Cars are a big part of the American dream. We free individuals must be able to go where we want, when we want, with minimal waiting or contact with other segments of society. So much development over the past 60 years has been car-centered, that we’ve made it almost impossible in most American towns to go car-free. Though many people are now moving to cities, they sometimes bring their driving habits into cities with them. I was a little shocked a couple years ago when I asked a co-worker if she had looked into options for commuting by bus and it hadn’t even occurred to her.
Some foreign countries have the advantage of having cities and sometimes countrysides that developed around railways instead of highways. Anywhere I’ve gone in Germany, I’ve felt like I was within walking distance of frequent, reliable public transit. It’s a great feeling. Because cars aren’t necessary there, they can discourage driving by letting oil and gas prices really reflect their market value.
Here in the US, we are greatly subsidizing fossil fuels. Through reading The Long Emergency, I’ve realized that even with increased transit options, it’ll be hard to wean people off cars. So much of our landscape is designed completely around car-based transportation. There are so many questions I want to research and explore – how do we change zoning laws and construction practices to at least minimize this problem moving forward? How far will bike infrastructure get us? Can suburbs be retrofitted to become mixed-use areas, or should they be converted back to farm land? We have a lot of changes to make before we can cure our car-hugging habit.
NYC encouraged all its residents and workers to go car free on Earth Day this week.
Here are a few ways that those of us with access to public transit can start to re-think:
Having vs. Having Access to a Car
One change is to re-think the difference between having the use of a car and actually having your own. This is important because manufacturing each new auto is horrible for the Earth – making one involves the use of an estimated 39,000 gallons of water, not to mention the heavy metals, plastics, electricity, and chemicals involved. At our house, we have three adults sharing two. Or more precisely, a married couple sharing one and a senior citizen who insists on having his own. The married couple sometimes hijacks the senior’s car or cajoles rides from him.
Ever since I learned that owning a car costs over $7,000 per year on average, I’ve been adamant about our nuclear family limiting ourselves to just one. What I’ve learned more recently about manufacturing just strengthens this resolve. Sharing a car requires a lot of negotiation, especially since our routine is constantly changing (like retail workers, you adjunct professors know what I’m talking about!). But we have plenty of transportation options: walking, biking, Metro buses, Car2Go, ZipCar, and now Uber and Lyft. While it’s better not to drive at all, I think allowing your family to add carshare into the mix is a great release valve for those occasional frustrations that come up when you go carless in a city that’s not well designed for it. In NYC people have always used the ubiquitous cabs; now the rest of us have carshare options, too.
Family Bikes, Vanpools & Other Alternatives
As it is, I still drive too much. Working out a consistent, car-free commute routine is not hard, but when the schedule is different every day, it’s just too tempting to take the easy personal vehicle. I need to dust my bike off or maybe get a family bike that could really be a car replacement kind of thing for me. I’m inspired by a fellow parent I recently met who drives a Vanpool vehicle, sometimes bikes to work, and generally goes car-free with toddler in tow. She’s just bought a family bike, too – her brother told me “it’s like a motorcycle, but silent.”
On this blog, I look forward to interviewing alternative transport junkies, from those who ride electric-assist bikes to work, to those who enjoy long-distance walks as transportation, to those who are working as activists to make buses affordable for teenagers and low-income riders. I’ll also look at how we can stop the construction of more neighborhoods with WalkScores of 49 or less, which make residents car-dependent.
How much is the independence of having your own transportation worth to you? Do you suffer from Traumatic Traffic Stress Disorder? I look forward to hearing about your transportation habits, philosophies, and questions!