Our love affair with the car has turned into a relationship of dependence, shaping our lives and our cities. But what if our lives would be better without automobiles? Anik See explores what carless life is like on three different continents and for three different generations.
I’ve always lived without a car. Even coming from Canada, where the going mentality is that a car is like a limb—you don’t choose not to have one.
Cities are becoming far better places because they are less car-dependent. The six most walkable cities in the US are 38 per cent wealthier, they have a higher GDP than the rest.Peter Newman, Curtin University
I’m not against cars, though I do think a billion of them on this planet is maybe a few too many. To me, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. Permits. Losing your keys in the middle of nowhere. Washer fluid. Snow tires. Radiator juice. Speeding tickets. Cracked windshields. Knowing which streets are one way and negotiating your way around them. Finding parking. Buying a ticket. Stopping for gas. Oil changes. Repairs. Insurance. Registration. The cost! The endless traffic jams and, most of all, all that time where you can’t do anything but drive.
It feels like too much fuss to me, especially when there’s a much simpler freedom easily available: the one you feel while walking or riding a bike. Getting where you want to go, powered strictly by your own body.
More and more people are now choosing to live without cars, and cities around the world are trying to adjust by providing alternative forms of transportation—from shared bicycles and automobiles to streamlined taxi, bus and tram services.
Those changes have mostly stemmed from low points. In the Netherlands in the late 1960s, for example, automobiles had taken over the world’s most famous cycling city, Amsterdam. ‘Cars were everywhere,’ says Pete Jordan, city resident and author of In The City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist.
‘Even just finding a place to park your bike was difficult because there were cars parked on the sidewalks and on the squares. It was extremely dangerous—there were more than a 100 traffic deaths per year at the beginning of the 1970s, including a great many children … now we have three or four or five, so it’s a tremendous difference from how it was at its lowest point.’
That transition was a relatively quick one; by the late 1970s, the Netherlands was fully committed to providing a functioning infrastructure for alternative transportation and continues to develop it today.
Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Curtin University, says our reliance on automobiles goes beyond infrastructure and convenience. ‘I think it does, in all kinds of subtle ways, affect the way we live and think about ourselves. The automatic reaction is to reach for the keys if you need to go anywhere, even if it’s a few hundred metres.’
But research shows we’ve reached ‘peak car’: car ownership and usership are both beginning to decline. ‘And cities are becoming far better places because they are less car-dependent,’ Newman says.Image: A family out biking together. The young girl couldn’t quite make the distance home so she got a lift. (Anne and Tim/Car Free Days; Flickr.com/CC/BY-NC-ND/2.0)
‘The six most walkable cities in the US are 38 per cent wealthier, they have a higher GDP than the rest. So it’s a significant factor of competition between cities now that if you really want to progress and facilitate the knowledge economy, then you must make walkable, transit-oriented areas. If you don’t, you won’t be competitive; you will slowly decline the way Detroit has, because it’s just a consumption-oriented city now.’
Not using a car changes your perspective on a few things—like neighbourhood and pace. Musician and ardent urban cyclist David Byrne has spent the last thirty years in his bicycle seat, extolling its virtues: ‘It’s the liberating feeling—the physical and psychological sensation—that is more persuasive than any practical argument,’ he writes in his book Bicycle Diaries.
‘Seeing things from a point of view that is close enough to pedestrians, vendors and storefronts combined with getting around in a way that doesn’t feel completely divorced from the life that occurs on the streets is pure pleasure.’
And let’s face it: cars are expensive. Even before cars became something everybody had, William Ashdown warned in The Atlantic Monthly in 1925 that ‘the habit of thrift can never be acquired through so wasteful a medium as an automobile’.
‘Instead, the habit of spending must be acquired,’ he went on, ‘for with the constant demand for fuel, oil, and repairs, together with the heavy depreciation, the automobile stands unique as the most extravagant piece of machinery ever devised for the pleasure of man.’
For a long time, the convenience of owning a car outweighed the expense, but now, 90 years after Ashdown’s prescient critique, the tables have turned. Having a car is a hassle, and not owning one is far more convenient. Fewer and fewer young people are buying cars, or even getting their drivers’ licenses.
Helsinki has taken one of the boldest approaches to automobile dependence; the city is implementing a system that makes it redundant to own a car. They’ve hired 25-year old Sonja Heikkilä to head up the project, which is all about regarding mobility as a service. The idea is to create a network of transportation operators who can interface to help users with all aspects of their trip, from buses, trams and metros to shared taxis, cars and bikes. Users type in their destination via a mobile app, view their travel options and book and pay for everything in one go. Heikkilä expects to see a version of the system up and running in about a year, beginning the transition from ownership to usership.
It’s not just the young who are less interested in owning cars, and it’s not just happening in Europe. Hannah Evans, an urban planner I know in Toronto, told me it’s easy to live there without a car too. ‘In my group of friends, who range in age between late twenties and early sixties, I can think of maybe three of them who have cars,’ she says. ‘The rest of them are not car owners. They may have memberships to auto-share, they may rent cars, but most of their day-to-day-living is car-free and that’s because it’s easier, cheaper and more convenient.’
Indeed, the other day, I heard someone suggest that the car might become ‘the cigarette of the future’. And given the changes afoot, that doesn’t seem very far off.