Monday, September 12, 2016

An alternative perception of cars

Kentlands, MD. Photo from flickr: kaibates/Creative Commons

So much of our reality is based on perception. Take cars. When I was a teenager, like most boys my age I was obsessed with cars. Owning a Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Porsche seemed like one of the greatest achievements one could reach in life. 

Today, nothing could be further from the truth for me. As much of a car guy as I used to be (and I still appreciate some cars as impressive mechanical achievements), when I see a $100k+ car, the first thing I think is "dang, you could go on a lot of nice vacations for that kind of money." Now I'm not saying anyone is wrong to buy an expensive car. I'm not one to tell others how to spend their money. It's just not something I understand anymore. 

That's a lot of nice vacations...

Most Americans live in a built environment where the daily use of a car is all but required, so it's unsurprising that the car has become an integral part of the culture. Actually, this is increasingly true in a lot of countries. I live in a middle-class kind of area in Switzerland, with an apartment building, rowhouses, and single family homes on my street. It's not suburban sprawl in the American sense, that doesn't really exist here, but it's suburban in the sense that it's removed from the city and a car is required for daily activities, with the nearest supermarket 2km away. A two car household is pretty standard. Just like in the US, with the car occupying such an important place in daily life, for many it naturally becomes a status symbol. Keeping up with the Joneses is almost a ritual for many car-owning suburbanites, something that signals how successful one is in life.

The lower portion of my street in Switzerland, with a four-story apartment building on one side, parking on the other
Further down the street are semi-detached/duplex houses (with a shared garage wall), with the front mainly given over to parking
Being removed from a car dependent existence for three years while living in London, I was able to experience the alternative: a life on two legs. Car owners love to play up the "freedom" they get from their car, but for me true freedom is not being dependent on a 2-ton machine, but rather the ability to walk when and where I please, not just where someone at some time decided to plunk down a strip of asphalt. I don't want to be worried about speed cameras, parking, traffic, and whether or not I've had a drink. To me, life has become about experiences, not things, and in that context the car is more of a burden than a treasure, another loan that keeps one tied to the system.

The car culture is deeply entrenched into modern life, and it will remain that way for decades to come, especially if we see EV's and autonomous cars as some kind of panacea. But I think it's paramount to acknowledge that not everyone agrees with or wants to be part of the car culture, and make sure that alternative, walkable communities are available. Of course, the problem with entrenched cultures is that people tend to reject what's different, and in most cities it's not even legal to build traditional walkable communities. That has to change. 

I've always believed the best way to convince a skeptic is to lead by example, so my sincere hope is that once the walkable alternative is easy for all to experience, even those who can't imagine a life without cars will lower their defenses, at the very least making it easier to build more such communities. Maybe some of them will even convert over once they see how gratifying it can be to have schools, shopping, work, and play all within walking distance. Or a bakery steps away so you can get fresh bread for breakfast: priceless. A healthy, holistic neighborhood is one that doesn't require residents to leave for daily needs. Cars have their place, but should not be required for basic daily needs.

Once people see how pleasant the alternative can be, my hope is they'd be less resistant to walkable communities being built in their own cities. Photo from flickr: ugardener/Creative Commons
Small parks like this one in Kentlands are used much more often than most front lawns and help build a sense of a shared community. Photo from flickr: Dan Reed/Creative Commons

Person by person, the change will come, and maybe one day soon an elegant pair of walking shoes will be just as much a status symbol as cars are today.