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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Summer 2008 > Conversation

Conversation

Katie Alvord

We’re infatuated with our cars. And why shouldn’t we be? After all, we spend so much time in our automobiles that it’s only natural to have feelings of intimacy toward these machines: Thirty percent of US drivers say their cars have a “personality.” Like any relationship, breaking out of this one won’t be easy. In her book, Divorce Your Car!: Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile, writer-activist Katie Alvord takes a critical look at our relationship with automobiles and offers some practical advice for reducing our auto dependence. A freelance journalist who has written for E and Sierra, Alvord is also a co-founder of the organization Wildlands CPR, which advocates road removal on public wildlands as a means of ecosystem restoration.

photo of a woman's face

A number of years ago you made a decision to “divorce your car.” What prompted you to do that?

I never liked what driving did to the landscape or to people, and I really didn’t like participating in what I saw going on as a result of driving — like the destruction of habitat, the pollution, and the noise. Actually, that was one of the biggest degraders to my own quality of life: I hated traffic noise. Growing up in California, there was a lot of traffic noise, and it just expanded, constantly.

I always had a latent desire to not drive, but growing up in the suburbs, I never really even considered that it was possible. Then, as an adult, I met some people who were living car-free by choice, and they were not only making it work, they were having fun with it. So that really opened my eyes. And then when I went on the trial separation from my car that I talk about in Divorce Your Car, I was surprised and delighted to find that it was really a lot easier than I thought it would be, and had some great benefits as well.

What were some of those benefits?

I lost weight without even trying, because instead of driving I was walking, I was bicycling. At the time, I was living in a rural area. I was working at home, and that was one good thing, because I didn’t have to commute to a job. But when I wanted to go grocery shopping or do certain errands or socialize, it was anything from 12 to 17 miles away. I used my bicycle quite a bit, and there were a few buses with bike racks, so I used a combination of bicycles and buses to get around. I was getting so much exercise in the course of traveling through the day, it kept me fit. I could eat whatever I wanted to without caring about it. My stress level dropped. Just all sorts of health benefits.

I also saved money — that’s a big one. If you don’t drive, your expenses go down, especially if you don’t drive to the extent that you get rid of the car, because the ownership costs of the car are pretty significant, and most of us don’t really pay attention to that. When I realized I wasn’t driving enough to justify the expense of insurance and registration, I sold my car. Then I really saved big bucks.

What were some of the things that were difficult about giving up your car?

Well, our communities are built so much for cars, are built around cars, that there were times when I really felt I was a second-class citizen. That kind of thing really depends on your location. In places like Paris or New York, it’s an advantage to live car-free, because those cities are built on more of a human scale and they have fantastic transit. But in so many areas of North America, the assumption is that everyone has a car, so you do end up feeling like a second-class citizen. And the biggest challenge is all of the cars out there — because that’s what is making the infrastructure unsafe or inconvenient for walkers or cyclists or people who take transit.

Did it affect your social life?

Actually, that’s a good point. It did. If I had wanted to socialize more, I could have found more ways to do it. I have found shared rides to social events — that’s been great when I’ve been car-free. And I have biked at night; I have a light for my bike and reflective clothing and all that, so there are definitely ways to do it. But there are still times when I’ve felt it’s just too hard to go out at night. I don’t feel that safe. It’s easier for a car to make a mistake and hit you at night. So there were definitely times when I chose to not go to things because I didn’t use a car.

But I also have found that there’s a flip side to that, because I used to go to a lot of things just because I could. It’s easier to run around and do things that maybe aren’t that high on your priority list because it’s possible in a car. What I’ve found is that I’ve been able to slow down and simplify my life and just do the things that are important to me, rather than running around to a whole bunch of activities all the time.

You talk about how not having a car makes it challenging to lead the lifestyle we’re accustomed to. At the same time, you’ve written that our auto-centric lifestyle has led to a loss of community. What do you mean?

When we’re in cars, we really don’t have contact with each other. We go from being inside a house, to being inside a garage, to being inside the four walls of the car, to going to the workplace, and being inside a building there, only in contact with your co-workers. We just don’t have the opportunity to have those serendipitous contacts with other members of the community that we have when we’re walking down the sidewalk or on a bicycle, when there’s just open air between you and the next person.

Having cars on a public streetscape also cuts down on the feasibility of community contact on a city street. There’s a study done long ago by Donald Appleyard that looked at how much contact people have building to building, and how much more interaction occurs on less trafficked streets versus very busy streets. And he found that the more traffic there is on a street, the less neighbors will go house to house or apartment to apartment to interact with each other. When you’re not having that interaction, you’re not having that sense of community.

Our auto-dependence isn’t just an ecological or environmental challenge, it’s also a social issue.

Oh, definitely. By requiring people to own a car to use the transportation infrastructure, we’ve really disadvantaged people who are poor. The folks who don’t have a car not by choice are often marginalized, because they can’t get to jobs, and therefore they can’t pull themselves out of the poverty they’re in. We just really don’t make enough allowances for people in all economic brackets.

If all of these things are true, then why don’t people drive less?

Well, in the early 20th century, we started seeing cars as a problem-solving technology. It started with people realizing there was a big problem with manure on city streets from horses. Cars would solve that problem, and they definitely did. And people started imagining that cars would solve a lot more problems than that, and that led to society seeing cars as a public good. So government, little by little and then in some bigger ways, started subsidizing cars, and subsidizing the infrastructure for cars. This public policy, this subsidization of cars, has gone on long enough that now our communities are built around them. When you walk outside looking for how to get around, you see this environment built for cars. What are you going to do? You might see a sidewalk, but it’s usually next to this noisy, unpleasant roadway. Are you going to walk or go to the parking lot and get in a car and drive?

