I dreamed a dream last night. In this dream, there were hardly any cars. There was no driver training, no driver exams, and no extensive hours of practicing to become a diligent and effective motorist. People were spending their time doing other things. Like engineering safe and efficient bullet trains. Or building eco-friendly solar powered buses. Or spending more time walking, running, and cycling places.
A little ambitious for North America? Most likely, but it’s my subconscious and I’m entitled to do whatever I want in there. Yet imagine if people were able to pool their resources together to create a transit system that all could share in. Imagine a system that benefited everyone beyond just addressing issues of mobility. With more developed public transport there would be less traffic in cities, which would reduce street congestion and engine emissions. There would be less need for vast parking lots, which would give opportunity to build more condensed infrastructure and allow for additional parks, community gardens, or recreational areas. There would be less vehicular collisions because finding a “safe” option home from the pub would be the only option. That is not to say there would not be unfortunate accidents with a highly developed public transit system, but these just might pale in comparison to our current mode of transportation (check out the statistics of American motor vehicle accidents in comparison to public transit and the Japanese high-speed rail safety record).
So what is a significant downfall of creating a communal system of mobility? Independence. Or rather lack thereof. How could people conveniently drive to 7-Eleven whenever a taquito craving hit, or leave five minutes early for school because that last “snooze” makes all the difference? In fact, this notion of convenience is often what drives us to drive. People who can afford cars can do a lot at the whim of a fancy, with a vehicle that takes them wherever they want to go whenever they want to go there. This is a great freedom, and why would there be a demand for a better public transit system when it is much, much nicer to commute and run errands in the comfort of a climate controlled Escalade rather than waiting for a transfer on a muggy side-street or in minus 40° weather.
But what about those people who cannot afford their own automobile? In a society structured so that not everyone can attain the level of financial security necessary to purchase and maintain a vehicle, the options of getting around become acutely limited. Especially in a city where the importance of well-developed public transportation can be summed up in one callow phrase: “People can just carpool more.” To be sure, individual car-culture plays an important part in the economy because people use their vehicles to drive to work (or use them for work). Yet, there are also those who struggle to make it to their jobs with a system that does not cater to public commuter needs. A lack of effective public transport means that people who cannot afford a car to commute hours of their day to making transfers, meticulously planning routes, or limiting themselves to employment close to home if there are no routes in their area.
And what about the environmental costs paid for a little convenience? If decimating the Northern boreal forest to make room for extractive industry, pipeline spills, or using unquantifiable amounts of precious freshwater is not enough to scare you off from the oil dependency necessary to sustain individual transportation—think about all the fracking currently underway next to the Yellowstone Caldera (also known as “Supervolcano”).
Sure, most of us would say we value all citizens in society and value the environment. But do we value them as much as instant-taquito-gratification? Of course, there are complex personal, political, and economic challenges to building infrastructure for a highly integrated public transit system, taking much time, forethought, and investment. These questions, however are not an obstacle. Rather they should push us to seriously reconsider how we organize our communities, not just on larger social levels but at the personal level as well. Addressing these challenges would point us in the direction of more sustainable methods of transport, rather than continuing to build up a system that disadvantages some and promotes environmental exploitation.
The need for mobility is a reality, but like all needs, there are a plethora of alternatives for how to meet it. Individual car-culture is no different. Yet, is car-culture a necessary life requirement? Are we willing to re-think how our current desire for independent mobility ripples through the rest of our social and environmental world? Are we willing to relinquish some present-day personal convenience and freedom for a healthier future? And are we willing to seek out and invest in sustainable alternatives? Perhaps the goal of revolutionizing our mobility-needs seems out of reach, or entirely unfeasible.
But I encourage people to tear down those normative boundaries of what is possible, and what is permissible. And even if you do not agree with my hypothetical vision of transport alternatives, I encourage you to come up with your own vision for more sustainable methods of mobility. I encourage you to dream.