Car culture is one of the biggest challenges facing our society. Fossil fuel use in cars is a major contributor to climate change, and if we want to come anywhere near our CO2 targets, we will need to fix our driving habits. There’s also the problem of peak oil. Once oil demand starts to outstrip supply, oil prices will begin to rise and driving could soon be prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately, we have structured our whole way of life around cars – to get to work, do the shopping, meet friends, or take children to school. Fifty years of motoring has radically re-ordered our towns and cities around the automobile, and it is hard to do without one even if you want to.
All of this makes Lynn Sloman’s book very important. It begins with a list of reasons to reduce car use, and moves swiftly on to solutions, from encouraging cycling and public transport, to town planning. It’s packed with good ideas and projects that have worked well, gathered through Sloman’s own research and work on various sustainability committees. Those wondering what they can do personally will find some useful tips. Campaigners, or transition towns transport groups, will find a wealth of things to try.
The first observation to make is that much of our car use is simply complacency. Half of car journeys are under two miles, and 80% of them could be done by bike or bus. “Driving has become the normal, habitual, expected means of transport, and other options are not even considered.” Getting people thinking about travel is a good start. We take our cars for granted so much, just asking the question of how you will get somewhere is a step in the right direction.
Information is another crucial factor. Public transport, when considered, is often too easily dismissed. A survey in Darlington got people to estimate journey times and costs, by car and by public transport. People overestimated the public transport journey time by 70%, and underestimated the car journey time by 26%. They also overestimated the ticket fare by 21%, and underestimated the cost of going by car by 58%. In other words, those who don’t use public transport tend to assume that it is slower and more expensive than it is. Correcting those prejudices is one way to get more people out of their cars, and some local councils have done this through advertising campaigns, better access to information, or just giving away free tickets to get people to try the bus.
The most interesting section of the book for me was the chapter on town planning. When a town or city has been planned to accomodate cars first and foremost, a car can easily become a necessity. Out of town supermarkets and retail parks, regional hospitals, housing estates by the ring road, all of these are unsustainable ways to set up a town. Once it’s there, it will be there for decades. Getting councils to think through the planning permissions for these kind of building projects is vital.
Of course, most people like their cars and have no intention of giving them up, climate change or not. Those most attached to their cars should be thinking about this the most however, because peak oil may take the choice out of our hands in the near future. As we discovered in the heavy snowfall in january, our way of life is very vulnerable. If there was a petrol shortage, how would you get to work? If fuel prices tripled, would you still want to drive the children to school? If you’re looking to buy a new house at the moment, consider whether or not you would be able to do your shopping without a car. It would be wise to prepare in advance.
There are dozens of ideas and facts in Car Sick that are worth separate posts. I haven’t mentioned the social effects of car use, which are fascinating. I will follow some more of these up in the future.
- For a shorter, more personal read, try ‘Cutting your car use’ by Anna Semlyn.