Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Get out of your damn car!

Yeah, you heard me. Turn off the ignition and get out of your car. And stop rolling your eyes, I'm getting sick and tired of the "this guy must be crazy" look that people keep flashing me when I start ranting about the evils of God Car. September 22nd is World Carfree Day so it's the perfect opportunity to rid yourself of the worst habit you have, the one that has made you a slave to machinery and will slice a few years off your life.

Isn't it ironic that the car, which was sold to us as a symbol of freedom, has been the instrument of our enslavement? Huh? That's right, once upon a time people lived in communities, towns, villages and cities where they could walk anywhere they needed to go. Enter God Car and the 20th century saw urban planners redesign our living patterns and get rid of public transportation so that we could boost the automobile industry by building a vast network of roads. Cars had to be able to get everywhere and do everything. Stores needed to comply with parking requirements, be set back from the street, separated from each other and surrounded by humongous parking lots. Neighbourhoods zoned into islands isolated from each other requiring half an hour of driving just to get anywhere. Walking? Forget about it. Even if there's sidewalks at all, where are you going to walk to? The WalMart 15 kms away? Once you get there, how are you going to get to the Home Depot that you can see over yonder? You'll have to scramble over a fence if you want to avoid walking back onto the main road, both options are perilous to your health.

You want more irony? America redesigned her living patterns and got rid of public transportation so that we could boost the American automobile industry. Now she is forced to pay huge taxes to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and other oil-producing countries while buying over half her cars from Japan and Germany and Korea. The freedom giving, time saving car is in fact consuming much of your life. People slave away at work in order to earn enough to one day buy a car, or maybe, fingers crossed, even two, in order to become another victim. Yep, more cars, more deaths. 43,300 Americans died on the highways in 2005, making motor vehicle accidents the leading cause of death of people aged 4 to 33. About 1.3 million people die a year in road crashes, more than 3,600 a day. While this number is staggering, making matters worse are the disproportionate number of young people killed this way, half of all road victims are aged between 5 and 44.

Moving to Europe from Canada was a culture shock in many different ways, but one of the most obvious differences was the way cities, town and villages were set up in such a way that people didn't need to rely on cars. A Canadian's first reaction to my car hating is often, "Well, the bus doesn't come here" or "the loser cruiser only comes every hour". Which exemplifies the evil of car culture from the two most dangerous points, which have fed off each other for the past century. First, that society changes because of the car along with the infrastructure. Second, the idealized vision of American life is built on car ownership and driving, and the rest of the world understandably aspires to duplicate American success. European roads are for the most part much narrower, which logically means there needs to be fewer cars but as more and more people are driving, the pedestrians lose out as cars NEED space - to drive and park, often on the sidewalk. People stop visiting local shops, instead they lock themselves away in their metal cages and drive to IKEA. Quaint cobblestone streets and family run bakeries survived two world wars but they are being bombarded by the car assault and losing. We no longer have to talk to people (if you're nodding your head saying "but that's a good thing", um, that's my point). My truck is bigger, my car is faster, so what if I'm just compensating for shortfalls in other areas, I'm cooler now that I have a car. De-individuation, the act of disregarding other people as individuals occurs as drivers don't see a person driving a car next to them in traffic, but just a car. It’s just a box on wheels, and it’s in their way. Road rage anyone?

While Europeans a losing out culturally, the situation is even worse in Africa and Asia, where the poor quality of roads has led to an epidemic of fatalities in crashes. 90% of deaths on the world's roads occur in low and middle-income countries though they have just 48% of all registered vehicles. India now leads the world in traffic fatalities, with over 100,000 a year and rapidly rising. It is expected that rapid growth in car ownership combined with poor infrastructure will drive worldwide deaths to 2 million per year by 2020 and Indian deaths to 150,000 yearly by 2015.

Ah, but there's the rub you see. Cars are more that just status symbols, they are money and jobs. The economic impact is nearly unquantifiable. Humongous. Just look at Detroit to see how a slowdown in the American car industry has destroyed more than just a football team (ah, the 0-16 Lions) but an entire city. India would need to spend a trillion and a half dollars to to build and maintain a western standard road system. Is there any end to the benefit to the economy produced by the effects of General Motors destroying public transportation in America nearly a century ago. Builders, suppliers, repairers, drivers, unions, shippers, receivers, dealerships, pavers, engineers - the hospitals, ambulances, paramedics ... think of the jobs. And motor sports? How would hillbillies live without NASCAR? The idea of developing a mass transit system has traditionally been considered inimical to the capitalistic free-market. Imagine that, a nation not wanting to provide a public good for the population. Consequently, the production of tens-of-thousands of automobiles was encouraged and supported by federal legislation as thousands of poor people began working gainfully in Michigan in the mass production of cars. Of course people rushed to buy them but with the prices out of reach of middle-class Americans, installment buying was concocted and the credit consumer society was born. Who cares if people are dying by the boatloads as they realized by the mid-1920's. A federal court case to determine whether or not cars should be banned by the federal government as dangerous to the public declared the motorized car a necessary evil.

What happens when people decide to get out of their car? Whole cities can be reinvented, parking spaces can be put to more productive use, they question why cars have more rights than people. Change for the better. Times Square in New York has recently opened up more car free area, Kiwis are fighting for the right to cross the Auckland Harbour Bridge by foot instead of paying for a ferry. Critical Mass projects are gaining in strength around the world, from San Francisco to Budapest. Perhaps we're already witnessing the change as the exodus to the suburbs and exurbs of the past seems to be reversing, re-enforcing the lessened need for a car. Discovering that just like a hammer, a car is simply a tool, a means to an end, not vice-versa. While I hate cars, I know their use as well, and am sure that I come off as a freaky hippie who would like to rid the world of cars, as many will portray us. The reality is that we need choice and the current world doesn't offer it and it's getting worse. 'No more cars' doesn't mean getting rid of them, it means not adding any more while nurturing alternatives.


Troy said...

You are the chosen one, my Messiah. Preach and we will listen...or at least I will.

Shane said...

Ahhh yes, Messiah...


RE Ausetkmt said...

Shane, You Are My Man !
talkin about that metal deathmobile.
Yes Shane, it's good to see you back.
Keep it goin, as I see there are now others in the congregation.

trust me, we are following

Shane said...

Thanks for the comment RE, trust me, it's good to hear that someone is listening!