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The Road to Carfreedom and Top Ten Myths
by Steven Logan and Randy Ghent
Email: mbatko (nospam) lycos.com
28 Jun 2008
These articles are from Carbusters 2006. More articles are available at www.carbusters.org.
THE ROAD TO CARFREEDOM
By Steven Logan
The world consumes two barrels of oil for every barrel discovered. The era of easy oil is over. It took us 125 years to use the first trillion barrels of oil. We'll use the next trillion in 30.
You might have found these sorts of statements in our peak oil issue last year, or included in any number of environmental publications and reports. But the ones above are from Chevron advertisements, part of their Willyoujoinus.com campaign. On the one hand, we can just dismiss such well-funded talk as greenwash, but why is it that the language of Chevron and environmental organisations are sounding more and more similar?
As peak oil enters the mainstream, with films like Syriana and a Time magazine cover story, and hot-shot Hollywood celebrities tout the benefits of their new hybrid cars, a curious consensus is emerging around so-called sustainable transport.
Chevron's campaign - Will You Join Us? - perfectly illustrates this emerging consensus. We all need to come together, goes the logic, to solve humanity's insatiable demand for energy.
Yet these campaigns inevitably do not question our energy demands; they are accepted as givens, and the challenge is to find a solution to fill the demands. But when the alternative to consumption is more consumption, have we really found an alternative? When the alternative to driving a car is driving a car, what kind of alternative have we found?
We begin to fall into the trap where when we try to emphasise the carfree alternative, the inevitable response goes like, well, sure, but these cars are cleaner than the older cars. All other things aside, is that not a good deal to have a car which you can cycle behind that doesn't turn your lungs black? I am always a bit stuck in these situations. Yes, of course, it is better to have a tidy, Toyota hybrid cruising the roads than a beat-up Trabant that leaves a trail of pollution thick like butter. But it is this kind of reasoning that shuts down any effective debate about alternatives, and how our cities are structured. Yes, the clean car is better, but is it worth all of the money and research lavished upon it? And at what costs to public transport, cycling infrastructure, and public space improvements?
Randy Ghent takes this idea on, and others, in his second part of his two part look at the myths about the carfree movement.
In this issue, we would like to be that voice which does not gleefully promote hybrids, nor embrace the techno-fixes on offer from both governments and automobile corporations. As part of our feature on biofuels, we speak to three people with very different persepectives, but all involved in issues related to transport. With these interviews, we hope to give a diverse range of opinion.
But in the end, we'll continue to support and encourage the development of carfree communities.
We might be labeled as too radical, unable to see the real benefits of running cars on biofuels, rather than fossil fuels, but we prefer to not join the consensus, reiterating that carfree communities should be our ultimate goal. The fewer cars in our neighbourhoods, the better.
In my almost three years as editor of this magazine, I have come to see the importance of a true alternative voice in the cacophony of sustainability and cleaner cars.
And after three years, I am leaving as co-editor of Carbusters. I have done my best to make the carfree concept worth reading about for 32 pages, but a new editor will bring in new ideas and perspectives so that this movement continues its uphill battle against that curious consensus.
By Steven Logan
On a bitter cold Wednesday evening I left the Carbusters office on my way to the cinema. At one of Prague's inhospitable zebra crossings, I saw a car fast approaching. I had the right of way, but the driver showed no sign of letting me cross. He cut in front of me, but before speed-ing away, unrolled the window, leaned over and bellowed, I mean really screamed, "What do you want?! What do you want?!" This is the culture of rage and frustration through which car drivers express their "right" to drive.
If we do not want the automobile to swallow and chew up our neighbourhoods, we cannot continue to nurture and support this obsessive culture. The main theme in this issue is loosely centred around education, although it is just as much about children and their relationships to their neighbourhoods, city streets and the automobile. A number of perspectives are on offer. Sara Stout looks at teaching children to ride a bike in the city, while on the other side of the world in Bangladesh Debra Efroymson and Ziaur Rahman Litu show how children's knowledge of the streets and their ability to navigate them is largely influenced by class.
