Cars, cigarettes, and community

‘In the UK, even when trips are only between one and two miles long – 3km – six out of 10 people still drive.’ And, regrettably, I’m one of them.

In a recent ‘viewpoint’ piece for the BBC titled ‘It is time to end our love affair with cars’, the argument was put forward that cars should come with labels, similar to those found on cigarette packets, warning people of the ill effects of their use.

A reasonable parallel can be drawn between our use of cars and our use of cigarettes. Not so long ago, doctors recommended cigarettes to the public on TV, smoking was permissible inside, and no-one really questioned the paradigm. Slowly, though, as evidence mounted against smoking – its relation to lung cancer, emphysema, the ill effects of secondary smoking, etc – the public’s perception shifted away from smoking being a glamourous vice and, rightfully, towards it being a harmful public health concern.  

So why is it we continue to drive our cars everywhere?

In part, the evidence supporting their direct impact on health is still limited. We know the emissions created by cars are harmful to humans in high quantities, we just lack the longevity of study required to concretely say ‘car emissions severely increase your risk of developing [insert disease]’. What we can say with certainty, however, is that driving cars as much as we do is harming the environment.

Since 2010, SUVs have been the second largest source of rising carbon emissions – a fact neatly counterbalanced by the 50% drop in CO2 emissions experienced during the lockdown periods of many countries during the pandemic, largely due to reduced automobile use. Some cities in the UK recorded drops in air pollution of as much as 60% during the period.

Another widely reported aspect of the pandemic is its disproportionately negative effect on small, locally owned businesses. Many businesses that had high overheads and not enough money in the bank were forced to close, even if they’d been bustling community favourites pre-Covid. Shoppers moved online and, once the hospitality sector slowly reopened, returned to those establishments still standing – likely larger franchises and businesses.

But perhaps if we decided to make our worlds smaller, smaller businesses and community spots may start to flourish again.

By ‘smaller’ I of course mean if we stop driving at our leisure and convenience. Perhaps if cycled to work instead of driving I might stop by a locally owned café for a morning coffee on the walk up the (steep) highstreet. Perhaps if, when choosing where to eat, I limit my range of options to those establishments that are within a walkable range, I’ll choose more independent local businesses, instead of known franchises in my not-so-walkable nearest city.

In the face of a respiratory virus that targets weaker immune systems, there is also something to be said of the health benefits of self-locomotion.

Though I am a culprit, I will look to change my habits as the future of the climate is a real and growing concern for people of my generation. I hope the people of tomorrow do look back on excessive car use in the same way we look back on the use of cigarettes today. Who knows, maybe the increased air quality and public health might better prepare us for Covid 2.0…


‘In the UK, even when trips are only between one and two miles long – 3km – six out of 10 people still drive.’

By Rebecca Garland on 01/10/2020