Jun. 29, 2011 - Issue #819: Children of Bodom
Taking on the dominance of automobiles
Author Yves Engler didn't get very far when he attempted to travel across the US. The problem: he was travelling without a car. In an attempt to demonstrate how significantly car culture has impacted transit development, Engler and co-author Bianca Mugyenyi set out to traverse the US vehicle-free.
"We were defeated to cross almost immediately," says Engler, who will be speaking about the experience this Sunday as part of the book launch for Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay. After arriving at the Fort Lauderdale Greyhound station Engler and Mugyenyi had to take a taxi when they quickly discovered public transit was done for the day and that walking to their next destination would take over a day. "The most common theme was that it was very difficult to get around. People looked at us like we were crazy for trying to walk."
The two Canadians chose to travel to the ancestral homeland of the car, the US, because of the historical significance it has had on the identity of the country. The right of passage of your first car means a highway drive to freedom, independence and eternal coolness. But what Engler and Mugyenyi discovered is actually the opposite. Due to the dependence on the car, freedom of movement is actually restricted if you don't happen to own one.
"For those who don't have a vehicle, the ability to access necessities is difficult and their freedom is impinged upon," says Engler. "If you look at that, the people most hurt by that are children, elderly and disabled who may not be able to drive."
And it's not just a matter of access. For those who do have cars, Engler emphasizes that a large part of people's income is dedicated to paying for a car. "April 1 is car freedom day. The first three months of the year is working to pay for your vehicle."
This lack of freedom is directly associated with a failure to create transit policy for alternative means of transit. Bike paths, sidewalks and busses become secondary considerations when municipalities consider transit. Engler believes it's largely due to the profit motive.
"Auto interests, oil companies, have all used their immense economic clout to influence all aspects of society to advance their interests," he says.
There are also subsidiary economic benefits. Fast food chains, big-box stores and warehouse outlets all exist because of the car.
"It's more difficult for small businesses to get going in an suburban car landscape than in an urban area where people walk," says Engler. "For a whole series of reasons, the investment needed for a mom-and-pop store is much more in a suburban area than an urban area."
In order to overcome car culture, Engler believes alliances need to be made with small businesses who stand to benefit from walkable urban spaces.
In many cities that's beginning to happen. Transit-oriented development and walkable urban planning has started to develop in cities across Canada. Engler points to his home city Montréal and its developing bike policy, the BIXI bike exchange program.
"Montréal is putting $20 million into bike paths, but at the same time the Quebec government is putting $5 billion into growing roadways over the next 10 years," says Engler. "If you take a look at a more macro level it's still negative. There is an incongruence between a growing understanding of the downsides and what's actually happening on a macro level."
More stories in front »vueweekly.com comments: powered by Disqus
Vue respects your privacy. We will not forward your personal information to any other organization except as required by law, and will use your e-mail address only to respond to your comments. We reserve the right to edit and remove comments for length, clarity and/or if they are illegal or inappropriate. Your email address is never shown to visitors to vueweekly.com. Read the whole policy at: http://vueweekly.com/privacy