We have become accustomed to the convenience and ease of traversing great distances with relatively little effort or cost in a tonne of steel moving with as much momentum as a speeding bullet (and capable of similar damage upon impact with a body of flesh). This hyper-mobility affects our perceptions of distance, our assumptions about location and our expectations of what is and ought to be possible. We generally deem it of little import that we live many days walk from our place of employment and feel no strangeness at the great distances travelled by the food on our plate prior to its final brief journey down our oesophagus.
Cars make us feel powerful; it is no accident that certain versions of masculinity in our culture have idolised these machines. Car ownership becomes status symbol, rite of passage and - in a contemporary landscape designed for drivers - right of passage, since there often is no other practical way to get between locations. This power to pick a destination and arrive at great speed is a powerful symbol of autonomy, of individual freedom. And so the odd thing about those who are so proud to declare that they stand on their own two feet is that these days they so rarely do so. Individualism has for the last few decades found perhaps its most powerful symbol in the private automobile (hidden from view are the myriad social relations embodied in our complex system of mechanised transport).
Like most of those around me, I got my license when I was sixteen, which means I've been a driver for longer than not. Yet I have never owned a car. Over the years, I've had various cars on loan for a couple of days or a couple of months (in one case, a couple of years). But since getting married, we have chosen to live in walkable urban areas with decent public transport. We currently live 193 steps from my workplace and within a couple of hundred metres of dozens of bus routes.
My adult life has almost exclusively been lived in an urban context. Outside of well-designed (which often means pre-20thC) urban spaces, the tyranny of the automobile is woven into the fabric of most suburban and rural life.
I am not saying that all cars are evil or that there is no place for advanced technology in travel. Nor is the combustion of fossil fuels in itself wrong. But with the level of car use in our society, we are like twenty-drink drunks about to pass out in the gutter trying to defend the goodness of alcohol. Wholesale rejection of useful technologies is not currently our temptation. And there is plenty of room for smarter and more responsible use of the technology we already have.
Since I promised in the title, let me conclude this slightly aimless reflective ramble with seven reasons to ditch your car (or at least consider using it less):
1. Doing so in many cases will save money. For instance, see this account of living without a car in Edinburgh, which has a great deal of resonance for us; it is one of the many reasons we love this city. Cars bring expenses at every point: purchase, petrol, insurance, registration, parking. Of course there are costs associated with other kinds of transport, but have you tried doing the sums? Both our apartments in Sydney had a secure parking space that we were able to rent out, which came in handy. If you are someone who begrudges the taxwoman her pound of flesh, then carlessness will also mean you can avoid a range of taxes, fees and tolls.
2. Leaving footprints cuts your carbon footprint. For many people, a car represents a significant slice of your carbon pie. Not just the petrol exploding in the engine and sending out its fumes, but the embodied emissions released during construction. The various metals and plastics and other materials that comprise a car take a lot of energy. For more efficient cars, this can be up to half the overall carbon emissions associated with the vehicle (and so, it is often better from a carbon perspective to run an old bomb into the ground rather than continually upgrading to slightly more efficient models).
3. Becoming less reliant on a car is good preparation for peak oil. Not driving saves a little petrol, delaying (very slightly) the peak and, more importantly, doing so is a good way of weaning yourself off relying on cheap petrol, which won't be around forever. Such behaviour also sends a message to politicians and policy makers that walkable public spaces and good public transport are desirable and desired. Poor town planning has a lot to answer for as we have invested trillions and trillions in infrastructure based on cheap petrol. But the good news is that it can also make a very significant contribution to a better world. Well-designed walkable urban spaces are safer, cleaner, more enjoyable and can foster stronger communities.
4. Walking is considerably healthier than sitting on your backside pumping the accelerator, even when you factor in the extra calories you burn during road rage. I discussed this at greater length back here in relation to this fascinating little book.
5. More drivers means more cars means less appealing footpaths and a greater perception of danger to pedestrians. Driving can thus become a self-perpetuating cycle where walking (or riding a bicycle) becomes less desirable the fewer pedestrians (or cyclists) there are. Choosing to break this cycle will make it that little bit easier for others.
6. Walking is wearing on the sole, but good for the soul. It slows us down a little, and makes us less ambitious about how much we try to get done. There is more opportunity to smell the roses, or sit on doorsteps, which is what our daughter currently loves doing while we're out walking. It is not that she is tired; she just likes to stop and take in the view. While walking, there is more chance of interacting with those who share your space, more opportunities to notice your environment (which can be dangerous if done too enthusiastically while driving).
7. If walking was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me.