When I was growing up, the car was how I experienced getting from A to B much of the time. As a young child, I was driven to school by my mum; it was how I got to piano lessons, dance class and how we went on our annual summer holiday. As a teenager, I used the bus to get to school, my Saturday job at BHS and later, college. However, as soon as I was 17, I learnt to drive. My first car was an unreliable, old VW Beetle, and I inadvertently joined a new club, the VW Beetle owners, who would wave if you passed them. The ability to drive and car ownership seemed to be a natural path into adulthood; it is not lost on me that this puts me in a fortunate demographic of privilege. My first company car at 21 was a VW Golf in a bright, metallic green, and I loved it. I enjoyed driving, and as I am nicely middle-aged, I can remember times, where driving across the country did not inevitably mean sitting in heavy traffic, feeling stressed. Cars and driving are part of my narrative, but my view of car travel is changing.
In my last employment, I visited academic researchers at universities. Often these institutions are located within cities, and therefore public transport was the promoted choice within the business. It made sense, and I grew to appreciate being able to work on the train, daydream out of a bus window and take in a city on foot without having to navigate one-way systems, dodge road-works or search for parking.
When I now consider the environmental impact of cars, the first thing that comes to mind is burning fossil fuels and air pollution. Car electrification through hybrids and fully electric vehicles certainly seems worth considering when purchasing a replacement car. However, through talking to Melissa Bruntlett on the podcast and reading her 2nd book, co-authored with her husband Chris, it became apparent that using the car less has many more merits.
Melissa experiences the benefits first-hand by living in the Netherlands (since moving from Canada). Here, city design facilitates walking and cycling for short, everyday journeys, such as going to the shop, school and local social activities; it is less convenient to undertake these journeys by driving. Her book, Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives, looks at why cities benefit from fewer cars from ten different angles, drawing on research to provide facts and weaving in personal stories to illustrate each argument. These viewpoints comprise:
1. The Child-Friendly City – providing foot and cycle paths and separating these from vehicles, means children can get to school, amenities or meet their friends under their own steam, safely; reducing the number of journeys being ferried about in the backseat of a car by parents.
2. The Connected City – when street design prioritises people over the passage of cars, it opens up the possibilities to connect more with neighbours. It is simply not practical to have a conversation with a neighbour across a steady stream of cars.
3. The Trusting City – a transport network focussing on pedestrians and bikes naturally increases the subtle human interactions between travellers involving eye contact and body language; the predictability of behaviours builds trust between people.
4. The Feminist City – bringing women into the transport conversation means that infrastructure extends beyond the 9-5 working commute. The many additional trips, such as childcare drop-offs, shopping and visiting elderly relatives, can be incorporated into a system catering to many needs.
5. The Hearing City – reducing the numbers and speed of cars in urban areas can open up opportunities to experience hearing a different backdrop, such as birds or chatter from people. It can also reduce the ambient stress, often taken for granted, from noise pollution caused by vehicles.
6. The Therapeutic City – walking in a city where you are competing for space with cars means you are always alert to the possibility of danger, making for a taxing experience. By reducing or removing cars, the space created becomes safer and invites other means of utilisation to enhance the human experience.
7. The Accessible City – how Dutch cities provide space for human-powered travel allows those with disabilities safe means to travel through accommodating wheelchairs or electric scooters.
8. The Prosperous City – car ownership is expensive and therefore not accessible to everyone. People of any financial means should have access to ways to reach employment; a well-designed transport system will enable this.
9. The Resilient City – this is where transport design needs to stand the test of time. The example of Covid shows that when public transport became a risky form of travel, other methods apart from the car were needed.
10. The Aging City – keeping active is essential to the ongoing quality of life as we age, so providing a transport network that factors in the experience of older people is hugely important.
I found Melissa’s book painted a picture of a vibrant and active community, connecting more within the quieter, greener places in which they live. Changing transport infrastructure takes a serious commitment and finance, but the many rewards to human wellbeing and the environment make for a persuasive case.