Yesterday, I posted the following status update on my main social media accounts (especially on Twitter and Facebook):
(Enkerli) cherishes carfreedom and a carfree lifestyle. / apprécie le fait de vivre sans voiture.
This update prompted one reply on Twitter and started a whole conversation on Facebook. Needless to say, I’m quite happy with the results.
Most reactions from my friends and contacts on Tw and Fb were in agreement with me, often providing some more specific support for the concept of carfreedom. One commenter, a childhood friend with whom I’ve reconnected in the past two years, has offered another perspective. While I’m grateful for all comments, I focus on this friend’s counterarguments in the interest of a thoughtful conversation.
This friend began with a comment about the near-impossibility of living without a car when you have children. Though my soulmate and I have yet to bring babies into this World, I have given carfree parenthood a fair bit of thought. I can’t tell for sure that it’ll be easy for us to be carfree parents but I know (and know of) enough carfree parents to think that it’s doable. Because carfree living and children are so important, for me, the possibility of raising children without being bound to a car is an important issue. We may end up using carsharing networks like Communauto or Zipcar. I don’t necessarily want us to be carless. But I do hope we can be carfree.
The one thing I found most problematic (or, at least, annoying) is when people tell me: “you’ll see that you’ll need a car at that point.” My friendly commenter didn’t use such a statement and, even just for that, I’m grateful.
This same friend then asked for some examples of what I started to call “carboundedness.” In what ways are people tied to their cars?
This is the focus of this blogpost.
Now, to be clear, those people I call “carbound” are a small subset of the overall driving population. I’m thinking about people who’ll take their car to go one block from their homes. Those people who need a car in their lives, couldn’t imagine life without a car, and live their lives based on what they can do with their cars. Not that it’s necessarily “their fault.” There are some contexts in which cars are just unavoidable. In fact, that’s what I’m thinking about as the core of “carboundedness”: the dominance of “car culture.” The contexts which make car ownership something akin to an “absolute necessity.” As a social scientist, I don’t perceive car ownership to be one of the basic human needs. And I think that my life “proves” that it’s possible to live happily without a car.
Not everyone who has a car is so tied to her/his car as not to be so free. But I’d say “carboundedness” isn’t so rare, in North America. It tends to be less frequent in and around large cities. I’d also guess that it’s somewhat less prominent in Qc than in other parts of the continent (including Acadia). But I’ve seen enough of it to be thinking about the implications.
So, some examples of carboundedness from the perspective of carfreedom.
My friend mentioned my homebrewing activities in another comment and beer does provide me with a first example. See, sampling beer is part of my lifestyle. I can easily go to a pub to get a couple of beer samples and leave after a few minutes. On occasion, I’ll do some pub-hopping or even a full-fledged pubcrawl. While I don’t worry about the consequences of drinking too much, I usually don’t drink much and I often know exactly when to stop. So I enjoy my sampling session while it lasts. The main constraint is that I won’t do it if I have to work afterwards. For instance, I won’t drink a drop of alcohol before grading. And I’ll limit my alcohol intake radically if I have to teach the following morning. In this sense, my work does put a limit on something I enjoy doing. I accept that wholeheartedly because I’m passionate about my work, but it does represent a constraint.
When a carbound person meets me (or anybody else) for beer, it becomes a whole event. If these people are responsible and they’re the ones doing the driving, they control their intake as radically as when I have to teach the following morning. They also make sure they wait at least an hour after the last drink. And the moment they’re having a beer isn’t as free and casual as when they’re in their homes or when there’s a dedicated driver. In other words, they’re “in control” for external reasons. I cherish being “in control” but I prefer it to be for personal reasons.
If these carbound people aren’t driving, they tend to drink more than they usually would because they enjoy the opportunity to drink more. My sense is that they measure their freedom based on how they get home. Something similar happens to me if I have lots of constraints from work for a significant period of time. It’s not beer that I really miss when I can’t have it. It’s the freedom to choose when I can have it. It’s still easy to be in control. But the control comes partly from external reasons.
If some carbound people aren’t responsible, they might drink and drive. But I don’t see drunk driving as appropriate behaviour.
