Could We Survive Without Private Cars?

Could We Survive Without Private Cars?

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.


    • More regular services would be better still…
      I catch 2 connecting trains to work each day. If one train is running late (which happens far too often for a service that has scheduled stops and no other influencing factors, excluding breakdown, how the hell can a train run late 3 days out of 5?), I have to wait 30 minutes for the next service… in “peak-hour”!

    • Public transport should be free. It is a service ran by the governments for the public to use. Taxes should be used for public transport. Now with most public transport options now being privatised, transport is now for profit, ran for the benefit of the CEO’s.

  • wow. facinating. transport is such a facinating area of study. people have such strong sway by their perceptions than realities of modes of transport, then again I ride a bike so I’m biased.

  • Never owned a car nor got past my L’s with a license. I get around Ok. When I used to live in the country I just rode my bike everywhere, in the city it’s practically an advantage to not have a car.

  • “If alternatives exist that solve that problem just as well”….

    Therein lies the problem; public transport, at least in Melbourne, is a far cry from performing “just as well”. Granted, there are a couple bad congestion points (looking at you Hoddle Street), but for the most part I can get from any Point A to any Point B much faster than public transport, for nearly the same cost….AND be guaranteed a clean seat, no public odours, surround sound stereo, suitable departure times, etc, etc.

    • True, it’s terrible, but I can sleep on the train, or do homework. And the cost is cheaper, considering you have to pay for Maintenance, Registration, Insurance and fuel for a car. At least, this is how I justify to myself taking an hour and a half to get to uni instead of an hour long drive.

  • We could do a lot better than survive. The car has a lot to answer for in terms of public health – replacing a car journey with a walk or cycle (even just to the train station) would improve the public health considerably.

    One important factor preventing people taking up cycling more is helmet laws: the introduction of helmet laws in Australian states has seen a considerable drop in cycling rates across the board. The reasons are varied – from worries about helmet hair to the perception of cycling as a dangerous activity (in fact, it is no more dangerous than walking, so really we should be mandated to wear helmets walking on the street, and driving cars). The British Medical Association recently spoke out against helmet laws, on public health grounds – while the laws may prevent a few head injury casualties, they would cause more casualties from heart disease etc caused by an inactive population.

    • I’m interested to know how you quantify this – “the perception of cycling as a dangerous activity (in fact, it is no more dangerous than walking…)”

      Given the closer proximity to cars and the speed cyclists travel at, I’d say it’s considerably more dangerous.

  • To reach acceptence you would need to satisfy all the actual and perceived advantages that a car brings to the general public, something that cannot be done on a large scale. Cars are popular because they fulfil the needs of the owner, and those needs are different to everyone elses needs. Some people own cars for the work commute, others have a weekender, others for the grocery run.
    A service to replace all these conveniences – leave when I want, go where I want, comfort and privacy would be a start.

  • I think that the problem is worse in some cities than others but it relates to the problems of the length and times of daily travel.

    The more diverse activities you do in more locations at more times with a greater distance the more likely that having a car will meet your needs.

    Part of the region that 200 years ago in places like france only the wealthy had horses and or carts was because the need to travel was not great for the general population. They worked close to where they lived, same where they ate, educated and socialised.

    For much of what I do I’m nowhere near the activities, using person powered transport is impractical.

    If a solution could be made to make things closer, or remove the need to visit the things I’m having to visit now, I’m happy to give up my car.

  • I agree that public transport isn’t terrific. I much prefer to ride my bike or walk – I live in the suburbs and even so I’m within ten minutes’ walk or bike ride of pretty much anything I need. I get my groceries delivered for free using Aussie Farmers Direct, so I don’t need a car for food shopping.

    The only thing I really do need my car for is visiting family and friends. I wish there was a car-sharing service with cars out here – that allowed dogs in their vehicles! Flexicar don’t. GoGet does, but the nearest GoGet pod is 3.5 hours’ walk from my house. 😉 Bring car-sharing to the burbs, I say! Then I could sell my car.

