One of the ironies of the truck protests in Ottawa is that they helped show that socially vibrant outdoor gatherings and activities can take place, even in very cold weather, so long as streets are at least partially shut off from car traffic. The protests also provided yet another illustration of the reality that large, loud vehicles and frustrated drivers tend to make city life worse than it needs to be, especially for people who are elderly, disabled, sick, or poor. In many cases, these are the same people who have been hurt most by Covid-19.
It is an interesting thought experiment to wonder what the pandemic would have been like if we had focused on making our streets as socially and commercially dynamic as possible, by (for example) turning our parking lots and parking lanes and city centres into patios and pedestrian-friendly areas and playgrounds and playing fields and skating rinks and bike lanes and transit lanes and outdoor vaccination clinics. Presumably, our small businesses would have performed better as a result, and our social, mental, and physical health would have too. There might have been fewer risks from Covid. There might even have been fewer protests against vaccine or mask mandates.
With this in mind, here is a list of 10 ways in which our overuse of oversized automobiles may have made the pandemic worse than it otherwise could have been:
- They take up most of our public outdoor space
- They take up most of our sunny outdoor space in winter, autumn, and spring
Sunny ways! The cars get them, but relatively few sidewalks, patios, and bike lanes do. If you are, say, an elderly person trying to walk outside in the winter, you will often find that there is no sidewalk at all on the dry, sunny, north side of residential streets, and that you instead must walk on the icy, snowy, shady south side. (Assuming there is even a sidewalk at all, which in many, many cases there is not). Sometimes even crossing the street to get to the sunnier side will be difficult, because of the combination of ice, snowbanks, and cars. And even when you get there, the sunny sidewalk is often too narrow, even on main streets, with not always enough room to avoid the texting-while-walking younger generations.
Restaurant, cafe, and in some cases even gym owners who would have liked to offer a sunny outdoor option during the pandemic, perhaps even being willing to invest in a large, space-heated, semi-enclosed patio, similarly found that in many cases the only patio space available to them was stuck in the shade for most of the day. During the winter, they were often not given any street space at all. Meanwhile, adjacent parking lanes are frequently lined with cars lying like cats in the sun, even in restaurant-filled city centres.
At the very least, a time-share system in which pedestrians are given more sunny space during the daytime during the colder seasons, and parked cars are given space at night or in shade, could be an improvement over the car-dominant status quo, particularly during a pandemic when indoor activities are limited.
- They help cause Covid co-morbidities, and other health problems
Cities built around cars and traffic jams tend have less healthy populations than cities built around walking, transit, and cycling. In car-oriented cities people are more likely to lead relatively sedentary lifestyles, experience stress if they are regular rush hour commuters or if they live on busy streets, and inhale air pollution. Also, because traffic jams can make going anywhere slow and expensive, the health of poorer populations in particular can also become more likely to suffer from local food deserts, in which healthy food is scarce. The correlation, for example, between obesity, car dependence in urban and suburban areas, and vulnerability to Covid appears to have been high.
- Life-years lost to road traffic deaths have gone up a lot during Covid, and are a major global crisis in their own right
Covid deaths worldwide are estimated at around 6 million since the pandemic began. This might be an undercount: by looking instead at excess mortality estimates, which might be more relevant and accurate, the death toll of the pandemic could be somewhere between 12-24 million. During the same period, nearly 3 million people are estimated to have died in road accidents. However because road accidents often claim the lives of youths, whereas Covid tends to spare young people and target elderly or infirm people, the number of “life-years” lost to road accidents is probably not all that far behind those lost to Covid. They might, perhaps, even be greater than those lost to Covid. Worse still, Covid appears to have led the number of road accident deaths worldwide to rise.
In the United States, approximately 39,000-40,000 people per year died in car accidents in 2020 and 2021, the highest numbers in any year since 2007. (Road deaths in the US had however already been rising gradually since about 2014, which suggests that reckless driving during Covid lockdowns was not the only reason for the recent increase in road deaths). Road accidents are the leading cause of death for young Americans (and Canadians) above the age of about 5. Covid excess deaths in the US per year during the pandemic are estimated at 438,000. But here too it is possible, because such a large majority of Covid deaths were of older people, that the number of life-years that Covid and car crashes robbed Americans of during the pandemic were not so far apart.
In countries like the United States and Russia (the two countries with the most excess deaths from Covid in absolute terms) and in Canada as well, Covid cases and car crashes both also tend to peak in winter, sending people to overworked hospitals at the same time. In Canada, excess mortality from Covid has been about 7000-7500 per year during the pandemic, while road accidents kill approximately 2000-3000 Canadians per year. In other words, because we in Canada have done better than most in limiting Covid deaths, but not in preventing road deaths, it is likely that we have lost more life-years to car accidents than to Covid during the pandemic.
