The cars that ate the world

When my wife and I bought our present home eight years ago, we owned two cars. Now we own none.

DISCLAIMER:  Actually, it’s a little more complex than that. We sold a big house in the city to buy a smaller house and a farm. We do have a car on the farm, a four-wheel-drive ute (pick-up), which is used as a work vehicle and for occasional trips to town. It has transported hundreds of tons of rocks, timber and wire for fencing, sheep, plants, machinery, groceries and, of course, beer. We can also put a water tank and pump onto the back of it and use it as a fire-tender. When you live in the bush it’s fairly impossible to do without a vehicle.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to my blog about our sustainable farm:

Getting back to the city; we sold our five bedroom house in a beachside enclave, to move to a heritage two-bedder in a rather more working class inner city suburb. We can walk into the city in twenty minutes or so. We have a choice of three train stations between five and ten minutes walk away. Bus routes nearby fill in most of the gaps between train lines.

When we first moved, as well as our cars, we also had a motor scooter and our younger son had a motorbike. When you have expensive vehicles sitting in the garage, you tend to want to use them, based on all sorts of justifications. You’re in a hurry. You need to do a lot of shopping. It’s a long way. You need to keep the battery charged. It’s a nice day and you feel like a motor bike ride. There’s also the status thing. Look at me! I’ve got a Citroen / Vespa / Ducati / whatever. Wind up the windows, turn on the air con., crank up the music, rev that motor!

We soon found, though, that it was easier not to use the vehicles. My wife could get to work more quickly and less stressfully by strolling to the train station, reading the paper enroute and emerging around the corner from her workplace.

Our son was at university twenty minutes walk away. Not worth getting into the boots and leathers, even for the street cred of roaring onto the campus on a very sexy motor bike. Then he graduated and got a job in the city, in a bank. No parking available. Suit and tie required. Train station fifty metres from the office. No-brainer.

I was retired. No hurry, no worry. If I wanted to go somewhere, I could walk or hop onto one of my bicycles, or catch a train or bus.

First the Vespa went. My wife decided she didn’t want to get back on it, fun as it may have been, because of road safety issues, rain, cold, and simply because she didn’t need to.

Our younger son moved out, into the city proper, and sold his flash motorbike. (His fiancee and his mother put the hard word on him about not killing or disabling himself when he was about to become a man with responsibilities.) Anyway, he could walk across the park to work, and it was about two hundred metres walk to a train station.

I used to take my “best” bike out for a training ride on most mornings (less so now). It’s a beautiful machine. The frame was tailor-made for me when I did the Hawaii Ironman triathlon in 1991, which makes it twenty-five years old today. It had a make-over in 2003, when I replaced everything but the frame. I maintain it lovingly and it still goes like a bird.

So, yes, I’d go out for my training ride, have coffee on the way home and pick up the paper. Then I’d potter about, do a few chores, and generally enjoy the life of a retiree / house-husband. This entailed grocery shopping on most days.

I modified a lovely old aluminium Fisher mountain bike, which I had bought second-hand about twenty-five years ago, to make it into a dedicated shopping bike. Recently I made a timber frame, which attaches to the rear luggage rack, custom-designed to carry a case of beer. Serendipitously, the beer-carrier is also the perfect size to accommodate a standard supermarket shopping basket ($6 at our local Chinese discount emporium). When I ride to the fish markets, I drop a cold-bag with a couple of freezer blocks into the basket. I ride my Fisher every day.

My other bike is a thirty year-old aluminium Cannondale racing bike, given to me by my next door neighbour. It had three chain rings, of which I removed two. I invested twenty dollars in some cow-horn handlebars, and fitted a rear Zipp disc wheel, which I’d found in a neighbourhood rubbish collection. Add a new chain, new brake levers and a tube-mounted friction shifter for the disc wheel, and I have a real hot-rod of a retro bike, a very cool ride to the coffee shop!

As will now be evident, I have a certain fondness for bicycles. I’ve ridden since I was a small boy, and I love it. Every ride is a pleasure and an adventure. I also ride because it’s a clean, sustainable mode of transport, and I’m getting some exercise in the process. I recall having read somewhere that the bicycle is the most efficient machine ever invented by mankind. It’s a constant joy to rotate the pedals at a leisurely cadence and have that motion translated into brisk, wind-in-the-face, tyre-humming movement down the road!

