Tuesday, May 21

Our SUV problem

Over a few days last year, my then 12-year-old daughter Iris and I have been played a new- if serious- game on our daily short drive to intermediate school in our small Kia Piccanto. I mentioned to her how I had recently seen a graph that stated if SUVs were a country then they would be the world’s 6th largest CO2 emitter (behind China, Us, India, Russia and Japan in that order). 

As I raised this half way on the less-than ten minute drive to school we did not have much time to consider how this may be represented on Christchurch suburban streets but we decided to give it a try. In just over 5 minutes, in tandem counting and discussing the qualifications of what constituted a SUV, we counted 51 SUVs of various sizes, makes and models, whether on the road or parked. We never expected to see so many in our short suburban drive from Burnside to Breens Intermediate in upper Bishopdale and so decided to do another, fuller survey the next day covering the whole trip. It should be noted that our trip includes the major Memorial Avenue- Grahams road intersection and we are travelling at a time of peak traffic flow, but even so we were increasingly astounded at the sheer number of SUVs we encountered. By the time we arrived at school 8 minutes later ( it had been a good traffic flow morning) we had tallied 153 SUVs. I then decided to continue counting on my return drive home, before I then walked to work at the university (school and university are in opposite directions). The return trip, slightly longer, saw me count almost as many SUVs, with the number climbing to a total of 293 (give or take those I might have missed by ensuring I kept my eyes on the road as much as possible).

I considered continuing to count SUVs as I walked to work, but I was soon suffering SUV overload and decided sanity was the better option. A middle-aged man walking on suburban streets in Christchurch is strange enough, let alone one staring fixedly at traffic flows and visibly, audibly counting to himself.

My point however is a serious one to interject into the current debates on CO2 emissions, climate change legislation, farting cows and suggested agricultural changes and ute taxes. 

Why do we have so many SUVs and why do we feel we need them? 

Most of those we saw were single-driver vehicles on suburban commutes. If New Zealand wanted to make a proper world-leading decision on how to combat climate change in a small nation then perhaps leave cows and work-utes alone and concentrate on the suburban family SUV obsession.

We need to remember that we are – and have been for over century- a very urban society, yet over the last few decades we seem to increasingly prefer to drive SUVs that enable us to imagine we are still somehow more connected to rural life than we really are. We certainly don’t need SUVs for our daily suburban commutes, even if -as in Christchurch- our public transport is a joke and cycling seems more like a kamikaze mission.

SUVs are of course not just a NZ issue, nor just a NZ urban or suburban issue. They are a global issue and last decade SUVs were the second highest contributor to global CO2 after power generation.

SUVs are also recognized as a more lethal form of transport for pedestrians and cyclists to encounter as well as taking up more space on the roads than conventional cars- whether travelling or when road-side parking. So there are space and road use issues as well– and this is before we even begin to discuss the urban and suburban ute.

A proper, affordable, safe and time-efficient public transport system in our main centres would be a start, but this still leaves provincial city SUV use. But perhaps the central moot question is just how easy it would be to get NZers out of cars, given our ever-increasing suburban spread coupled with commuter town development? For suburban-spread issues the answer is not likely to ever be a wholesale societal shift to cycle lanes and the new liberal middle class virtue (and prosperity) signalling e-bikes. We are not Denmark…

Rather than a puritanical ‘get out of cars‘ push or even a ‘get into expensive e-cars’ push, perhaps we need a ‘get into smaller cars’ focus? A combined tax and subsidy-led, affordable, equitable, smaller petrol cars (not just e-cars) refocus and re-fleeting? A suburban and urban change into driving what could be called ‘city cars’, not pseudo-rural SUVs? 

I recognize we do need to drive cars in our towns and cities and as a sociologist I have ongoing equity concerns regarding the cost of e-cars( let alone questions regarding mineral mining and battery disposal- let alone power generation- but those are other questions). So I don’t think a shift from petrol cars could – or even should – happen quickly. But I do think we need to consider what types of cars we are driving and what various options we can take – if as individuals and a nation we are serious about climate change.

So try counting SUVs next time you are in traffic, and then consider why we have so many and do we truly need them?