  • I can’t help but feel when things like this come up, that the people involved are looking at it from a decidedly city-centric point of view.

    Having grown up in a “regional centre” (Lismore on the NSW Northern Rivers), its not really viable to even consider a future without cars. You mention home delivery services for groceries – is that financially viable in a town with, say, 20,000 people, 300 or 400 km from the nearest capital city? And thats not even a long way from a captal city.

    But then there are other things to consider like health services – its not unheard of for people to have to travel hundreds of km to access badly needed health care services on a regular basis.

    Quite simply, unless something magical comes along, I can’t ever see “car free” being viable outside of the big cities.

    • True — but cutting back on car use in cities would also have a more noticeable impact.

      Two other questions: how many of the people in a city of 20,000 are that far away from their nearest grocery store?

      And how is it that so many of these cities emerged and flourished before cars were invented?

  • @ dean Harris; I hope the NBN brings an influx of opportunities & services to regional australia.. With the spiraling prices of rent in major cities i would very much love to move to a regional area & will once more essential services are made available.

    That being said; cars certainly will still be a necessity for regional dwellers; but this is no reason to not promote car free urban environments. (a bike is a much easier way to travel!)

  • I find that almost without exception, the people who think they can cope without a car are the people without children.

    There is an insanely long time during childhood when you cannot rely on options like walking or riding, or even public transport.

    Anyone who actually feeds a family, rather than a couple, could not possibly visit the supermarket without a car.

    For sure, its a valid lifestyle for some people. However, ultimately, they will remove themselves from the gene pool.

    • Hi Jeff,

      We’ve been car-free for two years and have 3 kids. (our neighbours have always been car-free and they also have 3 kids). It’s do-able if you live near good public transport, are prepared to walk or cycle and can use a car-share company when you have complex travel needs, e.g. christmas day visiting relos all over the place.
      Clearly not owning a car is not for everyone, but worth giving it a go if you work out that you don’t actually need a car for all your travel needs.
      All our weekly shopping is either delivered (milk, bread & OJ from Farmers Direct) or carried home on bicycle (groceries, butcher, fruit’n’veg). Kids can also run errands when they take the dog for a walk – they’re pretty handy to have around sometimes.
      From a financial perspective, we only spent $3300 over two years on our Flexicar account – less than the depreciation on our old car and all insurance, rego, servicing and fuel is included.

  • “I’m that fairly rare Australian who neither owns a car nor has a driver’s licence”
    Me too, but I don’t really need one when I’m living near uni and bus services are acceptable here.

    Nothing compared to when I was living in Hong Kong though, if public transport didn’t come within 5 minutes it was considered inefficient. Bare in mind that Hong Kong is a rather small city, and it’s probably a lot easier to connect ‘remote’ places than here in Australia. Still, practically anywhere in Hong Kong is accessible by public transport.

  • I am always surprised by friends who move out to the outer suburbs that are only accessible by car because it is cheaper (for rent/mortgage) and then are surprised when their petrol bill is $100 a week.

    I paid more for my house 6km from the city but commute for $25 a week. If the Brisbane City Council were actually serious about reducing congestion and built some paths from the northside of Brisbane to the city rather than yet another tunnel that nobody will use.

  • I think most of the comments are missing the point. The way to cut down on private car usage is not to jump on public transport or taxis. As the article said you need to fulfill the needs…….so for 90% of what you need in a day a decentralised poly village approach would be needed. Your shops are local, you doctor is local, your school is local, for knowledge workers you have a local virtual office (NBN anyone), etc etc.

    It doesn’t have to be all things to all ppl it just has to cut down some of the transport tasks and then the public transport works better as it has less to do. Ppl that really need to be somewhere else to work, shop, go to hospital etc can actually get there in a reasonable time.

