Wednesday, September 22 was World CarFree Day. It was a big yawn.
Besides a bike ride in Chicago, not much happened. It never made the news. NPR paid it no attention. Since nothing really happened, commentary in the blogosphere debated the premise: the idea of being carfree.
As someone who hasn’t owned a car in nine years, I read with great interest why cars are so popular. Cars, says Loren Lomasky of Competitive Enterprise Institute: Free Markets and Limited Government, help us learn, travel, earn money, and enjoy privacy. They give us control over immediate environment, unlike buses (very true, I found myself nodding.) They promote autonomy. They let us choose where we will live and where we will work, and they let these two be separate.
People want cars, says Greencarreports.com—but small cars like the Tata Nono, because in places like Lagos and Mumbai, American-style cars like Camrys (much less SUVs and trucks) won’t do.
World Carfree Day images showed healthy young people walking and biking in perfect weather. What about rain and snow?, the CEI asked. What about lugging groceries and children? (For the answer to that one, check out BusChick’s NPR essay, which aired last Saturday) What about folks with disabilities? Instead, the CEI recommended, protest World CarFree Day by taking a drive!
I did drive on September 22. Instead of being car free, I’ve been enjoying a free car as I house and dog sit for friends in Seattle. Last Wednesday I drove an elderly cousin up to Skagit County to see my visiting parents, and then drove all the 80-somethings to a restaurant for lunch. Had we done this by public transportation, it would have taken all day, and my elders and their aging joints would have had to walk miles and miles. Not possible.
I was grateful to get to use a car. I’m glad they exist. But I wish we owned fewer cars and shared them more. I wish we biked and walked more often, especially on trips under a mile. I wish our public transit systems were stronger and more convenient and bike lanes and sidewalks were wider and safer.
Others feel like I do. CityFix includes cars and buses in its vision of sustainable urban mobility. And Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance’s mission statement sounds like mine:
The mission of Active Transportation Alliance is to make bicycling, walking and public transit so safe, convenient and fun that we will achieve a significant shift from environmentally harmful, sedentary travel to clean, active travel. We advocate for transportation that encourages and promotes safety, physical activity, health, recreation, social interaction, equity, environmental stewardship and resource conservation.
“Carfree” isn’t a practical goal for the United States, with zillions of rural communities and only a handful of cities (like Chicago) dense enough for get-anywhere-anytime-you-want public transportation systems. But “car lite” is possible. Instead of railing against cars, the ATA is building a movement around active transportation. Cars will still exist, but the ATA’s goal is for Chicagoans to make half their trips by active transportation. And because they are working to reduce pedestrian and bicycle crashes by 50 percent, those trips will be safer. Think how slim and healthy those Chicagoans will be, and how pleasant and safe walking and bicycling will be.
So I’m glad I skipped Carfree Day. I’m going to celebrate the active transportation movement by walking, biking, taking buses, trains, and ferries, and borrowing or renting a car when I need one. I like strengthening and expanding alternatives instead of shaming drivers and stoking disagreement. For heaven’s sake, let’s unite around something for once, instead of clashing.
I’m still going to celebrate Buy Nothing Day, but that’s another post.
Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal