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In a world breaking monthly temperature records, advertising cars should be criminal

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A free daily newspaper targetting transit riders should never be wrapped in car ads.

On Monday the whole front of Montreal's Metro paper promoted Kia. All of page two and the back of a paper targeted at the city's transit riders also promoted an unhealthy, lethal, inefficient and utterly unsustainable mode of transportation.

Incredibly, public transit systems regularly glorify the private automobile. Car ads are not uncommon on buses or in metros. During a trip to Philadelphia a few years ago, the great hall at the city's beautiful old train station was covered with a 50 ft x 30 ft car ad. It seemed more than a little out of place. Would you see a promotion for trains at a car dealership?

On the contrary, the automotive industry has regularly disparaged mass transit. In the mid-1990s GM ran ads in U.S. subways with pictures of the Aurora under the headline "Tear Up Your Monthly Pass" while more recently BMW covered bus shelters with the statement: "In the land of the bus shelter the guy with a car is king." Numerous TV and online auto spots have depicted men unable to find dates because they bike or ride the bus and don't have cars.

The auto industry has long been the biggest advertiser. Whether you're at a party, online, at the mall, playing videogames, at the movies or even writing checks, there is an endless promotion of both brand names and automobility. Car advertisers have conquered nearly every sphere of human consciousness.

The scope of the industry's promotion can be startling. On May 14,  2007 Montreal daily La Presse devoted 43 pages entirely to cars: a 26-page auto section, an eight-page Mercedes broad sheet pullout and an eight-page Mazda supplement in tabloid format. There was also a full-page car ad as well as a Porsche ad taking up a tenth of a page (in an eight-page sports section). In addition to the 43 pages entirely devoted to cars, the front page of the business section had a seventh of a page devoted to a Hyundai dealership ad. Add to this the eight-page Actuel section where nearly half a page was dedicated to auto classifieds. In the sixteen-page front section, a fifth of page two was an Accura ad; an eighth of a page five was another Acccura ad; a third of a page nine was a Ford ad; a sixth of page ten was a Lexus ad; more than half of page eleven was a Honda dealership ad; and nearly half of page twelve was a Chevrolet ad. Finally, three-quarters of page 16 was devoted to Subaru.

Imagine if all the money used to sell cars were put into promoting cycling and mass transit. To even the playing field, health and environmental agencies could run public education campaigns describing the private automobiles' dangers, pollutants, space consumption, financial burdens, toll on the climate, etc. Malmö Sweden, for instance, ran a "No Ridiculous Car Trips" campaign to reduce journeys of less than five kilometres.

Public transit agencies should be pushed to devote their space to anti-car messages. How about covering light rail with: "Cars Pollute. Take the Train" or buses with: "Free the City. Kill the Car". Transit authorities could also give bike makers a discount to put up messages that challenge the cultural dominance of the automobile. Heck, maybe Nike would pay to cover bus stops with "Just Do It. Ditch your car."

Those who want a landscape more amenable to pedestrians, cyclists and trolley riders must challenge the promotion of a product many times more damaging than cigarettes. Car advertising should be (as with tobacco) steadily eliminated (and immediately appropriated). The dominant media, ad agencies and carmakers will no doubt resist bitterly so let's build momentum towards this end by prodding media outlets with ethical advertising guidelines (campus newspapers, green groups etc.) to get rid of car ads. Public transit agencies should also be encouraged to reject auto advertising.

In a world breaking monthly temperature records, advertising cars should be criminal.

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