Long gone are the days when motorists were obliged to proceed at walking pace, following behind a figure waving a large flag to alert unwary pedestrians of the impending danger. Today, a car-dominated world is largely taken for granted, and vehicles have an enormous influence on all our lives.
To some, the car is a status symbol that reflects their level of wealth. Others create a form of self-identification through their make of vehicle, or may regard their sports model as a ‘chick magnet’. Operating a car makes literal the metaphor of being ‘in the drivers’ seat’, providing a sense of personal control and autonomy that may otherwise be missing.
Unfortunately the private car also exacerbates a wide range of problems, both locally and farther afield.
These include :
- Exhaust pollution, and the associated health impacts in urban areas.
- Noise: people exposed to heavy traffic tend to stop regarding the street as their home territory, and in turn this discourages social interaction.
- The ugly aesthetics of multi-storey car parks and overpasses.
- Suburban sprawl, and the associated biodiversity loss.
- Erosion of the urban fabric through road-building and widening programs.
- Environmental damage caused by road construction and upgrades.
- Industrial accidents, such as last year’s massive explosion at the Buncefield oil depot near London.
- Rainforest destruction from oil drilling and pipeline construction in tropical regions.
- Human rights abuses in oil-producing countries such as Nigeria and Colombia.
- Climate change, exacerbated by the use of fossil fuels.
Car-sharing enters the scene
For many people, easy access to private mobility quickly becomes addictive, and motorists usually jump into their vehicle without a second thought about possible alternative options such as walking, cycling and public transport.
Fortunately an increasing number of people, especially inner urban residents, are trying to live car-free, motivated by factors such as the expense of running a vehicle, congestion hassles, and parking challenges. Some in Sydney’s eastern suburbs have switched over to the motor scooter, while others are going ‘car-lite’ by reducing their mileage.
One successful strategy that has taken root overseas is car sharing. This gives city-dwellers the freedom to access a vehicle without the hassles of owning one, rescuing substantial urban space from the tyranny of parking spots. A company offering such a service will typically own a number of late-model cars that are kept in dedicated parking spots. Members pick them up for specific purposes, usually paying both hourly and per-kilometre charges that discourage many non-essential trips.
Originating in Switzerland, car sharing has since spread to Canada, the US, and Germany where about eighty thousand citizens are now involved. In Australia, Newtown CarShare (since renamed GoGet) was launched in 2003, and has grown to take in nine inner-Sydney suburbs and three in Melbourne. Anyone without local share-car access can log onto its website and register an interest in having the service available in their locality.
Other transport options
Some negative perceptions and individualistic attitudes hinder public transport in Australia, but experience from overseas has shown what can be achieved when systems are well designed. In the Brazilian city of Curitiba, the fleet of antiquated buses was replaced with new double- and triple-length models that were allocated their own dedicated lanes. Ultra-modern tube-shaped bus stations have been installed next to the bus lanes, enabling large numbers of people to get on and off in seconds. As a benchmark of its success, today Curitiba’s bus system carries three quarters of all commuters.
Unlike in many overseas countries, cycling represents only a small percentage of Australian trips. Although bike sales continue to outstrip those for cars, most cycles are destined for recreation or sport. It seems that a shift in perception is required, to see cyclists as part of the transport solution rather than a minority of second-class road users bent on slowing down motorists.
In the late 70’s, the Dutch city of Groningen dug up its city-centre motorways in favour of bike lanes, and is today the Western world’s bicycle capital, with 50% of all travel made by pushbike. Other enlightened cities such as Zurich (Switzerland) and Ljubliana (Slovenia) have introduced free cycle hire, helping to curb congestion.
Further alternatives to the individual car include commuter car-pooling, and lifts with neighbours. Not everyone is comfortable with hitchhiking, and three lift-sharing websites (Rideabout, Needaride and Ozlifts) have online bulletin boards that match drivers with passengers for longer rides. The Rideabout site offers a useful checklist of safety precautions.
Living without a car can bring both challenges and a significant change in spatial perception. Walking around the local neighbourhood, you notice many small details that would otherwise be ignored; nobody gets to smell flowers from within an air-conditioned metal box.
While some of us are content with self-imposed limits to choice, novelty, stimulation and movement, not everybody responds in the same way. Without travel of any kind, there is also a negative risk of parochialism and an uninspiring state of stagnation.
