Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

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 ….

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8 thoughts on “You can say I’m a dreamer

  1. I applaud your decision and commitment to integrate your bike into your commute and your entire life. I am a little envious that I have chosen not to do that. I do have my reasons (you may call them excuses), the biggest one being that I live far from my job, and commuting would make my already long days even longer.
    I am a little disappointed, though, by the ‘demonization’ of the automobile. It is a machine that was supposed to make our lives easier. It does. We don’t get soaked when it’s raining, we don’t suffer in the cold during the winter or the heat in the summer, we enjoy family time and togetherness during road trips, and enthusiasts enjoy track times or the wind in your hair motoring afforded by a convertible. The automobile is not the enemy or the evil that is so often portrayed.
    It is the consumer, the distracted driver, the typical (especially in SoCal) teenager that refuses to walk or ride a bike to school half a mile away, the soccer mom that ABSOLUTELY HAS TO HAVE a full-size SUV simply because ‘they’re soooo nice’…Why is it that a four-person family needs six vehicles? Why is it that Range Rovers that are massively capable off-road vehicles never get a speck of dust on them from being off-road? why is it that we absolutely HAVE TO HAVE a thirsty V-8 engine, when a 4-cylinder will do just fine?
    Our economy is still in such a better shape than the rest of the world, that the pain at the gas pump is not really felt. How $8 per gallon gas prices? What would happen then? I bet we would see more people be creative and -gasp!- use public transportation or (-double gasp!-) ride their bikes to the store for the groceries…
    Of course that would push us back to the dark ages of the 50s and 60s…
    Let’s be careful who we direct our angst towards: it’s not the machine. It is the people that do not know how to use it and appreciate it for what it is: a tool.

    • It is a tool, true. But my criticism is not so much of the car per se, as the way we’ve funded and built an entire infrastructure around it that makes people dependent on it. That dependency soon becomes a way of thinking about transportation that sees nothing but the car. I’d certainly support a higher gas tax, but only if the money were used to fund good public transit and safe space for walking and bikes, not expansion of the highway system. In the short term, I’d settle for folks leaving their cars at home one day a week, insofar as it opens a new perspective on transportation.

  2. I enjoyed this piece very much. A great deal of insight about the car-centric transportation system & mentality. After being hit by a car while riding my bike in October, a common question I have been asked is: ” Are going to buy a car, now?” It is strange logic to me but, I think that this speaks volumes to the Stockholm syndrome that you describe.

  3. Rich Slimbach on said:

    Awesome post. Yes, cars are convenient and comfortable. Yes, they allow us to pack more activity into a single day (school, work, gym, friends, grocery store), and all of the family into a single vessel. Not to mention those breath-taking summer road trips up Highway 1 with the top down. But the dream may be coming to an end. Like the author says, there are just too many “unintended consequences” of car culture–sprawl, congestion, pollution, land degradation, fatalities, ill health, social inequality, and geopolitical madness–for me to defend it any longer (as much as I might want to). And I can’t see ultra-lightweight, oil- and pollution-free, IT-enabled “personal vehicles” as an answer. They’d only encourage a MORE suburbanized, technology-mediated, unhealthy, anonymous, and homogenous social world. Not a version of L.A. that I would want to leave my children’s children. Is the region too far “(infra)structuralized” in the opposite direction to put the transit system in reverse? Or are we destined to export our “progress” to all those in the developing world who currently suffer from transit “backwardness”?

    • Rich, thanks so much for the thoughtful comment and question. It will not be easy to shift to a non-automotive centered transportation system, but there are encouraging signs out there. Witness a new study by a USC scholar who documented significantly lower levels of automobile use by people who live near Expo Line stations. Interestingly, the effect is diminished if people have to cross heavily-trafficked arterials, but enhanced if people have access to safe routes for pedestrians, bikes, and buses. There is hope.

      • Meant to include the link to the study on the Expo Line. Here it is.

      • Rich Slimbach on said:

        Thanks, John. A half mile radius is, presumably, the maximum walkable distance. The trick, I guess, is to somehow expand the radius by some combination of disincentives (high fuel prices, carbon tax) or other (subsidized) incentives that move people 1-3 miles out from home to station. In SoCal, the “obvious” solution is the bicycle. But broad adoption would seem to require a fundamental change in consciousness, whether “fueled” by the need to save $$ or to improve personal well being (physical, mental, social). My 22 year old daughter still won’t ride a bike, even though she has watched her car-free father commute from Monrovia to Azusa for the last 20 years. It’s still not quite “cool” enough.

      • I hear you, Rich. It’s going to take improved bike infrastructure to/from the transit nodes. Then more people will ride—even some of the “cool” people. It’s happening elsewhere (NYC, SF, Portland, Chicago, Washington DC, not to mention W. Europe) but we’re behind the curve. BTW: I’ve been riding to school once a week with my middle school daughter. So far, she’s been doing great. Hope she’ll continue, even after she’s in her 20s. But I want her to have safe streets to ride on. That’s why I fight for bike lanes: for the next generation.

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