This is partly about educating children about automobile culture in a way to counter the massive amount of advertising that constantly tells children, and everyone else, that the car is one of society's most desired commodities. Vincent Aronio writes how easy it is for young people to become car dependent when ever since they were young, their parents drove them everywhere. It is also about educating children about the alternatives. Learning how to ride a bike is a memorable experience for many, but these skills are not always adequate to navigate dangerous city streets.
In Prague, one rarely sees a child riding a bicycle. One of the groups in Prague trying to change this is Auto*Mat, an open project that joins artists, filmmakers, cyclists, pedestrians and anyone else interested in making the city a more plesant place to live.
The image on the back cover is the work of Auto*Mat. It was a favourite of Auto*Mat's coordinator Jan Bouchal (pictured), one of the most determined and out-spoken advocates of cycling in this city.
On January 6, Jan was cycling home from work when he was struck by a car. He died six days later at the age of 30. Jan had previously called the city's attention to the dangerous nature of the very intersection where he was struck. Officials did nothing and now the people of Prague and anyone who wanted this city to be a better place for cyclists and pedestrians have lost one of their strongest advocates. At a January 19 memorial attended by some 250 people bearing flowers and candles, the first ghost bike in Prague was placed at the intersection where the accident occurred; others will be placed at the site of any accident involving a cyclist. Jan left behind his partner Petra and his three-year-old son Jakub.
This issue of Carbusters is dedicated to him.
TOP 10 MYTHS ABOUT THE CARFREE MOVEMENT
by Randy Ghent
Often, when people hear the word carfree, all kinds of ideas come to their minds, not all of them accurate or fair. This two-part article attempts to address those misconceptions.
Myth 10: It's All About Sustainable Transportation
"I'm not so interested in transportation actually. The topic's always kind of bored me."
Many people, when introduced to the carfree issue, might often see it as a theme neatly contained within the broader field of transportation. However, what the movement seeks to do could better be described as minimising the role of transportation in society and replacing it with interaction, exchanging mobility for proximity.
That is, we would like to have less obligatory transportation and more time and space freed up for the exchange of information, ideas, goods, services, skills, experience and culture. Human settlements were built to enable these types of exchange, and their urban form reflected this priority until recent history. Streets were not race tracks (what we call "busy streets") or boring dead zones ("quiet streets"), but places to talk and play, buy and sell, laugh and cry.
Walk out the front door of your home and imagine the streetscape as you'd want it if you had to spend the rest of your life in that very spot. Would it be a stream of vehicular traffic or a lively people-oriented space with lots to see and do?
Successful communication of this message (a focus on quality of life issues) could result in much greater public participation in the carfree movement. Being "carfree" is for everyone - men, women, and children. This would represent a shift from technical discussions of "modal shift" to practical, creative matters of how we want our road space to look and what we want it to be used for.
In describing this movement, the adjective "sustainable" is often placed in front of the word "transport" or "transportation." But the crux of the issue is not so much what can be sustained, as what should be sustained. After all, some practices that can be sustained shouldn't be. Torture, war, greed... While we could argue about whether mass automobile use can be sustained (and for how long), the carfree movement above all believes that it's not desirable, and should not be sustained.
Myth 9: There's Only the Here and Now
"I tried to get around without a car, but gave up after a while. It was too hard; my effort was an utter failure." .or. "You just want everyone to give up their cars!"
It can be expected that, where the automobile is the dominant mode of transport, it will also be the most practical, convenient option. The so-called "alternatives" will be just that - options outside the mainstream, lagging behind in practicality and convenience.
The idea is not to struggle against the stream of how most people "choose" to get around, since they're not given much of a choice. The car-based urban form and the allocation of street space can almost dictate how people today travel, and the behavior of a conscientious minority does not necessarily alter the situation much.
The idea, rather, is to transform our towns and cities into carfree places that will emphasise social interaction, and are built to function well with a combination of walking, cycling and public transport. Solutions exist to efficiently replace every existing function of the private automobile, but they will only be implemented if the car vacates those niches in the transport system.
Whether people drive today in our car-oriented context is not of major importance. Whether they lend their political support to the above vision is.
