The environmental argument for travelling by foot, bike, or public transit instead of driving is incontrovertible: the cumulative impact of production, maintenance, and travel is vastly lower. Aside from greenhouse gas emissions, we should consider many other benefits: lower particulate levels, less noise pollution, and less need for pavement and road maintenance. Even the reduced need for rubber, with its role in deforestation, is relevant. The public health benefits are also compelling. Even those who don’t bike win, as cycling infrastructure along with a greater intensity of cycling in cities correlates with safer streets for all road users, including pedestrians and drivers.
We don’t talk as often about the social justice arguments for biking and its close allies, public transit, walking, and other human-powered movement. Yet there is a good case for the claim of Bogatá mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who calls bicycles “revolutionary machines” for “promot[ing] equality in cities.”
Understanding why requires facing up to the inequities propagated by the over-privileged private automobile.
Automobiles Hoard Resources
Despite the “common sense” view that we can build our way out of traffic problems, it’s now nearly consensus among planners that expanding road-space only encourages driving. This includes enabling development patterns of the sort that now define the Northeast Avalon.
For Peñalosa, trying to solve traffic problems with more roads is “like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.” He calls instead for constraints on driving: congestion charges, appropriate gas-pricing and significant limits on parking, which also causes driving, especially when abundant and cheap or free at the point of use.
Drivers will protest. But as Peñalosa also observes—a fact seemingly lost on many residents of St. John’s—parking is not a constitutional right. Owning a private motor vehicle no more accords you rights to extra public space than owning real estate accords you more votes in a general election.
In Bogatá, the social justice argument for displacing private autos is direct. Income inequality there makes car owners a privileged minority, but one historically able to divert disproportionate public resources to their needs. When Peñalosa became mayor, he made equality the basis for transit decisions. In a city where many cannot afford a car, he is famous for saying that a protected bikeway is symbol of democracy, a sign that “a citizen riding a $50 bicycle is equally important to one driving a $50,000 car.”
In much of North America, the situation is different. Income inequality in Canada and the United States is also unacceptably high. Yet, the majority of households own cars. In this province alone, there were nearly 700,000 registered motor vehicles in 2018, of which over 380,000 were road vehicles.
In these circumstances, as the anthropologist Catherine Lutz says, getting to grips with inequality means asking not only what people earn, but also what they must spend.
Making Driving Mandatory
Automobility, to use Matthew Paterson’s term for cultivated car-dependency, is better understood as a cultural-political-economic regime than a collection of individual free choices.
Thus, in a recent article entitled “Americans Shouldn’t have to Drive, but the Law Insists on it,” Gregory Shill enumerates a whole complex of laws and policies that make driving nearly compulsory in the US. Many of these hold for much of Canada too. They range from zoning rules that restrict multi-unit dwellings and separate residential areas from commercial districts (thereby encouraging sprawl and making it hard to shop locally), to parking minimums, to tax laws, to speed limits and other rules of the road oriented to drivers, not to pedestrians and cyclists.
Talking of traffic laws, my own view from the bike seat is that imposing the same rules on cyclists and drivers is itself unjust. Bikes and cars are not the same. Cyclists, like pedestrians, have no blind spots. We pose little danger to drivers but we are supremely vulnerable to their actions. (By extension, cyclists have a special obligation to pedestrian safety.) Certain rules, notably those related to stop signs and to traffic lights—which often don’t even function for bikes, as any cyclist who’s sat at a sensor-activated light can tell you—make biking more difficult and more dangerous. Insisting that cyclists obey every law made for driving is discriminatory, illogical, and places obstacles in the way of biking for transportation.
Then of course, many jobs require a driver’s license, directly or indirectly. Some mandate vehicle ownership. Even essential public services are often located in places that are at best inconvenient without a car. Ever tried getting to the Major’s Path health clinic by bus or bike, let alone on foot?
We could continue to count the ways that automobility is engineered, including through the channelling of public resources and regulations to direct and indirect support for the oil and auto industries and the cultural elaboration of driving as a symbol of adulthood and freedom.
All this means that it is now difficult to participate fully in social and economic life without a private motor vehicle.
Under the circumstances, as Lutz says, the automobility system doesn’t just reflect inequality. It generates stratification.
In Canada, according to the Canadian Automobile Association, the average annual cost of owning a compact car is $8600. Think about the differential impact of being practically compelled to purchase a commodity that expensive simply to own and maintain—and guaranteed to depreciate by 20% in its first year—if you are in the bottom income quintile versus the top. Under these circumstances, as Paterson says, a bike-based economic strategy “redistributes real wealth.”
Moreover, many aspects of automobility systematically exacerbate inequality—especially the way vehicle ownership is underpinned by debt financing.
Returning to Bogatá: that city stormed onto the 2019 Copenhagenize Index of the world’s best cities for biking. This list provides a ready retort to every claim about how St. John’s weather, topography or “narrow streets” mean we can never become a cycling city.
Bogatá has hundreds of kilometres of protected bike lanes that connect to public transportation and central destinations. Every Sunday and every holiday, the city also holds a Ciclovia, closing 120 km of roads to motor traffic. Every week, up to 1.4 million residents walk, bike and skate, free from the routine fear of being killed by a car.
In itself, this provides a widely accessible opportunity for active recreation, bringing demonstrable gains in air quality, health, quality of life and social capital, as citizens of varied backgrounds mix in public, pointing to another way in which mobility systems can encourage or challenge inequities. Private motor vehicles—unlike mass transit, biking, and walking—let people avoid contact with those they view as undesirable or just different.
Still, it’s worth noting that public health research found Bogatá’s cycle routes to be used more consistently by people in lower socioeconomic groups than the Ciclovia, and that cycle route users feel more vulnerable to both motor vehicles and crime than do Ciclovia participants. On one hand, this shows that Bogatá has built infrastructure for those otherwise excluded. But it also shows that the city remains unequal. In contrast, bikelanes in North America have sometimes been criticized as elitist, “white lanes.”
In short, it is not enough to add new infrastructure: the starting point and the measure of success has to be social justice.
Rethinking Freedom and Choice
As Paterson says, quoting Howard Kuntsler, when we think about mobility, we have to get past the equation of freedom with doing whatever we feel like: “This is the freedom of a fourteen-year-old child.” (Still, talk to a new cyclist. You may be surprised by how liberated they feel, and how happy.)
Ultimately, we need to get beyond a reliance on individual choice if we are to realize cycling’s world-saving potential.
Saying so is not to dismiss the importance of personal decisions. These can matter in ways beyond their quantifiable impact, for example as expressions of care and commitment or a “not in my name” statement. Choosing to move at human speed, more exposed to the world including those we share it with, encourages us to see it differently. It fosters what anthropologists Anna Tsing and others describe as a lost habit of noticing: an “observational, analytical attention to intertwined human-and-nonhuman histories” that might encourage us to treat the landscape not as something to pass through, but as something we are part of.
But unless we are extractive industry bosses or their political allies, our individual choices probably won’t mitigate climate breakdown or social inequality in a directly measurable way. It’s not enough to see biking or walking or taking public transit or even driving an electric car as just another alternative to driving a gas-guzzler.
The car sits at the heart of capitalist expansion and the ideology of perpetual growth, and the world made for driving has reconfigured and limited the possibilities for human being and becoming.
We need to start eradicating private motor vehicles from our cities.
I say this as a car-owner. It’s time for a total war on cars.
Note: This column originated in a talk to Green New Drinks, held on Regatta Day 2019.
Follow Robin on Twitter.
Photo by Gregory Smith.
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