rethink mobility we have to change how we conceive transportation and provide viable alternatives to the car.

Parc Technologique. 2017

The promotion of car industries and infrastructure throughout the 20th century has undermined our ability to assess mobility as an issue that involves multi-modal means. For instance, while road construction is simply written off by the state, rail investments have to show profit (Paterson 2000). Why ? Trains, as a collective transport, only account for 0.6% of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU. According to Sloman (2006), car trips follow a 40/40/20 rule: 40% could be made by bike, foot or public transport, another 40% could be made via public transport but no service exist, and only 20% are required by car.

The 40/40/20 rule acknowledges the different actions that can be pursued to move towards sustainable mobility. As Lipschutz (2004) and Wapner (1995) argue, social groups and environmental non-governmental organizations can educate and shape norms, values and action; in this view, a shift in popular behavior could drastically change our perception of transport. Fostering the use of bicycles and walking, as well as a new conception of public transportation could bring this “turning point” we desperately need. In all this, businesses will have to loosen their grip on individual transportation and embrace a viable and multimodal system of transport, one that doesn’t rely on “individual acquisitiveness” (Goulden et al 2014) but on “collective mobility”. Furthermore, a shift in public intervention from the car system to an effective public transport sector will help build a new transport system that will meet the needs of sustainable development. Policies are already being implemented to meet this environmental agenda:

•In Paris, cars are being pushed out of the city and discussions have started on better planning of public transport and the possibility of free public transport (BBC 2018)

• Since 2013 Tallinn (Estonia) has free public transport and has witnessed a rise of 14% in its use; this policy should be extended to the whole country by 2020 (Le Monde 2018)

• Many cities in “Car nation” Germany such as Bonn or Mannheim will test free public transport in the next two years (The Guardian 2018)

• Copenhagen’s metro and suburban rail service are crucial to the city’s plan to be the first in the world to be CO2 free by 2025 (Urban Transport Group 2017)

I am convinced that there will be a day when a driving license will be an antiquity, an object of a social, political and economic system that no longer exists. In order to embrace both our environmental convictions and our ideals of the world to come we have to start with the small things and then realize that the world is ours to change. Dear mom, such a belief may seem odd to you, but I think that major shifts start in small actions and I deeply believe that the world “is what we make of it”, to paraphrase constructivist Alexander Wendt (1992). The world to come will not be one of individual mobility but one of collective and sustainable transportation, but only if we decide to make it so.

Moving away from the car system’s stranglehold and rethinking mobility will be an essential task to meet the necessity of the environmental agenda. Are we there yet ? No, but I’m confident that with the right actions we’ll arrive at this destination in due time.


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Parc Technologique. 2017. Foire de la mobilité durable. Available at: [Accessed: 18/11/2018].

France Info. 2016. Verra-t-on un jour un monde sans voiture polluante ? Available at: https:// monde-sans-voiture-polluante_1822173.html [Accessed: 18/11/2018].

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T&E Annual Report 2016. Available at: transport-biggest-climate-problem/ [Accessed: 18/11/2018].