Tag Archives: cars

Life Without Cars

I admit I’m greatly enjoying the reduced traffic. I’m enjoying how much easier it is to hear the birdsong from inside my flat, and that the dawn chorus today did not have an accompaniment of vehicles. All of the roads round here are quieter, easier to cross, safer.

Yesterday I noticed that there is no longer a taste in the back on my mouth when I go out. It was so normal, that I hadn’t been aware of it before. Lorries and buses give me a brief round of it, but it is no longer intrinsic to breathing. It was an unpleasant flavour. I breathe a little more easily without it. The air is cleaner.

Of course cars have greatly advantaged people as we’ve moved towards lockdown. People in their own car are safer than those crushed into public transport. People with cars have had options of panic buying and stocking up. They also won’t need to top up shop that often. Those of us who carry our shopping home on our backs cannot buy so much in one go.  As usual, the people who have least and cause least harm are disadvantaged.

I have dreamed for a long time of seeing this kind of reduction in car use. I would not have chosen to do it this way. Those absent cars represent lives in chaos. Education disrupted and the massive stress of still not really knowing what will happen for GCSE and A Level students. Those cars belonged to self employed people who have been left totally exposed by callous political choices. They were the cars of people visiting their loved ones. We needed to learn how to do without them, but not like this.


Of Cars and Celebrations

New Year’s Day was wonderful. I walked into town in the morning to go to the cinema, and there were almost no cars on the road. It was so much quieter. I could hear bird song. Roads that normally have too heavy a flow for me to cross were suddenly safe to saunter over. The whole atmosphere of the centre of town was massively improved. Usually the roads around the middle of Stroud are full of cars at that time of day.

As the majority of people had partied into the early hours the night before, they were at home, sleeping it off. By the afternoon, the roads were still significantly quieter than usual.

We need, for our own safety and the wellbeing of the planet to drive less. Air pollutions kills something like 40,000 people a year in the UK alone. Car accidents kill. The climate crisis kills. Sedentary lifestyles kill. Social isolation is an epidemic. More people walking and fewer people driving would have an impact on all this. However, people are reluctant to give up cars when they see them as necessary to daily life, or intrinsic to their quality of life.

So I’m thinking we need more parties.

Imagine if we had more regular festivals (8 a year? One a month?) when it was socially expected that you would party. Many people enjoy parties and the social engagement is good. And then we have the day after the big party when it is socially expected that most people will sleep until midday and then not do much. Meanwhile anyone who wants to live quietly can give the party a miss and have a wonderful quiet and much safer walk on the day after the party.

Part of the reason we’re struggling to make radical lifestyle changes to avert climate disaster, is the stories we have. Car = freedom. Driving=adventure. Happiness comes from owning possessions. If we had a party culture and it was normal to be involved in a huge community party each month and then sleep it off the next day, then the party could be the exciting, liberating thing, not the car. We’d have a day each month when driving wasn’t the thing, just as currently happens on New Year’s day. One day a month of change isn’t enough, obviously, but I bet we would see a culture shift.

Obviously this is a silly idea. Obviously more partying won’t happen. Obviously in our work-orientated culture, the idea that parties might be what we need, is preposterous. Having a good time is not the most sensible approach to making radical change. Because we’re so bought in to our work-earn-buy-consume narratives that it’s hard to imagine anything else.

If we’re going to change everything, we do in fact need to radically re-imagine things.


Life after cars

I’ve been cheered over the last month or so to see more people online talking about how we are going to have to cut back on car use. The only way to deal with congestion, is if more people drive less. I’m so glad to see growing recognition that building roads does not solve this problem. We need to tackle our dire air pollution – which is killing people. We need to square up to the way driving impacts on climate chaos. We also can’t simply replace current cars with electric ones, because there are rare earths currently needed for electric cars and the planet can’t afford us over-consuming those, either.

What needs to happen next is that we need to start getting excited about the implications of a mass cutback on car travel. So, here are some benefits to contemplate.

Reduced noise pollution. How much nicer and less stressful human environments are when we aren’t bombarded by car noise!

