All photos by James D. Schwartz / The Urban Country
In 2006 there were around 250 million automobiles in the United States. That is an average of about one car for every 1.2 people. Worldwide there were 590 million cars in 2002, or an average of about 1 car for every 10 people. As the economies in heavily populated countries such as India and China grow, that number will continue to increase.
Cars are simply not a sustainable method of transportation for a world with close to 7 billion people. Cars create pollution, consume vast amounts of the earth’s resources to build and operate, take up enormous (and valuable) space, and they encourage unsustainable suburban lifestyles where people travel hundreds of kilometres to work.
But cars aren’t going anywhere – they are here to stay.
The solution isn’t to eliminate cars completely – they will always have a purpose. The solution is to minimize car usage by providing alternate means of transportation that is so appealing that people can’t resist.
Many people in car-centric North America think that electrifying automobiles is the solution – but this is only a small first step and fails as a sustainable option until we eliminate coal-burning and nuclear power plants – and instead produce energy from 100% renewable sources. Not to mention there simply isn’t enough space to support everyone in the world owning a car.
For over 7 years now I have been trialing other methods of transportation as an alternative to the automobile. I’ve tried motorcycling, rollerblading, commuter trains, public transit, walking, and cycling.
Yamaha XT 225cc circa 2004
Public transit is a great way to provide an alternative to cars, but transit requires massive up-front investment and huge operating costs and an extensive amount of electricity to operate.
In Toronto, only 60% of total public transit operating costs are paid for by rider fares and in the United States it’s around 40%. That doesn’t even include the billions of dollars of capital investment that state/provincial and federal governments pay on behalf of taxpayers to build the infrastructure to support public transit. In other words, it’s not cheap.
Although it’s expensive, public transit is still extremely important. But it would be wiser to invest some of that money in infrastructure that supports the second most sustainable method of commuting (next to walking): the bicycle.
Just ask anyone in Amsterdam or Copenhagen what the best way to get around is, and they will tell you it’s cycling. It’s healthy, it’s cheap, it’s fun and it’s sustainable.
Many cycling opponents in Toronto refer to the winter climate as the primary deterrent to cycling, but Copenhagen isn’t much warmer. In December Toronto’s average low is –4C while Copenhagen is 0C. Toronto’s coldest month of January has an average low of –7.3C compared to Copenhagen’s –1C.
Furthermore, Montreal is one of Canada’s best cycling cities and they experience an average low of –10.4C, and –14.7C in December and January respectively. Cycling in sub-zero temperatures is not as uncomfortable as one might think (snowstorms aside). The pedaling helps to warm you up, and the constant action keeps you distracted from thinking about the cold.
For the last few years I was primarily riding my racing bicycle and my fiancé Han’s vintage commuter bicycle. Neither of these bicycles provided me a great deal of comfort or convenience in the city, so I often opted to walk instead of cycling.
Recently I purchased a second-hand Trek hybrid commuter bicycle ($180) that has afforded me both comfort and convenience for cycling around the city.
Last weekend I outfitted my bike with a rear basket ($35) and a second-hand kid’s chariot ($100) to tow heavier loads.
On Wednesday morning I traveled to my ice hockey game on my bike, with my hockey stick and full equipment in tow.
On the weekend I took my Jack Russell Terrier on a bicycle trail to a far away park, something that was previously inconvenient – often resulting in leaving my dog at home.
The purpose of all this is not only to keep active, stay healthy and reduce my impact on the environment – but to demonstrate that we can live comfortable lifestyles while reducing our impact on the environment.
My goal is to encourage people to consider this alternative method of transportation, and to permanently bury the stigma that is often attached to cycling that it’s for people who can’t afford a car – or that it’s too cold, or it’s too dangerous.
These fabricated myths only create more barriers to enter this form of healthy and sustainable living.
James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country and appears on most Sundays and Thursdays, and sometimes in between. View all of James’ articles here.
Jim I have a comment on this statement: “Many people in car-centric North America think that electrifying automobiles is the solution – but this is only a small first step and fails as a sustainable option until we eliminate coal-burning and nuclear power plants “
I think it’s a mistake to equate nuclear plants with coal plants in terms of sustainability. Fission-based technology is currently the only feasible candidate for scaling to the point that it can meet all needs currently met by fossil fuels.
As you concede – cars are here to stay – so electric/hybrid solutions are a huge part of the solution. If that means more nuclear plants displace more fossil fuel plants – this can only be ‘A Good Thing’
Kam, thanks for the comment. I was tempted to expand more on that point, but in the interest of keeping the article brief, I didn’t get into the details.
I agree there is a substantial difference between nuclear energy and fossil fuels, but I stand by my conviction that neither are truly sustainable in the long-term.
I believe that wind, solar, tide, geothermal and other renewable sources of energy are feasible (and truly sustainable) candidates for replacing fission-based technology and the burning of fossil fuels.
It’s a simple matter of cost, logistics and reduction of our overall consumption.
I also agree with you that moving from burning fossil fuels to consuming electricity generated by fission-based technology is a positive step, but it’s still not a truly sustainable option.
It’s true that I am aiming high, and it’s true that we are taking steps in the right direction. But hopefully before I leave this world we will be a lot closer to true sustainability than we are now.
And when the day comes that we are done with burning fossil fuels, I will still be here writing articles that target nuclear energy (assuming I live long enough to see this happen).
By the way Kam, have you seen this world map that describes how much surface area would be required to power the world using solar energy?
I think we both know I’m with you on the notion of stopping reliance on fossil fuels. But that too is simple – if we don’t stop ourselves, we’ll have to stop any way when they run out. But it’ll be easier for us to figure out how to get along without them before we’re forced to make do.
You said, “It’s a simple matter of cost, logistics and reduction of our overall consumption.”
But cost, logistics and reduction are not simple matters. They are very complex, and relate to and affect each other, and a multitude of other factors, in non-linear ways. And we should recognise them as such if we really want to understand the sheer size of the problem.