Poorer countries not surprisingly tend to suffer the worst loss of life, and of life-years, from road accidents, despite having many fewer cars per capita than rich countries. This is the result of bad roads, bad driving practices, bad weather, younger populations, and more motorbikes and pedestrians. In some countries, most notably Brazil (3rd in excess Covid deaths behind the US and Russia, and 3rd in road accident deaths behind India and China), both Covid and cars have taken a terrible toll. In others, such as in Africa and (for different reasons) Northeast Asia, the loss of life from Covid has tended to be far less than from road accidents.
- Traffic jams add to supply-chain delays and inflation
Truckers and commuters waste time and fuel in traffic. Because most goods travel by truck and most workers travel by car, this helps contribute to supply-chain delays and inflation. More directly, inflation in car prices, and in rental-car prices, was particularly high during the pandemic, in part because commuters and travellers switched from transit and airplanes to cars and car rentals.
- Social isolation of elderly populations
Traffic makes it more difficult or expensive for seniors to walk, drive, take the bus, or take a taxi (or Uber, etc.). Taking an Uber, for example, becomes more expensive and time-consuming for elderly people not only because the car itself becomes stuck in traffic, but also because young people are in many cases pushing up the price of Uber by using the app so much themselves. Yet when a young person uses Uber, it is often because they are lazy, or rich, or drunk, or going on a trip (in many cases all of those things at the same time). Whereas when an elderly person uses Uber, it is more often for something important, like going for a medical appointment or visiting family, and it is more often because walking, cycling, or riding transit is difficult for them.
- Access to health care
Doctors and nurses and eldercare workers and people going to get their vaccine booster shots also get caught in traffic jams. Many nurses and eldercare workers also have to take the bus to get to work. And since buses have tended to remain fairly crowded during the pandemic (unlike trains, which have seen most their riders work from home), this means that traffic jams leave them stuck for a longer amount of time on an often unpleasant vehicle where they might catch or spread Covid, on their way to or from a difficult job where they might catch or spread Covid.
Health care is also one of the major energy-intensive, greenhouse gas-emitting, polluting industries, though because it is so important it is not usually discussed as being such. So (as is more frequently discussed) is the auto industry. This means that, indirectly, the use of cars can push up the cost of health care to a certain extent, by way of energy prices. It also means that cars and health care can both contribute to climate change and various forms of pollution.
- Access to childcare
Child care is labour-intensive, and therefore traffic-haunted. Children, parents, teachers, and Covid substitute teachers all commute during rush hour, often travelling far distances to do so. This was especially difficult to do when, in some cases during the pandemic, schools were open but carpools and school buses were being avoided. Extra-curricular activities, such as organized sports, also involve a lot of hours on the road, often in traffic jams.
- Local air and noise pollution
Greenhouse gas emissions fell in 2020 because of pandemic lockdowns, but local air pollution in many cases did not, as people continued driving locally and as there was a rise in dirty delivery trucks and in indoor or backyard wood-fires. Noise pollution too remained high during the pandemic, from cars and trucks and from a rise in the number of homes being constructed or renovated. Noise pollution may also have been somewhat more impactful for people who were working from home or trying to socialize outdoors, particularly for people who live on busy streets.
- Class inequality, within countries and between countries
Wealthier people often create traffic by driving or frequently using Uber or Amazon, yet have also tended to have the luxury of avoiding traffic by working from home or from cottages. Poorer people meanwhile often cannot avoid getting stuck in traffic, either on buses or as pedestrians, bike couriers, Uber drivers or deliverymen, or as regular commuters using their own cars. They also pay a higher price for gasoline because of the enormous amounts of fuel that wealthier people use. Because oil prices tend to be relatively similar across the globe (far more so than natural gas or electricity, for example), this is often true on an international level as well: more fuel use in rich countries can mean more expensive fuel for poorer countries. It also means more carbon emissions for poorer, climate-threatened countries to worry about.
This of course does not mean that rich people and rich countries are bad, but it does mean that during the pandemic, which was already worsening class inequalities (in Covid deaths, in working from home options, in the quality of homes to be locked down in, in the availability of vaccines and health care, etc.) it would have been better to avoid the needless immense waste that rich countries and people create through, among other things, their daily use of big automobiles. That includes as well the oversized electric cars and car companies that the richest countries and richest people have been increasingly buying or investing in during the pandemic.
You might be thinking that all of those ten examples are really just saying the same thing over and over – that too much road traffic is unnecessary, and bad, and especially bad when other things are bad too, like Covid, or infirmity, or poverty. Yes, I think that’s probably about right.