Building critical mass for a car-free future

We’ve become so accustomed to cars, we’ve forgotten what a drag they can be. If you want to remember, try riding a bike.

There you are, gently pedaling your spiffy, 30-pound healthmobile along a curving country road; breathing fresh, invigorating air; glancing at the spectacular fall colors and listening to nature’s symphony of silence. Then, here comes another one: 4,000 pounds of roaring, polluting steel, glass and plastic is approaching you from behind, going six times your speed.

You must keep to the gravely edge of the road and keep the faith that the car’s driver isn’t drunk, yakkin’ on a cellphone or so mad at her boyfriend for spending the money she set aside for the car payment that she’s ready to kill you. You wince as the mechanical monster noisily whizzes by, propeled by 1,000 to 3,000 times more horsepower than you’re using. You wonder, “Is that thing really necessary?”

It’s worse in town, where cars are everywhere, making bikes less visible and drivers more distracted. Cars not only make towns difficult for bikes to negotiate, they completely dominate the streets, leaving room for little else. A typical car occupies as much space as nine to 12 bikes, and weighs about as much as 24 average people. And there are so many cars that traffic jams and parking hassles often erase the automobile’s purported advantage over bicycles in speed, mobility and convenience. (A pedicab recently beat a Yellow Cab by six minutes in a four-mile race through Manhattan.)

Yet cars have been so much a part of every American’s life since infancy that we hardly notice their obnoxious, intrusive qualities – or the fact that we’ve scaled and built our cities for them, not us. We also generally ignore or deny their role in global warming, 30,000-plus auto-accident deaths each year and the sopping up of diminishing resources from around the planet – problems that smaller, more efficient cars won’t help solve, as there will just be more and more of them over time.

Of course, as discussed in the first two columns of this series, private cars are still needed by many Americans. But our automobile dependence has gotten way out of balance. We’re at risk of becoming a formerly great country that choked on its own effluence.

How can we restore the balance so that cars serve people rather than the other way around? So most cars are eliminated and those that remain are used on a truly as-needed basis?

Clearly, we need a combination of private and government initiatives. But cities won’t give cyclists the priorities and protections they deserve unless pressured by their residents.

People must “take to the streets,” literally. They must use bicycles and other muscle-powered conveyances as frequently as possible to achieve some immediate reduction in automobile impact, to send the message that there are viable alternatives to driving and to be a force governments must reckon with.

The idea is to create what cycling proponents call a “critical mass” of bikes on the street so that city governments will have to take their needs into account when developing, or redeveloping transportation systems. Think of it this way: At one time only one-tenth of Americans drove cars, and we quickly revamped our entire transportation infrastructure to accommodate them. We can effect similar changes for cyclists.

But it’s important to realize that you don’t have to completely give up your car to push the “car-free” agenda forward. If people who own cars can leave them home at least one-third of the time, we can fill the streets with bikes. If we truly want to make progress, we can’t let the perfect – totally car-free living – be the enemy of the good – greatly increased bike use.

Cars can make bicycling daunting, but the most effective way to reduce cars’ impact is to leave yours in the garage. It helps that most drivers are extremely considerate, and cycling is statistically as safe as driving if you wear a helmet and follow the rules.

In this time of transition, our intrepid bicyclists are the heroes of the urban environmentalist movement, fighting for future generations at our 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,