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Looking Backward, Looking Forward

by Simon Baddeley

I am increasingly of the view that the chief focus of those of us concerned with problems caused by autodependency is no longer to argue against cars. I notice that Car Busters have just announced a competition to determine an addition to their name that focuses less on "busting cars" and more on the idea of car free environments and living patterns.

I have fully digested the arguments--multifarious, logical, well developed, and almost impossible to improve--against cars, but the foremost challenge, from now on, is to grow the arguments and spread debate about alternatives to cars and trucks, and especially to increase understanding of the distortions in work, retailing, leisure, and settlement patterns created by a century of government-subsidized auto-supremacy.

So pervasive has been the impact of car use that most of us have views of time, distance, speed, landscape, health, human relations, sexual attraction, work, leisure, shopping, child rearing, worship, and aesthetics that are deeply entangled with habits of auto-reliance instilled from birth. Getting rid of the car in our head is more immediately important than disposing of a particular machine in the drive.

As someone who is in his 60s and only took to cycling, walking, and public transport as my preferred way of getting around in my mid-50s, I have realised how much I have had to change and how many scales have been gradually dropping from my eyes--literally and metaphorically.

Historical Parallels

The principle that slavery was evil was soundly established by the early 1800s. Specious justification continued in a self-serving way, but the arguments of Wilberforce and others against slavery have not been improved in 200 years. The issue for campaigners became not simply to rehearse the case against slavery, but to imagine and evolve economies, social relations and living habits that did not depend on slavery in a world where slavery was engrained in common sense. I know there were other arguments--for example, that cheap labor (wage slavery) was actually economically preferable to keeping slaves, and so on--but I still think the analogy holds for the goal of car free cities.

Similarly, arguments for gender equality have hardly improved since Mary Wollstonecraft. The tough political work--still required 200 years later--has focused on evolving a world in which her "bizarre" and "dangerous" vindication of the rights of women (1792) has become pervasively normal. For decades the greater population of men and women found equality inconceivable because their habits and lifestyles, and even their concepts of universal order, were inextricably linked to the normality of gender inequality. Women shared this misperception. A minority of men and women contributed to change. Indeed, men, being more powerful and less constrained, were sometimes able, in the early days, to make more prominent contributions to the campaign for women's rights, as in the case of parliamentarian Richard Pankhurst's promotion of the Married Women's Property Act. (Likewise, abolitionist William Wilberforce was not himself a slave)

Many men continued to keep other humans as slaves and live in ways that subordinated women--some of who were also served by slaves--even as they knew both these things were unsound, wrong, and deeply immoral.

The challenge for us now is to invent futures that are not autodependent in a world in which most of us born to wealthy cultures left the womb addicted by parental auto-dependency, ill-equipped to imagine, let alone inhabit, a carfree world.

Moving Forward

I know the day of the car in cities is over because this form of transport is flawed and wrong, but I still own a car and rely on it on occasion while campaigning for alternative transport and carfree environments. There are many more like me. I take no enjoyment from having a car. I want to see a world where land use policies and the plethora of ruinous regulations and economic subsidies that underpin car-dependent settlement are reformed. It is a long game requiring intense intellectual focus, because most of us are deeply imbued with auto-dependent assumptions. Inside the matrix within which many structure their experience of daily life, it is difficult to imagine a world where cars may exist but are unnecessary.

I detest needing oil, but oil dependency is a side effect of car-addiction. Even if cars were to be widely powered by some--currently mythical--sustainable energy source, the geographical adjustments they require would remain as toxic as the fumes from their exhausts are today. They would still sunder us from each other via the development patterns of autodependent land use. I'd want such changes in the scale and speed of even zero-emission automobiles, before I could accept them near me, that my views would remain as subversively antagonistic towards this form of transport as they are now. Cars are bad for society and the natural world; oil-fuelled cars are simply worse.

We have established the evil cars have imposed on us. There can be no harm in being morose about dejected hordes inhaling toxic fumes as they crawl our ill-named "freeways"; but the enduring challenge is to conceive and propagate a panorama of lifeways in which cars, rather than being restricted or even forbidden, are simply surplus to our requirements.

By the way if you want a little experience of normal life without cars, spend a few days in Venice. I've just come back from there. It seemed so entirely unremarkable to walk or float. I experienced at first hand why Joel Crawford of Carfree Cities uses Venice as a paradigm for the idea of a car free city, though even there the atmosphere of La Serenissima--as Venice is known in history--is marred by the constant hum of motorised canal traffic.

Simon Baddeley, School of Public Policy, University of Birmingham, U.K.
Photo of downtown Los Angels Freeway Overpasses 1999 Jack Risemberg
Photo of pedestrian street in Santa Monica 1999 Richard Risemberg