My house needs repairs. It leaks. It needs new windows, one of which has been covered with plastic for at least 2 years. There are pieces missing from the soffits in the front of the apartment above the garage. We just waited four years for a new fridge. Yet, the last time that the car needed an $800 repair, it got it the very same day.
How does that work? Shelter = need. Car = want. At least, that’s how it is supposed to be. The problem is that the car is the price of admission. It is a necessary precursor to participation in the tribe, or even to getting somewhere that somebody will pay you so that you can pay for the roof. Shelter is the need, but for most of us, the car is a predecessor on the critical path.
I read Jane Austen a lot. One of the things that is glaringly apparent is how small her world is. If these people get into a carriage and go 120 km, they stay for six weeks. I live so far from my family that, in any generation prior to 1930, I might very well have never seen them again. Yet we have been to see each of our families of origin for as little as a weekend in the last year. We don’t think nothing of going 2500 km for three days, and then turning around and coming back, but we have made it happen for family weddings twice in the last 16 months. We have also driven to Boston twice (~1500 km each way) in the last two years, once for a weekend. By historic standards, these distances are bizarre, yet our culture has an expectation that they can be overcome by the mere application of money and fuel.
This is so ingrained that we chose to purchase a house 30 km from the main place of employment for our family. Since it is a very hilly 30 km, it is slightly too far for any of us to bike comfortably, although we would probably overcome that if it didn’t primarily take place on a 90 km/h highway. They just repaved this road and we live in a cyclist’s tourist destination, but they didn’t bother to accommodate cycling traffic with a decent shoulder… because the car, as we know, is king.
It is even worse than I have admitted to this point. Despite our crunchy tendencies, we maintain TWO of these ravenous behemoths… one gets us to work and one makes sure that we are able to provide our children with shuttling, gets us to childcare in time to pick them up, and occasionally allows us to meet two social obligations simultaneously.
It’s not that the car gets the repair every time it calls; we have gone for up to six months at a time with a dead car in the driveway (or, as my father-in-law titles them, a New Brunswick Lawn Ornament.) It’s just that the house, which we consider a priority, winds up waiting far longer for comparable levels of repairs.
The last time we left a car un-repaired, I optimistically thought that it would make for less driving. What really happened was that the car became like a 7th family member for me to keep track of logistically. Daycare, swimming lessons, a day of work in North Sydney, lunch with a friend, music lessons, orchestra rehearsals… some days, I actually had to draw a flowchart to make sure that we didn’t forget anybody. You might guess that I wasn’t getting much done under these circumstances. So we conceded, junked the car that couldn’t really be repaired, and purchased a (used) replacement. Although it seemed like a bargain at the time, the cost to keep that old guy on the road for the last 16 months would have paid more than half the after-tax cost of a new car. But he has saved my sanity, taken me to Ontario, been the go-to drive for the Halifax airport and the couple of other trips to H’fax that had to be done mid-week for things like passports. What’s a few thousand dollars between friends when I get all this freedom in exchange?
Of course, when I add in the hours worked to earn those few thousand dollars, the cost of this freedom doesn’t look so good. Some decades ago, Ivan Illich added in these hours, divided the distance travelled, and found that the average car provided its owner a speed of about 3-1/2 miles per hour. If I do the same calculation for myself I come to about 25 km/h, or about 15 miles per hour… but that is partly because I drive a lot farther than the average. Illich argued that if we stopped having the cars, and revised our work lives accordingly, we wouldn’t actually be losing much of our mobility. This isn’t quite a complete argument, though, because although our average speed might not decrease, the amount that we moved around would. This demands structural reform and a general relocalization of social and economic activity, not simply individual change. In my ideal world, I live in a walkable community with shared gardens, workspaces, and activities, but far enough from ‘town’ to provide rambling space. Ecovillage sort of thing. Sustainable without being hidebound. If I had no family, I’d be sending my resume to Kripalu, or Findhorn, for example. But right now I am in rural Cape Breton, with the reality of a spread out community, loosely tied together by highways.
To free myself from the car, I would need to completely reprioritize my life. I know intellectually that it is not reasonable for my kids to take Taekwondo 15 km away two nights per week, and swimming lessons another evening, and drama in town on Saturdays. We also have adult orchestra once or twice per week, meditation on Tuesdays, and work in at least two locations most days of the week. We don’t have anything on Thursdays after 5 pm. That’s it. That’s the free spot on the calendar. We are maintaining an urban lifestyle in a rural location. But every time I try to scale back, I find myself cutting all my own activities first, and eroding my own sanity. My most recent strategy was to sign three of us up for the same activity, so at least there is no shuttling, but that doesn’t really attack the root of the problem. Our lives are structured by the shared cultural assumption that we will be able to get places, so I find myself wondering: which of my friends and/or activities would I be willing to give up along with the car?
This is where we encounter the limits of agency and personal choices. I can only reduce my own travel by restricting my participation in society or by selling my wee-farm and moving back to town. We fell in love with the waterfront, the creek, and the south-facing windows, along with the potential to grow our own food and provide our own leisure. We arrived with a canoe and bought a scythe rather than a ride-on mower. My goal in moving to the country wasn’t to get away from it all, or to bring it all with me. My purpose was to build a life I didn’t feel the need to get away from. Yet I jump into the car on a nearly daily basis and drive away from a place other people stop to take pictures of. It is a sign that I haven’t yet hit the sweet spot.
I have a fantasy when I am walking along the side of the road. I think about how wonderful it would be if only this ribbon of highway were genuinely safe to use for bikes, strollers, pedestrians, and dogs. I imagine a world in which the highest speed limits were in the 50 km/h range, in which drivers never assumed the right-of-way, and in which this long-distance travel on a whim was not the norm. If it took me an hour to go to town, I would do it less frequently… AND so would everybody else. We would learn to do things where we were, with the people we were with, for good or ill. Or we would move to town and accept reality. I yearn for structural changes that would force me to make different choices, but that would still allow me to participate. I am confident that we would figure out something vibrant, social, and human if only we had to. The only question is, why don’t we do so right now?