Getting Around is Not AUTOmatic

On vacation recently, I experienced driving a rental car in Hawaii for two weeks and re-visited London for a few days. I was reminded of the incredibly efficient and extensive public transport possibilities as well as the walkable distances provided by an urban dense city. I have never owned a car and usually go to work and errands by bicycling, walking and taking public transport. My recent experience made me realize how quickly driving feels like normal behavior even to a non-driver.

At home, when I am in a hurry to go to work, run errands and relax I automatically include in my schedule walking or bicycling to the supermarket and the Farmer’s Market. Including transport time, as well as waiting in line at the cashier, I can usually plan to spend one to two hours shopping. That time also includes running into friends and socializing, particularly at the Farmer’s Market. Shopping is therefore not a quick trip for me. However, I notice when I visit my friends and family and we go to the supermarket they also do not “save” time when we drive, due to suburban sprawl making it impossible for people to do basic errands without driving long distances in a car.

Relaxed on vacation, without any time constraints, I became so tolerant of driving I started to think and act like a regular driver. My thinking changed after only the first week of daily driving, when I had spent over ten years as a regular pedestrian and bicyclist. I automatically thought of driving to the market from the hostel where I was staying, 1 to 2 miles, which I would usually walk or bicycle at home. The more I drove, the less I noticed I was driving, the more I would consider driving on into a vicious cycle of driving more and more.

Only because this was unusual behavior for me did I recognize a problem. The price of gasoline in Hawaii, the most expensive in the U.S., did not dissuade me from wanting to drive extraneously. The locals and tourists I spent time with gave me directions in terms of driving time, not walking time, because car drivers think subconsciously as car drivers and not in alternatives to driving, making it even more difficult to think of alternatives. When traveling in areas where people usually drive I often find locals unable to give clear directions taking into account walking. A distance they say takes “a few minutes” is actually a few miles. They will be horrified I will consider walking, which they falsely believe is more dangerous than driving. Using myself as an example, when I drove daily I quickly “forgot” other methods of transportation because driving was so “easy,” showing me how difficult regular drivers find breaking their own dependence on car driving.

Does car driving “save” time and is it “easy” and “cheap”? I save money by not owning a car because renting a car when I need one is cheaper than car insurance. My calculation to save money by not owning a car does not include purchase, maintenance, repairs, gasoline, bridge tolls, parking fees, gym membership to exercise on a stationary bicycle to reduce chances of a heart attack or potential damage to myself and others in car accidents. These are some of the expenses car owners should consider when they decide whether or not a car “saves” them time and money. Nor does the calculation include tax subsidies to highway construction and military expenditures to protect “our” oil fields in foreign countries, expenses which I would be paying whether or not I own a car, which I personally consider taxation without representation, since I do not agree with either of these expenses.

We need to recognize a myth linked to the “American Dream.” You cannot “save” time. No bank accounts enable you to earn interest on “time savings.” Time passes, regardless of how you “spend” time. We are not “free to spend” time in the pursuit of happiness or anything else since humans, do not have control of time, we have yet to invent time machines. Therefore we either are happy or unhappy, regardless of how much time we have in life. Instead of “spending” or “saving” time, consider the alternatives. How do we occupy ourselves? Do we devote our time to activities we care about or to occupations which burn out our souls? How do we consume the lives we have? Do we waste or conserve our resources — our own resources — our social groups, families, acquaintances and friends, our minds, our health, our ability to find hope and escape into the wilderness — besides the earth’s resources? Do we really need the job requiring us to drive or is the job just supporting us driving?

We need an attitude readjustment, prioritizing what is important to us, and rethinking how we use our time. We may think driving instead of waiting for the bus is “freedom,” but we forget the hidden costs of driving — working to pay for the car, to pay taxes to repair environmental damage, to pay for wars to protect “our” oil. Would we rather relax in the company of other people, napping or reading on public transport or increase our stress level in traffic, exposing ourselves to the higher danger risk of car driving?

Everyone drives for different reasons which bicycle, pedestrian and public transport advocates must recognize and be sympathetic towards in order to support car drivers switching to alternatives. Friends can help friends to come up with creative solutions for alternative routes to work, school and shopping, for example. However, we must also actively confront stereotypes car drivers have about alternatives.

People who claim they do not want to take busses because busses are dirty, noisy, smelly and dangerous are expressing a classist fear. In reality, the majority of bus riders are low income people who cannot drive — children, the elderly and the disabled — hardly dangerous! As for people who say public transport is too expensive, does not go to enough destinations or is too infrequent, we need to challenge these arguments as a vicious cycle. If people never use or advocate to improve public transport then governments will never focus on fixing public transport or improving city planning to be more pedestrian friendly. In Los Angeles, bus riders formed a union to clean up the bus system. Riders were typically low income minorities who often do not have a voice in government. Everyone needs to consider the long term hidden costs that our continued dependence on single use automobiles have on our society.

I became more aware returning to the Bay Area and taking our light rail (BART). After taking the London Underground the day before in rush hour I realized “Rush hour” on BART resembles a weekend at a train station in London, when you compare how few people are on the BART platforms and in the trains. Transport alternative advocacy groups need to move beyond events such as “Bike to Work Day” and “Auto Free Day” once a year to once a month events to encourage the public to use driving alternatives more. All of us need to work on city planning which creates urban density.

Car driving is the number one killer for those under 45. Only cancer and heart attacks are more dangerous than cars for those over 45. The public’s misconstrued ideas of the dangers of walking, bicycling and taking public transport reflect the public health community’s complete failure to deal with the danger of driving as a public health issue. Even if automobiles were transformed into “cleaner” machines, such as hydrogen, electric or bio-diesel, cars would not be any safer to humans much less all of the animals autos kill. Electric or hydrogen based vehicles do not necessarily use renewable resources and they can cause their own forms of pollution. Switching to alternative fuels, does not resolve problems, such as suburban sprawl and habitat destruction, caused by our “freedom” to drive a single-occupancy vehicle.

No one has an excuse to transform auto usage into the exception, instead of the rule, because ultimately we are all affected by the U.S.’s auto-dependency.