People need people.
We need the smiles, the glances, the ebb and flow of daily relationships. They nurture our souls, touch our emotions, and feed the sense that we are human.
For all of the many million years that we have been humans, we have lived together as a clan, tribe or community, living in caves, huts or villages. We walked everywhere. We saw other villagers every day, and were immersed in the relationships that villages create, for better or worse.
One day, we may wake up and realize that throughout the Years of Driving, we were breaking one of the fundamental principles of human existence: that people need people.
We will realize that the freedom the car gave us to live apart from our families, and to live without an immediate surrounding community, was slowly and steadily eroding the connections that are so vital to our emotional health.
When we are healthy, married, and flush with money, we may not notice it. We can drive downtown, go shopping, bump into a friend, and feel the better for it. Life is fine! All thanks to the car.
But if you are elderly, not so healthy or flush with money, or single, the loss of relationships begins to hurt. Where are all the neighbours? What happened to the village, that our ancestors took for granted?
When we lived in Oak Bay in the 1990s, we organized a street party for our neighbours. A retired lady who used to be a teacher told me she had seen a moving van across the road, and had gone out to greet her new neighbours. "Welcome to the neighbourhood!", she said. "That’s very kind of you," the neighbour replied, "but we’ve been living here for seven years, and we’re just moving out."
In the 1980s, when I lived in the small town of Totnes, in south Devon, England (population 10,000), the whole of the downtown was in effect a pedestrian experience. The urban density was high, and the streets were too narrow to get very far, so everyone walked. Being single and self-employed, I needed company, so every morning around 10:30 I would leave my townhouse and wander into town. Invariably, I would meet five or six people I knew, and stop into a café; it was a great place to live.
This is why the car-free experience in Europe’s cities has been so successful. This is why people love the Mediterranean ‘passeo’ (the daily walk-about), and street markets. It’s not about shopping. It’s about people: bumping into friends, and having time to chat.
We know that driving is having an alarming effect on the world’s climate. We know that our exposure to diesel and gasoline fumes is linked to increases in asthma, heart disease and cancer. We know that children who live close to a gas station have a four times greater risk of getting leukemia.
When you combine the grim realities of global climate change with the certainty that oil is about to become a very expensive scarce resource, as we pass the peak in the world’s oil supply, it becomes very clear that we must start planning for the world beyond oil, and beyond the motor car.
For sure, there will still be cars; small electric and biofuel hybrid vehicles that you can loan through the city car-share group. But for most city trips, let’s design our cities first and foremost for walking, then for cycling and transit (trams, trolleys, and LRT), and then for cars.
Let’s use this opportunity to plan our cities so that their primary function becomes once again a people place, not a glorified network of highways surrounded by houses, where humans scuttle around in fear of being hit.
Right now, we are still enjoying the opium fog of driving freedom, with onboard CDs, and we are in full denial about the costs. But really, we don’t know what we’re missing. When car-free cities truly arrive, we’ll say "But this is so great! Why didn’t we do it before?”
Guy Dauncey is author of "Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Climate Change” and President of the BC Sustainable Energy Association. Visit his website at: www.earthfuture.com