We Are Addicted To Cars

Last summer, I tweeted out this meandering thread:

It started as an observation on how, in most cities, we balk at the idea of free transit but barely bat an eye at the reality of free parking. The thread continued on to explore the psychology that informed this sentiment; it was inspired by years of contemplating (and being frustrated by) the absurdity of car culture. Car culture can be simply defined as the conscious and unconscious ways in which we, individually and as a society, shape our lives around the automobile. One way car culture manifests is in how we build our cities. You can see it in the space and resources allocated to cars. 

I think about car culture every day. It’s hard not to when you’re constantly confronted by it, whether it’s having to press a beg button to get permission to cross the street, or having to ride a bike on a dangerous road with no separated cycling infrastructure. 

I’ve been an advocate, speaking out against car culture, for a long time. I’ve sat on city committees. I’ve met with city staff. I’ve emailed politicians. I’ve met with politicians. I’ve debated media personalities on live air. I’ve blogged. I’ve tweeted. And, to be honest, I’m tired. I’ve come to realize that if we want to make our advocacy sustainable, we need to reframe the challenge of car culture in order to make the most of our efforts and properly address it.

We need to recognize we are addicted to cars. 

As a former mental health clinician, I don’t use the term “addiction” lightly, and I don’t mean to undermine the seriousness of the issue. I am not suggesting that everyone who drives a car has a diagnosable addiction, but rather, I aim to use the metaphor of addiction to illuminate our societal dependence on the automobile. I believe this conceptualization can help us focus efforts and better understand the challenge we face.

I’ve had my own issues with unconscious dependence on the automobile. It was part of the tangled mess of developing an identity as a teenager and feeling accepted in high school. 

I remember the days leading up to getting my driver’s license. I was so excited that I could barely sleep. I stayed up at night fantasizing about the “freedom” the car would give me. I daydreamed about how it could make me “cooler”. I was also excited about being able to drive to school, instead of walking. I lived a nine minute bike ride away from my high school but chose to walk because I was embarrassed to show up to school on my bike while my peers would roll up in their fancy Honda Civics. In my odd hierarchy of “cool” ways to get to school, walking somehow made it above riding a bike. I saw riding a bike as more boyish. For context, the year I got my license, The Fast and Furious, a movie celebrating street racing, came out. Everyone I knew had watched it and drank the car culture kool-aid. The movie initiated the trend of modifying old, crappy sedans with loud mufflers and other “speed enhancing” devices. I never joined that bandwagon, but I did spend a lot of time hanging out in my friends’ cars in 7/11 parking lots trying to emulate what we saw in that movie. Beyond celebrating car culture, the film also portrayed warped ideas of masculinity. Tough guys drove fast cars. Looking back, my shame made sense. 

My dad didn’t understand it. His father ran a bike shop in Bangladesh; the humble bicycle was what put food on their table. That bike shop survived a civil war and genocide and was what got my family through a difficult time. The bicycle is why I am here today. So, you can imagine how excited my dad must have been to introduce me to the bicycle. I can recall the joy with which he taught me to ride a bike. I remember the look on his face when he surprised me with my first “big kid” bike when I was 8. I obsessed over that bike every time we went to Sears. My dad put it in the garage and asked me to go check the laundry. My head almost exploded when I saw it. 

What happened to that joy? I was so worried about fitting in, I cast it aside. It saddens me, but I don’t give myself a hard time for my behaviour because it was completely understandable in a society that worships the automobile. My story is but one example of how insidious car culture is, and how at a young age it shaped what I valued and how I saw the world.

Defining “addiction”, the American Society for Addiction Medicine states, “People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.” Driving is a behaviour that has a multitude of harmful consequences. Research shows driving time to be correlated with “higher odds for smoking, insufficient physical activity, short sleep, obesity, and worse physical and mental health.” Beyond the impacts on the person behind the wheel, driving has detrimental effects on the rest of society. Road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death for people between the ages 5-29; car culture is literally killing our future. Noise pollution from car traffic has been linked to depression. When we aren’t terrorized by cars on our streets, the noise they make permeates the walls of our homes and makes us sick. Speaking of pollution, cars are a major contributor to air pollution. Electric vehicles could be seen as a solution to this issue, but they still have tires, and tires degrade and are a significant source of microplastic pollution in our oceans. And then there’s the sheer space that we’ve dedicated to the movement of cars (electric or not) and their storage. In London, where I’m currently living, roads account for about 80% of public space. In the midst of a major housing affordability crisis, most cities in North America are covered with surface parking lots.

I’ve barely touched on all of the detrimental impacts of car culture, but I hope you are able to see how irrational it is for us to keep prioritizing the automobile. When we do try to change our ways, it becomes a very contentious issue that fills our airwaves and newspapers. People continue to get angry when bike lanes are built, when transit is invested in or when parking is removed. And, this is why I think it is helpful to frame this issue using the lens of addiction. When the object of our dependence is threatened, we get irritated and react. We aren’t our best selves. It’s important to note that people who behave like this are victims of a dominant car culture. Car culture has been so normalized in our everyday lives that it is understandable that some would respond with fear to any attempt to dismantle it. A world without cars is unfamiliar.

