New Internationalist

Life without the car

Issue 424

Chris Richards tries to put the brakes on her addiction to cars by driving through some unmapped terrain. Illustrations by Kate Charlesworth.

Living without a car. What a load of middle class clap-trap! Sure, cars may kill more people every year than all the world’s wars. And, yes, cars pump out nearly a fifth of the globe’s greenhouse gases each year. But having just finished one job and travelling to my next with rain falling heavy on my head, how can I – a mere mortal – fit the daily schedule of work, shopping and family commitments into one day without a car and still keep sane? 

Not possible, I think, as I’m stomping around the bus-stop. This is the third time I’ve tried to give up the car. During the first attempt – in November last year – I was running for election as a local government Councillor in Frankston in southeastern Australia. The campaign lasted two months; my car-free life two days. Lugging around boxes of pamphlets over 27 square kilometres on foot as I tried to canvass 30,000 homes turned out to be impractical. But as I talked with voters, a string of stories about speeding hoons1 in their streets reminded me why I should try again.

Internationally, road crashes now claim 1.2 million lives a year and injure 50 million more. The carnage affects every corner of the world. In Vietnam in 2007, 40 people were dying on the roads each day – 12 of them children. Another 25 children were ending up in hospital each day with brain trauma from a motor accident. As a consequence, the country loses an estimated 1.5 per cent of GDP to traffic accidents – $1 billion per year.2,3

Faced with the facts on such suffering and expense, who on earth would want a motor vehicle? Amazingly enough, nearly everyone. Despite the emergent recession, an estimated 52.9 million passenger cars were produced in the world last year. At this rate three new cars came into the world every two seconds – more than one car for every three babies born. From Asia through to Africa the transition for travellers in developing countries is from water-buffalo to bicycle, then from bicycle to motor-bike, before accelerating into cars. There are more than 20 million motor-bikes registered in Vietnam – one for every four people. They transport every possible passenger with every conceivable load, from beams of wood for building construction to stacks of containers of freshly hatched eggs. Carrying their cargoes to new markets and connecting their drivers with schools, hospitals, new opportunities and people, the mobility of a motor vehicle is so prized that nearly everyone everywhere ignores its potentially fatal consequences.

There are rational explanations as to why drivers treat cars in such an irrational way. Like love that is blind, author Katie Alvord describes the relationship as a bad marriage – an affair that should be destined for divorce. Randall Ghent from the World Carfree Network in England says cars are addictive, and has helped set up Autoholics Anonymous.3 How I feel about my car shares elements of both.

The car addict 

Just like a smoker who doesn’t take in the warnings of mutilated mouth and lungs on cigarette packs, I quickly learnt to disregard the fact that driving may be bad for my health. I had to – otherwise I would have never turned the ignition key. My grandfather died a protracted death after being run over by a car. I haven’t ever felt comfortable with the alternative of riding a bike since I was knocked off one by a car 30 years ago. Now the car and I are so close that – like an overly dependent lover – where I go, he goes. But after winning the election and becoming a local Councillor, it’s now my job to help plan safety in our streets. Feeling like a hypocrite, I try again to ditch my car.

I choose going cold turkey over a gradual withdrawal. After all, it worked when I gave up smoking. Without a bike, that means taking public transport and walking. Here in downtown Frankston, Victoria, in a city of 120,000 people, you’d reckon it would be easy. I have no children wanting a lift to school or soccer, basketball or ballet. Living on the beach, a kilometre from the city centre, everything should be within my reach. And it is – if you don’t want to travel anywhere other than on the direct public transport routes leading into the city centre.

Our level of dependency on the car determines nearly every aspect of life – the reach of our social activities and the extent of the places and people we experience

But my next car-free period lasts only four days. Frankston is directly linked to Victoria’s capital, Melbourne, by around 40 kilometres of rail. I make the rail trip regularly – it’s a much more relaxing journey as a passenger looking out the train window than as a driver in bumper-to-bumper traffic. But it had been a searing summer in which the sun burnt up bushes and branches before our eyes weeks before the bushfires raged through the country. The railway tracks buckled in the heat, leaving the train service in disarray. To complete my trip, I catch a taxi, which is (of course) a car! Speeding towards Melbourne, I groan and resolve to keep trying, reminding myself that I successfully gave up smoking by going cold turkey… 19 times.

It’s the next attempt – my third failure – that leaves me livid. Even if I rode a bike (which I can’t, and, by the way, neither can a whole host of others), it’s raining so hard that I’d be drenched by the time I arrived at my Council meeting. Turning my back on the bus-stop, I stride towards the garage. I am now among the ranks officially working ‘very long hours’ (which, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is 50 hours or more a week). It’s only a five-minute drive, traversing across town to where I need to go. But it will take an hour on public transport to get there, going into town by bus then out again on another route. It’s time I don’t have.

Driving the agenda

Daily to-do lists would be impossible without quick, easily accessible transport. In Australia, ‘very long hours’ of work have become more common for full-time workers over the years since 1985, particularly for men. By 2005, 30 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women were officially clocking up ‘very long hours’.4 A quick ride home will help these busy people face the additional work that home and family bring – for women 33 hours and 45 minutes on average, peaking at a whopping 53 hours per week for women under 45 with children under 15. Factoring in a modest seven-hour sleep each night, there are only 119 waking hours a week. In urban areas, where public transport is either unreliable or inaccessible, the car is not an option but a necessity. It is the only way to service overcrowded lives. The result is paradoxical: as community understanding of the need to reduce our carbon footprint increases, so does societies’ dependency on cars.

Rather than cars being our servants, many of us have become enslaved. Our level of dependency determines nearly every aspect of life – the reach of our social activities and the extent of the places and people we experience. Motor vehicles define where and how we shop. Who can carry home a trolley-load of goods from the local supermarket without some motorized transportation? Even health levels can be measured by the motor. Fresh food improves health: its consumers enjoy lower rates of diabetes, less cholesterol and fewer heart attacks than fast-food eaters. But, as the speakers explained at the first meeting of the Food in Frankston Forum, one of the top three barriers to a fresh food diet is physically getting to a fresh food outlet. It is a pressing issue of social policy that particularly affects the life expectancy of low income earners. There are only a handful of shops and markets selling locally produced fresh food in the Frankston region. Indeed, unless you have the luxury of two hours to spend on a bus, if you want food free of chemicals and genetic modification, you presently need a car to get it.

Urban design taken for a ride

Certainly cars help people to connect. But they also disconnect. Out on the open highway, severed from the natural world by speed and steel, drivers don’t identify themselves as part of the outside environment that’s whizzing past them and don’t see what they’re leaving behind. As a consequence, they let their cars pour out 1,000 known pollutants, contributing as much as a fifth of the globe’s carbon emissions, including more than 15 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Arriving in a garage at their destination, they may not have enjoyed a single encounter with the outside world.

Yet if they’d slowed down and looked, they could have seen how cars have captured public space and taken it for a very long ride. Cities have been constructed around the car, not the people who live there. As the radius of human journeys has increased so has the asphalt that has been rolled out to service them. Although once-thriving small retail traders were centred in cities within walking distance of homes, huge concrete shopping malls owned by property conglomerates have now been erected a car trip away on suburban outskirts. The resulting dysfunction is there for all to see. Standing in a shopping centre parking lot on the outskirts of our city, surrounded by mile upon mile of asphalt which gives no idea of what the landscape would have looked like before the car came here, it is easy to see why societies have become so out of touch with nature that they no longer understand how to preserve it.

What would this parking lot look like if it no longer serviced cars? The asphalt could be torn up, the soil regenerated, then gardens planted and fresh produce grown. As cars would no longer drive there, the shopping centre could be scaled-back and the space converted to a range of homes for a range of incomes. Throw in a school and medical centre, and village life could emerge. Such transformations are tantalizing. A pity, then, that our asphalt nations are more likely to expand than contract.

Car culture rules 

Around the globe, urban areas are facing population increases. Impoverished rural workers continue to leave their homes in search of paying jobs in the city – usually cleaning, factory and construction work. On an even larger scale, climate change is also forcing massive relocations. North Africans are escaping homelands that are becoming dry as deserts. Pacific people are sailing from sinking islands. Delta dwellers in Asia will soon be running from rising tides. Many will make long journeys to what they dream will be the relative safety of cities in the rich world. In urban Melbourne, a 36 per cent increase in inhabitants is expected within the next 28 years. Governments are scrambling to build homes for them. Estate after estate is being built on the urban fringe without supporting infrastructure in place to handle the extra load. Cars and trucks, say the planners,5 will remain the primary mode of transport. Fifty kilometres from major work centres, people will have limited choices: either drive to work or go on the dole. It is an abrogation of social planning responsibility, paying grossly inadequate regard to the need to cut greenhouse gases.

It is an abrogation for which I’m feeling acutely responsible every time I sit in the Frankston Council Chambers. Yes, absolutely, we need strong and decisive leadership to combat climate change. Let’s be brave and bold and discourage cars away from city streets – limit available car-parking spaces; narrow streets and widen pathways. It will send a strong message that in this city, it’s people – not cars – that have precedence. But then the business community points out that this will hurt local retailers – the main employers in the municipality. It’s not about cars, they say, it’s about customers being able to access their city streets comfortably. Without better transport alternatives in place that will quickly and efficiently get people into and out of the city, the transition away from the car won’t succeed – it will merely push business elsewhere, as customers drive away to other regions. Already 12 per cent of shop space is vacant in the main city area. This could make the problem worse. ‘What are you clowns doing! There’s a recession on – haven’t you heard?’

Even the bike store owner argues to keep car parks instead of building a bike lane in the street outside his store

As a new councillor, I am torn. I have campaigned to advocate for what my community wants. All over my ward, voters who shop in the city centre have argued for more parking and better traffic management. No-one has said anything about pedestrian-friendly streets. Even the bike store owner argues to keep car-parks instead of building a bike-lane in the street outside his store.

It’s about time

It will take years to break this car culture: this entrenched dependence. It will also take years to find the money for, then build, the additional infrastructure for the better public transport that must be put in place. At both a community and personal level, it will require working in the short term towards a long-term goal which can only be achieved through a radical transformation of people’s aspirations and lifestyle. It’s about time. Literally. For people to live successfully without the car, they will need to scale back their lives, minimizing travel time between work and play.

No more cold turkey attempts for me. I need to do this gradually. It has already meant a change in my employment to bring my work closer to where my ageing mother and our family are living. It has meant moving 25 kilometres to bring the place where I live closer to the work I’m doing. It will also mean slowing down by reducing my expectations of what I can achieve in an average day. Right now I’m arranging to cut back my working hours – a joy that will bring a fall in income. To supplement this loss, my partner and I are planning to grow more of our own organic food: a long-held dream that I will now have time to bring to life. This should mean we can eat good quality food without having to travel long distances to get it.

These things will reduce the need for travel but not remove it. Mobility will still be important. Where walking and public transport can’t get me, I’ll need a car substitute. Maybe that little red electric scooter with the shiny stainless steel trims I saw last week…?

Chris Richards has been the Australasian editor of the NI. She penned this article just before she resigned in order to make the changes in her working life she describes.

  1. Australian/New Zealand slang for louts or idiots.
  2. Greig Craft, the founder and President of Asia Injury Prevention Foundation based in Vietnam, quoting Asian Development Bank figures.
  3. Hear Greig Craft, Katie Alvord and Randall Ghent on the Radio New Internationalist programme ‘Life without the car’, at www.newint.org, number 29-2008 in the Radio archive.
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Social Trends, series number 4102.0, 2006.
  5. Department of Planning and Community Development, Melbourne @ 5 million, Victorian Government, Melbourne, December 2008.

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