With more than 12 million passenger vehicles registered in Australia, it's clear that our love affair with cars shows no signs of abating despite rising fuel costs, increasing congestion and environmental concerns. But are they the best solution to our actual problems?
Picture by slipstreamjc
Right up front, I'll disclose that I'm that fairly rare Australian who neither owns a car nor has a driver's licence. If anything, that makes me even more aware than others of just how essential most people consider a vehicle to be. Revealing that I don't drive often results in barely-masked horror, as people try and contemplate how their daily commute, their shuffling of kids, and their weekly shopping could ever possibly happen in a world where there wasn't something parked in the driveway ready to go. Most suggest that it could never ever happen: public transport is too crowded or too infrequent or non-existent, and there's no services within easy walking distance in cities where mega-malls with massive car parks are increasingly the norm.
However, I'm not presenting my own viewpoint here, but some of the arguments that came up at a media forum on the topic of sustainable cities organised by IBM last week. I've already written up some of the ideas that came up about hybrid cars and power sources for Lifehacker's sibling publication Gizmodo.
The over-arching theme of the event was that our cities are still largely functioning on a 19th-century model of metropolitan design and service delivery, and we need to make major changes in how transport works if we're to have any chance of dealing with continuing increases in population. "There's pressures on our cities and we are at tipping point," said Catherine Caruana-McManus, IBM's public sector business development executive. "Our cities are constrained by a strong shortage of investment in infrastructure."
Professor Stuart White, director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS, pointed out that humans endlessly presume that they need a given service or product, when what they usually need is the solution to a given problem. We don't need electricity as such: we need the services electricity enables, such as lighting and heating. We don't need a fridge: we need a way of ensuring we have access to fresh food. We don't need the Internet for its own sake: we need the services that sit on top of that, whether that's email or browsing or P2P.
The same applies to transport. "People don't need public transport or a car or whatever — they need to get where they need to go," White said. While many people become obsessed with cars for their own sake (just as some people become obsessed with trains), fundamentally they exist as a means of solving that A-to-B problem. We often lose sight of this, acting as if cars are in and of themselves essential, rather than a tool which solves various problems: How do I get to work? How do I get food into my house? How do I get to hospital?
If alternatives exist that solve that problem just as well, then they're more likely to be adopted. It's easier to choose not to own a car in central Sydney, for instance, because there are more public transport alternatives on offer. It's easier not to go to a shopping centre if there's a reliable home delivery service, or a market just down the street. It's easier to get to hospital if ringing an ambulance doesn't cost a fortune.
One of the big challenges in trying to make a shift is that it's not simply a case of saying "everyone stop using cars and start using trains" or "we should all work from home so there's less traffic congestion". "Sustainable cities are the desired outcome, but it means many different things to different people and it's multi-dimensional," Caruana-McManus noted.
Such projects also need a high degree of government involvement, which in itself is a major turn-off for many people, White said. "Apathy and political cynicism is a barrier. People have switched off in their interest and ability to engage in decision making."
That said, even massive car enthusiasts generally acknowledge the obvious downsides of private transport: traffic jams, petrol costs, poorly maintained roads, expensive mechanics. At the same event, Queensland Motorways David Gray (a man for whom cars are a major source of revenue) acknowledged the limitations of current systems: "You can't build your way out of congestion. You've just got to do things smarter."
But while there might be urgent reasons for changing our approach to transport, I suspect those 12 million owners are going to take a lot of convincing. What services or options would make it easier for you to cut back on your car use? Tell us in the comments.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman promises that you should all be very grateful he is not on the roads. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.