“A healthy city can not be addicted to the automobile.”

When I say “we are addicted to cars, I use “we” instead of “they” because I believe we should see this as an issue of a broken system – a system we all participate in. Finger pointing and shaming individual behaviour seems like a reasonable solution until you realize that it will take an eternity to initiate real change. Do you know how much shaming you’d have to do? It would take a lot of energy. If you want to spend your time pointing out other people’s hypocritical behaviours, fine. But, I think a better use of our efforts is to continue to work to change the system that facilitates those behaviours.

So, how do we go about changing this system? We need to recognize we have a problem; we can’t address something we are in denial of. Cities need to face the reality of the impacts car culture has on people and the planet. Unfortunately, today’s decision makers have to confront the terrible car-centric planning decisions made well before their time. They need to recognize that it’s not their fault; however, it IS their responsibility to address it. That’s the responsibility that comes with the work of city building.

Most importantly, we need to give people better options than driving. A healthy city can not be addicted to the automobile. Dr. Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and expert on addiction treatment, talks about the importance of a BBO (bigger better offer). He suggests that if we really want people to break an addiction, we need to replace what they are addicted to with another more appealing and rewarding option. For cities, this means we need to invest in the alternatives to driving. We need to make transit efficient, comfortable and affordable. We need to build cycling infrastructure to ensure people can get to where they need to without fearing for their lives. We need to ensure that using sidewalks is a dignified experience.

Dismantling car culture can often seem insurmountable. Challenging deeply ingrained beliefs that have been cemented in our culture for decades is daunting as hell. But, I think that if we work together and focus on creating better alternatives to driving, instead of shaming the drivers themselves, we will see meaningful change in our lifetimes. I am extremely hopeful. I hope you are, too.


For people in London (UK), on February 26th I’ll be speaking at the University of Westminster’s Difference Festival on a panel aptly titled “Are Cars the New Tobacco”. Tickets are free and there may also be a live stream. 

If you’re interested in the connection between urban design and wellbeing, you can listen to a recent interview I did on the topic on CBC’s The Sunday Edition here.

If you want to bring me to your city to talk about the ideas discussed on my blog, click here.

11 thoughts on “We Are Addicted To Cars

  1. Yes we are addicted to cars. And we make #ConcessionsForCars . it is as if kids who love their drug addicted parents give them more drugs and more love. The older generation has convinced the younger one into destroying our own planet because car ownership is normalized.

  2. Hey Robin,
    Really nice insights you have here, I agree with you that we all have to work towards this.
    The only way would be to show better alternatives, because as you have said, shaming the drivers is not going to get us anywhere. And I agree on that.
    First of all, we have to understand that we, humans, are lazy by nature. but very lazy. The shorter paths created by people walking on grass in park, not on designated paved routes, is a very good example. Try talking with people that use their cars daily and because of an incident or something, they can`t use the car and they have to walk, it is so hard for them as they got used with this goodie called: no energy spent on travel from point A to B!
    A sort of reward system could work, I`ve read some articles about cities in the western world that give free public transportation to people that decide not to go to work with their personal cars or just sell their cars-Did it happen in the UK this one? But at a certain moment, you will need your car to visit your relatives from another city, and stuff the trunk with things you want to give them. Getting rid of the car is not the solution, using it less frequently is..
    Here in the UK things are a bit,, strange. People pay exorbitant amount of money for road tax, car insurance, so if having to pay 150 pounds per month let`s say for owning a car, why not try to squeeze as much as you can from this, and use your car as much as you can? A rewarding system made by insurance companies for deciding to leave your car at home in a certain day, could give some results. I am going to walk a bit, then use tube to get to work, and for this I will have to pay a bit less for my car insurance for this month. Could work..
    Really good article, it was a pleasure reading it, and yeah, accept my thoughts that occurred in my head after reading it.
    Good job Robin!

  3. Great article. Responding to Andy’s point about rewards for using other modes, I would consider the reward of giving our children their freedom back.

    Many parents perversely feel tied into doing the school run by car because the roads are too dangerous to let children travel independently. In our desperation for the “convenience” of driving everywhere we’ve forced ourselves to make unnecessary journeys on heavily congested roads. Even just from a practical point of view it would actually save us time to empower kids to make their own way. And of course you can’t put a price on how important it is for children developmentally.

    Useful also to remember that this is an actual thing that exists not so far away and not just some utopian fantasy. Any of us can go to the Netherlands and witness the results of their sustainable safety based design philosophy. We can see all their kids riding bikes to school and so on.

