Car-free or car-light? A common sense approach to transportation
Most Dutch people own cars. And they bike, too.
I’m reading an incredible book called Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality. It’s about a Canadian family — the Bruntletts — who decided to start driving less. Every time they had a trip of just a couple miles, they biked. After a while, the Bruntletts realized that they enjoy walking and biking so much that they may as well get rid of their car.
As a person who calls herself “car-free”, one thing that struck me is that the Bruntletts don’t consider themselves car-free. They call their approach common sense.
Why do the Dutch ride bikes when they could drive?
The Bruntletts dropped the label “car-free” after a visit to the Netherlands — the bike riding mecca of the west and the only country in the world where there are more bikes than people.
As Americans, we like to imagine that Dutch people simply can’t afford cars because of high taxes, and perhaps that’s why so many people ride their bikes.
This is simply not the case. 70% of Dutch households have cars. Hence, most Dutch people have cars and most Dutch people ride bikes. Riders there (read: almost everyone) are regular people: grandparents, pregnant women, children ages 5 and up. They don’t ride fancy bikes or wear any special clothes. They just use common sense: A quick drive to the store to pick up milk doesn’t require a 2-ton motorized wheelchair — unless you are planning to buy 650 pounds’ worth of milk. (A small sedan like a Honda Accord is designed to carry 850 pounds.)
Why did the Netherlands build bike paths while the US pursued automobile-centered streets?
The short answer is, they didn’t. After the second world war, the Netherlands was as eager to “modernize” as the rest of the world. Bombed out cities like Rotterdam were rebuilt with cars at the forefront.
But during the 1960’s, a movement arose as more and more children were killed playing in the streets by cars. Women led the charge, as thousands had lost children to the millions of automobiles taking over their city streets. In 1971 alone, 450 Dutch children were run down by cars.
Journalist Vic Langenhoff wrote an article entitled Stop de Kindermoord (Stop the Child Murder) after his own child was killed in a road accident. Stop de Kindermoord became the name of the burgeoning movement.
The idea was to make the streets safer by increasing space for cyclists and pedestrians (children, for example). It would leave room for cars while at the same time changing the highest priority to safer modes of transportation.
Meanwhile in the United States, cars inflicted similar carnage on children. In the same year that the Netherlands reported 3,000 deaths (1971), the United States had 53,907 car fatalities. We’ve normalized this in our minds. In fact, we consider children’s traffic deaths commonplace now.
But it wasn’t always this way. When cars became commonplace in the 1920s, we were shocked — just like the Dutch. Children were used to playing in their streets — there were no playgrounds at that time — yet suddenly they found themselves in a world where one moment of forgetfulness resulted in death. In the 1920’s, 60% of automobile fatalities were children under the age of 9.
But the outrage didn’t move the needle on car adoption.
(Sadly enough, although car accidents remain the leading cause of death for teenagers (1 in 3 deaths), the National Institute of Health’s so-called solution isn’t “drive less.” It is more policing and more posters. ARE WE SERIOUS WITH THIS.)
United States today: How to determine a “common sense” marker
More than a quarter of all trips in the United States are 1 mile or less, a 5-minute bike ride. In fact, more than half of all trips taken in the US are 4 miles or less.
Part of the mindset that makes biking work well is whether people are willing to live close to their jobs. Most Americans claim that living near work is too expensive. They opt for the picket-fence suburban lifestyle with the long commute. In fact, as of 2017, the average American spends 52 minutes getting to and from work each day.
I used to agree, but after some simple arithmetic, I realized that most Americans don’t realize how expensive the commuter lifestyle really is. Living in town is almost always cheaper:
The average cost of car ownership is $9k per year assuming 15,000 miles driven per year. To see how much you can save, spread this over… 10 years? 30 years? :money: That means that for every car you shed, you gain at least $100k in equity to put toward other expenses such as housing.
Wherein I reluctantly buy a car. Sort of.
After 9 years of considering myself car-free, I realized that walking and biking doesn’t make sense all the time, especially in a country designed so intentionally to discourage biking and walking in favor of the almighty car. Even though I’m centrally located, sometimes I need to drive an hour to a more rural area with no bus service. Sometimes I need to haul a piece of furniture home from the thrift store.
Last month, I reluctantly caved and got a car. Technically, I don’t own it and it’s not parked at my house. But through car2go car share (similar to zipcar), I can walk 2 blocks and get into my car whenever I want. I can take it wherever I want for however long I want.
car2go costs nothing per month if I don’t use it: no insurance, no parking space fees, no depreciation. No oil changes. No inspections. So far, I’ve paid only the $25 application fee.
I keep thinking I’ll use my car2go car at some point, as soon as it makes sense. Granted, it hasn’t made sense since I moved here 8 months ago, but who knows. Its time will come.
Life on two wheels: Common sense meets pleasure
In my last city (Brooklyn) and my new hometown of Boulder, Colorado, both consistently rated in the Top 10 US Biking Cities, I’ve been surprised by how often I’m the only rider out.
Most of my trips here (work, doctor’s office, errands around town) are 1–3 miles and make most sense on a bike. I rarely carry much. The most I ever haul is on my weekly grocery run — half a mile with some milk, beans, and produce. To drive the same errand, I’d have to fire up a gas-powered vehicle built to carry 5 adult people.
As I pedal down the path, cars whiz past me, rushing toward their next destination in record time. Everyone else is moving faster than I am, yet I feel like the luckiest person int he world.
This week flying home from Sprouts grocery, I rode under the fall maples in my neighborhood. The trees’ branches reached over the street, creating a series of arches above me while carpeting the road in gold.
On my way home from Trader Joe’s on Thursday, I watched the sun setting crimson over the Rockies.
Walking home from Goodwill, I watched downy ducklings bobbing through the eddies of Boulder Creek.
In the dim evening light, is just me, a few squirrels, and the skipping hum of the bike.
Ginna writes about frugal living and life on two wheels at the Frugal Kite blog, www.frugalkite.com.