As I travel about the city, on foot, by bike, or on public transit, I regularly have a very appealling vision. I find myself imagining what life in the city would be like if there were no cars.
Just imagine sitting at outdoor cafes, newly enlarged to take advantage of all the extra space available now that the roads aren’t lined with parked cars, and enjoying your coffee and conversation without having to try to hear your friends over the din of roaring engines. Imagine being able to ride a bike without feeling (quite reasonably, on most streets) that you’re at risk of being mowed down at any moment by two tons of inattentively maneuvered steel. Imagine sitting on a comfortable train car on your morning commute, sipping tea and reading a good book, and arriving at the office relaxed and ready to face the day with optimism, instead of sitting in a car that’s creeping along the freeway at 20km hour, listening to universally dismal traffic reports, and arriving at the office tense, frazzled and ready for whatever other misery may arrive through the day.
I find that this is a particularly difficult thing to imagine for most urban, and especially suburban, people that I talk to. It’s not necessarily a lack of imagination that’s the problem, but negative imagination. People are imagining alright – they imagine what they think the phrase “public transportation” means, and they picture standing on a wet, mouldy bus next to a homeless psychiatric patient who smells of urine, being jostled back and forth as the bus continually accelerates and brakes. This is not necessarily an inaccurate scenario, but it’s not necessarily accurate, either. We do have buses like that, but forget that they don’t have to be like that. We’re provided with insufficient numbers of poorly designed buses by people who never ride them. The design of our public transit system is overseen by provincial government ministers who ride around town in limousines and SUVs. More imagination and committed resources, and less pandering to the billionaire owners of multiple car dealerships, and perhaps we’d start making some progress toward having a public transport system that people actually want to use.
We’re at an interesting point in history right now. The US government has already handed over some $40,000,000,000.00 to auto companies to bail them out and keep them from failing. And they are asking for billions and billions more. And what will come of this? We’ll have car companies that are – stable. That’s it. Oh, maybe we’ll get more hybrid cars and fewer Hummers on the market, but essentially, we’re in for more of the same. A government that is already trillions of dollars in debt is donating billions that it does not have to keep dinosaur businesses alive. It’s like bailing out the horse and buggy industry to keep it going. At the same time, they are asking auto-industry retirees to trade their future health care benefits for stock in the car companies. If I were a GM retiree, I’d be pretty leery of accepting pieces of paper that are almost certain to be worthless for health care.
The time of the private automobile is coming to an end, at least for the urban market, and a new order is coming to replace that tired old, destructive model. A model that is destroying our atmosphere, polluting our lands, encouraging war, ripping apart societies that have the oil to operate the machines, and generally making our cities less and less livable the more crowded they get with private, noisy, filthy, dangerous machines.
I have a more imaginative suggestion for Barack Obama, along with Stephen Harper and other western leaders. Instead of simply handing over all these billions to the auto companies in exchange for minor improvements in fuel efficiency, lets put this money to the most effective possible use. Let’s turn the whole industry on its ear and use it as an opportunity to shift the entire urban transportation paradigm. Let’s pay the car companies to stop simply making and selling cars, and pay them to build and operate a public transportation infrastructure like North America has never seen. Efficient, comfortable buses, streetcars, trams, and light rail for local transport. Rapid transit and conventional rail for longer and high speed routes. Build transit routes in cities so that no one need walk more than two block to access the system. It could be done.
In order to make this work, of course, cars would need to be gradually, but not too slowly, eliminated from city streets, starting with the downtown centres, and expanding in sections or belts to the external limits of cities. The effects of this would be monumental. We would become less insular and more social. Our housing would evolve to become more efficient, in terms of space, resources, and energy. Communities would become friendlier, more child friendly, safer. We would become much more attuned to our surroundings once we’re walking, cycling, skating, or looking out the windows of the bus while someone else looks after the driving than we do when we’re sitting behind a wheel staring at the bumper ahead of us, or trying to avoid being killed at every moment. We’d all relax, and the gods know, we all need to relax a little.
There is precedent for this sort of public works initiative. The Depression of the 1930s was the spark for all kinds of public works initiatives that provided new infrastructure and put people to work when there was little work to be had. We can keep auto workers employed, put more people to work building, maintaining and operating this new infrastructure, and generally end up with a quality of life improvement of which it is difficult even to imagine. But imagine we must.
One of the great things about imagination is that no action is required. We are not compelled to commit to decisions. All we have to do is sit down for fifteen minutes and imagine, just imagine, what life would be like if our streets were car free, and yet it actually becomes easier and more pleasant to get around. That’s all. I’m not asking you to get rid of your car, walk 20 miles to work, or sit in a bus seat that has a puddle in it. Just imagine. That’s it. Just imagine.