Rather than suggesting that people just stop using their cars overnight, the carfree movement believes we must first create human habitats that not just support but embrace carfree living. Only then can it rise from an alternative minority life-style to a normal mainstream fact of life. At that point people will be offered a real choice of where they want to live - a carfree neighbourhood or a car-dominated neighbourhood. They will be able to inspect and judge the two side by side.
We will no longer be required to make everywhere look like a compromise between Venice and Detroit. Our collective imagination will be given the task of transforming the urban landscape to create places truly worth living.
Myth 8: Carfree is a Strictly Urban Phenomenon
"It's not practical to live without a car in truly rural areas."
Actually, the vast majority of the world's rural population lives carfree. Rural settlement patterns can either favour car dependence or not, just as in cities.
For many people, the word "rural" conjures up images of the American West, the settlement pattern of extreme spatial isolation as the population of the United States spread westward. Unlike the community-minded clusters of New England villages, the West was surveyed into neat squares called "townships" (36 square miles), further divided into "sections" (1 square mile, or 640 acres); the typical farm was 80 to 320 acres, being one-eighth to one-half of a square mile, with few if any neighbours in sight.
Unlike rural people in most of the rest of the world, at the turn of the last century, the average American farming family lived on an isolated farmstead far removed from town and often from their neighbours on a property of less than one-quarter of a square mile. The isolation could only be overcome by access to private transport - and the faster the transport, the less extreme the family's isolation.
Today in Pakistan, by comparison, two-thirds of the rural population lives in dense villages or hamlets (i.e., in compact groups of dwellings). Unlike in America, dispersed habitation patterns are rare, found only in a few mountain regions.
This is the typical settlement pattern we see worldwide, and it is one that today can maintain its independence from cars - unless that way of life is overcome by the automobile's arrival.
Yes, it may be that the two transport systems cannot peacefully coexist; in many places the viability to live carfree in rural areas has been compromised by the arrival of the car-based system. It may become difficult or impossible to live carfree in those places.
Conversely, if the car-based system is replaced, locally or worldwide, then the carfree alternatives will suddenly reappear and regain their viability. We cannot say that it is inherently impractical to live carfree in the countryside. [Ed: We looked at the issue of carfree rural life, including first-person reports, in Carbusters #23.]
Myth 7: The Goal Should Be
a Balance Among Transport Modes
"'Carfree' is fine in some applications, but the important thing overall is to achieve a healthy balance between pedestrians, cyclists, public transport and motor traffic."
Since nearly everyone in the transportation reform movement proposes some variation on the theme of "balance," it is natural to either assume that the carfree movement supports this too or to dismiss "carfree" as provocative posturing.
Proponents of balance might suggest that the modal split should ideally be divided into 20% walking, 20% cycling, 20% public transportation, 20% driving, and 20% other (taxis, motorcycles, scooters, roller skates, horses, etc.).
But for the following reasons, among others, this notion of balance is highly problematic:
(a.) It implies that there's something inherently wrong with cities such as Venice that do not offer a balance, and do not accommodate all of the above modes;
(b.) It fails to recognise that equally accommodating all modes on the same streets or in the same district might result in a conflict or compromise among the modes rather than a true balance, or that there might be workable alternatives to the "level playing field" (which is unachievable anyway), by actually prioritising certain modes over others;
(c.) It is devoid of any critical analysis of particular modes, implying they are all benign and equally worthy of being accommodated, like the food groups in a balanced diet (overlooking for example the fact that cars kill 1.2 million people every year and injure or disable as many as 50 million more);
(d.) It assumes that because the car is convenient in today's automobile-based context, it is inherently convenient, and therefore must have a significant role to play in the future;
(e.) It fails to question whether cars would still be used 20% of the time (or even 5% of the time) if motorists actually paid the full "external" costs of driving that society as a whole currently pays for;
(f.) Rather than choosing only the cheapest and simplest options, it chooses all the options, overlooking the vast disparity in financial and road infrastructure requirements among the modes; and
(g.) It presents balance a goal in itself, implying that if car use falls below 20%, more driving should be encouraged until balance is re-established.
