Premise number one: automobile culture as we know it in North America is unsustainable.
Ken Bensinger’s three-part series in the L.A. Times about exploitative auto dealers and the poor underscores just how much automobile-centered living has cost America. The series is pretty clear: working poor are screwed without cars and the industries which prey on those needs are evil. Not to mention the ecological damage, strip mall culture, distance between humans, high-speed culture, and consumer identity that are entwined with the lifestyle of the car.
Premise number two: the transition away from automobiles is going to be very hard for people, particularly in the U.S..
We set up this nation to be focused on individual-based car transit. We can’t be too surprised that people hold onto their perceived right to drive a car with surprising firmness. I was teaching a social movements class and showed a short video of activists in the United Kingdom protesting a church celebration of the automobile. One woman on the film seemed particularly eloquent to me. She spoke of losing her child to a speeding car. When the class started discussing the video, I was surprised to find that most of the students wanted to blame this woman for “letting” her child go near a road.
Suddenly I realized that they were feeling judged and they wanted to undercut this tragic voice because they didn’t want to think about their participation in automobile culture.
The need to change car culture in the United States will be met with shallow innovation rather than actual change. I suspect that we’ll just tweak things in the era of declining oil returns. We’ll have more electric cars reliant on natural gas and nuclear power plants to make energy. We’ll have many more bio-diesel vehicles and probably new farm subsidies for vegetable oil producers.
Even though the gas-guzzler is fundamentally offensive, we won’t challenge the right to guzzle gas, we’ll just provide new “clean” justifications. People who drive electric cars drive more. That’s right! When people buy a new energy-efficient vehicle they tend to use it more. When we have the moral problems cleaned up (in our minds) we revert to unbridled consumer desire. “Oh, lets take the Prius on the road trip — it’s so efficient.”
Alternative: thinking about the closed loop, Ecotopia and transportation
Ernst Callenbach’s Ecotopia books are interesting day-dreams on what a future might look like. One reason the book is useful is the visioning component involved in future-fiction thinking — every reader is invited to disagree or re-envision.
In my Humboldt bioregion we have the Kinetic Sculpture Race where dozens of bicyle-driven human powered sculptures must prove themselves capable of traveling over sand, water and many miles of roads. It isn’t hard to imagine this fleet of bike vehicles shared, rehabilitated and helping to move goods and people around the North Coast.
This suggests to me that the collapse of oil-based transportation might not be all that terrible in this place. My daydream is that the transition isn’t just about keeping gas pump-dependent, individuality-centered, automobile culture alive, but about being open to something else growing in it’s place.
Remember when you were a kid and you just rode your bike? Meandered? Wandered? Crossed a parking lot and then rode in circles? Have you actually done that lately?
I’m not trying to be a smart-ass. I think this is part of the loss of car-dependent culture. Most of us are so stressed out paying for cars, or paying for gas, or dealing with the extra hidden charges in our automobile insurance this month that we don’t get around to fun bike rides. Or to imagine that the problems of transportation aren’t unique.
I bet you can think of a time in the last few weeks where you were stymied by a lack of transportation. I think this is what most of us have in common. We want mobility, freedom to move. The chance to just go and get where we need.
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) has tried for years to get the government to help the poor buy cars. In 2005 and again in 2007, she sponsored legislation to provide $50 million a year for low-income car ownership programs. Both bills died in committee.
She said she has faced resistance from, among others, environmental organizations that insist mass transit is a better solution.
“Public transit is not practical in Milwaukee where the wind chill can be 45 below and you have to drop three kids off at day care,” Moore said. “We really have a crisis with respect to getting people to their jobs.”
This is probably what underlies the vicious defensiveness about personal car ownership — this desire for freedom and escape. Solidarity in modern capitalism can be seen in the unfulfilled invitation to freedom. And the daily needs of living in the world that in fact seem to necessitate a car of one’s own.
So how do you challenge the cultural norm while still supporting the need of the poor to have safe and reliable transportation? I guess the daydream is that we could actually start talking not only about the costs of automobile culture, but also the threads of other ways of living that are visible slightly below the surface. Mix a little utopianism with newspaper reports. Encourage people to talk about the impossible and pretty soon it isn’t impossible.
Cuba has endured a U.S. embargo for a couple of decades. The mutual antagonism between the governments of Cuba and the United States has created a fascinating window into an alternative way of being. I’m not oblivious to Cuba’s poverty and problems. In terms of organic agriculture and in this case, automobiles, the resilient Cuban people (different than the government) have shown what is possible.
But since Cubans couldn’t legally sell their vehicles, they learned to do everything possible to keep them on the road.
Nelson Ramos, a car enthusiast and former economist in Havana, says cars in Cuba are “like members of the family.”
“Cars stay in the family forever. And you take care of the car, you fix the engine, and we probably have the best mechanics in the world,” Ramos says. “This is probably the only country in the world where you don’t have a junkyard for cars. We simply get the wreckage and put it on wheels and drive it again.”
I try not to be a purist. In my ideal world all transportation would be bicycles, but I know that isn’t realistic for most people. So instead, I would put forward a dream of a transition inspired by justice. The needs of a community being organized around those who needed help first. I envision a few electric cars, or biodiesel vehicles that might operate as ambulances or as transit for those who have need. We don’t need any new cars if what Cuba shows us is possible. People will be hand-carving door handles out of wood for the bicycle-powered buggies of the future.