The Deeply Ingrained Car Culture
Most of us living in the US and Canada get to work by car. While I personally use my bike or public transportation, I am keenly aware that I am in the minority. I write this not to pass judgement, but rather simply to state the facts. In the United States, 86% of commuters get to work by car and more than three-quarters of those people drive to work alone. Canadian statistics are no better. Half the Canadian population commutes to work, and of those 74% drive there. Of these, the majority also tend to drive alone. The national average for solo drivers across Canada is 83%, compared with 76% in the US.
These numbers are staggering! Moreso when we consider the cost of all our vehicles. Both in terms of the money we dish out to purchase and maintain this lifestyle, as well as the very real costs to our long term health and the environment. Clearly this is an inefficient system. Not only do our cars rapidly deplete in value, contribute to the extensive use of fossil fuels, require copious amounts of resources to construct, and provide a substantial source of stress and loss of life, they also represent some of the least efficient instruments of our modern civilization. Particularly considering that cars spend the majority of their lifespan parked (and I don’t mean in traffic!). In the US cars are parked for 95% of the time, in the UK the number is closer to 96.5%. After carefully considering the cost benefit analysis our solo car commutes are evidently illogical. So, what are our options?
Car-pooling, or ridesharing, is an excellent means of increasing efficiency. If two or more people are heading in the same direction, and possibly even work at the same place, it doesn’t take that much more effort to designate a meeting time and spot along the way. You might even find people who live near enough along that path, and be able to pick them up straight from home. Passengers will dig it, and most probably seek to compensate the driver in return; either financially, with food items (coffee and muffins!), or even a return drive on alternate days. Indeed, car-pooling provides a great opportunity for community building and socializing, and I’ve heard numerous stories of positive networking and friendships that had resulted from the shared rides. Certainly, the social benefits are a nice bonus, but if you’re primarily motivated by the logistical need as well as a strong desire for cost containment, then it does represent an immediate and viable solution.
In fact, businesses have already been cluing in to that fact. Take Uber for instance. With an estimated market capitalization of $50 Billion, Uber has successfully leveraged both the need and the efficiency gap. There are plenty of other rideshares as well. I personally used Kangaride for instance, which is a Montreal based Non-for Profit equivalent that offers intercity rides across North America. Undoubtedly, it is in thanks largely to the advent of social media that getting into a car with someone you haven’t met before no longer represents the danger that it might once have been. We can now interact and explore the profiles and digital footprints of those offering the ride. We can check out reviews, how long they’ve been driving, and even potential safety ratings. Such transparency offers passengers increased peace of mind, and indeed has opened up the market for other businesses looking to penetrate the sharing economy, be it through accommodations (Airbnb), household tools and appliances (NeighborGoods), or start-up financing (Kickstarter). According to Gilles Vesco, a French politician from the municipality of Lyon, “Digital information is the fuel of mobility,” acknowledging “that information about mobility is 50% of mobility.”
Another possible alternative exists through carsharing. A popular choice in my city is Car2Go, a point-to-point car rental service offered by Daimler AG (the Mercedes people). What may have emerged as a way to utilize some of the over-produced smart cars, ended up being a great and affordable way to get around. It works via a personal key card which you use to access the vehicle from wherever it might be parked in your area (this is where the apps/internet comes in). You pay a flat rate fee (in my city it costs about $0.40/minute), which includes fuel, insurance, and even parking. I mention parking, not in the meter sense, but rather these little car pods come with the residential stickers (residential street parking access) on the back windshields. Meaning we can pretty well park anywhere local residents can park, which is pretty sweet. This is an ideal service for short point-to-point needs. If you’re looking for something you need to hang on to for a slightly longer duration (say a trip to Costco), then there may be other providers that are better suited.
For instance, you might have in your city a cooperative car ownership program. Here in Montreal we have one called Communauto. Basically how it works is you pay an initial cooperative membership fee to join the organization. From there you determine which user profile best matches your need. It’s essentially a combination of monthly fee plus per km (mile) rates. You’re also responsible for fueling up. Or perhaps charging up, since Communauto does offer a number of electric vehicle options (pretty cool). Ultimately, it can prove to be a more cost effective alternative to traditional car ownership depending on your usage. The occasional criticism to this service is that you are required to better understand your usage needs in order to select the right price plan that fits your consumption (like certain cellphone plans). This requirement was done consciously by the organization’s founders, not simply to force you to do your homework so much as to encourage the user to understand his/her actual need. For those who have subscribed, they are tremendously satisfied, but for those less inclined to put in the effort, they now also have a point-to-point pricing model (called Auto-mobile), much like Zipcar in the United States. Zipcar works pretty much like Car2Go, except there’s also a monthly fee involved, and you have a wider selection of vehicles. Concordantly, each of these services represent an interesting and innovative approach to our traditional means of car travel.