Less air pollution – which will help with respiratory diseases, and maybe make colds a bit less awful, and improve our life expectancies.

Less time wasted commuting. How much time does a person who sits in traffic squander in a state of frustration as they breathe in the toxins from the other cars around them? Think how much quality of life could be improved by reclaiming that time!

Being bodily and mentally healthier – getting about on foot or on a bike helps reduce stress and keeps us fit. This is a great life improver, and with fewer cars on the road, walking and cycling will become safer and nicer to do.

It’s more social – if you’re on public transport or on foot, you meet people. You might even talk to them in passing and make friends with them. Loneliness is a modern western epidemic and cars don’t help us with that.

If you don’t drive to work and for leisure, you have to be more involved with your local community. People are often less willing to shit where they eat, and being more involved with the people around us builds communities and gives us better lives. If we go over to car sharing or other, more communal systems, this also requires us to be more co-operative, which is good. We’d have to restructure so that accessing key resources was less car dependent. This would be good, and would inject life and opportunities back into small towns and villages.

It saves money. Cars cost money to buy, fuel and maintain. How many people are pushed into sudden debt because of an unexpected car expense?

Being safer. Every year many people are killed and injured through car use. Think of the pain, stress, misery and grief we could end if we got more people out of their cars.

Get people off the roads, and driving will be less stressful and dangerous for those few who really need to do it. It’ll be easier to move emergency vehicles around at need as well.


Relating to the landscape

There have been times in my life when car use has featured – odd weeks here and there around holidays and time with my family, invariably with someone else at the wheel because I can’t drive. I do also occasionally (perhaps once a month) get lifts from people. I notice based on this how car use changes your perception of a landscape.

Speed has a lot of impact. Firstly you just don’t see as much from a car – a mere twenty miles an hour is much faster than a human body moves through a landscape. You miss a lot of detail. There’s so much you can’t observe or process at car speeds. The experience of covering miles in a few minutes also distorts your body sense of how far apart places are. On foot of course you can stop and look whenever you like, change direction, turn in circles – not something it’s a good idea to do with a car.

I note from repeatedly doing longer walks that I have a body sense of the distance between places. It’s very different from getting in a car. I know what’s ten minutes away from where I am, or an hour, or a day’s walk – because I’ve done enough of it. At any place in the landscape I know where I am in relation to everything else. I don’t think that’s possible with driving, not in the same way.

There are relationships we can only have when we’re showing up in our human bodies at human speeds. I think the pace you take has far more impact than whether or not you can use your feet – to ride a horse through a landscape, or move at a low speed on a mobility scooter would also give you that immediacy of being in a place and feeling the shape of it.

How we experience sun and wind depends on where we are within the shape of the land, what time of day it is, where the shadows fall, where the weather comes from. Again, these are things that you need to experience in a bodily way to relate to them. You need time to have that experience. Cars create separation between people and the land. Sometimes we need them to get things done, I grant you, but it’s worth looking closely both at what they give, and what they take away.

I notice where I live that many people drive to park at local beauty spots and then take relatively small walks – often for the benefit of dogs. I go to the same places, walking from where I live – which admittedly takes more effort, but I have a totally different relationship with reaching the hilltop. It’s a powerful thing, having your body affected by the land – to sweat for it, to ache and strain and feel it impacting on your body, and then to feel the wind, the sun, the water in the grass. These are all things we lose when we take the easier option. And if you have a body that doesn’t need an easier option it’s interesting to ask how much benefit there is in the allegedly lower effort choice.


Magical symbolism and a normal world

Our entertainment sources play a huge role in terms of how we imagine the world to be, and how we imagine it could be. Consider for a moment the frequency with which you see people driving – in adverts with those mythical open roads, in dramas and documentaries. Politicians and celebrities step out of especially shiny ones to the flashes of many cameras. Superheroes have massively powerful ones. We watch them race for sport, we even given them names and personas and create films about them.

