I've had dual roles for the last few years, I've been both a bike advocate, and an electric vehicle (EV) advocate. There are a few large conflicts between these two transportation modes that I have yet to resolve. Cars are currently very necessary in my rural state (for the most part you have to have a car to have a job), and because EVs are already a much cleaner and better car than gas fueled cars are, I have been helping with Vermont's plans for the VW Diesel Settlement funds, EV infrastructure, and EV legislation. I also think that Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) could improve commuting and reduce the number of accidents. On the other hand, I'm a member of several organizations that look at traffic congestion and Transportation Demand Management, carpooling/ridesharing, transit, and sharing the roads with bicyclists and pedestrians (i.e. people), and from those viewpoints it's obvious that we've built a transportation system that has gone way too far in favor of car culture. (As an example of this bias, if you kill someone by running them over with a car, most likely the courts will call it an "accident".) As a gear head since I was a kid this is really odd for me to say, but we are misusing cars and I'm not in love with them anymore. I've been thinking about these growing problems and trying to find a balance, but the disadvantages of cars are starting to outweigh the benefits. Out of all the damage that cars are doing, one which I think is overlooked by most people but which may be our biggest loss, is to our human side.
Transportation is Vermont's biggest source of air pollution. It's also our largest connection to conflicts over oil with around $1.5 billion sent out of the state each year for fuel. But that's not what I think about when I ride in a car, and these are the first disconnections. I don't think about sprawl and our destruction of our forests, or unsustainable lifestyles that were impossible 50 years ago. It's about the power under my right foot. The short term gain. A car ride is a visceral experience, with sights and sounds and forces pushing my body around. Sometimes a soothing lullaby, sometimes a roller coaster. And I think that for most transportation planners road projects only have to fit into 5 or 10 year plan requirements (while we wait forever for bike lanes), and if a road meets "Scenic Byway" criteria then that just means it qualifies for more perks for cars.
Moving at any speed greater than running is something new for our human brain, and it's a primal addiction. It's our dreams about flying come true. We are lost in the journey, we are in Kerouac's "On the Road" but in our blindness we don't see the washouts. Yet we base our economy around getting us and our goods to distant places quickly, and then we act surprised when we get run over. Occasionally we slow down long enough for a Zen moment of Motorcycle Maintenance, but we have yet to design a transportation system that doesn't adore the fittest and the strongest reaching terminal speed. This leaves out most of the best parts of life.
There is a world more real to what we are made of than millions of gasoline fueled explosions. Life has a breath to it. Everything, but everything, will grow full and pass away. The young bride, the spring morning, your friends, your health. This preciousness is also one of it's deepest joys. But in our rush we don't see that. This morning it is snowing and sleeting outside, if I had to drive a car it would be treacherous. But my dog and I walked for half an hour, and it was exquisitely beautiful, watching the forest trees disappear in a hissing fog of snowflakes.
But we've made this choice, we've set up our lives so that we have to drive a car.
Transportation is intimately tied to the way we live. It's more than the underfunded state highway budget, more than how far you have to live out in the country because that's where you can afford a mortgage, more than the inequitable loss of whole neighborhoods to interstate projects. Like the stairs on a third floor walk up or carrying in the wood for my stove to keep my house warm, it's an immediate frame for what happens every day, it defines what we do or don't do.
What does it mean when the only way to get there is by car?
While it's true that the Model T started mass production in 1908, it's also true that there weren't enough cars on the roads to affect the average person's life until the 1920's- a bit sooner in urban areas, a bit later in rural. Our "normal" way of living has been built in about 95 years. We have made great strides in technology, but how much of that will we have to unlearn in another 95 years? The question isn't about how to deliver strawberries in winter, it's about healthy farmer's markets. The question isn't "How did people get to the hospital 95 years ago?", the question is "What was people's relationship to their health 95 years ago?" The question isn't "How will the heating fuel truck get to the house?", it's "How do we build houses that don't need fuel trucks?" The question isn't "How do we get to our job 60 miles away?", it's "Why is our job 60 miles away?" Somehow a huge part of living has been left out of our transportation planning.
It would be absurd to ask a road crew to venerate the road they were paving as a sacred trail and perform a ceremony. We passed the point of asking our GPS units for the fastest travel route years ago. Our cars are so insulated from Nature that it doesn't matter what is outside the window. Common sense has become Machine sense, we merge with the rotating machine while replaceable scenery streams by. Our ceremonies have become the crosses on the side of the road.
What does it mean, when it is not safe to walk somewhere?
