What is the best way of wrecking a city? Pour cars into it. Heavy traffic, 50 years of research shows, breaks up communities, disrupts social life and crushes local cultures. Noise drowns out conversation and drives people indoors. Pollution makes streets inhospitable. Cars take up the space that might have been used for children to play, adults to meet, and local projects to grow.
Street life is treated as an impediment to traffic. In cities all over the world it has been cleared for cars. Stalls, hawkers, football and cricket games, old people playing dominoes, chess or pétanque: all must make way for the car. So much land is required for driving and parking that there is little left for human life. In cities like Barcelona that curb traffic, cars use about 25% of the urban area. In cities like Houston that don’t, they use 60%. The car eats the public space that could otherwise become parks, cycle lanes, markets and playgrounds.
Land Rover’s new advertisements for its Range Rover Evoque create the opposite impression: that this ridiculous gas guzzler contributes to urban culture. The Evoque is marketed as “the Range Rover for the city”, which sounds like a contradiction: SUVs like this were originally designed for dirt roads in the countryside. But now, according to the agency behind this revolting campaign, we are invited to use it to “explore your city” and create your own “urban adventures”.
One of the ads features the supermodel Adwoa Aboah driving through Brixton, staring at the interesting street life as if on a human safari and talking about its “amazing soul and rhythm … People here are real”. It gives the impression the car is passing through market streets where traffic is prohibited. Why? Because these are the places with the most “amazing soul and rhythm”.
She also drives down Brixton Road, one of the most polluted streets in London. All the Evoque models have higher nitrogen oxide emissions than the average for new cars (and much higher CO2 emissions). The Evoque’s sole contribution to Brixton’s streetlife is likely to consist of accelerating the deaths of some of the “real” people it passes.
Air pollution is now believed to kill more people than smoking. Across Europe it’s estimated to cause the premature deaths of 800,000 people a year. Every week, cars here kill far more people than the entire toll of the Chernobyl disaster. Air pollution damages hearts and lungs, causes a wide range of cancers, and damages the health of unborn children. It can radically reduce intelligence, as a result of oxidative stress and neurodegeneration. So along comes Land Rover, not only promoting a polluting SUV as a city car, but suggesting it should be used for fun: to kerb-crawl through congested streets gawping at the human zoo.
SUVs are killing machines: because they are higher and heavier, you are more likely to die if you are hit by one than if you are struck by an ordinary car. The fashion for SUVs is one of the two main reasons for rising road deaths among pedestrians (the other is drivers using mobile phones). They are likely to be especially dangerous if you use them for human game drives, rather than watching the road.
Another of the ads urges drivers to “Set off on an adventure. Discover Edinburgh, one of the UK’s most forward-thinking cities”. A forward-looking city should ban such cars from its streets. Land Rover’s advertising agency promises to roll out this campaign across the world, naming cities in South Africa, China and Colombia. Wherever interesting urban cultures persist, a Range Rover will plough through them.
These ads are horribly reminiscent of the commercial Jeep tours through Rio’s favelas. Residents say the tours make them feel humiliated and objectified. The tourists sit behind the car windows, safely removed from the natives, filming exotic poverty as they are driven past people’s homes.
They also remind me of Volkswagen’s disgusting adverts last year, which asked: “Looking to boost your school gate credibility? Our Tiguan has been voted one of the coolest cars for dads on the school run.” Poisoning children by driving a monster SUV to the school gate is, in my view, about the least cool thing a parent could do.
These ads help to normalise antisocial – even pathological – behaviour. Just as we need to radically reduce the use of cars, for the sake of both human health and planetary survival (the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has just announced a car-free day in September to highlight this need), the manufacturers seek to drag us back into the 20th century.
In his book Unlocking Sustainable Cities, Paul Chatterton argues that controlling the car is the first and most important step towards creating friendly and vibrant cities. He points to the work of architects such as Jan Gehl – who seek to reclaim the space now captured by cars, to allow “life between buildings” to flourish.
Neither electric cars nor driverless cars will solve our problems. They take up as much space as fossil-powered vehicles. Electric cars are already triggering a series of environmental disasters, due to the rush for lithium, cobalt and nickel required to make their batteries. Driverless cars are likely to exacerbate congestion and accelerate climate breakdown, because of the energy demands of the data centres required to control them.
It makes far more sense to build electrified mass transit. But those whose profits depend on urban carmageddon go to great lengths to thwart it. In the United States, Americans for Prosperity, a group founded and funded by the Koch brothers, has set up campaigns to fight new bus and light-rail schemes. It has managed to stop public transport systems in several states. The Kochs made much of their vast fortune from oil refining and asphalt production.
Another planned advertisement for the Evoque, this time in Chicago, crudely defines the conflict. In Land Rover’s words, “The Evoque will literally climb on top of the covered entrance to a busy transit station.” The safari theme continues: the new Range Rover poses on top of the public transport system like a hunter with his foot on a slaughtered lion.
In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens wrote of “the fierce patrician custom of hard driving”. As aristocrats raced heedlessly through the streets of Paris in their carriages, everyone else had to jump out of the way or perish. Dickens hinted that this barbaric practice was among the many atrocities that helped catalyse the French Revolution. Today, as cars clear a path through our lives, we need a new revolt against hard driving. It is time to reclaim the streets for the people.
• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist