Letting Go of the Automobile

“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.” Arthur Conan Doyle

We lose precious moments. We grow up, become responsible, get up with the sound of an alarm clock, pay our bills, check the ingredients of the food we buy, iron our clothes and watch the news. What did you do on Monday? Tuesday? Wednesday? Can you tell your days and weeks apart or do they all blur into one? Is this the kind of adult experience we are meant to aspire to as children?

I think The Car is the most adult thing there is. Getting your license is like a traditional rite of passage, only instead of going through an impossible test of physical fitness, ingenuity and skill, you learn to operate a multi-tonne box on 4 wheels. It’s like encasing yourself in a tortoise shell. It’s like a mini-house. It even has its own microclimate. You are outside but you don’t even have to breathe the outside air, touch the ground or feel the ambient temperature. You move really really fast. Faster than humans ever moved but in the cushiony safety even the speed feels different. Suddenly you think that roadworks speed limit feels like a crawl.

If you could take yourself back a few hundred years and imagine the Future You telling the 18th Century You that it is now possible to move with the speed of a cheetah or an attacking bear. What would the Age of the Enlightenment You say? What vistas would this possibility open in front of your eyes? What kind of adventures and intrepid voyages would your mind conjure up? Daring explorations of the lands unknown, transporting food to the hungry to solve social injustice, delivering education to inaccessible communities. A powerful machine made to serve the humanity. Now who is serving who?

Sure, the car has done us well. But somewhere along the line it has changed from a useful tool to a vital necessity in the world consumed with consumption of itself. The majority of car trips in the US, Australia, and New Zealand are made within a 5km radius, mostly to work and shopping.

Big supermarkets condition us to buy our groceries once a week, a concept generally foreign in Europe. We pack ourselves and our kids into our tin box on wheels, drive on a smooth highway which has replaced a paddock or a stream a few decades ago. We get inpatient at the lights and annoyed at being stuck behind the learner driver because 80kmh is no longer fast enough. Pulling into the purposefully built gigantic multilevel monstrosity we look for a space to tie our steed. It’s a game of persistence and luck as we try to find that coveted spot right next to the door. At the supermarket we get a big trolley (their sizes have been steadily increasing in the last few decades as the retail giants try to entice us to buy more goods at once) and we go to town. In the age of abundance we still behave as if we are in the age of scarcity. We get two of everything that is on sale. It’s ok, we have a big car. If the kids are “good” spending their weekend in an enclosed artificially lit and artificially-stimulated environment we give them a treat by buying an artificially-flavoured food-like substance. Then we are return to sitting in the cushioned seats of our grocery-shopping vehicle to take the haul home. All very serious and grown up. I am sure our kids are looking forward to the days when they can spend their Saturday just like this.

The commute to work is a fascinating subject in itself. The usual dilemma: well-paying job which allows you to afford a large house in the city, a large house of your dreams with a rumpus room, spare bedroom(s) and a big backyard is in the suburbs. So you need a car to get you from A to B, and you also need a double garage in the house in the suburbs which you can afford because of your well-paying job in the city so you can have 2 cars for both partners to get to the said job. How would one characterise their drive to work? Exciting? Exhilarating? Relaxing? Time to be alone and revive your senses? Having done my time doing a 1-1.5hr commute one way in Sydney I know the answer to this one.

It’s a trap. All of it: the huge “2 for the price of one signs”, gigantic shopping trolleys, the honeyed voice of the salesman from your first car dealership, a McMansion in the suburbia. Is this what you have signed up for? Was this what you celebrated when the driving instructor announced you have passed? I am not judging. I have done it.

If the consumerism is our religion, the Car is its prophet. It’s an enabler to buy MORE, to pack MORE, to own MORE. Did you know that the Hadza only own what they can carry on their back? We need a car-full just to carry what we need for one week.

Time? We think we are saving time driving? We save minutes but we lose moments. Moments are more important. You can lock yourself in a tin box for the 15 minutes it takes you to get to the mall or you can walk touching the ground with your feet, absorbing the world without impatience or judgement. Seriously, when was the last time you flew into “walk rage” when an old lady in front of you dithered on the footpath? Want to do one better? You can ride a bicycle and get the thrill of air rushing past you, feeling the speed created by your own body movement, making any mundane chore into a fun adventure.

We can talk about the lack of cycling (or even walking!) infrastructure, the social inequality which necessitates long commutes, driver vs cyclist confrontations. These are all big issues. And we need to solve them. When you have spent decades changing our environments to worship The Car we need to re-learn how we can create space for Humans.

The car is an amazing invention which has an ability to take you to wondrous places.

My 2015 resolution is to find ways to use my car for more of this:

Mount Cook

And less of this:


Photo 1 credit: Michael Matti http://www.travelphotoadventures.com
Photo 2 credit: http://www.gettyimages.com