Monday, September 26, 2011

Worship of a pedestrian god: seven reasons to ditch the car

Perhaps the most memorable phrase in the quirky maritime novel The Life of Pi is when the eponymous narrator observes that Christians worship "a pedestrian god". Jesus, God amongst us, lived his entire life within the ambit of distances capable of perambulation, travelling at speeds commensurate with his gait, and never learned how to reverse park. Of course, with cars not being invented for another nineteen hundred years, it would be odd to draw a preference for pedestrianism from Jesus' example, yet he nonetheless demonstrates that a blessed and god-honouring human life can be lived on two feet (and perhaps the occasional donkey or boat). Humans are made from the dust (even the word human is etymologically related to humus, i.e. soil, a pun that also works in Hebrew), and part of humility (another related word) is to stay in touch with the ground. Perhaps if our habitual mode of transport makes us forget that we are bipedal, we may be tempted to arrogant flights of fancy concerning our fitting location.

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.


Terry Wright said...

Of course, you could have just posted #7 and left it at that! ;)

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, in my experience living car-free only can really work if you can afford to live close to the CBD, as the 'Green living blog' post you linked to pointed out :(

As someone who lives in suburban Melbourne, I'd love to be car-free, but Melb is too sprawling and the public transport too sparse to make it viable.

byron smith said...

If I may steal a comment posted by my friend Dave L on another thread discussing this post, then here it is:

Trades, emergency services, delivery vehicles, school buses, etc... all good. Designing cities so that you simply MUST drive to work, school, church, the shops, the movies, etc; suicidal.

@Terry - Indeed, though that one was mainly tongue in cheek.

@lizziethinks - Yes, I realise how difficult life in the suburban wilderness is for all kinds of reasons. My main beef is less with car users and more with town planners (see the video linked above). But the choices we make about where we live send messages of approval and disapproval about different approaches to town planning (the letters we write to local councils and planning authorities also send a message...).

byron smith said...

Guardian: UK continues to put motorists ahead of the rest of the planet.

Anonymous said...

oh my that sprawl video is sad! hmm i often think those ad campaigns that tell u to leave the car for short trips end up the opposite in the suburbs - now neither of us drive to work we aren't using much petrol at all but u always seem to need a car for all the short trips (10-15mins everywhere) whereas it's the longer trips u can catch public transport for. Re. sprawl i can think of about 8 brand new housing estates being built down the road off the top of my head.. what letters to councils do u mean re. this? Like insisting on better public transport b4 being built or just generally protesting all the opening up of new land for them?
- annette

Christopher said...

Last night I saw a three Hasidic Jews (a father and his two sons) walking down my street in the cold rain. The father was telling the boys a story and acting something out. Against the backdrop of idyllic suburban American - green lawns, double garages, two cars, double story houses - they looked very much out of place; and I am sure their destination was to a double story house, twin garage home down the road, but the practice (perhaps theology) of walking struck me as something that both built relationship between the father and his sons, and served as a witness to a different form of life - albeit a specific form of Judaism.

Eve and I are in the position of deciding where or not to buy a car while in the US. At the moment I am really enjoying walking and riding to work and the shops (it really makes you purchase the real essentials when you have to carry them home). However, the main factor in the 'pro' list for purchasing a car is the snow, and the impact that will have not only on comfortable transportation but on being able to accept other people's offers of hospitality. Perhaps the Edinburgh link will have some tips.

byron smith said...

Hi Christopher - I didn't realise you guys were in the US now. Which part are you in? Obviously somewhere within walking distance of work and shops, which is nice (and all too rare, as I understand it). Snow can be a pain (although begins as a beautiful novelty for an Aussie), and hospitality is also excellent to give and receive. Can you explain a little more how having a car would enable it? Would you be able to get lifts to other people's places? Or catch a bus? (am I dreaming on that one?) Is it planned or spontaneous hospitality? (If the former, could you use something like GoGet?)

byron smith said...

Annette - Interesting observation about the difference between shorter and longer trips.

"Re. sprawl i can think of about 8 brand new housing estates being built down the road off the top of my head."
I realise at the moment I can easily feel like I'm spitting into the wind here, but I do think that there will be some very serious re-thinking of urban design over the coming decades (and much regret over certain widespread models). I'm no expert in this field, but housing estates nonetheless fill me with dread and foreboding. The cul-de-sacs line is tongue in cheek (hey, I grew up on one! Or on two, since our driveway was effectively a dead-end street in itself), but there is a cutting edge to it that I do now feel.

"what letters to councils do u mean re. this? Like insisting on better public transport b4 being built or just generally protesting all the opening up of new land for them?"
Good question. Both those might be a part of it at certain times, but perhaps if more local planners were familiar with some of the principles and benefits of new urbanism, then that would be a positive alternative (and a little more wide-ranging than simply "more public transport please", which does little good if you've built such low density suburbs that anything you run will (a) be a financial hole and (b) not provide adequate coverage anyway). Behind this is a requirement for more planners and policy-makers to "get" the scale and nature of our contemporary ecological predicament.

Christopher said...

Hi Byron,

We (or at least I am at the moment, Eve arrives in 11days) are in State College, Pennsylvania. I was fortunate enough to get a Post-Doc at Penn State, working on Food Ethics. We (although it was organized before I arrived) are running a lecture series that you may be interested in, you can stream the lectures

So our location at the moment is in a college town. Walking and riding distance to the university, church, 'downtown' and supermarkets - unfortunately we'll need to get a bus to get to Walmart :) While the snow will be a novelty, it could turn a 20min walk into an adventure. Buses aren't really an option - car hire, and something we will try.

In relation to hospitality I am concerned that not having a car would make it difficult to accept other people's offers of hospitality - in winter and at night it would be difficult to go too far without a car. But perhaps it requires planning and hiring of cars at necessary times.

Also I wonder whether the car, like meat eating, is so entwined with the fabric of our social relations that to opt out would cause unintended offense. This is certainly not a reason to own a car, just observation.


Christopher said...

Btw is the owner approval new? I don't remember it on other comments - you don't need to approve this :)

byron smith said...

Moderation is on for articles more than a few days old, since I've had spam bots turn up and try to post the same comment on every single post (>1,000 of them).

Sounds like a very interesting post-doc!

You may well be right about the potential for offense caused by non-car use in certain social circumstances, but perhaps it could in certain situations be an offense worth causing? Just thinking aloud. It's not a call I can make for you in your context, of course.

Buses aren't an option because they don't exist, don't go where you need them to or for some other reason?

Lily M said...

I'm a proud pedestrian myself and love how you've summed up the good things about a car-free (or light) existence. Walking gets us off our butts and help us stay healthier by squeezing some cardio into our day. But it also helps balance out how sedentary we've become in all aspects of our lives. We all need to move around a little more (and not by car)!

Christopher said...

HI Byron,

On offense, I think we should be more comfortable offending people - not insult, but disrupt the assumed.

However, I am sorry to say that I have just purchased a second-hand car (the first car I have owned). The clincher for me was realizing that the average low temperature in State College from Dec to Mar is below zero, in Jan it is -7.6.

Buses aren't an option because the majority operate out of my area, and those that do operate nearby run infrequently.

byron smith said...

The Conversation: Why aren't more kids cycling to school? Some stats and analysis of a declining Australian trend.

byron smith said...

Grist: China is ditching the bike.

"In 1986, 60 percent of the citizens of Beijing rode bikes; now 17 percent do."

On a similar theme: Car-centric neighborhoods linked to childhood obesity.

byron smith said...

CD: US love affair with automobiles is in decline.

byron smith said...

Turning drivers into victims, an analysis of car-lobby language.

byron smith said...

Guardian: The case for 20mph speed limits.

Some interesting stats in the comments. As a pedestrian you are something like 272 times more likely to be killed by a car than by a cyclist, and even on the pavement you're 180 times more likely to be killed by a car than a bike.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Invisible health costs of inactivity as great as public health burden of smoking.

byron smith said...

Guardian: China and cars - a love story.

byron smith said...

The Atlantic: Our sedentary lifestyles are turning us into nervous wrecks. Links between inactivity and anxiety.

byron smith said...

Girst: Father arrested for picking up child on foot, rather than in a car.

byron smith said...

WaPo: Debunking the myth of the US love affair with cars.

"This conclusion conflates preferences with constrained options. “I actually drive most of the way to work,” Norton admits. “I do it because the choices stink.” To extract from today’s ubiquitous parking garages, drive-through restaurants and busy roads a preference for cars ignores all the ways that public policy, industry influence and economic incentives have shaped our travel behavior.

"“If you locked me in a 7-Eleven for a week, and then after the end of the week unlocked the door and you studied my diet over the previous seven days, then concluded that I prefer highly processed, packaged foods to fresh fruits and vegetables, I would say your study is flawed,” Norton says."

byron smith said...

The Conversation: A brief history of the victory (and demise?) of cars on the road in Australia.

byron smith said...

Moving Forward: The true cost of your commute.

Putting figures on different modes of transport in Vancouver. Pretty sure the basic conclusions are likely to hold for other cities, even if the numbers change somewhat.

byron smith said...

Guardian: End of the car age - how cities outgrew the automobile. A long read with many interesting stats and a number of case studies of cities that are deliberating moving beyond "peak car".

byron smith said...

Adam Ruins Everything: How Cars Took Over the Streets and what jaywalking really means and why it is illegal and why car companies are evil (once more).

byron smith said...

The Atlantic: The absurd primacy of the car in American life.

byron smith said...

Bicycles are instantaneous teleportation devices.

The idea is that (on average) each extra minute spent cycling adds one minute to your life, meaning that time spent cycling is given back to you later in life.