IT'S TIME TO TRADE IN OUR CAR CULTUREfor 24 hours, at least, if not longer, as Hamilton celebrates International Car Free Day By Sarah Cairns
"The car has become... an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete."
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, 1964
Is going car-free in Hamilton the most preposterous idea you've ever heard? That depends on how you feel once we look a little deeper into the issues surrounding our autocentric lifestyle. The idea that cars equal freedom, efficiency and economic good sense is a well-preserved myth, and one that needs to be questioned in an age of rapidly declining sustainability.
Many factors perpetuate this phenomenon, not the least of which is corporate advertising that links cars to human values and social normality. This mass media barrage provides the psychological reinforcement of a car culture that begins in childhood with our collection of dinky cars and dreams of 16-year-old freedom.
"I think we need to burst the little bubble we're in with respect to cars," says Randy Kay of Transportation for Livable Communities (TLC), a working group of McMaster's Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG). "We need to shock people a bit or make a fuss (so it's) noticed that there is more to life than working to make your car payment and your gas bill."
And despite current outrage at the pumps, fuel, like the proverbial talk, is still cheap. "When you compare the cost of a litre of fuel to a litre of water - knowing that water is mined locally and fuel is mined a world or country away, it's shocking," relates Daryl Bender, one of two coordinators at Mac's Alternative Commuting & Transportation office (ACT).
But it isn't just paying for the obvious. Even those who don't own a car, either through choice or economic limitation, pay to subsidize driving habits. When you take the hidden costs into consideration the price of a car balloons into an enormous liability. The Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VPTI), a think tank that researches practical solutions to transportation problems, estimates that traffic congestion cost the U.S. economy $44,190 billion in 2001 alone. Increased road and parking expenditures average $264 U.S. per household per year and the health care costs of a sedentary lifestyle equals $150 billion U.S. in direct expenditures annually.
As for efficiency, theorist Ivan Illich noted in Energy & Equity that that, "the model American puts in 1, 600 hours to get 7,500 miles - less than five miles per hour." In addition, "people solely dependent on their feet move on the spur of the moment, at three to four hours miles per hour, in any direction and to any place from which they are not legally or physically barred.
How's that possible? Well, speed equals the distance you travel divided by the time it takes. However, the time it takes includes more than the time spent driving. It includes working to pay for your car, sitting in gridlock, insurance, depreciation, parking, fines and repairs.
According to Go For Green, a national non-profit, the average vehicle expense per year is just over $9,000. That seems like an excessive amount of money to pay to travel one to two miles per hour faster by car, especially when you consider that with the average net salary of $30,000 it takes over three months a year to pay for your car.
Environmentally speaking, the highly publicized effects of air pollution are not the only issue related to automobiles. As a short piece entitled Dirty From Cradle to Grave by John Whitelegg points out, "only 40 per cent of an average car's air pollution is emitted during the car's driving life stage. The other 60 per cent results from other life stages the extraction of raw materials, the transport of raw materials, the production of the car, and the disposal of the car. Cars emit 56 per cent of their pollution before they ever hit the road and four per cent after they are retired. Thus efforts to decrease air pollution by getting old, polluting cars off the road to only replace them with new, "cleaner" cars are misguided, as such efforts have focused on pollution emitted solely during the driving stage and thus have missed 60 per cent of the problem.
In addition, noise pollution, climate change, and death and injury related accidents are all attributed to our obsession with automobiles. The City's Social & Public Health Services annual Health Issues Report notes that reported collisions involving pedestrian and vehicles average 289 a year in Hamilton.
"(Cars are) having serious impacts upon our personal and public lives; it's really something that's gotten out of control, its gotten way too big and it doesn't work. It's not efficient, it's not effective and it doesn't make much sense," relates Kay.
"When a Go train moves four times as many passengers as there are during rush hour in the Greater Toronto Area and the rush hour people aren't rushing anywhere, they're sitting in traffic, then you can start to see that our priorities and our choices are out of whack with what needs to be happening."
Enter Car Free Day. Internationally recognized on September 22, it's a jollification of alternative transportation modes and boasts over 100 million participants in 1,500 cities annually. Spear headed by Kay and other volunteers at TLC, Car Free Day in Hamilton celebrates "the people who do get around other ways, giving them a bit of recognition for what they're doing. I think it's time to say 'yeah you're doing a good thing."
"In Europe, Car Free Day is very much a municipal government directed movement. It started grassroots, then they really embraced the idea so that whole cities are participating and throwing lots of energy and time and effort and money into making an excellent party," Kay reveals.
"In North America it's quite a different scene. I can't speak for all cities, but I know cities like Montreal and others have participated at an official level and supported it, but in Hamilton we haven't had much luck."
While getting political buy-in for the event has been challenging, TLC has achieved a few car-free victories. Cycling lanes have been incorporated onto Sterling and Longwood, a pedestrian-activated light was installed along Cootes Drive at Sandhurst (sic), and the Main West Fortinos agreed to continue the bike lane connecting the rail trail to downtown Hamilton.
"I think without our activism a lot of these things wouldn't be happening," says Kay. "It's definitely not been a political leadership issue at City Hall. They're not the ones out there saying 'yes we need to do this,' it's been a grassroots volunteer movement that pushed them into a position where they actually had to start doing something. We still have a long way to go, but we've had some successes and there will be many more in the future."
With just $150 a year to spend on Car Free Day, TLC advocates organizing your own street party. "Hopefully people will read the article and run out and play road hockey or do something with their neighbours on Car Free Day," says Kay.
"Kent Street is doing it again this year, but they're having it a week later. That it doesn't happen on Car Free Day doesn't really matter. The point is they had such a good time last year that they're doing it again. That's building a better community."
While a celebration of alternatives is a great idea and gives those of us currently car free a well-deserved pat on the back, leaving your automobile behind does requires some forethought to incorporate sustainable transportation into our daily lives. One short- term suggestion is the combo approach that works well in an autocentric city like Hamilton. The multi-modal option incorporates discretionary car use, ride sharing, walking, cycling, transit and telecommuting.
Over the long term personal choice becomes much more of an issue. "If you're going to move or live somewhere else you have to think about what that means in terms of driving. Am I going to be close to work? Close to the stores and the things I need to be close too? Or am I living out somewhere where I'll be car dependent?" questions Kay. "So I think it's a choice of seeing, first of all, that there are other options and then pursuing choices over time that make it achievable."
Bender agrees. "The less people drive, the less we have to build expressways, the less we have to widen roads and the more we have a chance to make our urban spaces people spaces as opposed to car spaces."