Fighting car dominance: action needed for a car-free future

Posted on Jan 18, 2021 in FIT news

In the century since cars came on the scene, car culture has become so ingrained that it is hardly noticed. But its negative impact on the way we live, our health, the environment and public space is immense and intensifying. The number of registered vehicles on UK roads has risen from 20 million in 1991 to 38.3 million in 2020. More than three quarters of traffic on UK roads are private cars and taxis. 

The emphasis of Government policy is on electrification of motor vehicles as the main way to reduce transport CO2 emissions and improve air quality. But the evidence suggests that this isn’t going to be enough to reduce those emissions by the amounts required. Electrification will also fail to tackle the many other problems that the dominance of motor vehicles causes. 

In 2021, FIT will therefore focus on supporting campaigns that challenge the car and its domination of our lives and environment, allocating a significant proportion of its grant funding to projects that confront car-based thinking, provide solutions and build evidence for traffic reduction.

Click here for more information about the sorts of projects FIT will fund and how to apply. 

Projects should consider the range of ways car-based living is damaging our towns, cities, communities, way of living, safety, health and environment. For example:  

Danger Every day, five people die on British roads, 70 are seriously injured and 4,000 suffer other injuries. This level of danger would not be tolerated in other areas of life. And while the safety of car occupants gradually is improving, the safety of those walking and cycling is not. 

Health Air pollution has been above legal limits in the UK for more than a decade, largely as a result of road transport, and is estimated to cause the equivalent of 40,000 early deaths every year. Air pollution has a life-long impact starting from the first few weeks in the womb and it particularly impacts children and the vulnerable’. 

Cars reduce opportunity for physical activity. In the UK, less than 40% of adults achieve the recommended level of physical activity five days a week. Road traffic is the biggest cause of noise pollution in the UK, impacting millions of people each year.

Community severance The fear of road danger and the intimidation of speeding traffic also matters – decreasing children’s freedom to roam and destroying our enjoyment and perceptions of neighbourhoods. Ultimately this fear forces people inside, reduces social interaction and divides communities. (Listen to Rob Newman’s podcast Half-Full Philosophy Hour: What is a city for? Oct 2020) 

Control of space Car-dominated streets have become conduits for movement, not places. People walking must give way to traffic and ask permission to cross streets. Even non-car owners believe that cars “must get through”.  

Cars are also a poor economic use of space, both when in use and when parked. The UK’s best-selling cars have increased in width by 17% in the last 20 years. If these massive metal boxes weren’t enough, their signs, lines, lights, meters and charging infrastructure spoil streetscapes and clutter our pavements. 

If liberated, this space could provide green infrastructure including sustainable urban drainage schemes, community facilities and more productive development opportunities such as employment space and homes

Social injustice Cars have given some the freedom to travel further, where they want, when they want. But this has led to car-based sprawl, which further locks us into car-dependent lifestyles and discriminates those who can’t, or can’t afford to, drive. This means the poorest and most vulnerable in society are trapped: “unable to participate in the benefits of a car world, but forced to endure its costs” (Sustainable Development Commission).  

Environmental damage Cars create pressure for bigger roads. In the last two decades, more than half of new roads have damaged areas protected for their special landscape, biodiversity or heritage. 

Conflict for resources The production of cars is also a significant source of pollution and draws on scarce resources.  The competition for energy and resources also causes conflicts and strained international relationships. Would the US have invaded Iraq if its main export had been cabbages? Are cars and their manufacture just another subset of the Military Industrial Complex?

Climate Transport is the UK’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike other sectors, emissions from road transport are still increasing. But electric vehicles are not enough. For the UK to meet climate change targets it must deliver a ”significant reduction in vehicle mileage” (TfQL, 2020). 

Impoverishment of senses Cars have also muted our experience and expectations of travel. The windscreen is another screen that is dislocating our senses and our experience of the world. It’s all about getting from A to B, strapping in, switching off, or being locked into an intense focus on the road. Car journeys miss the sensory experience, energy and social interaction of public transport and active travel.

We want to fund radical campaigns that challenge social norms and change minds, that offer solutions or provide evidence-based backing to traffic reduction campaigns. Our call for proposals with more detail is here.

Image credit: Jarek Kilian /