You can say I’m a dreamer
I ride a bike for transportation. By choice. I still own a car, but I wish I could get rid of it (and I may someday). Generally, this has made me happier and healthier than when I drove everywhere. This makes me something of a, well—a freak—in the eyes of many of my friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and many drivers “packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes, contestants in a suicidal race,” who rush past me on the road.
But there’s nothing that will clarify your perception more than breaking the chains of automobile imprisonment. What I mean is that I think the mental liberation I’ve gained by leaving the car at home is as important as the physical benefits and the benefits to the planet. Ride your bike and you begin to realize that we’ve made a series of choices to construct a car system (what environmental historian Christopher Wells calls “car country”) and locked ourselves in, then many of us claim that there’s no viable alternative. The only choice we assume we’ve left ourselves is what kind of car to drive. Of course, there are plenty of people who for a variety of reasons (lack of money, lack of legal status, cognitive or physical limitations) are unable to buy into the only choice we’ve made available, but it is assumed that if you have the means, owning a car is as natural as breathing, despite the irony that cars have made it harder for us to breathe.
Then there are those like me who’ve made a conscious choice to opt out of the car system to whatever extent we can, living car-free or (in my case) car-light. My own journey started riding my bike once a week, and gradually built up over time as I became more comfortable riding my bike and taking transit where I needed to go. As I’ve done so, a kind of clarity about the limitations of our car-based transportation system has gradually dawned on me.
As I’ve left the car behind, I’ve begun to realize how interconnected are our problems of climate change, air pollution, sprawl, traffic congestion, stress, public health, and the erosion of local communities, to name just a few. While the car is not the sole cause of these, it is the nexus. In a venn diagram of these problems, the car would be at the intersection. I’ve come to see that automobiles kill more Americans every year than just about anything else except firearms, and maim or seriously injure more than a quarter of a million a year in the US alone (worldwide, the figures are astronomically higher). When people say bikes are dangerous, what they really mean is cars are dangerous, and especially so to anyone not wrapped in 2,000-lbs of steel, glass and plastic. Lurking beneath the “bikes are dangerous” claim is an unexamined assumption that being virtually required to purchase an expensive 1-ton exoskeleton to get to work is a normative state of affairs instead of an incredible waste of resources and money.
The economic costs associated with this form of transportation are also staggering, when one factors in the cost of the infrastructure, the cost of motor vehicle management and traffic enforcement, the economic cost of injuries, obesity, cardio-pulmonary disease, stress-related diseases, not to mention the billions—nay, trillions—spent on securing steady supplies of petroleum and other raw materials to feed the insatiable demands of the machine. Not to mention the multi-billion dollar marketing juggernaut that fills our minds with the message that the car = freedom, setting us up to spend an average of $6,000 – $9,000 a year just to keep the damn thing on the road. The machine clearly owns us, not the other way around. Freedom, my ass.
Most appalling is the way so much of our public and private space has been given over to this machine. Over the decades, cars have gradually taken over road space from other users—people. These expensive cocoons of privatized space have so come to dominate our public spaces that it is no longer safe for children to walk or bike to school or play in the street as we used to do when I was young. The bulk of the space of any retail or commercial development, by law, is given over to the storage of our empty metal boxes. And if you really want to have fun, just try suggesting to your city that space along the road be set aside for protected bike lanes rather than a traffic lane or parked cars and, as soon as they realize you’re serious, witness the mouth-foaming that results. The solution to our traffic problem is always that more neighborhoods must be bulldozed to build/extend/widen more freeways/highways/parking lots. This moloch, master of our universe, must be served.
It’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, this rabid defense of the automobile domination of our lives. As the great historian E. P. Thompson understood, people’s consciousness is profoundly shaped by their lived experience. The “windshield perspective” reinforces itself until it is internalized and naturalized. When it is reinforced by a massively subsidized physical infrastructure and gigantic industries that propagandize it daily, it becomes essentialized. It becomes what Vandana Shiva calls a “monoculture of the mind.” People will defend it as if their very lives depended on it, when in fact our lives—and the future of the planet—depend on doing the opposite.
Despite the naysayers, change is slowly coming. With each new bike lane, each new rider I see on the road, my spirit lifts. Just maybe, I think, there’s hope for us yet. So, you may say I’m a dreamer. But, as John Lennon once sang, I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us ….