(Yup, I said it.)
As a blind person who could never drive, I have slowly found ways to adjust and adapt over time to “my problem” of not being able to participate in car culture. I first came to grips with it in high school, when everyone else was getting their licenses except me. Then I went to college in a very small town so I could walk everywhere, but the town was not big enough to serve all my needs and there was no way out of it without begging for rides. I lived in a couple of mid-sized college towns, which tend to cater a little more to nondrivers as many college students don’t have cars. I dealt with no Sunday buses and routes that ended at 6pm. After college, I knew I had to get out of the Midwest if I was going to have any kind of life. I couldn’t even visit my parents independently. I had to move to a big city with decent transit. Even though it would be a higher cost of living and I would still struggle to find affordable housing near good transit, I knew it was the only choice I had to deal with “my problem.”
It was my kids who helped me stretch my imagination beyond car culture and start to discover that driving (and my exclusion from it) was not just my problem. Cars and the way that almost all of society revolves around them (especially in North America) is a huge problem for everyone. Everyone needs to rethink the role that vehicles play in our lives and how much we are giving up to have this car centric lifestyle.
Unlike me, who grew up riding in my parent’s backseat, my 3 children have rarely ridden in cars. They grew up riding light rail, buses, and doing their fair share of walking. The would say stuff as little kids that would stop me in my tracks. We would get off a bus stop and start walking across a half-empty multi-acre parking lot to a strip mall and would say, “Why is there all this space for people to park cars? What if they changed all this into a playground?” Or we would be waiting in heavy rain at a (non traffic lighted) intersection for cars to stop and let us cross and they would say “Its really rude that we have to wait for people in their dry cars and they don’t even stop for us when we get rained on.” Or when I would explain to them the patterns of cars when they turned right on red and how they would never, ever watch for pedestrians so we had to watch for them and wait even though it was our turn to walk, my kids would say “Well, who came up with this rule? That’s completely stupid!”
My youngest kid became a railfan—which apparently is really a thing—and started following some Youtubers and Instagramers who are train fanatics and I started learning about the safety and potential of rail. Then one day he saw a meme from a group on Facebook called “Fuck, and I can’t stress this enough, them cars.” I can’t remember the meme, but I know that it said “BAN CARS!!” on it. And from then on, whenever we were out and cars did something to irritate us, someone in my family would inevitably grumble, “Ban Cars!” As almost a joke, I joined the facebook group, thinking it would just be some temporary fun.
Although there was a lot of sarcastic humor on the group (they are all way funnier than me), there was also just a lot of good, thought-provoking and well researched information on the page. Most of the members are bicyclists, but there are a handful of disabled people. I cannot ride a bike (well, I can with a tandem, but that involves me finding other people to steer and more impossibly, overcoming my control freak issues), so getting a peek into the world of those who use bikes as a regular form of transportation was really new to me. There are also people from all over the world on this group, so the perspectives and methods that people from other countries use to deal with getting around are refreshing when everything is usually so American-centric. What I’ve learned from this group, and from using it as a springing off point to learn more, is that—um, you guys—Cars/vehicles are really, really bad for us as a people, and for our planet, and are going to be our downfall if we don’t do something to change the way we think about transportation. And, also, that is does not have to be this way. Being excluded from transportation because I am blind is not really the problem, car centric culture IS the problem. It’s not only bad for me to drive, it is really, really bad for all of you to drive, too. And it doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better.
How bad is it? Let me count the ways.
The most obvious problem is that it is bad for the health of the planet to drive so much. According to the EPA, transportation creates 14% of greenhouse emissions, almost entirely from fossil fuels. Passenger vehicles contribute 58% of those emissions and heavy duty trucks create an additional 24%. Industry, which contributes 23% of emissions, also includes the manufacturing of cars and the processing and transport of fuels for them. Even with the growth of electric vehicles, that just shifts the burden to the producing electricity portion of the pie, which is currently 25% of emissions. People forget that when you plug in an EV, if it is being powered by coal, natural gas or the other usual nonrenewable resources that power electric sockets, it is just moving the problem further away from the car. Although this sometimes helps cities improve their air quality, those emissions are happening somewhere, and often disproportionally affect marginalized communities who are more likely to live near industrial areas and powerplants. Climate change is a complex problem (that is too massive for this post) with many interlinking causes that go beyond vehicles, but it cannot be denied that vehicles are a cause of a significant enough chunk of the issue that rethinking their viability is imperative.
