Pleasure, practicality, and petrol

To talk of liking cars in the current environmental and economic climates sometimes seems outdated, even heretical in some circles. I recently discovered an excellent Youtube channel called Petrolicious, which captures the essence of classic and exotic cars lovingly preserved, restored, and imbued with fantastic histories and feelings through their owners. I appreciate the beauty and spirit of classic and exotic cars. Yet I am also an ardent supporter of alternative transportationdense, walkable neighbourhoods, and congestion pricing – all of which are antithetical to limitless automobility. How can this be so?

Beyond the argument that at least some art and aesthetic is necessary (human nature demands that not everything can be practical and utilitarian), these classic and exotic cars are less environmentally damaging than at first glance. In many cases, these cars are not driven often, so they essentially emit much less pollution than even the most efficient modern subcompact, driven tens of thousands of kilometres every year for commuting and numerous other trips. And restoration gives new life to worn-out exotics, saving the energy which would have been expended in scrapping, expending less than in producing new vehicles.

What cars were, and are

Exotic cars are many things – expensive, powerful, exciting, artistic – but above all, they are rare. They embody some of the qualities that even ordinary cars had decades ago. Prior to mass vehicle ownership, cities were less sprawling. Cars were originally about pleasure ahead of practicality. People commuted and made most of their trips through public transit, cycling, or walking. Cars were expensive, relatively unreliable, and only for a small, wealthy elite. The act of driving for pleasure – whether auto racing or a drive in the countryside, was similarly limited to this demographic.

Fast forward to the present, and we have effectively lost this sense of pleasure. Despite marketers’ attempts to sell us on the “fun” aspect of new vehicles, driving is often done out of necessity. Traffic congestion, urban sprawl, and the burdensome expenses of owning and operating vehicles for lower and middle class people takes the pleasure out of driving. Many would prefer to drive less, if only more practical transportation options existed in modern environments.

What we have lost, and what we can regain

Petrolicious, and similar channels and publications, remind us what we have lost. They can even explain the dichotomy of driving for pleasure rather than necessity. Driving was originally intended as an occasional and pleasurable activity, not a tool for daily living. It has become more affordable as vehicles have become more widespread and reliable and standards of living have risen, but at its inception, and at its core, it was and is expensive. Current pricing methodologies and the proliferation of mass-produced vehicles in spatially finite cities means that the open road is a thing of the past: traffic congestion will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Economic realities mean that most of us will only ever own mainstream, relatively utilitarian vehicles, though we may be fortunate enough to drive an exotic. Vintage Ferraris and Porsches are soulful works of art as much as they are vehicles. By remembering the past as we move forward, it is possible to imagine a world where it is feasible to drive our own vehicles as these exotics are driven: occasionally, and for pleasure.

 

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Changing cities – brick by brick

(Warning: spoilers ahead) At first, I was a bit disappointed. Watching the opening sequences of the new Lego Movie, with the mammoth Bricksburg Freeway snaking through the city and tall Corbusier-style skyscrapers looming over the Lego-scape, it is truly an impressive creation. However, it reinforces decades-old ideas about urbanism which are proving to be automobile-centric, harmful to pedestrians, and unsustainable. Is this truly a vision of an utopian city?

There is hope however, in that our ordinary hero Emmett takes the time to greet his neighbours on his way out of his apartment, and the city appears to be bustling with activity – people of all demographics walking throughout the downtown to various shops and places of work, reminiscent of Jane Jacobs’ famous “sidewalk ballet”. The elevated rail mass transit system (all jokes about monorails aside), is bursting with people. And even the traffic on the congested roads and freeways is flowing (perhaps they have successfully implemented congestion pricing in Lego-land).

There were some points glossed over, of course. Emmett is inexplicably able to easily find a curbside parking space right near his place of work (and does not appear to pay for it), which would be a certain fantasy in such a busy city. Sprawling surface parking lots and imposing parking garages, so common in automobile-dependent cities such as Bricksburg appears to be, are conspicuously absent. And none of the Lego vehicles run on fossil fuels, or generate air pollution.