We are left to wonder: How low does the level of automobile use need to drop before the car's disproportionate demand for road space and resources becomes unjustifiable, and is no longer worth accommodating?
Myth 6: Transportation is a Matter of Personal Choice
"If you want to take the bus or ride your bike, go for it, but I hope you don't mind I'm going to carry on driving."
This myth is based on the perception that our social context (urban form, settlement patterns and infrastructure) is somehow "neutral" and therefore everyone can just pick and choose from a veritable shopping aisle of transportation choices without any negative impact on other people or modes. It assumes that the various travel modes exist in a vacuum.
For proponents of this view, if some modes of transport are not as practical as others in today's context, it's because those modes are inherently impractical or of limited utility. If the social context is seen as favouring one mode over another, this is deemed to be a minor factor at most.
This theory may suit market ideology perfectly, but what if one person's freedom to drive anywhere precludes someone else's freedom to enjoy an attractive, safe, lively and healthy living environment? What if certain freedoms are conflicting, or even mutually exclusive?
A child's freedom to play outside in the street or walk to school unsupervised is often sacrificed by motorists asserting their freedom to drive along the same route, compromising the child's safety.
Mass motorisation leads to the decision to locate a new hypermarket 10km from Village X, which in turn leads to the closure of the small village shops. One village resident's freedom to drive to the hypermarket then denies another resident the freedom to meet his/her needs locally and on foot.
It can work the other way too: The establishment of a pedestrian street in effect places a higher value in people's freedom to walk in a carfree environment than in motorists' freedom to drive there (although many more pedestrians can fit in the space than motorists).
We see that the rise of one mode typically occurs at the expense of another, such that our priorities must be decided collectively rather than individually.
Yet our freedom-embracing culture tends to deny the existence of mutually exclusive freedoms. Those in power must inevitably choose which freedom to value over the other, even if this is done subconsciously.
Until at least a large minority of people forfeit their freedom to drive everywhere, many people will not have the freedom to be carfree. Today those who are carfree have that freedom only in a restricted sense. That is, opportunities available to others are not fully available to them or may be more difficult to obtain. In other words, it means going against the grain, making sacrifices, and living an alternative lifestyle.
Unless such people get together and organise themselves as a community, they will not get the full advantages of being carfree - that is, they will not be able to live in an environment in which everything they want and need is close at hand.
Often, when people hear the word carfree, all kinds of ideas come to their minds, not all of them accurate or fair. This two-part article attempts to address those misconceptions.
Myth 5: The Automobile is an Object and Not a System
"I guess you don't want a lift then, since you don't like cars."
If we saw the automobile as a system, like the Communist system, we would not equate reluctant participation with approval. Just as people in former Communist countries were not hypocrites for opposing the regime while relying upon it to put food on the table, there is no contradiction in reluctantly using the car when and where it has genuinely become the only viable option.
A regime is a system imposed from above - one does not always have the luxury of non-participation. Still, one's opposition to the regime is crucial, as acceptance precludes action, and even desire for change. "Dissidents" must support and use non-automotive transportation options whenever possible - not for them to remain "alternatives," but for them to strengthen and gradually assert the leading role.
An "alternative" is like the short shelf of expensive produce labeled organic surrounded by rows of cheaper produce that is never honestly labeled as toxic. If we were to imagine a reasonable agricultural system, all produce would be organic - and need no label - and it would be unthinkable for people to eat poisoned produce.
With a carfree system, people would maintain complete freedom of movement, but their daily wants and needs would be close at hand. People would no longer be forced to travel to destinations placed tauntingly out of reach of their feet. The allocation of street space would prioritise human interaction over movement, and the permitted transport modes would be chosen for their low speed and space efficiency. The pedestrian would be both king and queen.
It is not important whether we like or dislike cars as objects, though we should not glorify them or accord them status. What does matter is that we recognise the fundamentally destructive nature of the automobile-based transportation and land use system, as well as the possibility and desirability of a carfree system to replace it.