Carbound people technically could spend only a little time at the pub and only drink a little bit. But it’s not what happens, usually. Because of the importance of their cars in their lives, they conceive of alcohol in a way that is quite different from responsible drinking.
Now, because my friend was talking about children, the relationships between parenthood and alcohol seem relevant. One might say that responsible parents don’t go to pubs. Thing is, I’ve known enough responsible parents who do go to pubs and, in some cases, they even bring their children along. I might even say that being exposed at an early age to people who were drinking has helped me gain a balanced perspective on responsible drinking.
In North America, especially among English-speakers, there’s a tendency to perceive alcohol consumption in a rather negative way. Though it may be allowed to bring young children to a restaurant where alcohol is served, these parents will refrain from drinking any alcohol in front of their children. Some of the same people do drink rather large quantities of alcohol but never in front of their children. For a large number of reasons exposed by Ruth Engs and others, some of these children end up binge drinking as soon as they leave their parents’ homes. There may not be any causal relationship between this attitude toward alcohol and carboundedness, but they do go together quite frequently.
Then, there’s the set of choices people make. There are people who wouldn’t live downtown because traffic is too heavy or because parking space is too difficult to find. I perceive this as a limiting. There might be other reasons why these people don’t want to live in certain places. But my observation is that a number of people think about where they live based on their cars. I’ve lived in places which were quite hostile to pedestrians and my perspective on these places is connected to my pedestrian lifestyle. I’d argue that the same happens with carbound people.
My carfree lifestyle is connected to my attitude toward freedom in other ways. When I move to a different place, I freely explore the city or town as much as I can. I go everywhere I can, which tends to be just about anywhere. And, since I’ve moved several times to places which are quite different from one another, local exploration has been a not-so-insignificant part of my life.
Moreover, I did notice that, rather frequently, I get to know a place more quickly by foot and public transit than drivers do, if they never leave their cars behind. Not that drivers can’t explore the place. But they often don’t, partly because it can get rather complicated to bring their car around.
Not only do I have no reason to think about one-way streets and parking space but I can also cross parks, walk down alleys, stop whenever I feel like it, take my time to look at different things, and get the feel of a place by the way it sounds, smells, looks…
A related point is that my perspective on those places where I’ve lived is quite different from that of a carbound person. I’d argue that I get to inhabit a city in a deeper sense than someone who feels the need to drive anywhere. Though it may sound like I’m saying my perspective is somehow better than that of a carbound person, I mostly mean to say that it’s a different experience and that it’s one about which I care. Some people don’t want to have a deep experience of the place where they live, and that’s perfectly fine with me. There’s something about a “drive-by” or “drive-through” lifestyle which can be quite enticing. It’s just not the kind of life I want to lead.
Though I call myself a “pedestrian,” much of my carfreedom has to do with using public transit. As I’m carfree, I usually use public transit quite a bit, depending on where I live. Because I use public transit a lot, I value buspasses.
Now, a buspass, for me, is freedom-inducing. Once in a while, I’ll use my buspass to go somewhere different, just because I can. Of course, I could do something similar with a car and there are places I can’t easily reach by bus. But driving around aimlessly can be costly and it’s much easier to get lost (without a GPS). Some of the drivers I know do occasionally drive for the fun of it and I can easily relate to that. Though I’m a bit sad about the implications for the environment, I respect their choice. These drivers aren’t necessarily carbound since they choose what to do with their cars.
The event which prompted me to send an update about carfreedom was quite trivial. As I was walking across the parking lot of the métro station close to where I live, I was asked by a minivan driver if, by any choice, I might not be going to get my car. This happens to me rather frequently and it means that people are looking for an empty parking space. This time around, my response was that I’m much freer than that, as I don’t have a car («J’suis bien plus libre que ça! J’ai pas de voiture!»). Sure, it may sound overstated, obtuse, smug, etc. But it was fitting, in the moment. The driver in this case seemed to have a thoughtful attitude and I needed to have a bit of fun. A standup comic my soulmate and I saw perform, during the Just for Laughs festival, was talking about teasing such drivers by faking getting into cars and then take the bus. I wouldn’t do that. But I still like to have fun.
