Are Cars Really Our Greatest Mistake?


But let me to qualify that just a little. I don’t mean Man’s greatest mistake ever. And I don’t count human foibles or innate weaknesses as mistakes.

What I am talking about is our ongoing rational choice, right now, to spend our physical resources, time and creative energy doing one thing rather than another.

A mistake, by this definition, must also be an opportunity. A chance to do things differently. And yes, in these terms, the increasingly universal spread of the private motor car is undoubtedly Man’s greatest mistake. And our greatest opportunity.

Oddly, part of the problem in making the case against the car is that the arguments are so numerous and diverse that they become confusing, overwhelming.

20 million deaths from road accidents in 15 years, for example; that’s more than were killed in World War One. And don’t forget the 200 million people seriously injured. The majority of them our children and youngsters. It is a truly, truly horrific mass slaughter. And entirely avoidable.

Or our lost sense of community; the constant noise and the danger from cars stops kids playing and parents chatting. Cars physically prevent communication between people. They are by far the most conspicuous symbol of wealth and so are deeply divisive.

Or the fact that these hugely expensive, high-tech assets spend 96% of the time idle and cluttering up the place. We live in rich societies, but it doesn’t feel like it because our wealth sits around, depreciating in car parks, front gardens and at the side of the road.

Or the land use – look around what used to be a green and pleasant land and you’ll see mainly tarmac.

Or the inflationary pressure on all our main commodities, including food.

Or the health impact of the obesity crisis.

Or the deaths from air pollution.

Or the oil wars.

Do you see what I mean? The car is so dominant in our economics and in our public space that we are faced with a many headed beast. It is the combination of these massive detriments that adds up to what is by far our our biggest mistake.

And other crimes could be added to the charge sheet, but the one that really sums it up for me is this: the cost to our time.

Time is our most precious personal resource. Given time, anyone can achieve anything. Cars are meant to make life faster and allow us to do more, to get more out of life. It is deeply ironic then, that cars actually suck up vast amounts of people’s time, apparently without us noticing.

It takes time to research, purchase, insure, tax, maintain, clean, fill with petrol, plan routes, drive ourselves around, find parking spaces, deal with breakdowns, accidents and tickets and generally worry about our cars. People don’t keep tabs on all this time and compare it to journey time saved, we don’t tend to think that way.

But even if we did keep careful notes and tot it up, we would still be ignoring the car’s biggest drain on our time. Because we’ve got to pay for our cars somehow and for most people that means working to earn the money. On average we spend around a quarter of our income on running a car. So we spend about 1 to 1.5 days every week working for the car. As we earn more we simply ‘upgrade’ the car. It’s amazing really, the power of marketing and peer pressure.

Now if you are a real car enthusiast, a hobbyist, it’s kind of understandable that you should devote so much of your life to your car. As for the rest of us, wouldn’t we rather save the time and work 3.5 days instead of 5? Imagine what we could do with that time. At very least, shouldn’t our society and infrastructure be arranged to give us that genuine choice?

So, by a whisker, and out of several strong contenders, that’s my personal favourite reason that the car is Man’s greatest mistake. What’s yours?



  1. Austin
    Posted 22 March, 2014 at 01:05 | Permalink

    I hate how every author that compares deaths to a single event likes to say things like “in the span of xxx years, xxxx people died. Thats more than this single event at xxxxxxx” …..

    Did WW2 last 20 years?….no.. it lasted 6. DONT COMPARE DIFFERENT TIMELINES! It makes you look stupid. Was WWII fought by 90% of the world’s inhabitants? no. Are cars used by 90% of inhabitants? yes.

    Want to know what has killed more people than WW1 and WW2 combined!? Stupidity. In 20 years stupidity has killed more people than every war ever has.

    Solution: Stop spreading retarded fuckin ideas.

  2. marko
    Posted 24 August, 2016 at 10:53 | Permalink

    Hi Austin,

    I get your point with different timelines, though it doesn’t change the validity of the article… Especially if you consider the impact of building cars, all materials used for them, oil and wars connected with it… Either you can connect the dots or I can advise you some books to read…

    Anyway,the article is at least giving correct figures unlike your comment. When you say 90% or world inhabitants are using cars, this is completely out of reality (I would advise you to travel more maybe, or read more, or meet more people…).

    There are approximately 600 million cars, passenger vans, SUVs and light trucks in the world today. Of those about 240 million are found in the United States.

    It is a little difficult to then do simple math and say there are 6.76 billion people in the world (according to the US Census Bureau) so 600 million / 6.76 billion = about 9% of the world owns a car.

    The reason is not all 600 million cars, passenger vans, SUVs and light trucks belong to private citizens. In that number you have taxis, police cars, commercially used vehicles like vans and pickup trucks for delivery services, SUVs and cars are used by fire departments, medical services, rental car fleets at airports around the world, even the world militaries use light passenger vehicles. One of the most effective weapons in warfare in Africa is Toyota pickup trucks with a machine gun bolted down in the bed. Likewise you have people who collect cars, and you have households in western nations where it is common to own more than one car.

    So the percentage of auto ownership globally is actually rather small, with a maximum of about 9%, but likely lower.


    and please respect ideas from other people… You may not understand them or agree, but this doesn’t mean these are retarded ideas…
    if you want to learn, evolve, and become a wiser human-being…
    Personally I don’t hate any author, I would feel too stupid to do so… 😉

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