When I was younger, I used to train hard and race competitively, rising in the dark and braving all sorts of inclement weather. I enjoyed it thoroughly at the time, but I’ve reached an age now where I’m content to ride purely for pleasure, or to go somewhere for a purpose. I’d much rather walk or ride outside in the elements, I must say, than endure the tedium of going to a gym to simulate on an exercise machine what one could be doing in the real world!

I realise that a lot of people reading this will be saying that it’s all very well for us, living close to the city and to public transport. Yes, indeed we are fortunate, having been able to afford to buy a property in such a convenient location, but the same principles apply to most city dwellers.

When you’re looking for a place to live, proximity to public transport should be a priority. Similarly, if you have children, look for somewhere close to the local school, which probably also, then, will be close to local shops. We should all shop locally and support small businesses, rather than drive long distances to shopping malls and make the giant supermarket empires richer. Housing developers should be forced to include provision for schools, shops and open space. Governments should not approve such development without planning for schools and public transport.

Mankind has become preposterously dependent upon cars. Whereas one or two generations ago the accomplishments rightly celebrated were the development of railways and tram networks, these wonderful contributions to civic life and indeed to the prosperousness of nations were then discarded, the infrastructure dismantled and the culture of the internal combustion engine embraced.

There were two billion or so people on earth when I was born, and there are now about seven and a half billion. Think about those numbers. Cars were, and are, a status symbol. They’re comfortable, convenient, and in some cases a necessity, but there are too many of them. My own parents could never have envisaged, when they bought their first car, the devastation which would be wrought upon our planet by human carbon emissions.

City roads and motorways are choked for hours every day and the hundreds of thousands of people who are obliged to live in dormitory suburbs and commute to work are hostage to the owners of tollways and parking facilities. Public transport is woefully inadequate. Where my sister lives, on the outskirts of Sydney, there are no buses or trains. Families have four or five cars.

If we must have cars, (or if some people must have cars), then we must have minimal or zero-emission cars. The technology is already available; electric and hybrid cars are commonplace and hydrogen-fuelled cars are in prototype production. The state of California requires that any car manufacturer who wants to sell cars in California must offer a zero-emissions vehicle.

Unfortunately, many drivers, in the mistaken belief that they are doing the right thing, buy electric cars, then charge the batteries with electricity from coal-fired generation. A Tesla car requires about 80 kilowatt hours to fully charge it, the equivalent about three days average household consumption. Hybrid cars are a much more sustainable option at present.

The financial benefit to our family of not owning a car is very significant. When I sold my car, I sat down and calculated that it had cost me $12,000 per year for the ten years I owned it, counting depreciation, fuel, repairs, insurance, registration, services, road tolls etc. Add to that the similar cost for my wife’s car, a motor scooter and a motor bike. Public transport is remarkably cheap by comparison, and walking or riding a bicycle free!

At certain times and for certain journeys we do need a car, and we are therefore members of a car-sharing cooperative. There are about fifteen cars within easy walking distance of our house, the closest fifty metres away. We generally rent the nearest, an economical little runabout, but for weekend excursions we take a bigger car. The annual cost is a small fraction of that of owning a car, or of using taxis or hire-cars. On average, we use a car perhaps twice per month.

The City of Sydney now routinely requires housing developments to have fewer car spaces than residents. Imagine a city without huge car-parks, with cycle-ways and pedestrian malls, with more green space, cleaner, quieter, with efficient public transport, without traffic jams, with fewer drunk and negligent drivers. It will come. It must, or we will suffocate in our own gaseous excretions.

Think of a world not reliant upon oil, people driving zero-emission cars, (or not driving), using solar or other sustainable power, carbon emissions drastically reduced, climate change under control. If we don’t strive to achieve this, we will not, and the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

Not driving a car, or driving less is part of a conscious decision we have made to live more sustainably, to buy sustainable products, to recycle, to be a small part of the answer, not part of the bigger problem. We’re fitter and healthier for the extra exercise, better off financially, more relaxed and more in touch with our community.

The writing is on the wall for the oil and motor industries. The only two car manufacturers in Australia, Holden and Ford are closing down. Detroit is no longer Motown. Oil prices are falling, because the world is using less oil (despite the illegitimate wars fought to secure access to oil).

The reality is that mankind has massively fouled its own nest. Our small blue planet, possibly unique in the universe, is in danger of becoming uninhabitable, at least by humans. If we have children or grandchildren, or if we hope to have them, we have to do what we can to ensure that the world we bequeath to them is not a toxic, chaotic purgatory.


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