Imagine utopia without automobiles

by Ryan McGreal

(Published on June 21, 2003, in The Hamilton Spectator (external link opens in new window).)

Our car's engine seized a month ago. Rather than spend thousands of dollars to replace it, my wife and I decided to go car-free for the summer. Ironically, what started as a hassle turned into an unexpected boon as we were uniquely prepared for the mayhem of the Canadian National Cycling Championships.

It's no inconvenience to live inside the "lockdown zone" when you're already committed to walking or cycling everywhere you want to go. In fact, there was something awe-inspiring about walking through city streets that were empty of cars but full of people. It felt giddily apocalyptic, good-natured and disorienting at the same time. It hinted at why people are so enamoured of revolution, the abrupt turning-around of public fortunes.

We met several old friends over the course of our travels, stopping and chatting at leisure, content to let our children play under less surveillance than usual. People were out in force, moving easily through an environment that welcomed their presence. We chatted with a police officer at Aberdeen and Locke, who laughed over some of the things irate motorists had invited him to do.

Another friendly police officer at Aberdeen near James, an excellent place to watch the cyclists' high-speed descent, talked about how much she prefers bicycle duty to car duty, because it allows her to interact with people in the community rather than merely passing through it.

Of course, not everyone felt this way. On Friday afternoon, a motorist leapt out of his car at Aberdeen and Queen to yank barriers out of the way. Several volunteers, including two fatigue-clad militia officers, converged on the man and explained that he had to wait for the race to end. He cursed and swore, demanding to be allowed to drive to his house -- which was a two-minute walk away. My wife offered to let him park in front of our house, after which we would call him to let him know the road was free. He refused and instead peeled away.

Sunday night found Aberdeen and its side streets clogged with grumbling motorists, outraged at obstacles barring their way. At intervals, someone would lean on a horn, and within seconds the entire street was ringing with clamour.

Something occurred to me as I stood on the sidewalk, watching people scowl and hurl invective through their windscreens. These people were so utterly dependent on their cars that they couldn't even imagine a different way of getting around. They had several months' notice, but stubbornly chose to drive anyway, relishing the opportunity to rail self-pityingly against perceived injustices.

I thought about the world they were missing just across the barriers, a world where people walked freely and stopped to talk and listen to each other along the way. Instead, the motorists sat fuming in denial.

The traffic grid is the most oppressive organization I can imagine for the development of a community; we carve our space up into squares and then suffer the tyranny of the straight line. Further, cars represent extensions of private property into the public realm. Drivers feel they deserve free reign inside their portable fortresses, and naturally resent having to wait for anything.

I have a ridiculous, even embarrassing, vision of a small city with no cars, but lots of room for pedestrians, cyclists, in-line skaters and skateboarders. People sit outside, gardening, watching each other's children, talking to each other.

Buildings, paths, plants and trees are organized around the human needs rather than the mechanical imperatives. Parks and community gardens dot the landscape. Some are beautifully groomed and others are allowed to run fallow, with wild plants, insects and small animals spilling over each other. A forest winds through the city and a rail node connects it to other cities.

People know their neighbours and don't live in fear and anxiety. Shared space isn't ugly, disrespectful space. Public transit isn't a table scrap for the poor and disaffected. People actually turn off their TVs to join the world and children play outside in the streets and in the parks. Neighbours spontaneously close blocks and declare street parties.

Thousands of people a year won't die each year from car accidents and from heart and lung disease. Rotten strip malls populated with the walking dead won't spread across the landscape like blood. Local commerce isn't dominated by huge box stores with signs that can be read at 80 kilometres an hour.

I know this is utopian thinking, but it sustains me when I get discouraged. Maybe we can move just a little bit towards communities that are designed for humans and not for machines.

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Copyright © 2000, 2002 by Ryan McGreal