It took the imagination of my kids for me to really start to see the issues of land use and our dependency on cars. And then start to see it everywhere you go and you can’t unsee it. Somehow, it has become normal in our society to expect that everywhere you go, you are entitled to have a place to put your 3000 pound, 420ish cubic foot appendage. In my life as a pedestrian, there have been times I have had a stroller or luggage that I have needed to store in a public building. The amount of pushback I have sometimes received for asking for a few feet of space has sometimes been enraging, when you come to think of the fact that everyone else fully expects a fully accessible 10×18 foot spot for their monstrosity that they bring with them everywhere. I have friends in wheelchairs who still can’t fit through doors, and who can’t fully use public transit because of a lack of ramps or elevators, but every car lot and parking garage is fully ramped and has elevators. In my own home, I resent the fact that the biggest room in the house is a bedroom for a car I don’t have, and a chunk of my yard is cemented over for a car I don’t have. And I’m not allowed to change this due to a lack of different kinds of housing and residential and association zoning and rules. Acres and acres of land in prime real estate spots is used for parking, while homes remain out of reach for many and people struggle to keep warm on the streets while cars are snug in their free (or nearly free) spaces provided at taxpayer expense. These are priorities and choices people make as a society. Who do we accommodate the best? People or cars. In many cases, cars win.
This article talks about the massive amount of parking spaces taking up space in cities. There are tons of pictures on the internet where parking in cities is highlighted and it is a massive amount of space. In Seattle, there are 5 parking spaces per household available in the city. In Des Moines, Iowa there are 19 spaces, and in Jackson, Wyoming, there are 27 parking spaces per household. Just think, Jackson is providing 4050 square feet of free real estate at any given time FOR YOUR CAR. Most people’s homes are not even half that size. In Los Angeles, surface parking (not even counting garages) take up more land area than housing. One of the most entitled arguments that comes up again and again at any city meeting or public comment period on construction has to do with parking. Parking entitlement is at the core of discourse and mandatory parking space ratios that are not even filled with cars have wreaked havoc on our landscape. Having a close place to freely park brings more people to city council meetings than homelessness, environmental issues, poverty issues, disability access issues, and civil rights issues. Many of their successful bids for more parking are not based on logical projections of what is needed but is just a political appeasement to keep these loudest people in the room, the evangelical parking activists, happy. Every time I get off a bus and have to navigate my way across a huge acreage of undistinguishable cement to get to a store, I think about that comment my child made. Why couldn’t all of this be a playground? Or a park? Or affordable housing? Or agriculture? Or a rec center, or basically anything else but wasted, hot cement.
Additionally, freeway infrastructure also takes up a huge amount of space, as well as cutting pedestrians and bikers off from parts of their city, and often displaces entire communities whose homes are acquisitioned and destroyed to provide more highway space, clover leaves, on ramps, etc. Roads get continually widened when, due to the concept of induced demand, it has been proven that this actually creates more traffic congestion rather than alleviates it. A popular meme on the Fuck Cars page is “You aren’t stuck in traffic; you ARE the traffic.”
Several years ago, I was hit by a car. I was walking on a sidewalk and stopped at a driveway that went into a Target store. A car pulled up and stopped. I assumed the driver was waiting for me to cross, so I indicated to my guide dog to move forward. When I was walking in front of the car, it accelerated in an attempt to turn into the oncoming traffic. Although the car was not moving at a very fast speed yet (I’m guessing maybe 5 miles an hour?), it knocked me and my guide dog underneath the car. I remember going down and the car rolling partially over me. I had dropped my guide dog’s harness handle, but still had hold of her leash. It was only due to my dog literally jumping up from under the car and immediately dragging me out of the way that I was not run over by the car or pushed out into oncoming traffic. Although the car lurched to a stop for a few seconds, it skidded away. Luckily, I only had minor bruises and aches and pains, but I will never forget the sheer strength and force and weight of that car as it rolled over me. Even at a very slow speed, my puny human body was no match for its power. Although I rarely am in a car, in my adult life, I have been in 5 traffic accidents, from fender benders to ones where the car was totaled and people were hospitalized. In the past year or two, I can think of many tragic accidents off the top of my head. My cousin was killed in a T-bone collision. A friend of mine was out jogging and was clipped and dragged several feet by a semi. She was in the ICU for weeks and required months of hospitalization and rehabilitation. Another friend of a friend was a pedestrian killed in an intersection. Another friend of a friend lost her parents and her brother was severely injured when they were hit while waiting for a tow truck to load up their car. A youtuber I follow had her entire family hit by a car. Her husband was killed, she and her two children had severe injuries. I’m sure you have these same stories. They are super common. We call them car “accidents.”
