The Rising Issue of Car Dependency

Written by Matthew Bernard Gorospe

Illustrated by Kieffer Abarro

When looking at cities today, we could see that roads and highways have become its veins and arteries, with automobiles in the form of public and private transportation turning to  the main focus of contemporary urban planning. However, there is a clear bias towards the procurement of private vehicles, thus, resulting in a drastic increase in traffic congestion, accidents, and pollution. To illustrate this, traffic volume in Metro Manila has increased over the past five years, with 3.2 million vehicles present daily in 2021, from 2.9 million and 3.02 million vehicles in 2020 and 2019 respectively. At the same time, around 48% of vehicular accidents in 2021 have also been caused by cars, followed by around 24% caused by motorcycles. All of this is to say that car dependency has become an alarming issue that needs to be brought to attention and addressed.

Advocates for sustainable urban planning echo similar sentiments about the problems of a car-centric development: the problem of traffic congestion, lack of physical activity, lack of accessibility, and excessive pollution in urban environments. Metro Manila, with a population of around 12 million in 2010 and projected to continually increase, is rapidly urbanizing. However, its growth comes with concerns regarding mainly that of the environment, public health, and economic performance and development.

Several factors, from sociocultural to economic, influence the rise of car ownership within society. From a broad perspective, urban development has been strongly associated with increased rates of car ownership, as developing areas strive to become more industrialized, urbanized, and economically developed. More importantly, there are also personal, micro-level factors that affect an individual’s decision to own transport vehicles. Cars are seen as a status symbol that reflects one’s prestige, success, and achievements, and thus seen as desirable, especially in developing countries. They are perceived to provide autonomy and freedom of transportation while being comfortable, secure, and time-saving compared to other modes of transportation. Overall, for many people, car ownership provides a sense of comfort, status, freedom, and security within a fast-paced society.

The issue of car dependency is not confined to an individual scale: a person choosing to use their car is not a problem in itself—it can only be perceived as such when millions of people choose to do so. Perhaps the most well-known consequence of car dependency is increasing air pollution and greenhouse gas emission—in Metro Manila, 80% of air pollution was produced by vehicular emissions in 2013, contributing to the rising decline of air quality. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the energy sector accounts for 89% in the same year by both stationary and mobile sources, which includes transportation. As greenhouses are expelled into the atmosphere, more heat becomes trapped in the atmosphere and accelerates the process of global warming, affecting both wild and urban ecosystems as a result. 

This instance is evident in the melting of permafrost snow in arctic ecosystems, where greenhouse gases such as methane are supposed to be trapped but are released due to the increase of global temperature, therefore, creating a positive feedback loop of greenhouse gas release resulting to global warming. However, negative effects can also be found within human habitats in the form of the degradation of air quality as a result of air pollution. For example, carbon monoxide is expelled from automobiles as a result of combustion in the engine, and released into the surrounding air. When inhaled, it has a high tendency to bind with the hemoglobin of red blood cells, thus inhibiting oxygen transport in the body and inducing carbon monoxide poisoning as a result. On that note, the release of air pollutants such as carbon monoxide and ozone negatively affects the public health of communities, leading to complications such as asthma, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular diseases, and overall reduced lung function.

To mitigate this, a significant change that can be made is inducing healthy adjustments to a sedentary life engendered by car dependency amid a car-centric development. While the correlation between car usage and obesity varies  from area to area, it is clear that the time spent in a car generates less physical activity than walking or cycling alternatives. In fact, a study in Georgia, U.S. has found that car usage has been attributed to an increased likelihood of obesity by around 6%. While there are multiple, separate factors that could be accounted for, such as one’s diet, it is certain that car dependency holds a major influence on one’s physical health in a car dependent society. In that case, the improvement of one’s lifestyle should be one’s initiative, supported by one’s surroundings—a healthy diet and way of life, along with a healthy environment can mitigate, and even prevent the negative consequences of development.