  4. Thank you for an illuminating piece of journalism on the motor car. We are as a nation and world are totally car sick. It’s not until you look at the amounts of real estate given motor vehicles, road space , kerbside parking, mall parking etc, you realise how it’s going to be a gargantuan task to release tight grip the motor manufacturers have on the public. Not to mention the abhorrent behaviour drivers dish out to cyclists and pedestrians on a daily basis

  5. This is a lovely post; I appreciate how you framed the issue through your own story. My little cousin died in a car accident — he was a 16 year old drunk driver, also emulating masculine ideals. I think if we got everyone to think about the costs of car culture they have incurred, especially compared to the BBO you mention, more people would reassess their relationship with cars.

  6. Hi Robin,

    As I read this article, I was reminded of an older quote by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: “Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.”

    Your initial comment about how we shirk the idea of free transit but we view free parking as the norm also got me thinking about these types of obvious but ignored paradoxes related to transportation. One of my latest peeves is the huge fines for avoiding payment of public transit fees, versus the insignificant fines for illegal parking. Just another example of our addiction to motorized vehicles.

    The debate, like most current debates in our culture, is polarized. But rather than an “us versus them” mentality, we all (both sides) need to listen to one another.

    Thanks again,

    Steve.

    p.s. KW misses you.

  7. Hello Robin. Much, if not all, of what you touch on has been extensively documented for decades. And therein resides the challenge of effecting change: facts don’t seem to avail greatly in the debate.

    Your addiction analogy is apt because, as with an addict, there’s no reasoning with those who reject, or are indifferent to, facts. And though it’s clear that our embrace of mass automobility has long passed the point of negative returns; that there’s no objective rationale to continue down the road we’re driving (sorry)… Well, call it lack of imagination, psychology of prior investment, cultural inertia, what have you, we can’t seem to make the adjustment necessary to envision and work toward a different outcome.

    Why? Not only are we addicts but also the growers, mules and dealers. That is, we created the ecstasy of automobile mythology — freedom, excitement, prestige, class, empowerment. We created the demand — mass media marketing and entertainment. We created the vectors for proliferation — subsidized infrastructure, financing, zoning regulations, a devoted industrial and service sector. The driver addicted or reliant on his wheels through acculturation or need merely closes the loop in a self-sustaining industrial-consumer complex.

    In order to effectively foster change we need to understand and address on all fronts the pervasiveness and totality of our investment in mass automobility. Our car culture virtually is civilizational in scope so Robin is it any wonder that your 16 year old self was enthralled with its contrived mythology? After the incalculable efforts spent burnishing and entrenching the allure of happy motoring we wouldn’t be human if not susceptible to misconceptions so artfully wrapped in gleaming facades.

    Our fascination with the car should ebb with succeeding generations as the pathologies attendant to 1 billion automobiles ramify in personal and national economies, the environment, the quality of life in cities, etc., sprouting many crises great and small.

    Let’s hope we embark on significant correctives before we get to that point.

  8. Another amazingly thoughtful and considered post; well done, such excellent framing and contextualized thoughts.

    We have a long way to go in beginning to address our car addiction when the indoctrination, dependence, and and begins at such a young age.

    Just look at the car shaped shopping carts that most malls and large stores have these days (https://www.facebook.com/conestogamallwaterloo/photos/a.248604627788/10157508733777789/?type=3&comment_id=10157511885167789), or the fact that most children play with toy cars for hours on end, or have powered toy cars they ride around in instead of pedalling a bike. The car is so normalized from so very early on in life it is impossible to escape its influence; it is literally baked in to our built environment.

    Keep up the great work.

  9. Great piece! I completely agree with you on the need for a new narrative, but I would enlarge this to encompass mobility itself. We are addicted not only to cars, but to movement itself! Sustainable mobility is actually a non-sequitur – the route to sustainability must involve much less mobility, and far slower travel speeds, but that is completely inconceivable in our current context.

    I am trying to change our relationship with mobility via the concept of «community parking». The basic idea is to recognize that «auto-mobility» may be good for individuals but pervasive parking is highly corrosive for communities. There are other ways to store personal cars, and sometimes less is more. I am in the process of trying to more formally elaborate on this concept which I have been mulling over for years (decades actually!). Hopefully one day we will have a chance to chat about it!

  10. Solid article. I agree with everything in regards to providing alternative options for transportation IN CITIES other than the car. I live in Seattle currently and I am thankful that I can bike everywhere for utilitarian purposes and my over well being. This being said, what about the rural areas or even the suburbs? It would be easy to say to connect suburbia with more transit or biking/walking infrastructure but it is A LOT easier said than done especially in rural areas. Where I am originally from in south Louisiana, my family depends 100% on their automobiles because they live in the country where 2-lane, 20-22 ft wide, 50 MPH roadways with no sidewalks are the lay of the land and connect to the nearest small town 10-15 miles away. Biking on these roads is no option for my family because, 1, it is way too dangerous because of the speed of drivers, the lack of shoulders to bike on and because of the lack of awareness from drivers and 2, because biking in these rural areas is just not even a remotely a thought. It would take a very long time, a generation or two, to invest in safer walking/biking shoulders on these miles and miles of roadway right-of-ways, but Im still not sure these rural areas would even want to invest in it to begin with.

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