Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “Christopher Wells”

Being an Advocate

A friend recently asked me how I got into bike advocacy.  Well, actually, she asked me how I got into “advocacy,” and I assume she meant bike advocacy, though I think I’ve been an advocate for social justice most of my life.  It’s just part of who I am, I guess.  I see something that needs changing and I research the issue and often join with others who are working on that issue.  We call such people “advocates” or “activists” or sometimes “troublemakers,” but, really, when you get right down to it, isn’t that just citizenship?  We’ve created these labels for active citizenship in part because we live in an era when our role as citizens is supposed to be passively consumed on TV or social media, not in real life.   Those who get out and organize for change are thus labeled as an aberration—a “special interest”—when in fact that’s what every citizen should probably be doing.

Back to the main question.  I got into bike advocacy because the moment I started riding my bike for transportation I started to realize most of our streets had been misdesigned.  It was only as I studied the issue further that I realized how badly misdesigned they were and how it was connected to other misuses of social space and resources.  About the time I began substituting my bike for some of my short car trips (around 2008 or so) a colleague at work showed me an article on bicycle infrastructure in Europe—focused on either Copenhagen or Amsterdam, I can’t recall which—and it fired my imagination for what could be, what might be, and what is possible.  Since then, I’ve immersed myself in the history of how our society constructed a car-based infrastructure that limits how we live, interact with each other, and get from place to place.  It has underscored the importance of radically changing our infrastructure to adapt to more socially and environmentally sustainable transportation modes.

Shortly thereafter I started finding and joining bicycle advocacy (there’s that word again) organizations like the LA County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) and CICLE that connected me with others who had a similar vision.  I went on the LA River Ride sponsored by LACBC and several other group rides sponsored by CICLE.  Around 2010, I went on a CICLE-sponsored “tweed ride” in downtown LA.  In many ways I really saw LA for the first time.  Oh, I’d driven through LA many times, usually on my way to someplace, but being on my bike revealed the rich texture of the city for the first time.  It was a revelation that you could feel safe riding city streets if there were enough other people riding too.  I also met Joe Linton on this ride, and he inspired me to continue my effort to be the change I wished to see in the world, as Mahatma Gandhi would say.  I wanted to write about my experiences, share them with others to show that another world is possible, but I was reluctant.  Joe provided the encouraging words that helped me to start this blog, too.  I think that the experience of CicLAvia really reinforced how different—how much better—our human interactions could be in car-free spaces.  CicLAvia sort of turned me into an evangelist for creating car-free space in our communities and giving people realistic alternatives to the car.

This hasn’t been easy.  Recognizing how badly we’ve gone wrong when others don’t even recognize the problem exists can be a lonely and frustrating experience.  Reading writers like Jane Jacobs, Jane Holtz Kay, Jeff Mapes, Charles Montgomery, Jeff Speck, Peter Norton, Christopher Wells, and others, made me realize I wasn’t alone and helped me deepen my sense that these changes were not only possible but highly desirable.  Reading deeply about the existential crisis of climate change has reinforced that the status quo is unsustainable and that radical change is essential.

Change is never easy, but without a movement of organized people pushing for change it will not happen by itself.  When I see the need for safer streets for myself, I know that they’ll benefit others, too.  I also know that it won’t happen if we don’t shake people out of their complacency.  No individual can do it alone—it takes a group of people to get anything accomplished and the bigger and more diverse the group, the stronger it is.  It’s only working in concert with others that my choices make a larger difference.  And really, we build on the work of those who came before and we’re dependent on others joining the struggle after us, too.

My experience as an historian leads me to understand that going against the automobile-fossil fuel-industrial complex and changing people’s living habits will not be easy, but neither was the abolition of slavery, the struggle for workers’ rights, women’s rights, or civil rights.  Indeed, as Naomi Klein has suggested in her latest book This Changes Everything, these movements for human rights must be seen as part of the larger struggle for peace, civil rights, economic justice, a livable planet, and livable social space.   Making our streets and communities safer and more convenient for alternative modes of transportation (walking, bicycling, and transit) doesn’t solve all of these issues, but, properly understood, it is part of the solution that addresses each of them in part.

Change is happening, a movement is emerging.  Why am I an advocate?  I want to be a part of it—even if only a small part.  I don’t know exactly where the movement will lead, but that is what makes it exciting.

Cars and the Environment Pt. 2

In my review of Tom McCarthy’s Auto Mania (Cars and the Environment pt. 1), we explored the unprecedented environmental harm resulting from the mass production and use of motor vehicles.  Whereas McCarthy argues that consumer decision-making drove the automobile to its apex in modern American life, our next author, Christopher Wells, places those consumer decisions in the context of local and national government policies that created a physical environment that virtually required car ownership for full membership in society.


Wells’s book, Car Country: An Environmental History (University of Washington Press, 2012) provides a context for those consumer decisions.  If, after all, one is dependent on the automobile because of an infrastructure designed primarily for automobility, how free are those consumer decisions?  And how did this infrastructure come to be so dominant?  Wells sets his interpretation apart from what he calls the “love affair thesis” (i.e., that America’s love affair with cars is the primary explanation for our car-dominant society) and what he calls the “conspiracy thesis” (i.e., that automobile dominance occurred as a result of a cabal of automobile manufacturers and oil companies removing streetcars and weakening public transportation).

Wells argues that we must look at the broader patterns of land use and development that shape people’s transportation needs and choices.  Put bluntly, when developers and government agencies design a landscape to be accessed primarily by automobiles, they create a “car country” that virtually requires automobile ownership.  If, on the other hand, a society designs mixed-use landscapes that are conveniently accessible by walking, bicycling, and transit, people will find it easier to get along without a car.  He contrasts his own experience growing up in car-centric suburban Atlanta, where he was dependent on a car, and where he cherished his beloved Toyota pickup with his later experience living in Switzerland, where he found it easy (and inexpensive) to get around without a car and where, he notes, “I never really missed having a car.”  When he returned to the US, he tried cycling for transportation but it “felt dangerous” once he got beyond the confines of his own neighborhood where “a crush of traffic had enveloped the city in the 1980s.”  He concluded from his own experience that “How I felt about cars had little bearing on whether or not I needed one.”  Thus, he seeks to understand how people’s need for a car influenced how they felt about cars, and he provides a social and environmental context for Americans’ widespread use of the car by the end of the 20th century.  Wells makes a persuasive case that land-use patterns, not attitudes (i.e., the “love affair”) are the strongest determinant of a transportation system’s success, whether it is transit-based or car-based. (pp. xx-xxv)  Critics of the car have tended, he says,

to focus on cars rather than roads and on the behavior of drivers rather than the powerful forces shaping American land-use patterns.  (xxxiv)

Wells is at his best getting us to “think about landscapes,” and the impact they have on people’s decisions about driving.  He contrasts older “streetcar neighborhoods” of the pre-automobile era that were organized around streetcar routes with walkable distances between housing, shopping, and other neighborhood destinations, and the post-WWII “exit ramp neighborhoods” zoned as single-use, geographically separated areas designed to be conveniently accessed only by automobile.  The process did not happen by itself, but was facilitated and accelerated by government policies that drove highway design and funding while neglecting public transit and FHA loan guidelines that favored suburban housing and retail developments zoned for single-use.  Meanwhile older, mixed-use streetcar neighborhoods were frequently neglected or destroyed by freeway construction and “urban renewal.”  Wells shows that the postwar drive to the suburbs was indeed a “choice,” but it was a choice that was virtually the only rational one for many people, given the fact that its immense costs were effectively socialized by federal, state, and local policies.   Once the process began, it locked in the auto-centered lifestyle, leaving people few convenient alternatives to the car.

streetcar vs. car design

Wells reiterates the tremendously destructive environmental impact of the automobile highlighted by Tom McCarthy, underscoring the imperative to change the policies that lead to car-dependence for millions.  He also highlights the immense challenge this will pose, for the costs of car-dependence are often invisible on an individual level:

Both smog and climate change illustrate a persistent theme in environmental politics: problems that seem negligible or unimportant on an individual scale can, once aggregated, have national or even global environmental implications.  Because the problems do not become clear until after large numbers of people are involved, the damaging behaviors have often accrued both widespread social acceptance and economic importance.  Moreover, the causal linkage between seemingly harmless behaviors … and environmental problems … frequently requires elaborate scientific explanation.  This creates opportunities for entrenched interests to challenge the science … which often take time and study to disprove.  As a result, “attack, delay, and ask for more research” has proven a fruitful strategy for those hoping to avoid new environmental regulations.  Moreover, because such problems frequently necessitate sweeping changes in established behaviors, effective regulations are frequently intrusive and perceived as onerous. (p. 351)

Applied to the effort to move people away from auto-dependence, this theme suggests a daunting challenge lies ahead for those of us who seek to build a new infrastructure around alternatives to the automobile.  Nevertheless, Wells’s study proves that Americans are not hard-wired to love cars, and that creating more compact, mixed-use developments in cities and even suburbs around good transit and safe streets for bicycling and walking can wean Americans from their environmentally destructive and unhealthy auto habit.  It also suggests that for many people changing attitudes are likely to follow, rather than precede, a change in our infrastructure.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: