Imagining a World without Cars

Stepping out of the front door to my co-rented house, the streets are lined with cars packed into every available sliver of parking space. A common talking point amongst neighbors in passing is the parallel parking skills of a driver and how much space a car leaves for the next spot, front and back. I carry my small, blue one-speed bike (much too small for me, but cheap and easy to maintain) down the stoop and wade through two cars to get on the road. I bike up my street and almost without fail avoid one car before reaching the bigger street, where a row of speeding cars greets me in the far right lane. I get on the busy street constantly looking over my left shoulder and try my best not to simply trust the car drivers to avoid running me over. Thus begins the adventure of riding through the perilous city streets everyday.

Dodging giant chunks of metal speeding past me is the most immediate concern of my day. Screw up just once on the road and anyone: biker, car-driver, pedestrian, or skateboarder could end up dead.  City and most suburban streets are dangerous places. The imperative that everyone who enters them act in a strictly predictable way, with any slight deviance from the norm putting so much at stake, makes everyone edgy. “Driving like a lunatic” puts everyone around you at risk but sticking your neck out and yelling out the window from the comfy confines of the driver’s seat is likely to arouse “road rage”. Our disposition can take a sharp turn from pacified (with your favorite tunes on and a temperature set perfectly to the degree) to incensed at someone who so blithely brought us so close to death. And such is life on the road: so casual and familiar a place, yet a place where we must also constantly straddle the line between tranquility and fury, life and death.

Stop on any street (on the sidewalk of course!) and look around you: you will almost always be able to locate about 30 cars just in your immediate sight. These vehicles are heavy and travel at a speed unheard of just 100 years ago (without tracks), and with just a gentle push from your right foot. The driver sits as they please and barrels from one side of the town to the other, transporting living bodies through a grid of straight lines and inside a steel cage. We control the car’s movements, but stand back and gaze upon the elegant mess of a city street and everything goes according to plan – if your lucky.

A car is sold as a commodity of freedom. Finally at the age to drive, we can now travel dozens of miles away without doing a lick of exercise and be alone, with our friends, or on a date. A car is a status symbol, one only briefly confined to one’s class in the first half of the twentieth century and now representing something purportedly more democratic: the freedom of the individual to travel to wherever it likes. The thrill of owning a car is sold as a ticket to the free life but also as an identity [Jeep’s 2009 ad campaign]. Unbound by your place of upbringing, you can now go to any-place your heart desires (the idea of ’anyplace’ being the main selling point vs any particular place) and deck-out your interior and exterior however you find stylish. With this one big purchase, the ritual is completed and the coming-of-age story closed. Now you’re off into the ’real world’ of the road.

Hiding in plain sight behind our now common sense notions of individuality and personal freedom is a sprawling world of metal objects zooming past each other at the distance of a few feet, a giant industry that created a new form of capitalist production [Fordism], and a rule-ridden “public space” where you either behave exactly according to geometrical lines on the ground and lights hanging in the air or risk fines and jail time. The police can and do pull people over whenever they want and can make up any reason to claim why they are doing so, “probable cause” being a flexible phrase that the police can always invoke by lying, then searching your car [When Can Police Search Your Car?].  Before going on, I feel it is important to note the shear dominance of the automobile and the roads its tires roll over on the daily life of an American. The concrete grids mapped onto the landscape must be maintained at tax-dollar expense (though mostly from, thankfully, a gas-tax [Transportation FAQ]) so that we can choose wherever we want to live and still get to work on time. These roads are not only dangerous and hurried, they are the place where we expend most of the carbon, threatening most life on the planet (only surpassed, perhaps, by our use of electricity indoors [EPA: Emissions by Sector], and interact with the most strangers. Unfortunately, the only time we give these strangers moving at different speeds second notice is when we collide, and that contact we make with them is often deadly [Car Crash Fatality Statistics]. To get past our fossil-fueled present and envision a sustainable future, we will have to imagine our roads otherwise than blank spaces only to be filled up by personalized cars.

Some cities are already embroiled in a war between cars and cyclists as shown in this documentary: [Bikes vs. Cars: War on Cyclists], and car driving will not go down without a fight. People are attached to these things and the convenience, status, and ’freedom’ they provide. Managing the reduction in car driving will be key to stopping runaway climate change and will have to be done with minimal outrage. Not only do alternatives need to be readily available in public infrastructure to travel long distances (which America is currently failing at epically [Last Week Tonight: Infrastructure]) but people will need to be able to live closer to their work and their family and friendship networks. This would ideally happen gradually, but this planetary problem has a time-limit; we only have so many years to plan for this change and one can only hope for fair warning. It’s hard for me to get over the expectation that family members have of being able to converge seasonally for celebrations and holidays while having moved so far away from each other. The good reasons we have for taking long car rides hide the decision to move so far away from each other in the first place, leaning on the car to whisk us back to see loved ones. We simply cannot make these long journeys (often worsened by jet-fuel) anymore without very low-carbon public infrastructure as an alternative.