Furthermore, there is also the social isolation that comes with cars, and by extension the presence of roads and highways. As people enter their vehicles, they isolate themselves from the world and, intentionally or not, avoid interacting with others. In a discussion with Andrew Price, a founding member of Strong Towns organization, he emphasized the negative social implications of car dependency, particularly in how it isolates oneself from others physically and mentally. Moreover, in another case study by the U.S. interstate highways, it was also revealed that its construction and erection have destroyed neighborhoods, local businesses, and displaced communities—particularly minorities and the poor, vulnerable, and targets of discrimination. From this, it can be taken that, though roads and highways are plenty important, especially in connecting different regions, they also serve as physical and psychological barriers between communities.

It is also important to discuss the economic ramifications of car dependency. Like any other product, an input of raw materials is required to produce a vehicle. This includes around 900 kilograms of steel, 151 kilograms of plastic, and plenty of aluminum and rubber for every car, as these are the commonly used materials used in automobile production. Needless to say, the production of cars is an expensive process that consumes plenty of natural resources and will continue to do so, as demand for cars is still present with around 536 thousand private cars registered in the Philippines in 2021. While this is significantly lower than the 1.13 million private cars registered in the previous year, the gradual easing of restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic might see a rise as migration and movement become more accessible to many.

Lastly, extreme traffic congestion induced by the amount of private vehicles in the country reduces the efficiency of public transportation as well. In Metro Manila, a large portion of public transportation consists of road-based locomotives such as taxis, tricycles, jeepneys, and other public utility vehicles (PUV) that share the road with private vehicles. This combined with the extremely high traffic volume, poor quality and maintenance of road networks, and ineffective implementation of public policies on traffic regulation has led to this situation of a still increasing traffic problem, estimated to account for a 4.6% loss of the national GDP. The overall movement of goods and services has become restricted as a result of the increasing rate of traffic volume, ironically limiting the freedom of fast movement cars were supposed to provide.

With that being said, alternative urban planning, with an emphasis on developing public transport and green spaces should be the solution. However, in this situation, redesigning whole urban areas from the ground up would require a significant, large amount of capital and human labor, and is overall unrealistic. While some aspects of these ideal solutions may be incorporated, the fact is that cars have become a crucial part of contemporary culture and society. A solution to car dependency should be inclusive, sustainable, and holistic for the benefit of as many people as possible—a common good solution, so to speak

One personal take revolves around three things: decentralization of Metro Manila, development of provinces, and improving green spaces and walkability. 

Currently, Metro Manila is experiencing a phenomenon known as “first-city bias”, where investments and development become disproportionately focused on the largest city, rather than other cities. Naturally, rapid urbanization and rural-urban migration came, as a result, contributing to car dependency and congestion of traffic. In other words, Metro Manila has become bloated—thus, a pragmatic solution is to develop provinces and distribute economic activity to other cities, lessening the strain on Metro Manila. 

Developing provinces by effectively improving education, health, and infrastructure would not only improve the human capital of the local population but also increase the productivity of the local economy, and improve the productivity in Metro Manila, as the diversion of economic activity would also follow the diversion of people and private transportation. 

Lastly, improving existing green spaces, from private or community gardens to public parks, can enhance  the walkability of local cities. Parks and gardens are accessible visions of nature in an urban environment and are components of the urban ecosystem that contribute to its resistance and resilience against disturbances such as rainstorms. These parts connect people to nature as they connect people with each other. In a similar light, a walkable city would encourage physical activity and socialization among people. One example that could be a model for this would be the Ermita District in Manila, where old, urban planning was not as auto-oriented, and encouraged both walking and non-motorized transport among its citizens.

Overall, if there is anything to take away from this, it is that humans are just as part of the biosphere as animals, plants, natural resources, and everything else. The issue of car dependency extends both externally to the surrounding environment, to internally to one’s physical well-being and health. As Pope Francis puts it:

“When we speak of the ‘environment’, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”


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