I recently attended a session about intentional transport where the presenter introduced this idea of a 7km city. I think my mum raised a similar concept that the Melbourne City Council is trying to embark on called a 20minute city. The idea is the same, that you have a natural barrier to how far you can travel and that after that barrier you either need to be increadibly disciplined or change your mode. So in thinking about how we have managed to travel in our year (and a bit!) I’ve reflected on this limit.
Our plan at the start of the year involved a number of things. The straightforward bit was to ditch the car but the more complicated bits involved thinking through how and why we travel. We also intended on joining a car share scheme that was due to be starting up when our year started. Despite quite a lot of pestering, here we are 18 months later and they still have only a couple of sites in Sydney, I guess new ideas take some time.
So how have we gone. Well for the most part, really well. Our car use is almost non-existent overall and totally non-existent in the local area. At first were really militent about this and wouldn’t use the car for anything, no matter what. A slightly disastrous rail trail holiday changed this a little after we ended up consuming loads more because we couldn’t take camping and cooking gear food as well as the children. This was topped off by being trapped in Geelong in a torrential downpour because some clever transport advisor hadn’t considered that anything wider than a person might need to get on a train. So holidays, and in particular camping is an issue. When the kids get bigger it will be easier to go on bike holidays with them but at the moment it is basically a choice between motorised transport and not going. In a truly low energy future the reality would for most of us be the latter as this wartime poster suggests but for the moment I want my children to experience nature.
That said, when our car dies we wont be replacing it. The concept that we each need a car (or two) is ridiculous. I think that our street could probably be serviced really well by three or four cars that were shared around. It’s only the assumption that we should be able to travel whenever we want and not have to share the trip with other people (as well as marketting that attaches car ownership with some sort of status) that means that we inherently feel we need a car.
Of course there’s an underlying situation that would need to exist for this to be possible. That is that we would largely need to be able to live (shop, socialise, work, play) within 7 km of our house (easy riding distance) and/or have access to public transport. I know there are those out there who are unable to ride but they often aren’t in any great rush so really good public transport would suffice. This works for where we live but on the outer urban fringe it doesn’t, but rather than throwing our hands up and saying we simply need two cars per family in these places maybe we should be putting more effort into ensuring we design these places with a 7km/20minute frame in mind.
Before I get back to the point allow me one more tangential wander. At an Urban Food Leaders forum held by the council that I went to recently they started a competition called ‘Win your dream streetscape’. The idea is that you can get street trees, nature strip revamps etc etc. But as is sometimes my way I took it to it’s logical (or is that ridiculous) extreme. If our car sits stationary for 98% of the time and we really believe that we could do with a small bank of lets say half a dozen cars in the street, what would a makeover look like. Think about it, Our street is 200 metres by 8 metres. That’s 1,600 square metres of space. Lets say, even with current car ownership and driving tendancies a car drives (according to my really unscientific test that I did whilst writing this) down the street once every 4 minutes or 15 per hour. Now I don’t really know if there are land use measures but I would bet that this represents pretty poor land use, particularly as our street goes no-where and runs parallel and between a tram line and a train line. So my dream makeover, dig the whole road up except for two 5 space car parks at each end that hold share cars and some visitor parking. By my reckoning that would enable the planting of 150 odd fruit and nut trees plus companion planting which should provide most of the food for the street (and make a nice side-profit for the Johnson street nut co-op). Or maybe we could cut down on the trees and have a park in the middle. What do you think the council will think?
Anyway back to the point. Not driving is irritating at times. There is no doubt that on the convenience scale, having a car at your beck and call is great. Most times there are ways around it but sometimes it requires us to just say no. So my penultimate observation of our year or travelling lightly is that some times we have had to make the choice to say no. We glibly wrote at the start that we wouldn’t be able to rush about and it’s true. What is harder is managing your own expectations and the expectations of other that you should be able or expected to do so. But as challenging as it sometimes is this is where we have had to be over our year and where we are going to need to be as a society. Our need to be in constant transit and rushing about leads to convenience consumption of the worst kind. It also embeds busy-ness where outcomes, deliverables, ownership and bank balance become our only metric of success. I remember hearing someone at an education conference expressing his concern about the neglect of children whose parents were so busy earning to provide them with the best of everything they never had time to be with them. It’s sort of the same with transport, our fast convenient transport means we are often moving and rarely engaging with where we are.