Although I understand in most cases, the driver doesn’t intend to hit or kill others and that is why we call them accidents, a true accident is something that is unavoidable, and we could foresee nothing could have been done to change the outcome. This isn’t really often the case with vehicle accidents. We really call them accidents because we have decided as a society that a level of injury and death is acceptable to us in exchange for the convenience of cars. When people die in car accidents, we shrug and say, that’s so sad and we go on and don’t question it much further than that. Sometimes a grieving family will lobby to get an intersection modified to be less dangerous. This often takes years of activism on their part. Although it may be impossible to prevent every single car-caused injury and fatality, car accidents are largely caused by policy decisions and how we interpret and enforce laws. This is especially true in the case of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities. Sweden, and many other countries have implemented a program called “Vision Zero” that attempts to use policy and infrastructure to eliminate traffic fatalities. Through things like improving streets and intersections, traffic patterns, reducing speed limits, and eliminating dangerous rules meant to unsafely speed traffic along, they have reduced traffic fatalities from 36-60% (depending on the country). The basic premise of the program is that any fatality or injury is unacceptable and through policy and infrastructure the streets can be kept safe. This shows how there are really no (or very, very few) true car “accidents” when changes we can make impact safety so much.
According to the World Health Organization, There are over 1.3 million traffic fatalities a year. Car crashes are the leading cause of death in children in the United States, accounting for 20% of all childhood deaths. Safely maneuvering a 3000 pound vehicle at high speeds is something that takes skill and a certain mindset, but even though there are license requirements and tests, it is not very regulated and there are few consequences for the driver when crashes occur. Furthermore, decisions about roadways and traffic often lean to the side of getting vehicles moved through as swiftly as possible, not so much safety. Cars have become such an ingrained part of our society, hardly anyone loses a license permanently even after multiple traffic violations, arrests or fatalities. In this story, a drug impaired driver who repeatedly backed up and crashed into a building and was tazed in order to arrest him was banned from driving for only 24 hours. Although he may face further consequences when he goes to court, there is nothing stopping him from driving under the influence again. Our culture is so car-centric, that we choose to put dangerous drivers in cars rather than taking away driving privileges for fear that a person suspended from driving would risk his life spiraling out of control by losing access to job and health care. Not being able to drive should not ruin your life and make you unable to fully participate in society. To take away the privilege to drive should just take away the privilege to drive, nothing else. And many, many people do not deserve this privilege. Driving is not intrinsic to society naturally. We went hundreds of thousands of years without motorized vehicles. We have developed society this way.
Driving is a privilege, as compared to walking, which is a fundamental function of human mobility and thus should be protected as a human right. But over the years, walking (and other more low-tech, less impactful and natural alternatives such as biking and utilizing animals) have slowly lost priority and privilege for the sake of the almighty car. The reason pedestrians and cyclists make up around half of car crash fatalities when they aren’t even using cars is due to the infrastructure we have built that prioritized vehicles over all else and pushed out our basic right to walk safely. The fact that I, as a blind person or even just a pedestrian, have to navigate parking lots, stroads (very busy multilane streets with traffic signals and very little to no biking and pedestrian infrastructure), walk streets with no sidewalks, walk miles out of my way so that I may get to the one safe place to cross a highway has pushed our most basic inherent right to mobility to the slimmest margins of society. I often can’t go to a fast food drive-thru, even when the indoor area is closed. I can’t go get a Covid test or a vaccine at certain car only sites. I can’t go to the drive thru 24-hour pharmacy when the main store is closed. I sometimes have gotten honked at and yelled at when I am walking down a street with no sidewalk as if I’m the one who shouldn’t be there. Pedestrians (which is all of us) should have fundamental right of movement, low impact transit methods like bicycles and even horseback should be next, public transit that is for the greater good after that and then people’s individual cars should be dead last. Car infrastructure should be the afterthought to pedestrian right of ways, not the other way around. Every single day, pedestrians make way for cars. This is not the way it should be. People should not come in last place to huge vehicles that can kill people at whim.
Imagine, if you will, a better world…
It really doesn’t have to be like this. We have been bamboozled by car and oil companies. Car companies bought up public transportation that was widely available in the 40s and 50s, only to destroy it so people would need to buy more cars. They lobbied for more highways and roads at the expense of safety, freedom, and the ecology. They led PR campaigns to slowly make walking more and more illegal and looked down upon, like when they convinced municipalities to pass “jaywalking laws” which limited where pedestrians were allowed to simple walk for the first time in human history. They created a world that convinced you that you need to go everywhere in a car that you pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to run and maintain, that adversely affects your health, and that is helping to ruin the planet, all while stripping the rights of the homeless, disabled, and low-income folks who are excluded from car culture.
And as a lifelong nondriver, I get it. I get how hard it is to consider life without a car. Every single day, I have to negotiate this weird outcast roll I have in society as a nondriver. I’ve lost job opportunities, social opportunities, and access to health care because I can’t drive. I spend hours getting places other people can get in 20 minutes. I have to risk my life to be able to get to the places I have to go to. It is very hard to be a nondriver in the status quo. It may be hard for you to imagine how you could possibly do it.