I do feel free, in my daily life, and part of this has to do with being a “compulsive” pedestrian.
Speaking of “compulsion”…
Some elements of carboundedness may sound like an “addiction” to driving. But the concept of “addiction” can be tricky, especially for those of us who don’t have a strong background in psychology. Still, the “-boundedness” described here is similar to what we commonly mean by “addiction.” Or “being a slave to.” And it’s much trickier than “car culture” in general.
For personal reasons, the addiction about which I tend to think the most is smoking. Sure, there are people who only smoke when they want to smoke. These are smokers who can control their desire for nicotine. But that’s not so typical of most smokers. There’s probably a lot to be said about “addiction-prone personalities,” especially from a psychologist’s perspective. But I’m thinking about these issues from a social perspective which may or may not relate to psychological issues.
The thing about smoking is that it’s often “justified” by those who do it. There’s a social discourse on smoking which often seems to have more to do with advertising than with people’s genuine feelings. The reason smokers feel the need to “justify” their habits and behaviours is clearly social. Partly because one person’s smoke impinges on the freedom of non-smokers, there’s a broad conversation about reasons to smoke or not to smoke. There’s also a lot of talk about the meaning of “tolerance.” As I have a difficult time “tolerating” smoke for physiological reasons yet always try to maintain a tolerant attitude to any behaviour, my perspective is quite specific. I do perceive most smokers as being dependant on nicotine and I do which they would stop smoking, for my own health. But I also respect their choices.
To go back to carboundness… I’m not really against it. And I don’t want to have a negative attitude toward those people I perceive as being “carbound.” I’m mostly trying to put forth my perspective as a “compulsive pedestrian.”
Obviously, this blog’s title is a joke. I don’t really have a “compulsion” to walk. Although…
I can readily admit that my pedestrian lifestyle is also restrictive. In my case, I specifically make choices related to the possibility to live happily as a pedestrian. I do cut myself off from a carcentric lifestyle. And the fact that I don’t drive does imply some constraints on a few things I like to do. In other words, though I tend to think that all of these choices I’m making are “free,” I can agree with someone (likely a sociologist) who’d say that these choices are (at least partly) “conditioned.”
As I’m preparing to teach sociology, I think about conditioning a fair deal. Contrary to most anthropologists, sociologists have this habit of arguing that freedom is an illusion, that individuals often have no choice in most matters, that social life is constraining, that there’s a strong cultural determinism involved in human behaviour. Maybe I’m internalizing this discourse in order to take my role as a sociology teacher. But I’m also an advocate of critical thinking and my course will even be focused on critical thought. So, as I’m thinking about freedom, diverse perspectives offer themselves and I choose to take them one at a time. Kind of like a “thought experiment” or like “playing devil’s advocate.”
It’s fairly easy to take a pro-car approach, especially when considering a mainstream North American lifestyle.
Of course, carless people like myself can be limited in what we can do, in a given social context. But that notion is already so mainstream as to be considered “common sense.” The association between cars and freedom is so strong, in North American popular culture, that it doesn’t seem like most people take the time to think about the reverse: freedom afforded pedestrians. My statement about carbound people was meant to be thought-provoking, if not provocative.
As with so many things, the ideal is a balance. In this case, the equilibrium point between carboundedness and exclusive pedestrianism would be to have easy access to a vehicle and still not let this access dominate our lives. There are even ads, these days, about a family owning a minivan or SUV and choosing not to use it. Though it sounds quite strange in an ad (“buy this expensive vehicle so you can refrain from using it”), it does relate to the concept of carfreedom about which I’ve been thinking. The car-owners in that ad are somehow carfree since their car isn’t a constraint on them. That’s making abstraction of such practical issues as the cost of driver’s insurance or the need for a place to leave the vehicle for significant periods of time. But, as abstractions go, this one seems fairly appropriate. At least, these are people who may perceive the World as not designed exclusively for cars.
As is usually the case when I blog, I still have many things to say. But they’ll have to wait for other occasions. Hopefully, I’ll get comments on this post in the meantime. Thoughtful comments are a very efficient method of thinking critically. I may sound forceful, at times, but I mostly want to think with diverse people about the implications of carfreedom.