People I talk to almost always bring up the prospect of electric cars and while this sounds appealing, there is a lot of energy that goes into making a car at the point of production [Carbon Footprint of a New Car], so some kind of renewable energy will be required to assemble them and gather all of the raw materials they require. Bicycles can be created entirely from bamboo, as some of the earliest ones were [Bamboo Bicycles]. It’s not unimaginable but I find it hard to believe that these electric cars could replace gasoline-powered cars one-for-one, especially thinking of where the electricity will come from when most electricity is generated by coal, which is worse than oil. It would be much easier to get everyone, by-and-large, to simply travel less, shorter distances, slower, and by low-carbon rail when necessary.

The planning of cities is a big culprit in this matter as well, and, to be quite honest, some cities just won’t function without cars and need to be abandoned [America’s Most Unsustainable City]. Many people simply need to own and drive a car to and from work because they live in the residential district which is on the complete other side of the city from the industrial, commercial, or financial district. This will have to change too, and the migration of people to houses closer to their work will have to be assisted instead of restricted by high rent and real estate bubbles. Many people have moved out of cities and into suburbs, who then commute long and tedious hours that almost nobody enjoys. A forewarning and assistance of some kind (be it state or otherwise) will be necessary for this massive transition in housing and transportation. If this seems too far-fetched and like central planning just consider the alternatives: do we really think that we can all collectively cover this much space in our travels everyday without the assistance of gase-powered automobiles?

The supply chains industry distributes all of the goods we consume via cargo-ship, seaports, airports, rail, and trucking – all using massive amounts of fossil fuels. Wind power has been used for thousands of years to transport goods by sea but, again, much slower and rail could be powered by other means. But trucking handles a great deal (~70%) of domestic and close range distribution [Logistics: Transportation Industry] and a different method must be found for getting goods to us from nearby. Why not paid bike caravans full of goods in their trailers traveling on car-less, roads? Without just-in-time logistics and with a better planned distribution system, we could afford to travel slower and in a big pack for the last short-distance leg of the chain ending at the market. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Some sectors just need to travel fast and will not negotiate: ambulances and fire trucks will need to be kept running. But this is not very difficult to deal with: with so few cars on the road, these fleets could easily be converted to electric power, itself powered by solar energy. In a nightmare scenario, the police would still be able to cruise in their cars while regular people could not. So let’s not let that happen.

All of this is merely a means to stimulate your imagination for what a sustainable future that is not at odds with the biosphere could look like. This blog post isn’t going to jump start a bill to send before congress. A good idea concocted recently has been solar roadways that would capture sun energy and use it to power nearby electricity needs and its own lighting [Solar Roadways Already Producing Energy] [Solar Freaking Roadways]. Yes, legislators, please try it.

We desperately need to be able to imagine how a society could work that doesn’t consume this much fossil fuel and excrete this much carbon into the air. Without the ability to see how it would work, what we would do differently, how we would get around, how we would relate to each other, etc. then we will fumble our words and remain locked in stunting fear or other sad affects. It hit me hard and gave me a glimmer of hope upon seeing an artwork done by my friend Sandy, who would ride his bike around Oakland with big posters glaring out at everyone who passed by. The posters were usually Occupy inspired art, but this one stands out as being a positive image of what a desirable future would look like:

And then there is this trend: [Millenials Reject Car Culture]

It is important to stay positive and creative, but until cars as the dominant for of travel are usurped, I’ll be getting pissed at every car that gets in the way of me and my beautiful, low-maintenance, exercise-giving, gas-less blue bike that costs nothing to park, rides nearly anywhere in the city, endangers next-to nobody, and doesn’t harm the biosphere. And I’ll be secretly pissed at every other car I see; secretly, that is, to decrease the chance I get killed by someone who got angry all-of-the-sudden and could only express that rage by pushing their foot on the gas petal. Everyday.

A Day in the City

Woke up late agin. 12:30 I think. Got on the mobile device to hit up a friend of mine I was suppose to meet earlier in the day. Eventually I get it together and pour some coffee and smoke a rolled up cigarette. Man have I been hitting the smokes lately. After sufficient waking time, I hop on the bike and ride the Metro over to the City.

I’m late. Can’t seem to be on time anymore, not that we ever set a definitive time. He’s already been to the park we were going to meet at, come home and gotten ready for a nap, sunburned. I drag him down to let me in to his living space filled with anti-capitalist, anti-state, and generally anti-society art and literature strewn all over the place. This has become a comfort zone for me, a reprieve. Big common area, tables and couches, and a general do-what-you-like attitude pervade. (It’s gone?)

We walk to the park (his second time today) gabbing about the meaning of privilege and its effectiveness in shutting people up who would otherwise resist vs. encouraging those who currently wouldn’t have without it. Looking back, it amazes me how fluent I’ve become in the lingo of the anti-caps – it literally just streams out my mouth when I relax with friends.