But this is because it has all been set up for cars. These are choices that have been made, not inherent realities. When my kids were little and drew pictures, they would imagine our neighborhood without roads, driveways, cars and alleyways. They would draw gardens and playgrounds and waterslides and little libraries in the road outside our house. In the big parking lots nearby, they would draw skating rinks and bike ramps. As a gardener, I would imagine garden plots and small animals that would mow and improve the soil like chickens and goats. I imagine walkable corner stores and services scattered in every neighborhood. I imagine improved transit that everyone could easily walk to and that would come so frequently, you wouldn’t even need to look at a schedule. I quite enjoy riding transit and meeting and talking to people on transit. If I am in a city where I have to rely on car rides. I feel boxed in and closed off from the world. I imagine that neighbors know each other and help each other out because they actually get out of their vehicle bubble and know each other. Transit could be so integrated that there would not be transit deserts anywhere in any city, and different neighborhoods would have more access to each other. People think public transit is such an awful thing now because it is last priority and left for the people who society treats as last priority. When more people utilize public transit, it improves (unlike when more people are on the road, which just causes more traffic and pollution.) Pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure could be improved. Equipment to haul larger parcels/groceries could be improved. People would get the chance to walk or bike so much more and be in such better shape that our collective public health would improve dramatically, not to mention improved air quality. Intercity freight train lines and processes could be improved, and distribution to small neighborhood stores (rather than door to door delivery) would cut down on transport of goods, as would more manufacturing and growing locally and buying locally. I am not an urban planner, nor am I an expert on things like supply chains and that sort of thing. I know I don’t have all the answers. But I know that as a collective society, we do. We don’t have to always default to the almighty vehicle at all costs, there are other ways. We don’t even see the methods and advantages because we have been swimming in this world where car is king. There is a better way.
And if you are going to play the “disabled” card…
Whenever I bring up this issue, I inevitably get the “what about the disabled?” question. People say we have to have car infrastructure because some disabled people cannot walk or cycle long distances. If you are an actual disable person asking this question…fair enough, and I will get to you in just a second. But for everyone else…I have this to say:
Oh My God, Shut the Fuck Up!
I am rolling my eyes at you SO HARD right now. You are all of the sudden very concerned about the disabled who need close proximity transit, are you? Uh huh. I totally believe you! I know that you are so very concerned about the disabled! So concerned that you park in their spots, you don’t provide curb cuts in your streets, and you kill them when they are pedestrians because you NEED to turn right on red or have that extra space that sidewalks and bike lanes take up. You lobby against accessible pedestrian traffic lights, against accessible buses and taxis, against having to lift one finger to accommodate the disabled. Except when doing so benefits your habits. Here is the truth. Huge chunks of disabled folks can’t drive and need safe pedestrian rights-of-way, accessible traffic signals, good public transportation and community supports to access these things. When you have shown concern and advocated for all of that, come back and talk to me and tell me how concerned you are for the few mobility disabled folks who need door-to-door transit.
Ok, if you are one of those disabled people who needs door-to-door transit. I hear you. You don’t want to be lost in the shuffle of urban planning that would transition us to a walkable, public transit lifestyle and forget you exist, thus leaving you in the dust. Every disabled person gets that because we have all felt it. So the answer here seems to be that we absolutely need to include you in the planning of communities that are not car dependent. There are more ways than just cars to get you where you need to go. This may mean you get funding for a better smaller and eco friendly vehicle, or it may mean you get housing priority in very near to transit and walkable places, or some kind of electric cart or wheelchair enhancements or human assistance (wheelchair accessible rickshaws, anyone?) to get around. Options and solutions for you can be found and that matters. You need to be part of the conversation.
But look at it this way, too. Right now, there are millions left out of the car centric system. Blind people like me, poorer people and people with other disabilities, people who struggle with addiction, younger people, older folks, etc. And this impacts our civil rights and freedoms in countless ways. I am actually Deafblind. Deafblind people are not as able to access safe street crossing as blind people. Many Deafblind people are imprisoned in their houses and can’t go out without help. A world with very limited or no cars and that is set up in accessible ways (tactile markers, digital tags for signage, etc.) would mean that they could walk freely in their communities. I will fight for the mobility disabled who need door to door services. Will you fight for us (and the broader world), too?
Car Culture is a Failed System that Needs to Go
Cars are convenient. I get that. But is some convenience worth all of the failure and destruction that car culture has infiltrated on society? They kill people. They kill the planet. They cost billions and billions of dollars. They waste and ravage our lands. They marginalize entire communities. The isolate people from their communities. Car culture has ruined our communities to such an extent, it does seem hard to imagine how life could work without every individual having a car. But we can improve our communities greatly by rethinking and reprioritizing how we want to live. Improvements in land use, public transit, supply chain transit, community planning, agriculture, and pedestrian and bike infrastructure and safety can make not driving a car every single day to every single thing totally doable, workable and enjoyable.