If we treat cars as objects, we tend to fail to make certain important links. We might forget, for example, that cars are produced by one of the world's most powerful industries, an industry that seeks to maintain and expand its power, and which in turn has led to the automobile's monopoly on movement and road space. By buying a car, no matter how "green" it is labeled, we are reinforcing the industry's power. Any reasonable hope of turning things around requires dumping the auto industry off its throne.
Myth 4: Proposing Carfree Over Car-lite is Purist
"I'm a realist. I just want there to be far fewer cars, and then everything will be okay."
Some people who support a reduction in car use or car ownership believe that carfree proponents suffer from an ineffectual, unrealistic, utopian end-state fascination.
The first half of the accusation is unfair as it ignores the successes of the past decade, in which a dozen carfree residential developments have been successfully built. If we are really so ineffectual, then how did they come into being? Is it really so unrealistic to expect these successes to be built upon? After all, people pay premium prices to live on carfree streets where they do exist.
The "end-state fascination" part of the argument fails to recognise the fundamental difference between carfree and car-lite areas (places that permit cars in a limited way).
It can be demonstrated that a "car-lite" area doesn't offer the full advantages that a carfree area would, because the exclusion of cars allows for a qualitatively different sort of space. A green space between buildings is a perfect example. University campuses are full of them. Where there might otherwise be a road, there is just a path winding its way through a park-like environment. If a road had been built between those buildings, no matter how few cars actually used it, the environment would be categorically different. The park-like atmosphere would be lost.
A similar point can be made for entire cities. When cities are built to human proportions, the passing of a car requires pedestrians to step aside, and venders to move their wares. The impact of a single car's presence can be strongly felt.
So if it is "end-state fascination" to insist on an environment in which the car is both unnecessary and a negative presence, we should plead guilty. It is vital to focus on the end goal, and to understand what benefits would be sacrificed through compromise.
By saying that car-lite is better than carfree, the argument also unintentionally suggests that cars should be permitted to all the places where we have prohibited them - pedestrianised streets, parks, green spaces, our own living rooms, Venice... The unstated argument would go: "We have exactly the right amount of carfree space in our town. We can have no more and no less." This is extreme conservatism for its own sake - either a fear of any change whatsoever or a lack of imagination. It avoids any analysis of what existing car-permitting areas might be improved through conversion to carfree areas, no matter how obvious the benefits.
Myth 3: Carfree Streets are Commercial Streets
"I don't want more pedestrianisation in X-town because the chain stores would just take over."
It is excusable to assume that by pedestrianising a street, it will end up looking like an outdoor shopping mall. After all, most European and North American carfree streets are in fact commercial.
Even above street level, rents in carfree areas may rise due to the increased quality of the street environment, leading to gentrification: Offices replace residential units, and upscale apartments replace low and middle income housing.
This trend may develop initially, if nothing is done to counteract the effect, but there is also a limit to the amount of high-end retail that a town or city can support. It depends on many factors, including local income levels and the proximity of existing high-end shopping areas.
The more that carfree areas are expanded, the more room for diversity there is. Intelligent zoning can support the process, supporting mixed-use - a combination of retail, office and residential spaces, as well as non-commercial destinations. In other words, the municipality or local authority may stipulate for example that the ground floor of a particular building is to be for retail, the second floor for offices, and the third and fourth floors for apartments.
It may be, however, that local residents favour non-commercial uses of the ground floor, such as libraries, schools and centres of nonprofit activity - whether it be for clubs, organisations, classes, community meetings, recreation or otherwise. These can add much more to quality of life than a row of shops would.
Residents may also have ideas for non-commercial use of former street space once the cars have been removed. In fact, they may only agree to the carfree conversion because of the benefits of these facilities - community gardens, playgrounds, gathering places, sport facilities, stages for concerts or film screenings, etc.
And of course if a street is zoned as primarily residential, it's not going to turn into a shopping mall if residents succeed in making it carfree. The former fishing villages of the Yorkshire coast, for example, have many carfree residential streets today and throughout the past centuries.
Carfree areas are not limited to any prescribed plan; their potential is limited only by our collective imagination.
Myth 2: Carfree Living Isn't Realistic in Today's World
"You just want to turn back the clock."