As the movie nears its conclusion, a possible explanation appears. Bricksburg exists in our human world, where a father has created it as the “perfect” city, created according to the provided instructions and not to be altered in any way. His son mixes and matches different Lego sets, develops characters, and allows creative, spontaneous interaction and exploration which is utterly at odds with the static, prescribed nature of the existing Lego sets.

It reinforces the struggle between old, conservative ideals of the city as a place for automobiles and massive buildings and infrastructure, contrasted with a progressive vision of the city as a creative space primarily intended for people. As the father eventually embraces the more progressive, creative ways of his son, there is a tacit acceptance of a more enlightened style of urbanism (albeit in just one dimension: people-centred).

And given the movie’s underlying thematic importance of “thinking for yourself”, perhaps this is an encouraging sign that regardless of our preconceptions, we can move toward exploring livelier, more progressive, and healthier cities.

Carsharing and car culture

While I am a proponent of effective public transit systems for many kinds of intracity travel. I am also aware of the need for other modes of transportation to meet the needs of different kinds of trips. Private car use in cities (especially single-occupancy vehicles) is over-represented and over-subsidized in most North American cities, but cars are undeniably useful for many kinds of trips. How much car travel is too much? At what point do the environmental and social costs of excessive car use outweigh the benefits of the freedom of travel?

Carsharing is an increasingly popular option which allows users to access the benefits of car travel for trips where it is clearly beneficial over other modes, while also reducing the societal and personal costs of massive car use. But does a growth in carsharing actually reinforce “car culture” and automobile dependence? (I refer to car culture in this instance as the infrastructure and systems that make private car use necessary, rather than appealing or desirable.)

Emily Badger’s piece in the Atlantic Cities clearly makes the point that even if people are using carshare vehicles rather than privately owned automobiles, they are still using “the infrastructure, the parking garages and highways and curb space that we turn over to cars at great expense“. There is evidence (from the Economist, for example), that each carshare vehicle can replace 15 privately owned vehicles, so this effectively allows a more effective use of automobile infrastructure such as parking and road space.

However, the key point that Badger addresses is that participating in carsharing actually changes driving behaviour. I think this is because of the different cost model, compared to private car ownership.

Having previously owned a vehicle, I paid a number of significant fixed costs throughout a given year (insurance, maintenance, depreciation, etc). In comparison, the variable costs of driving (fuel, wear and tear), were minimal. I thought little about taking spontaneous short trips in my car, since these effectively cost little when I was already paying a lot for the fixed costs.

Carsharing ingeniously shifts the cost burden from fixed to variable. With the programs I use (car2go and Modo), apart from small administrative costs at the outset, I only pay when I use the vehicles. As a result, I’m aware of the cost of every single car trip, and I choose to use a carshare vehicle only when it is clearly necessary or more useful than another mode, such as public transit or walking. I drive far less than when I owned a vehicle.

My experience is not unique. Modo claims that members drive an average of 1400 km per year, which is substantially less than average motorists.

By continuing to drive (albeit far less), am I still reinforcing the need for automobiles? Not really. Even widespread carsharing adoption puts less strain on infrastructure than private automobile use, as explained above.

Moreover, carsharing is only effective in city areas where the car is an option rather than a requirement. In car-dependent areas, residents must own and use cars because it is ineffective, unsafe, or impossible to choose other modes such as public transit, cycling or walking. Carsharing would be ineffective as few people would choose to pay to use a carshare vehicle when they are already paying for a private vehicle.

By contrast, areas with frequent, accessible public transit and numerous amenities accessible by walking and cycling already give residents the choice to own a private vehicle or not. People who require a vehicle for work or personal use, or who choose to drive a lot will find private ownership more cost effective than carsharing, so there is little worry of people overusing carsharing programs.

People who live in these latter areas (transit-oriented development) tend to walk, cycle, and use public transit more than residents in other areas as they are cheaper and more effective transport options. Carsharing is merely supplemental for trips where a car is beneficial.

Carsharing is growing in areas where car use is already optional. A shift to more sustainable development, where “alternative” transit options are usable and effective does increase carshare use, but it simultaneously decreases car ownership, and thus overall car use.

Should we lament the popularity of carsharing as a reinforcement of car culture? On the contrary – we can see its success in correlation with an increase in the sustainable development patterns that allow it to thrive.