Sometimes running a car is close to essential. Disabled people may have great difficulty in getting to the closest public transport link. In rural areas of Australia, public transport may be either sparse or non-existent, and is usually expensive. If buying a vehicle, two good resources are the Australian Greenhouse Office Fuel Consumption Guide Database (for used cars), and the Green Vehicle Guide (new models). A good environmental option is a fuel-efficient late-model diesel that can be run – subject to availability – on renewable biodiesel sourced from waste vegetable oil.
Ecological urban design
Many cities, especially those in Europe, were originally designed on a human scale, and higher-density living in the inner suburbs circumvents the need to own a car. Some large centres such as Munich and Copenhagen have in recent decades pedestrianised substantial CBD areas, creating attractive spaces for people to stroll, congregate, relax, or sit at pavement cafés.
One of the most intelligent advocates for the ecological city is Brisbane author David Engwicht. In his influential book Towards an EcoCity: Calming the Traffic, he makes the point that cities originally grew up as places for exchange and interaction, in the era before mobility became the number one priority. He believes that cities have tended to morph from ‘places’ into ‘destinations’, and where this has occurred, the social, aesthetic and noise impacts have lowered everyone’s quality of life. Sprawling outer suburbs of Australian cities are often considered to be more desirable than their busier inner counterparts. At the same time, inner-urban houses within walking distance of the nearest shopping street may be demolished or relocated to pave the way for ubiquitous strips of motels, fast-food restaurants, car showrooms and industrial units. The fact that this population displacement is liable to aggravate car-dependent sprawl is a good argument for preserving these buildings via rezoning measures. The Danish capital Copenhagen retains the fabric of communities by no longer clearing inner-city slums; these are renovated even when this is more expensive than building new housing.
Existing urban layouts tend to impose their own limitations on the scope of future plans, and become entrenched, making it increasingly difficult to break the mould. For this reason, there are major advantages in designing for car alternatives sooner rather than later, as some environmentalists have long been urging.
Car-free development initiatives
The past few years have seen numerous car-free residential development experiments. Examples include GWL-terrein in Amsterdam and the interestingly named Stadthaus Schlump in Hamburg. Germany is a pioneer in this field, with at least 26 such projects, most of which have been over-subscribed. One of Australia’s best examples is Christie Walk, an Adelaide co-housing community designed by the grassroots group Urban Ecology Australia.
As a whole, car-free developments often have the environmental benefit of re-using ex-industrial ‘brownfield’ sites on the high-density urban periphery. This represents a more ecological and aesthetic alternative to the further encroachment of the city edge on villages, towns, forests and productive agricultural land. Typically, residents will commit to not owning a car; the lack of parked vehicles can humanise a development while providing scope for innovative layouts that nurture a sense of community. An absence of access roads and parking facilities frequently lowers the overall construction costs. Easy access to public transport is vitally important, and ideally some facilities will be situated within walking distance of one’s home.
Does the car have a future?
Many believe that a global oil production peak will occur before the decade’s end. Unless alternative fuels are found, the combination of a declining oil supply coupled with increasing demand may at a future point pose a challenge to the future of private transport.
For this reason, Gregory Green’s recent hard-hitting documentary ‘The End of Suburbia’ challenges the wisdom of continuing down the path of environmentally unsustainable sprawl. In a fuel scarcity scenario, the suburban fringe would swiftly become one of the least desirable places to live.
Although a car-free world is probably a distant prospect, steps have been taken in numerous cities to limit motor vehicle access while creating a better quality of life for residents. As these initiatives become bolder, an increasing number of citizens will hopefully enlarge their ideas of what the city could represent.
CarBusters magazine www.carbusters.org
World Car Free Network www.worldcarfree.net
Car-Free Cities www.carfree.com
David Engwicht www.lesstraffic.com
Car Sharing Network www.carsharing.net
GoGet CarShare www.goget.com.au
Needaride (lift-sharing) www.needaride.com.au
Car-free days In the mid-1990’s, September 22nd was chosen as International Car-Free Day. Since then, a growing network of towns and cities has lent support to this annual event by encouraging citizens to either reduce trips or leave the car at home. Through promoting such behaviour, organisers of car-free days hope that awareness can be raised about non-car travel possibilities. Unsurprisingly, most participating authorities have been in European countries. Going one step further, Paris has closed some streets to traffic on Sundays and public holidays, in favour of walkers, cyclists and rollerbladers. The city is also considering a long-term plan to ban cars from its four central districts, exempting residents and other essential vehicle movements. Similar steps have been taken in the Colombian capital, Bogota. While Australia has been slower to catch on, the WA city of Fremantle organised ‘Shed Your Car Day’ in May 2002. Central streets were closed off to traffic, and a variety of creative activities took place in its absence.
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