    And added to all that you get the interpersonal satisfaction that life is a smallish village can give you while at the same time giving you reasonable access to other “villages”.

    Since this is not an agrarian society the “villages” are close together, maybe just some public space to separate them.

    I know I would rather live local, shop local, work local, be able to pick my kids up from school, drop them on the way to work, duck back for lunch and not do 2 trains and a bus to get to work 5 days per week.

  • I grew up in NYC, where having a car is more of a liability than an asset, and my usual modes of transport were walking, bus and subway (and the occasional taxi if loaded down with bags).

    When I moved to Melbourne I eventually gave in and got a car so I could go more places around town that I couldn’t get to via PT or late at night, etc. Eventually, though, I began to resent how dependent I’d become on the car, feeling especially bad about driving solo to work each day — but it took twice as long to get there by train, which comes only every 20 minutes on my line, anyway (so if I miss a train it can make me really late).

    My car got written off after an accident last year, and I decided not to buy another car; my boyfriend and I joined Flexicar instead, which we’ve been using for almost a year. There are 5 or 6 cars in our neighbourhood; two are within walking distance, and the others are a short cycle. It’s not quite as convenient as having a car right outside the front door, of course, but on the other hand we pay about $1200 total per year to use a car for shopping/errands, taking his son to school if it’s raining hard (normally we cycle there) or late-night parties, and petrol/rego/etc is all included, so it’s a damn good deal.

    It’s not for everyone, of course — it depends on if they have cars in your neighbourhood, and how many. But if you live in an inner suburb there should be at least a few in your neighbourhood.

  • Public Transport is often mentioned in the no-cars debate.
    What is not mentioned is that cars are the opposite – Private transport. As you mentioned, they are just a means to and end.

    The real beauty is that when you get in your car, you are in a little bit of your own private space. A little bit of your home. Even if there is a traffic jam, you are in a quite (or music filled – your choice), temperature controlled ‘room’. It leaves when you want, it smells pleasant. It stops along the way if you want. It carries whatever you want. It goes wherever you want. Beyond that, it is also (whether you care or not) a status symbol.

    All above arguments are simply excuses why a car is not the best choice. Of course sometimes it isn’t. We (Mum, Dad +2 kids) took a packed train to the Perth Show today and it was a disgusting, cramped experience. Something you try to avoid, unless you’re into frottage.

    But it was the best choice. Mainly due to lack of car parking near the show grounds.

    Mind you, I drove half way there to a train station on the same line, so we didn’t have to change trains. So the best option was car + public transport. I also ride a bicycle and that is sometimes the best choice.

    So the answer to your original question is: No.
    If you really want a versatile lifestyle (both in and out of the city), you need a mix of various forms of transport – public and private.

    Or we could just have shared pods that you get into and out of. Like in the Movie “Logan’s Run”…

  • I read this IBM’s “Article” (Advertising) in the Qantas magazine and it is a nice Idea, but the Major Flaw is that people travel so much is because of money.

    We live far from where we work, because we can only afford the location. We work far away because when we looked for the job they paid more or were closer.

    Telecommuting can not be done for all jobs. There is no way to assemble physical products by telecommuting.

    We don’t all need to “Drive” if an option exists where we do not need to. Public Transport IS not cheaper then Private Transport. When our car is doing nothing is what is costing us. (car park, marking meters, etc)

    “Privately owned Cars” is the problem & the solution is a “Private use Vehicles”.

    The problem of Public Transport is that it is MASS Transport and only helps to get mass amounts of people from point A to point B efficiently. Not everyone wants to go to B, but need to do so to get to C. This causes crowding and slow service overall.
    A reality is that if masses people don’t use the service, then it is stopped.

    Stopping every 200 (or 1K) meters for pick-up and drop off, adds significant time to a trip) this is the “Public MASS Transport” system problem & the solution is a “Private use Vehicles”.