That’s one of the things that pushes us to drive more than we might otherwise — all of the government funding that’s gone into building roads and parking lots, instead of more trains and transit stations, bike paths, walking facilities.

Another thing that really influences us is pricing. When we drive, we don’t pay the full price of driving per mile. That’s because we pay more of the costs of driving up front, in the ownership costs. You pay a lump sum to buy a car, and then what we pay for gas — even though that’s going up — is a small percentage of the overall costs of the car. It’s to our economic advantage to drive more miles to get our money’s worth.

I also think that advertising plays a role in this, because we get all of these messages that tell us that driving is sexy, that we need a car to improve our lives. I think we are vulnerable to that. Human psychology is something that marketers understand, and they get in our brains, and that also pushes us to drive more.

You say that our auto culture is a government-subsidized decision. What would be some policies that would take us in another direction, to be less auto-centric?

One would be to change the way we approach infrastructure, and kind of level the playing field, tipping the balance of public spending so we invest more in transit instead of sinking more money into new roads. Cut the road subsidies, and also change the pricing, so more costs are paid per mile driven.

One of the things I like is the idea of reallocating pavement. We’ve built so many roads, and that’s a resource that we have out there — all of that flat asphalt. It’s a good resource to use, for example, for bicycling. One of the things I’ve seen in a few locations is something they call a “road diet.” When you put a road on a diet, you actually reduce the number of lanes for car traffic and reallocate some of that pavement for other uses. One I know of in Michigan was a four-lane road that they narrowed to three lanes for vehicles — two traffic lanes and one center turn lane — and used the extra space for bike lanes on each side, and it really made a big difference in how pleasant the roadway was. It accommodated bicycles, made it nicer for pedestrians, and still accommodated the same amount of vehicle traffic. That’s the kind of thing we could do a lot of.

Another strategy that I think is a good one is “Safe Routes for Schools,” which promotes walking and bicycling for kids using a combination of re-engineering routes so that they’re safer, educating kids so they know how to be safe, and putting more enforcement out there to make sure they’re safe. What they’ve seen in some areas is a significant increase in kids walking and bicycling to school. I was just in Washington State talking about this, and the state coordinator there said they’ve seen a 20 to 30 percent increase in kids walking and bicycling to school after they’ve put some of the programs in place. And they’ve also seen a kind of a ripple effect, where once kids start walking and bicycling to school, then the rest of the family will start walking and bicycling other places, because they just feel safer doing it.

But are those kids going to remain pedestrians and cyclists after they turn 16?

I hope so. There’s an interesting trend in Japan right now, where a lot of teenagers are not wanting to get right into driving cars. And it’s so much a trend there that carmakers in Japan are actually worrying about it. I don’t know everything there is to know about this particular trend, and it’s pretty recent, but it’s becoming less cool there to get a driver’s license and start driving right away.

I have hope about the growing consciousness among high school and college students about environmental problems, and all of the concern about climate change and the growing activism among young people. That has real potential to change the attitude about whether you go out and get a driver’s license first thing when you turn 16.

What do you say to folks who just love cars, love driving, love the grease and the power and the noise?

I actually just had an experience with that when I visited a college classroom to lead a discussion. I was talking with the class about the problems that cars cause — all the air pollution and the water pollution, oil spills, climate change, all the usual things you talk about. One woman raised her hand and said, “Okay, I know all that stuff is true, I know there are all of those problems. But I love my car. The model I have is really special to me.” We had a friendly back-and-forth about it, and finally I asked, “How much does it cost you?” And she said, “Well, it costs a lot, more than I can afford, actually.” I think that just so beautifully encapsulates the position we are in as a society. We base our travel on this technology that we really cannot afford — financially, environmentally, or in terms of our own health. I didn’t say anything more about that, because she had answered the question herself. So I’m just hoping that at some point she thinks about it and realizes, “This is more than I can afford” and acts on it.

photo of a woman riding a bicycle with a trailer, her shirt reads 'one less car'Courtesy Katie Alvord

She was sitting next to a guy who was in the auto industry, and he brought up a related question: “What about all the people with jobs in the auto industry and related industries? If everybody divorces their car, what happens to them?” I told him a really great business strategy for automotive companies would be to broaden their mission from being auto companies and auto repair shops to being transport companies and transport repair shops. You can transfer the skills that workers have in building cars to building buses and trains and light rail and bicycles, and to repairing those things, and selling parts for those things. That’s not the kind of change that happens overnight, but if we do think in those broader terms, and if the companies do, then a change could happen smoothly and gradually enough that it wouldn’t have to displace workers.

Can you imagine a United States that isn’t dependent on the automobile, and what would that look like?

The last chapter in Divorce Your Car is about that. I really had a good time writing that chapter. One thing that it looks like is it’s a lot greener — literally. Because if you’re not dependent on automobiles, then you’re using trains and transit for long-distance travel, and those things tend to generate more compact communities. You want to build your communities closer to the hub, to the station, then let people walk and bicycle from there. What I envision is more of a network, a rail-connected network, of more compact communities with a lot of green space in between. There would be more community interaction and more natural habitat.

And I don’t think that less car dependence means getting rid of cars altogether. I think car sharing, for example, could play an important role. I think we need a lot less private ownership of cars, and a lot more options for getting around.

   

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