Imagine what it would be like if every day you saw the same amount of footage of people arriving on foot and by bicycle. If celebs turned up on buses as a matter of course, if politicians travelled by train, if more of the epic chases in films involved people running rather than driving. Imagine how your sense of the future possibilities would change if you saw stories about the future full of clean, quiet cities and where the car had ceased to dominate. Imagine what would happen if toy cars became as suspect as gifts for children as toy guns have become in recent years.

Every day, we tell each other stories about how the world is, and could be. The stories washing about our media and popular culture are the ones impacting on the most people. Currently our stories tell us that cars are everywhere and essential and will continue to be everywhere. Cars are glamorous, we are told, but if we started telling each other how wild and romantic it is for some unconventional celebrity to ride the buses, our whole attitude to public transport would shift. If we made films in which future buses were gorgeous spaces full of successful people, we’d start wanting those buses. If we started associating walking purposefully onto the train platform with images of power and status, we might make the car less of a symbol for personal importance.

The industrialised world exists because humans collectively imagined it into being. We could imagine something different. The symbols of power we identify with are a matter of choice. They could be changed. Why isn’t the fit body of a cyclist more widely accepted as sexy than the curves of a metallic car? The answer is largely because one has a well paid marketing department, and the other doesn’t.

I’d like to live in a world where the hum of traffic noise isn’t a constant. I’d like to be able to stand on the hills and not hear the motorway. I’d like it not to be considered merely an unavoidable and unfortunate side effect that people die and are seriously injured every day on the roads. I’d like us to questions that normality. Above all else, I want us to start questioning the role of the car as an icon, a symbol, a fetish within our cultures, and to dare to imagine something different. Something that smells better. Something that doesn’t smear tarmac across our countryside.


The great toad massacre

It’s exactly what happened last year. In the autumn, frogs and/ or toads move about. I suspect they do it at night, and I’m not sure which sort of amphibian it is. All I see are the splattered corpses on the road. There’s a horrible irony to finding them on the last few miles down to the famous wildfowl and wetland centre. The odds are some have been killed by people who came out to see the wildlife.
The trouble with cars, is that doing fifty miles an hour down a darkened lane, you aren’t going to see a frog crossing the road, much less have time to avoid it. That’s assuming you’d care to bother in the first place. Our amphibian populations are in decline. If the number of corpses I’ve seen in the last week are anything to go by, road deaths must be a contributing factor.
Of course there’s a thirty mile and hour limit on this road, but a lot of people don’t respect it. Especially not on the pub run at night. There are always horses, joggers, dog walkers, cyclists and children in the lanes round here, even after dark and there are always stupid, mindless idiots who drive at full tilt. And there are also always corpses. Birds, small mammals, larger mammals, pet cats, I found a grass snake once, it’s head crushed by a passing vehicle. One of the things about being a cyclist is that you get to see the carnage. We stop for anything and everything. I’ve rescued frogs from the road, worms, caterpillars, beetles. I have accidentally killed a couple of snails, I admit, but the death toll created by cycling is fairly low. Up on the main road, someone did get a horse a couple of years ago, the poor animal so badly wounded that it had to be put down, while the distraught child rider had to be taken away in an ambulance.
All for the sake of getting there a bit sooner, or for the dubious pleasure of speed.
We kill a lot of people this way too, pedestrians, cyclists, children.
There is a widely held idea that guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Cars don’t kill people and wildlife. People driving cars kill people, and wildlife. I’d like universal recognition that cars are bloody dangerous things that can and do kill people every day. And that kill birds, mammals, amphibians and insects in horrendous numbers. Speed makes it worse. Speed gives you less time to notice, less time to avoid, it gives the creature itself less time to get out of the way, human creatures included. The higher your speed, the more damage you are likely to do when you hit. And when you hit something of flesh and blood, that damage is immediate, painful, and quite possibly lethal. Cars are killing machines. They need treating like dangerous killing machines, not like toys.
I don’t drive. I simply could not face the responsibility of directing something so phenomenally dangerous. But killing things with cars is normal, and people just shrug it off. The toads, on the other hand, have no shrugging options at all. They aren’t going anywhere.