Going on a car diet

We’ve always been keen bike riders, and we aspire to ride more and to drive less. But now I’m mulling the possibility of something much more radical: going entirely car free.

This article rocked my world.

Prius, Hummer, and Hypercar are pot, kettle, and Schroedinger’s cat in the dark box, and they’re all pretty black when your perspective of their relative harm isn’t distorted by being a regular driver, an addict among addicts, whose parents, doctors, ministers, teachers, colleagues, employers and employees, neighbors and friends all shoot up with barely a moan every time the needle slouches toward “E.” The moment your idea of a reasonable response to the threat of extinction lets go of common household car dependence is the moment it lets go of wishing, and passes the clean and sober sniff test.

The only kinds of analyses that attempt to sketch out a sustainable future for car culture are the ones that start with cars as must-have and sustainability as nice to have. Pull your head out of the last century and make a real choice.

Several years ago, I was a climate change presenter as part of Al Gore and the Australian Conservation Foundation’s Climate Project. I gave over 60 presentations and learned a lot about climate change, peak oil and about sustainability in general. But something gnawed away at me. The presentation was fabulous at highlighting the problems, but was very short on providing solutions.

What I have since learned is that issues as complex as climate change and peak oil don’t really have solutions. There’s nothing which will ‘fix’ the problems and make them go away. Instead, there are only responses which will help reduce our exposure to the problems, and will help us adapt to a new reality.

As Nadja and I work so hard to reduce our home energy & water use, and to grow some of our food, there’s an elephant in our driveway. Our car.

We love our car, a nifty little Honda Jazz, which Ben has endearingly named ‘Topsy’. It’s our urban ute, with ‘magic seats‘ that enable us to carry all sorts of things: large, long and tall. A towball and a friend’s trailer enable us to haul all manner of compost, dirt, gravel, sand, pizza oven kits … It’s all good.

But it’s not. We do a lot of local trips in our car which could easily be done by bike or by public transport. The convenience of our nifty little car is too convenient, and we remain firmly grafted to car culture and unsustainability. So we ride our bikes a fair bit, mostly commuting to work, but there are a lot of times when we default to the convenience of the car.

Two keys to weaning off car dependence are good life design and appropriate infrastructure.

    • Good life design is carefully choosing where we live and work, with respect to where our families, friends and interests are located, all with respect to public transport routes and cycling infrastructure. It takes time to shift all the pieces – years. We’re having some success at this now though, 4 years in.
    • Appropriate infrastructure is the stuff which makes it easier to take the bike by default. It means having bikes for different purposes: running quick local errands, hauling cargo and kids and riding longer distances. In our case, I ride my recumbent bike, Nadja has an old bike with a BionX electric assist (and she will soon have a newer lighter bike), Ben has a bike trailer (which we can both tow), and we are planning to buy a cargo bike. I have built a dedicated bike shed near the gate, so it’s convenient and easy to get our bikes ready to ride, andI’m planning to build another bike shed to house yet more bikes and trailers. Appropriate infrastructure also means having excellent bike lights and cycling gear to enable riding day or night and in most weather.

I’m realising that cargo bikes are a critical piece of the puzzle. They can haul a lot of stuff: shopping, kids, big hardware, you name it. They are very popular in Europe, they’re gaining a following in the US, and frankly I think we need them on the streets more in Australia. I think they’re the key to getting us off car dependence. Here’s the one I am contemplating.

So in the meantime, we’re going on a car diet. We’ve set ourselves a goal of spending a maximum of $500 for petrol this year. If petrol prices go up, that just means that we can drive less. And we’re mapping the scenarios where we would initially struggle without a car (eg bad weather, holidays), so we can devise ways of overcoming them.

Like all big changes, it takes time. It’ll require us to change habits as well as changing technology. We’ll initially take a middle path option of going on a car diet, whilst working towards the goal of going car free entirely.

Ride on!

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