Scenes from Autopia
Last week I was riding my bike home from the market with some groceries, when I saw a friend leaving her workplace, which is about a quarter of a mile from her house just up the same street. She walked to the street, got into her SUV, made a U-turn, and drove home a distance of roughly 1,500 feet. The street is not terribly busy, not too steep, and has a sidewalk. Yet, instead of walking or riding a bike, the default mode of transportation for my friend, and for most Americans, is a car. That used to be me, until I discovered how easy, healthy, and fun it could be to get around on my bike.
This begs the question of whether it is really necessary for an able-bodied adult to drive a 3,000-lb SUV to a destination 1,500 feet away. There may be times when it would be necessary to drive that short a distance, perhaps if one had an oversized load, a broken leg, or if weather was really bad and you had small children with you (though some people with small children have gone car-free and loved it, like this family in Portland). But surely we can drive less and be healthier (and happier) for it. Would it really be so hard to substitute one short car trip per week for walking or bicycling? Just one? The sad part is, my friend, like most Americans, probably never thought twice about firing up the SUV for a 1,500-foot trip down the street on a pleasant, sunny morning. It just becomes habit.
In this case, it is not primarily the lack of bike or pedestrian-friendly infrastructure that is the problem, or time (on my bike, I passed her house roughly 15 seconds after she got there in her car). I hate to say this, but a big part of the problem is laziness, mental and physical laziness that our car-culture encourages. Why exert your own energy, when there is plenty of gas to burn and it will do the work for you? And, there’s the wrongheaded assumption that riding a bike or walking is for losers (remember the Missing Persons song “Walking in L.A.”? . . . only a nobody walks in L.A. . . .). But, really, have we become so dependent on cars that we don’t even think twice about driving 1,500-feet rather than walking or bicycling?
And, of course, there’s the traffic and pollution such short trips produce. Our cars spew more pollution and greenhouse gasses in the first three miles when their engines are not warmed up, than they do after. And there’s the lack of exercise we Americans get. Perhaps, like many Americans, my friend pays to go to a gym (doubtless she’ll drive there) and walk on a treadmill or ride a stationary bike. Paying money and burning gas to go nowhere and get the exercise our driving deprives us of.
Now, I’m not advocating that everyone give up cars completely (I haven’t). There are times they may be necessary, especially in many suburban neighborhoods where distances are great, but it is time to recognize the physical, economic, and environmental costs of our driving habit, and rediscover the healthy, economical alternatives of walking and bicycling for some of our short trips.
Take the step. Leave your car at home for one short trip per week–just one. It makes a world of difference.