Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Crush of the Automobile

My decision to give up car ownership several years ago has required me to turn to other forms of transportation. For local travel I initially turned to cycling and walking, while carrying a strip of bus tickets in my wallet as backup. Since June, for several reasons, I have been using the local bus system more (known as OCTranspo here in Ottawa) , so I have purchased a bus pass, in conjunction with membership in a car sharing organization, vrtucar. So far so good, until, a week ago, within hours of the city being hit by its first major snowstorm, and in the midst of the already increased traffic generated by the holiday season, the bus drivers went on strike.

I now recognize the extent to which I had become dependent on OCTranspo for my sense of freedom. Over this past six months I have enjoyed the hop on hop off freedom that a bus pass provides. Now, my world feels a little bit smaller.

So much of this sense of a "smaller" world though, can be attributed to the expansive landscape that I have come to assume to be my rightful place on the planet. Back at the turn of the last century people shopped and socialized locally because, well, there really were no other options. Britannia Bay (part of what is now western Ottawa), was considered a summer retreat area because people went there seasonally, for recreation. It was not part of the daily commute of the masses.

Historic street scenes, as shown below in this 1900 photo of Mulberry Street in Little Italy, New York, inevitably show cities teeming with people who had everything they needed within walking distance.

Similar scenes can be observed in modern day European cities where the streetscape came before the automobile, as shown below in Dublin Ireland in 2003.

But, here in North America, this is what we contend with daily. Not a human being to be seen, yet so much activity over such a wide area.

Several years ago, as our community of Overbrook wrestled with yet another public school closure and its conversion into an upscale private school (tuition $10,000+), much of the concern was about the traffic that would be generated. My comment was that I didn't mind visitors to the community, but I wished they didn't feel it necessary to bring two tons of metal with them every time they dropped in to bring their kids to school.

Our cities have become great car dumps. Is it any wonder we are so spread out? We don't have any room left for people.


  1. Good for you. I used to do the same back when I lived in a larger city (Chicago), but now I'm in a smaller city with terrible public transportation. I bike during the summer, but I have to drive through the snow.

    Good to see people care.

  2. This is interesting. I think it reveals a problem with a lot of community groups and their approach to their work.

    In all our attempts to build local communities, I hear a lot of people focusing on making non-car transportation options to get out of the local community. People seem to think that we need to be able to walk, bike or bus OUT of the local community for jobs or whatever, but the stated goals of the orgs working on these issues are often to build local community and get people to know their neighbors.

    Maybe if we stopped trying to constantly leave our neighborhood in the first place, we would meet more of our neighbors. If we don't spend time there, that won't happen.