We approach the hilly park full of young and colorful people grouped up into small corpuscles. Each little crew has managed to separate themselves from each other by establishing a common distance between them that could probably be measured within a margin of error of a few inches. I make sure to comment on the lack of consciousness in the park. Only now (writing this) am I taken aback at the strangeness of myself commenting on the “consciousness of the masses.” Remembering the days of blissful indifference takes concerted reflection; my self-confidence, together with a willingness towards self-criticism, has entrenched a defiant stance that I’m happy to keep.

We lie on the grass and talk – it’s getting hotter. We’ve done this before. Sprawling out a few zines and books on the ground between us, philosophy of the European flavor plus what some might call “ultra-left” pamphlets, and begin. He’s a declared egoist, anti-civ guy and I’m fine with it. We’re past he initial pointing out of obvious hypocrisies and ironies; we know the situation we’re in, the systemic impasse. We speak together precisely because of this, because we can see the composition of forces constricting us, and we’re willing to change it. It is a question of how at this point. The fuel to light the fire already exists: we need a trajectory.

I speak about the labyrinth metaphor and its connection with another article that was laid on me by a mutual friend. One was about the labyrinth of the history of science & philosophy, the other about the labyrinth of a situationist’s dérive through the city that begins and ends with a undeveloped hint at “the occupy thing”. In a dérive, the city does the guiding. The specificities of the urban environment are supposed to do the directing, while the ambience invokes and provokes the participants around. The article seemed to suggest the entrance and exit to the labyrinth of the city lay in occupying the square, with so much history, geography, and ideas mashed in the middle. He drops me another article by the same author about negation and ethics. I would read it later that night in my bed.

We muse about civilization, humanity, the Earth, the police… On the way back we agree about the clarity to be found in the revelation that there is an enemy to position oneself against – an enemy with its vice grip on the future. But I stop and launch into another improvised digression on the choosing of one’s enemies. An antagonism born of revenge against the lowly denizens appears trite within the context of the thoroughgoing disintegration of the system of the Earth by the system of Capital. One’s enemies tell much about who one is. Yet we cannot seemed to get beyond the police.

Having family obligations I must depart. We have discussed enough words and theory to chew on until our next meeting. After all, he’s facing a legal battle over his living space that demands clarity of language. The pain of departing from my friends had grown noticeably more acute since things have died down. So much so that within the last half-hour or so, a feeling of forlornness dawns on me early and we tarry about his space.

The spot has since been evicted. The building was bought and they were kicked out of the city by the new dollar-eyed landowner. I don’t often go to that part of the city anymore.

I arrive late for the show. The doors have closed and I will not see the play that my family has invited me to. Instead I grab a beer at a sports bar and watch the end of a baseball game. An old gay man stands at the corner of the bar and talks about his 15-minutes of fame: he was arrested at the Supreme Court of New York to protest for gay rights and I eat it up. He spoke of the arresting officers not knowing where to take him, so they just kept leading him down the macabre catacombs of the Supreme Court building that eventually turned into a sandy basement. I remember the intentionally soft voice of his – like a children’s story reader enrapturing little kids – as he repeated “going down, down, down…” I get bits of the article my friend gave me in-between him, the game, and the cheerful tourist couple to my left. I make a note of being in between an old man having already lived through his activist glory days and an out-of-town couple looking for something novel and distinct about this city.

When I left the bar I stopped to pick up some tobacco on the advice of a particularly hostile homeless man who for some reason took a liking to me. I give him a cigarette when I come out and we talk briefly about something forgettable. Making my way down the street I find that the show is over and everyone has left. Unable to contact my family for lack of internet access, I linger a bit longer in the Metropolis and talk to some more homeless people. I even shout at a security guard trying to move a guy away from his employer’s doorway, but this guy is too feeble and incoherent to realize what I have done for him.

I wander around the roads a bit more, biking up hills and avoiding speedy cars. I expel some more energy into the city streets, not really sure where I am going. Stopping at a small convergence spot near a public transit section, I roll another cigarette and tentatively look for another random conversation. Someone starts talking about my bike and we compare them with flattery. The slightly larger than usual sidewalk is surrounded by fast-food restaurants, a large neon-lit bar, a fancy hotel and a chic department store. There are pockets of people grouped-up and traveling in different directions. They scan each other, make short loud cries of laughter, and try to maintain a sense of direction. I stand with my cigarette observing everyone with my buzzed and oddly curious gaze. “Creepy dude” they must be thinking. Finally, I decide to go home. When I arrive, I feel grateful for having a house.

Many messages are on my mobile device when I get home. My family is wondering where I am. My absence must be felt considering my righteous intensity as of late. I reply to one: “I’m not coming, don’t worry about it.” I pause at this last word and wonder about whether to go with “it” or “me”. “Don’t worry about *it.” … “Don’t worry about *me.” …

I decide this isn’t about me at all, it is about the situation.

(Written in summer 2012)