    “Private use Vehicles” would ideally be self driving and at a high standard. Unfortunately they do not exist but the technology to make them does. For example:
    Cruise control that adjusts the speed to the vehicle in front & can stop the car before impact if it calculates a collision
    Self parallel parking cars
    Voice activation

    For now, Tweak what options we have now until the solution is made. “Private use Vehicles” is more likely to happen then a tele-porter which would also solve the problem…. Beam me up!

  • I find tue biggest problem with alternatives to cars is they tend to be slower, one must work their timetable around the system, and you pay more for the pleasure.

    I’ve spent the last 3 years using public transport systems, ever frustrated – in multiple cities – having recently gotten my drivers license I’ve found I’m saving time, money, and my sanity. Public transport really have to step up their game, or they people won’t bother.

  • I have a mate who ran for being the local LNP candidate in the state elections. According to him, Having a Car is “Being Australian” having “Public Transport” is like being in a socialist country. He does not believe in equality or the environment, it is each man for himself. It is also sad to hear these thoughts as these are the sentiments of his party colleagues too.

    Having lived my initial life outside of Australia, I am used to public transport and feel that it is indeed a very useful thing in a country. Look at any country, Germany there are different modes of transport, the street trains (S-bahn), the Underground (U-bahn) the ICE (Fast trains). Look at London, France, USA to name a few.

    We need public transport to have a livable sustainable country and planet for out future generations.

    In my city, the bus service is a monopoly and it is pathetic, you would not have an idea of did you miss a bus or there was no service. So having your own vehicle is a must.

  • There are two aspects which can reduce car, or private vehicle, usage. Firstly a world class public transport system at a reasonable cost. Yes there should be a charge based on usage, however this should be suplemented through government (taxpayer) subsidies. A world class public transport system would be one that is first and formost reliable and secondly one this is frequent, especially in built up areas. Thus if you miss one bus, train or tram, you only have to wait 5 or 10 minutes for the next one. This will help reduce the rush and the stress of always making the same time.

    Secondly there should be a world class cycle lane network. Cycle lanes should be dedicated lanes that are physically sepearated from both pedestrian lanes and automobile / car lanes. Especially in built up areas. In less built up, or rural areas the lands may be shared, with painted lines to indicated sharing.

    So you may ask does is this a reality today? Certainly not in Australia. All initiatives in both Sydney and Melbourne are a joke at best and a fallicy at worst.

    Denmark, and Scandinavia, a region with an equilivant population to Australia, with a similar number of large cities, and similar concerns in rural areas, as far as transportation goes, is a prime example of a world class public transport system. Sure people still use cars, but most car owners also use a bicycle to get around the city, and communte to and from work, in many cases 15 – 20km one way per day. Car users are also far more conscientious of other road users, especially cyclists and pedistrians.

    Scandinavia is socialist and transport is subsidised by the state, however users also pay for their journey.

    Several people commented cycling is dangerous, however little mention was made as to why. Cycling is not in itself dangerous, it is the other road users, i.e. cars, trucks, etc.

    Adpat the Scandanivan model for Australian conditions and there will be healthier people, and less condested roads.

  • The problem with public transport in Australia is that we have a relatively small population spread over a large area.

    Japan, on the other hand, is very densely populated and has over 120 million people living in a country the size of Victoria. And their public transport system is excellent. There’s train stations everywhere (unlike in my suburb where you have to catch a bus to reach a train station) the carriages are clean, and always on time.

    Australia can’t have that same level of public transport purely because we don’t have the population to support it.. and so I don’t think there’s much we can do about that.

  • I think a major problem with transportation is the unreliability of Public Transport and it’s infrequent running times. Public Transport forces you to buy a car and maintain it, buy driving lessons, buy a Learners permit, buy a driving test, buy a Licence, renew a License. It forces you into buying a Car and getting a License and comes with taxes. It’s nearly impossible to get a job when you tell a potential employer that you reply upon Public Transport. Without a job you can’t function in life.

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