I'm learning a new piece of music, Brahms' Opus 118, which was completed in 1893. The second of the six pieces is an intermezzo, (Brahms Intermezzo Nº 2 in A major Op. 118 -Glenn Gould) with the instructions "Andante teneramente". Andante is a common notation, (I naturally choose slow movements, because I'm not very good about practicing), however teneramente (tenderly) is an unusual instruction and it is an unusually lovely piece. In contrast to this, the piece I learned a few months ago, Chopin's Nocturne in C minor Op. 48, Nº 1 -(Gabriela Montero) (1841) describes a beautiful but dysfunctional world, much like Ravel's waltz from World War 1. The Chopin is our transportation now, the Brahms is where we want to be. The Chopin is scared people trying to look normal, the Brahms is moms and kids growing. Another mind bending piece that I love to play is Bach's Chaconne in D minor (transcribed for piano by Busoni), which was written in 1720. For all of these, a car was not used at all while creating a masterwork. Sure, cars make life easier, but what has been gained and lost? Our use of cars has followed Jevons Paradox, and it has warped our expectations. We have lost many planetary reality checks,
Nor does this speak to what the car has done to our perception of the Commons, much of public space dating back to Roman law has disappeared. "Traffic may be impersonal, but we experience it intimately. It's smells, sounds and movements are as fundamental to our daily passages as the weather. The transition from horses to cars transformed the nature of cities, Ann Norton Greene writes in her 2008 history, “Horses at Work”: 'In the name of safety and efficiency, urban Progressives moved children into supervised urban playgrounds, installed new traffic regulation devices, placed policemen on the streets and encouraged changes that turned streets from spaces in a neighborhood to spaces through a neighborhood.' Vehicles, in this milieu, served as a 'protected, private space, an extension of the private home.' ”
(http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/30/books/review/Crain-t.html, italics mine)
We could not step into day to day life of even 95 years ago and emotionally understand the connections, the innate balance, the earthen reasons why. We have left that frame in the rear view mirror. Of course there are a lot of details of past living that should be left behind, but there are also some important connections that should not. And the grounding and centering from being in closer connection with the natural world are incompatible with the speed and isolation of a car. Cars are functioning as a legal drug for escaping the social environment that ironically they helped create.
What does it mean, when it is not possible to walk somewhere?
Fast, efficient automobiles have been the best answer to equitable transportation that we have come up with so far. With their extra human power almost anyone can move themselves along at amazing speed. But they have had a high cost. Besides their potential to shut down the planet's climate system with their emissions, it's not just the death, maiming, property loss, social exclusion, environmental destruction, or even the pollution that hurts the health of all bystanders. (They are not very equitable either.) It's our disconnection. The true rhythm of life takes place at a much slower speed. It's the speed of a season, or 9 months, or 90 years- seconds are the time scale of disaster. What it means to be human is the reason roads should not be built only for cars. When we cannot walk somewhere because of traffic, we've lost something fundamental that was millions of years in the making.
We aren't "hunter gatherers" anymore, but we still feel the nomadic urge. Were the Crusades just an excuse to get out of the castle? What about the Odyssey (that only leads back home to die in Ithaca)? Any of the searches for paradise? Living is a road trip. A Canterbury Tale. It's a questionable used car on Route 66. What does a road map mean when sometimes it's true, but sometimes it's through Middle Earth? Whether you choose foot, bicycle, car, or transit, what you get out of it does depend on what you put in. We are travelers but historically it seems the slower the better, for thousands of years people have climbed mountains while not moving at all- when the most profound insight has happened while sitting still. Using power that is not your own? Good luck with your Pilgrimage in an Autonomous Vehicle.
Back in the late 1960's my father wanted to get a motorcycle, and we started visiting motorcycle shops. I was still too young to get a driver's license, but one visit made an impression. It was at a one man Brit bikes shop (BSA, Triumph) in Ellington, CT, whose perpetually ready to retire owner occasionally converted the older BSAs to trials bikes when sales were slow. For some reason another customer decided to give me a few words of wisdom, and came over to me and said "Cars are cages". I took that literally for many years- yes, they are a cage that seals you off from what's around you, and you have to decide if that's how you want to live. But now that I have experienced trying to use a bicycle in a car based society for a few years, I can see that they are a cage in other deeper ways. We need cars, there is no other device that will do what they do. The average person could not function without one. And that is the definition of a cage. Transportation is inseparable from our lives, and in only 95 years look how rigid our choices have become. Where in this system are the rest of the things that are important to us?
We need a more balanced transportation system, one that is more about living and less about the machine, one that places human caring above cars.
"Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move."
from Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1833