In today's world - at least the modernised Western world - whether in towns, cities or rural areas, car trips can be roughly broken down into a ratio of 40:40:20. That is, 40% of existing car trips could easily be made by other means; and the next 40% could be made without a car if many small changes were made in infrastructure, services and schedules. The last 20% of car trips are currently difficult or impossible to make without a car, due to the automobile system having limited our choices - by having increased distances or eliminated carfree options.
The only place left to buy paint and wallpaper may be 15 km away, a "big box store" with a large car park on the edge of the motorway, and the distance is too great and the streetscape too hostile to comfortably cycle there, even if you did have access to a bike trailer. And the horse carts or work bikes that carry heavy loads elsewhere in the world are nowhere to be found.
That the situation could deteriorate to such an extent is surely a sign of the car's monopoly, not its inherent necessity. Transportation experts tend to describe the situations where a car may be necessary (read: may have become necessary), implying that it's always been that way and there's nothing to be done about it. But haven't we done without cars for millennia, and only developed our dependence in the last 80 years?
We cannot go back in time, but we can learn from the past to inform our vision for the future, and we can and must break up the car's monopoly. We can gradually transform our cities, to make them more compact, more lively, more social. It may take 50 years or more to complete the transition, but we must begin the process in earnest. Once we have done so, and only then, will the vicious circle be broken.
In our vision of tomorrow's world, that "big box store" and the motorway might be crumbling ruins. At a local shop you could load those cans of paint and rolls of wallpaper into a two-wheeled garden cart (perhaps shared by residents of your building) and bring it home via a three-minute walk along pedestrianised streets.
In the meantime, you can have your paint and wallpaper delivered to your home, and find similar solutions for those stubborn 20% of trips that might at first seem difficult to make without a car. And you can save yourself a lot of time and money in the process.
While there's no question that today some people have jobs or other activities that require driving, this is not true of everyone. People are more likely to organise their lives around a car if they have one, and to not if they don't. In fact, many people in "today's world" - even in places like Los Angeles - are already carfree.
Myth 1: "Clean" Cars and Fuels are the Solution
"Yeah, cycling and walking are nice, but you're also in favour of hybrid cars and biodiesel, right?"
Discussions with habitual motorists tend to take a predictable path, and you end up having to point out the negatives of various technofixes - supposed solutions that fail to address the underlying problems.
If you see air pollution and climate change as the main problems caused by cars, you might think of "clean" cars and fuels as the most promising solutions. You're also likely to be fixated on discussion of specific energy sources ("cleaner" ones to replace oil) rather than being focused on the actual amount of energy consumed. But what if air pollution is just a symptom of a much deeper problem?
As Ivan Illich wrote in 1973 in Energy and Equity, "high quanta of energy degrade social relations just as inevitably as they destroy the physical milieu ... A people can be just as dangerously overpowered by the wattage of its tools as by the caloric content of its foods, but it is much harder to confess to a national overindulgence in wattage than to a sickening diet."
While other parts of Illich's article have become accepted among transportation reformers and cited for their provocative power, his central point remains ignored. Whenever our energy-intensive lifestyle and transportation system is threatened, society seeks some way, however desperate, to enable it to continue.
This might mean turning the last of Indonesia and Malaysia's rainforests into oil palm plantations for biodiesel, or increasing fuel economy while relentlessly expanding the global automobile fleet. Or we might be seduced into replacing an old car with a new, cleaner one, resulting in two cars on the road instead of one, not to mention the added impacts of production and disposal.
The era of cheap energy is coming to a close and it's time to look at the big picture. We are coming up against resource limits that will force a rethinking. We can make things worse in a desperate scramble to maintain a high-energy society, or we can do both humanity and the planet a favour through a sustained energy diet.
Every destructive aspect of today's transportation system - whether it be road deaths, sprawl or the loss of public space - can be traced back to excessive energy use. Even if it were possible to run the system on solar power, little would change.
True solutions will result in lower overall energy consumption and a higher quality of life.
[These articles were published in: Carbusters #26-27, 2006. More articles are available from the London-based Carbusters at www.carbusters.org.]