Cars, two-wheelers and the importance of the 100th monkey

You have just walked into the middle of a conversation about bicycling, car-free living, individual choice and the fate of the planet. The conversation started in an online “sustainable issues” chat group I monitor, and parts of that discussion were repeated in a previous column, the first in this series.

I began that column by describing the difficulty of moving toward a car-free society, especially in America with its mostly suburban development and car-dependent culture. Others in the group weren’t interested in the “difficulties,” and pointed out that our auto-dependency is unhealthy for us and the planet – as well as expensive, claiming that “Cars drive you to work.” The column ended with the comment, “I’ve (lived without a car) for 18 years in many towns and cities. People can easily adapt.”

I responded:

“I’m mostly in agreement with your positions.

“However, there are times when I’m the only bicyclist on the road, surrounded by a couple of hundred cars – pretty lopsided numbers.

“It’s discouraging, but before concluding that most Americans are lazy, brainwashed or just plain stupid, we should look at some of the unavoidable or even positive aspects of auto ownership. Yes, as discussed earlier, cars cost people a lot of their discretionary income. But the point is that the income is discretionary, and most people choose – either reluctantly or enthusiastically – to spend it purchasing a car and paying for gas, insurance and maintenance.

“Most parents, the elderly and partially disabled people depend on cars for basic functions such as getting to work, shopping and doctor’s visits in today’s spread-out cities.

“But cars also allow people to do many things they might otherwise forgo, expanding their horizons and quality of life. There’s fresh snow on the ski slopes? A new archaeological find along the river? The county fair starts tomorrow? There’s an air show? ‘Let’s go!’

“Should we ask people to deprive themselves and their families of such opportunities? Would they listen?

“I’m not arguing for continued growth of the car culture. But scaling it down will require a major shift in priorities. We will have to rebuild our inner cities and turn our suburbs into smaller ecocities, or perhaps abandon some of them entirely and turn them back into farms or forests.

“Meanwhile, I’m afraid, only a tiny percentage of people will freely choose bikes or buses as their primary mode of transportation.”

The response came quickly:

“I don’t know when we’ll get to the hundredth monkey – the hypothetical threshold past which a behavior instantly spreads to the entire population – but I can testify that we’ve come a long way. When I started bike commuting in 1986, there were no other bicycles on Highway 99 north of Seattle. Today, they are much more common. Recently, when I ventured into town in the snow, I saw several other cyclists. We’re not the majority yet, but (we) are too many to ignore.

“Bicycling creates opportunities to share with children. My daughter was the hero of her first-grade class when we came and went by tandem (bike). She came of age pedaling 4,000 miles as she turned 12. Her 2-year-old twin sisters had a wonderful time in their trailer on that ride. We visited every playground in America.”

And another response read:

“The way you get people to not do something is to provide a preferable alternative. Until we have alternatives in place, people will continue to drive cars everywhere. People used to walk (or take streetcars) to work, (nearby schools and stores), but that infrastructure was torn down. We need to rebuild the infrastructure. Probably the first step is to change zoning rules to allow people, shopping and (clean) industry to coexist within walkable distances.

“It happens elsewhere – for example, in Singapore, where people often live in high-rise apartments above markets and walk across the street to their jobs making high-tech equipment, apparel and many other things. Any efforts to make such changes will be met with lots of rationalizations for maintaining the status quo, but no one said it will be easy.”

What would a less auto-dependent society look like in America, and how can we create it? We’ll discuss strategy next at your ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him by email through his website,