Last summer, I tweeted out this meandering thread:
It started as an observation on how, in most cities, we balk at the idea of free transit but barely bat an eye at the reality of free parking. The thread continued on to explore the psychology that informed this sentiment; it was inspired by years of contemplating (and being frustrated by) the absurdity of car culture. Car culture can be simply defined as the conscious and unconscious ways in which we, individually and as a society, shape our lives around the automobile. One way car culture manifests is in how we build our cities. You can see it in the space and resources allocated to cars.
I think about car culture every day. It’s hard not to when you’re constantly confronted by it, whether it’s having to press a beg button to get permission to cross the street, or having to ride a bike on a dangerous road with no separated cycling infrastructure.
I’ve been an advocate, speaking out against car culture, for a long time. I’ve sat on city committees. I’ve met with city staff. I’ve emailed politicians. I’ve met with politicians. I’ve debated media personalities on live air. I’ve blogged. I’ve tweeted. And, to be honest, I’m tired. I’ve come to realize that if we want to make our advocacy sustainable, we need to reframe the challenge of car culture in order to make the most of our efforts and properly address it.
We need to recognize we are addicted to cars.
As a former mental health clinician, I don’t use the term “addiction” lightly, and I don’t mean to undermine the seriousness of the issue. I am not suggesting that everyone who drives a car has a diagnosable addiction, but rather, I aim to use the metaphor of addiction to illuminate our societal dependence on the automobile. I believe this conceptualization can help us focus efforts and better understand the challenge we face.
I’ve had my own issues with unconscious dependence on the automobile. It was part of the tangled mess of developing an identity as a teenager and feeling accepted in high school.
I remember the days leading up to getting my driver’s license. I was so excited that I could barely sleep. I stayed up at night fantasizing about the “freedom” the car would give me. I daydreamed about how it could make me “cooler”. I was also excited about being able to drive to school, instead of walking. I lived a nine minute bike ride away from my high school but chose to walk because I was embarrassed to show up to school on my bike while my peers would roll up in their fancy Honda Civics. In my odd hierarchy of “cool” ways to get to school, walking somehow made it above riding a bike. I saw riding a bike as more boyish. For context, the year I got my license, The Fast and Furious, a movie celebrating street racing, came out. Everyone I knew had watched it and drank the car culture kool-aid. The movie initiated the trend of modifying old, crappy sedans with loud mufflers and other “speed enhancing” devices. I never joined that bandwagon, but I did spend a lot of time hanging out in my friends’ cars in 7/11 parking lots trying to emulate what we saw in that movie. Beyond celebrating car culture, the film also portrayed warped ideas of masculinity. Tough guys drove fast cars. Looking back, my shame made sense.
My dad didn’t understand it. His father ran a bike shop in Bangladesh; the humble bicycle was what put food on their table. That bike shop survived a civil war and genocide and was what got my family through a difficult time. The bicycle is why I am here today. So, you can imagine how excited my dad must have been to introduce me to the bicycle. I can recall the joy with which he taught me to ride a bike. I remember the look on his face when he surprised me with my first “big kid” bike when I was 8. I obsessed over that bike every time we went to Sears. My dad put it in the garage and asked me to go check the laundry. My head almost exploded when I saw it.
What happened to that joy? I was so worried about fitting in, I cast it aside. It saddens me, but I don’t give myself a hard time for my behaviour because it was completely understandable in a society that worships the automobile. My story is but one example of how insidious car culture is, and how at a young age it shaped what I valued and how I saw the world.
Defining “addiction”, the American Society for Addiction Medicine states, “People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.” Driving is a behaviour that has a multitude of harmful consequences. Research shows driving time to be correlated with “higher odds for smoking, insufficient physical activity, short sleep, obesity, and worse physical and mental health.” Beyond the impacts on the person behind the wheel, driving has detrimental effects on the rest of society. Road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death for people between the ages 5-29; car culture is literally killing our future. Noise pollution from car traffic has been linked to depression. When we aren’t terrorized by cars on our streets, the noise they make permeates the walls of our homes and makes us sick. Speaking of pollution, cars are a major contributor to air pollution. Electric vehicles could be seen as a solution to this issue, but they still have tires, and tires degrade and are a significant source of microplastic pollution in our oceans. And then there’s the sheer space that we’ve dedicated to the movement of cars (electric or not) and their storage. In London, where I’m currently living, roads account for about 80% of public space. In the midst of a major housing affordability crisis, most cities in North America are covered with surface parking lots.
I’ve barely touched on all of the detrimental impacts of car culture, but I hope you are able to see how irrational it is for us to keep prioritizing the automobile. When we do try to change our ways, it becomes a very contentious issue that fills our airwaves and newspapers. People continue to get angry when bike lanes are built, when transit is invested in or when parking is removed. And, this is why I think it is helpful to frame this issue using the lens of addiction. When the object of our dependence is threatened, we get irritated and react. We aren’t our best selves. It’s important to note that people who behave like this are victims of a dominant car culture. Car culture has been so normalized in our everyday lives that it is understandable that some would respond with fear to any attempt to dismantle it. A world without cars is unfamiliar.
“A healthy city can not be addicted to the automobile.”
When I say “we are addicted to cars, I use “we” instead of “they” because I believe we should see this as an issue of a broken system – a system we all participate in. Finger pointing and shaming individual behaviour seems like a reasonable solution until you realize that it will take an eternity to initiate real change. Do you know how much shaming you’d have to do? It would take a lot of energy. If you want to spend your time pointing out other people’s hypocritical behaviours, fine. But, I think a better use of our efforts is to continue to work to change the system that facilitates those behaviours.
So, how do we go about changing this system? We need to recognize we have a problem; we can’t address something we are in denial of. Cities need to face the reality of the impacts car culture has on people and the planet. Unfortunately, today’s decision makers have to confront the terrible car-centric planning decisions made well before their time. They need to recognize that it’s not their fault; however, it IS their responsibility to address it. That’s the responsibility that comes with the work of city building.
Most importantly, we need to give people better options than driving. A healthy city can not be addicted to the automobile. Dr. Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, and expert on addiction treatment, talks about the importance of a BBO (bigger better offer). He suggests that if we really want people to break an addiction, we need to replace what they are addicted to with another more appealing and rewarding option. For cities, this means we need to invest in the alternatives to driving. We need to make transit efficient, comfortable and affordable. We need to build cycling infrastructure to ensure people can get to where they need to without fearing for their lives. We need to ensure that using sidewalks is a dignified experience.
Dismantling car culture can often seem insurmountable. Challenging deeply ingrained beliefs that have been cemented in our culture for decades is daunting as hell. But, I think that if we work together and focus on creating better alternatives to driving, instead of shaming the drivers themselves, we will see meaningful change in our lifetimes. I am extremely hopeful. I hope you are, too.
For people in London (UK), on February 26th I’ll be speaking at the University of Westminster’s Difference Festival on a panel aptly titled “Are Cars the New Tobacco”. Tickets are free and there may also be a live stream.
If you’re interested in the connection between urban design and wellbeing, you can listen to a recent interview I did on the topic on CBC’s The Sunday Edition here.
If you want to bring me to your city to talk about the ideas discussed on my blog, click here.