Yet another alternative may be in getting rid of the car altogether! I once read a quote from the former mayor of Bogota (Colombia), Enrique Peñalosa, that stated, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.” This has resonated with me for a long time. As someone who grew up in a metropolitan city, public transportation has often represented for me a source of freedom. I was able to travel around town, visit, and explore long before I was legally allowed to drive. On my trips to other cities and countries, public transportation also offered me this same mobility and convenience. Now as an adult, advancing in my years and responsibilities, I have come to understand that for public transportation to continue to prove effective it needs to be safe and reliable. I need to know I will make it it to my destination on time and without theft or injury. If we’re not all quite there yet, this is nonetheless absolutely possible, and well within the scope of our public transportation networks. Sadly, there are no longer any streetcars in my city, but we do have an electrically powered subway network (the Metro), as well as an extensive bus route system. We also have a rail network that travels to and from the suburbs (and beyond), although this one is still developing.
Certainly, these networks vary across countries, but it is interesting to note that many countries already have a framework of public transportation embedded in their history. For example, from what I’ve learned, the United States also had a more effective and comparable rail and streetcar network providing competent public transportation to its citizens early on in the 20th Century, however this was quite literally derailed by a cartel of oil companies and automobile manufacturers. Despite this past (and possible present) resistance from certain special interest groups, the world is definitely still moving in the direction of greater public transportation networks, and it is simply a matter of time before we get there.
Our Friendly Neighborhood Bicycle
The final option I want to leave you with is the bicycle. What is seemingly a very simple mode of transport is also one of the ideal means of commuting to and from work. Undoubtedly, this one is also perhaps the most sensitive to weather and distance, yet it has continued to prove itself as a very real (and healthy) alternative. According to sustainably-minded urban planners, bicycles are indeed the vehicle of the future. Already this has become a more natural and legitimate option for commuters in Europe and Asia, yet this mentality is slowly impregnating North America as well. The key is for cyclists to be able to move round the city safely and without having to compete with vehicular traffic. This implies specified bike lanes when possible and cyclist-friendly traffic signs that encourage drivers to be sensitive to their more vulnerable co-commuters. Fundamentally, the road belongs to all citizens and it is important to remember this social responsibility, or social contract if you will, when considering the daily commute and the need to share the space safely. As a result, in order to encourage additional commuters to opt for their bicycles, cities need to take measures to ensure their safety and advocate for their rights.
This consciousness is already taking place. Just this week I had read how Paris had designated a car-free day, or even Beijing (after which the blue sky was apparently visible once again). Citizens’ reactions appeared quite positive! Certainly, opting for your bicycle will require the formation of new habits, but the benefits are clear. Gaining your daily dose of exercise and fresh air is great for your heart, brain, and even emotional disposition. You can start out slow. Begin with a day or two per week to try it on for size, and you don’t need to burn yourself out physically racing to work. It’s not a race. I’ve heard coworkers express concern about getting to work all sweaty, but when they actually tried it out their worries were overblown. To be sure, there are some pretty hot days during the summer, at which point I’d drop a change of cloths in my saddlebags (I tend to prefer the bike-rack bags over the backpack to avoid the back perspiration), and change at work. Some offices might even have a shower or gym within the corporate facilitates. Selecting the right bike also helps. Unless you live in a really mountainous region and lack paved roads, you don’t need a mountain bike. Nor an expensive racing bike for that matter. A simple “city bike” will do. And you may not even need to purchase it outright as community bike-share programs gain traction. Here in Montreal the bike-share is called Bixi, and for a flat rate annual fee you gain access to thousands of bikes dispersed around the city. You can pick it up from one spot, and drop it off at another without having to worry about committing to the ride back. The bikes themselves are particularly user friendly, with a heavy frame, minimal gears, mudguards, and a front rack (briefcase friendly), all of which demonstrate a certain degree of consideration to even the suited up business types (I rock out in my Bixi even in dress pants, its all good).
At the end of the day it really is your call when it comes down to how you choose to tackle your commute, and how our cities will look like. I’m simply encouraging you to consider the options.