lifestyle transition towns transport

Cars and community – is it possible to have both?

I’ve written about , but I’ve been thinking about it again after reading Lynn Sloman’s book ‘Car Sick‘.

Hypermobility refers to the distances we cover in the course of everyday life. Fifty years ago we travelled an average of 5 miles a day. Today, in getting to work, school and leisure activities, we cover 28 miles every day. Most of this is in cars.

This has all kinds of consequences, but one of the most serious was noted by Robert Putnam in his book ‘Bowling Alone’:

“Each additional ten minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by 10 percent – fewer public meetings attended, fewer committees chaired, fewer petitions signed, fewer church services attended, less volunteering and so on.”

The further away all our activities are, the more time we will spend in the enclosed bubbles of our own cars, and the less time we will spend in public places where other people are. The more driving we do, the less interaction with strangers we will have. In time, we may begin to prefer it that way, and come to fear strangers.

As Lynn Sloman writes, “Someone who walks out of the front door and climbs straight into a car parked on the driveway simply never gets to meet the neighbours living five or six doors down the street. They might as well be strangers. A world filled with strangers feels a lot less safe than one people by familiar faces, and that, maybe, goes part of the way to explaining why we now feel we live in a less trusting society that fifty years ago.”

Cars have brought us an amazing mobility and freedom to travel and to be spontaneous, but cars are an individualising technology – they are for personal use, personal convenience. They separate us from others, and work against community.

Peak oil and climate change are going to change motoring in fundamental ways. One of my hopes for the future is that we will not just switch to electric cars, or hydrogen or air-compressed cars or whatever clean technology takes centre stage. I hope we can re-think the geography of our everyday lives, re-localize, re-connect with our neighbours, and start living in actual size again.

  • For more on hypermobility, read ‘‘, by John Adams.

12 comments

  1. Great post, I like the graph.

    A couple of years ago I calculated the distance I was travelling to work in one year was as great as that travelled by my father in the whole of his working life.

    If you stop to think about it, it is madness.

  2. Yes, it is a little insane. I commute into London 2-3 days a week, and that in itself is enough to blow my miles per week into the high end of that chart.

    What’s missing from that chart, by the way, is the recession. You can see dips in the late 70s with the oil shock, and another in the early 90s. There’d be one this year too if the data went that far.

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  4. I think there are some things we could do with public transportation to create community.

    1. Have parties on the metro. Why does everybody operate like a drone? The social rules of the metro allow riders only to listen to ipods, read books or briefs, and take awkward glances at each other while standing within inches. We need people dancing in the aisles, singing cheesy songs together and creating a metro community. I recommend “Take me out to the Ball Game” or “Jimmy Crack Corn and I don’t care.”

    2. Use chutes and ladders instead of escalators and elevators at metro stations. Imagine sliding down the Foggy Bottom entrance in a potato bag! How exciting! Slides are cheap to maintain and a whole lot of fun. Ladders would help us keep in better shape. We could have ladder races with lower health care premiums for the winners.

    3. Assign themes to metro cars. Just imagine: The Texas Hold ‘Em Car. The Book Club Car. The Swinger Car. The Redskins Car. Getting people to engage in activities and shared interests on the metro would be good for everyone. Community Groups could sponsor certain cars and advertisers could target their audiences more effectively, allowing metro to bring in more revenue.

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