So to our last observation, and it’s oddly enough the same one that we had years ago whilst bike riding back from Europe. You experience more at a human speed. Cars are isolation machines. They ensure that we don’t see anything, that we don’t have to interact with anything and put you totally at the whim of congestion and parking. Bikes on the other hand move slower which means you notice where you are, don’t seperate you from the world because you don’t have to get out of the a bike and also give you control; the better, fitter bike rider gets to their destination faster. So our year of not using cars has really powerfully brought home that for our own sake we need to get out of our cars. Sure there will be times when you need to drive but make them the exception rather than the rule. Slow down, leave time for transport and make the journey as important as the outcome.
Public transport equally puts you in a public space. Yeh, I get that sometimes that’s uncomfortable but getting along, re-introducing civility, sociability and getting rid of this fear of ‘those people’ would be a big step towards becoming a community again. Our kids have been the best metric for this, they chat, they engage and they exist in the social space on public transport. Don’t get me wrong as a parent it still freaks me out when my little boy or girl suddenly decides to go and ask the heavily tattoo’d and pierced commuter what the shiny thing through their nose/lip/forehead is, but if they don’t want to talk then they don’t and the kids get the hint. More often than not though it turns out that people are generally nice. I’m not saying that I’m not watching but consider for a moment what sort of society is safer and more pleasant to live in, one where everyone stays away from ‘them’ or one where we push past our comfort hesitency to engage with all part of society.
So that’s it, has not driving been a pain at times, hell yeh. Would we change the cargo bike, train and walking for a shiny new car, not a chance. Do we need to battle the ever present temptation to do more, be more places and cram something extra in to the day, absolutely. But as a final example, would I have seen these cute little art peices at the community garden if I’d been in a car and even if I had would I have stopped to appreciate the skill and effort that went into their creation, of course not. So which reality is more preferable?
When I was living in the UK, there were a few things about their car culture that puzzled me. Firstly, the car ads on TV, tended to favour footage clearly shot outside the UK. Wide open vistas, empty roads, solitary car heading toward the horizon: something utterly impossible in the UK. There simply are no places like that there. British roads are narrow, crowded, windy and frequently at a complete standstill. People were fed a constant dream of ‘freedom’; buy this or that car and drive off toward the horizon, the only car on the road. Ridiculous! Then I visited the sister of a friend who lived in an expensive and posh part of London. The houses there are single fronted terraced houses – big and expensive but not much more than one car length in width. But most of them held couples with a car apiece. So how did they cope? Simple. It’s routine for EVERYONE to double park – both sides of the street for the full length of the street. Every street. So if you need to get out at 4 in the morning, only to discover that you have been parked in by a neighbour – simple – you sit in your car and lean on the horn until one or more of your neighbours emerge in their pyjamas with keys in hand to shuffle the cars about to let you out. EVERYONE expects to live like that. So this key to ‘freedom’ has perverted life to the point that they live in a manner that we in Australia would not find acceptable in our wildest nightmares. The ridiculous thing is, that part of London was built in the Victorian era. They could actually live locally and walk most places if they just stopped and thought about how ridiculous their lives have become. Can you imagine being routinely woken or even having a pleasant Saturday afternoon interrupted, by car horns going off to alert you to go charging out to the street to see if yours is one of the cars that needs to be moved out of the way? I hadn’t got to my present state of practising my current low energy way of life, but even then, when I looked at how that woman lived her life I was appalled. Not just that it was so dreadful, but that it was so NORMAL to these people. They didn’t know enough to consider alternatives!
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