I love biking. It’s the best way to get around town. And a lot of bike-loving, tree hugging, latte drinking people look down in disgust at people who still get around by car.
Not me! I love cars.
I was always passionate about sports cars. When I was a kid I made massive Hot-Wheels tracks in the back yard, with loops and jumps that would keep me busy for hours. I assembled model cars. As I got older I would read various car magazines like Car and Driver or Road & Track, jump to the cars section in the newspaper, and attend car shows. Yes, I paid money just to go look at cars.
I took massive road trips. I bought myself a 1962 Volkswagen bus and drove it from San Diego all the way to Halifax and back to Ottawa. I’ve driven the icefields highway in Alberta to marvel at the beautiful mountains and lakes. I’ve driven through the Scottish highlands, German autobahns, and the roundabout around the Arc de Triomphe.
I watch Formula 1 races. All of them. It’s about the only TV that I watch. Something about the speed, the engineering, and the challenge of manoeuvering the best line around a corner, excites me. I have a car that can get to 100 kph in 5 seconds, and from time to time, I do.
“What a bunch of hooeeey,” you might say. “You’re no Mr. One Wheel Drive, you’re a right Mr. All Wheel Drive.”
The truth is, I never really gave much thought about it. Growing up in Stittsville the only way to get around was to drive. To go to the cinema or shopping you drove, or asked your parents to drive. That’s just the way it was.
One day I was driving on the highway and in front of me, in the middle of the lane, was a goose that had just been hit by a car. It lay dead; roadkill.
Geese can be pretty agressive birds and its mate, who was uninjured, was vainly trying to protect it, chasing at cars in a desperate attempt to scare them away. People were swerving all over the lane trying to avoid the carcass and the attacks. It’s one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen, a testament to the power of love.
That’s the moment that I realised that there was a whole other cost to driving, one that we never really think about. I knew about pollution, the price for gas and insurance, the direct costs. But there was so much more to it. What about oil: transporting it, spills, wars? Or of steel
production, to make the cars? Using up iron that is the product of supernovae billions of years ago, in order to bring you to the grocery store more easily?
Just being in a car, travelling across the landscape, separated me. There was me, and the “other”: the landscape that we were not a part of.
As time went on I noticed it more and more. Not only were we reshaping the world around us, building roads and bridges without a thought to the impacts. Because we can drive, things are built far apart. Because they are built far apart, it’s necessary to drive everywhere.
So much of the urban landscape had been turned over to cars just in the form of parking lots. Urban society has made a collective compromise to give up nice patios and quiet, walkable streets in exchange for being able to drive long distances quickly in comfort, with the radio, cupholders, and all the other conveniences cars have to offer. Some even have heated steering wheels. Some even have heated cupholders.
The dream of driving quickly in comfort too often is obscured by the reality of sitting in traffic, circling around the parking lot trying to find a spot, getting frustrated by the person in front who just can’t seem to turn the car around no matter how many tries.
So many times I would get stuck in traffic, or waiting at red lights, and I started realizing: this isn’t driving, this is… a complete waste of time spent trying to get from one place to another that I hated.
Driving is one of the most stressful activities people people do.
Driving gives you the opportunity to get from one place to another quickly; it gives you the opportunity to schedule too much into your day; it gives you the opportunity to eat in transit; in the end you live your life at the pace of the machine.
You can’t eat when you’re biking. Even if you are trying to rush from one place to another you still have to stop to eat. Biking around, if you happen to pass a friend, it just takes a minute to stop and say hello. In a car it takes that long just to find parking. There’s no frustration of
being stuck behind another bike, and there are no unexpected traffic jams; the time needed is perfectly predictable.
Car accidents are one of the largest causes of death and injury. The lack of physical activity caused by driving contributes to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
What about the costs of the legal framework to make driving even possible? Police, courthouses, laws, government bailouts of failing car companies? I never even heard it discussed as part of the cost of car ownership, but how much of our courts’ time was spent on DUI cases, arguing over parking tickets, hearing cases about collisions and the like? We all pay for this yet it’s never considered.
So, gradually, I changed my habits. I started biking to places on nice days. After I had biked a few days in a row, then it rained and I drove, I really realized how different it was; compared to the joy of biking I was trapped, sitting in traffic, listening to crappy classic rock because there
was nothing better on. I realized, on my bike I didn’t need to wait for someone to pull out of a parking spot, that there were so many shortcuts suddenly accessible to me, that the wind and the air felt like… freedom.
I am grateful that we have a car. It enables all kinds of things that otherwise would not be possible, like cross-country skiing in Gatineau park, spending time at the cottage, or heading out as a family to New Brunswick on vacation. Having a trailer for our car allows us to have a smaller, more efficient car while still being able to haul far more than by owning the biggest SUV. Undeniably, the system of inter-city higways and truck transportation has had enormous benefit to society: rapid, cheap shipping of goods.
Being a person who drives and cycles has helped me in both worlds. Biking, it’s infuriating to be passed closely by a car who just ends up at the same red light as I am a hundred metres later. That person risked <b>my</b> life for absolutely nothing. So when I drive I usually look three lights ahead and never race to a red light. Knowing the hazards that drivers face, I never pass cars on the right and I feel like I can anticipate better when a driver doesn’t see me. I see drivers that wait a minute at a red light but can’t wait 10 seconds behind a bike, so when I’m driving, I’ve learned to chill out and put things in perspective.
I am at ease being passionate about both cars and cycling. I drive, but only when I feel like it is truly justified, and that even when I factor the full costs that it’s worth it. It turns out that I rarely drive anymore, and when I do, I feel like the car is liberating me to do things that
otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
I still love Formula 1, and this year is shaping up to be great after the first race, with more unpredictability than I’ve seen in a while. But, ultimately, I realized that a lot of driving is not driving at all. It’s habit.