I applaud Keith Helmuth’s thorough essay, "Ecological Integrity and Religious Faith" (FJ Aug. 2001), and offer this piece to put some flesh on Friend Helmuth’s theoretical bones. Here is the question: What are we called to do, to do differently, or to not do, because of our deep environmental concerns?
This question and I are old friends; it’s one I have felt and rubbed up against for many years. It involves many of our other corporate ideals, such as living simply, economic justice, integrity, and community building. My considerations have led me to real, even drastic changes in how I live my day-to-day life. Intending this article as a challenge, I offer this simple suggestion: We must stop relying on our cars as our primary transportation. To do otherwise is akin to generally espousing the end of slavery while we as individuals remain slaveholders.
Even as I write these words, I can hear a cacophony of dismissive responses; I hear them because I’ve said them myself over the years. I need my car for work.
I live too far from my friends and pleasures. I have no alternatives; I live in the country, everything is too far away. Or, I live in the city/suburbia, everything is too congested to travel without a car. Likewise, the alternatives are just as time consuming, dangerous, impractical, and costly. I could do this myself, but I have young children who make alternative transportation impractical. Ultimately, each and every one of these considerations has given way to the certainty that reduced reliance on my car
is the only faithful way for me to proceed.
Here’s a fine place to start. Find a local map or draw a rough draft of your local area. Using a compass (remember those from high school geometry?), draw a circle approximating a one-mile radius around your home. Draw another approximating a three-mile radius; another for five miles; and another for ten. Realize how often you travel in those near reaches of your home. Consider that most people walk at a rate of three miles per hour, and most people can easily bicycle at a rate of ten miles per hour.
National statistics show that more than a quarter of car trips in this country are to a distance of one mile or less; walking this distance would take 20 minutes or less. And nearly two-thirds of our daily car trips are to a distance of five miles or less, easily less than a 30-minute bicycle ride. Annually, a typical North American car will add close to five tons of carbon dioxide to our atmosphere. Every mile driven by car adds to that toll. Consider what could be saved by walking, bicycling, car pooling, or using public transit. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the use of cars tops the list of the most environmentally harmful activities in which individuals engage. Cars and light trucks are responsible for about 48 percent of toxic air pollution, 25 percent of greenhouse gases, and 22 percent of toxic water pollution. Keep these numbers in mind when you get behind the wheel of a car. Post them on your dashboard.
Let’s look at some of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to giving up our reliance on the internal combustion engine.
1. The alternatives take too much time or money. The place to start with this is to determine a realistic figure for how much time and money auto travel really requires. Count in your on-the-road travel time. Then calculate the amount of time you spend working to purchase, maintain, fuel up, park, and insure your vehicle on an annual basis, and reduce this to a per-day amount to be added to your daily commute time. If you want to add in the environmental costs that right now you don’t pay, although you incur them, add in the annual external costs of operating your vehicle (pollution, etc.) by calculating rural driving at 20 cents per mile, city/suburban non-rush-hour driving at 33 cents per mile, and city/suburban rush-hour driving at 59 cents per mile. When I looked at the big picture, my 45-minute bicycle commute was suddenly much shorter than my seeming 30-minute car ride.
If public transit alternatives are available, consider the time that can be saved by using the ride to catch up on your "to read" pile, or draft correspondence, and the like. All of the alternatives to driving, to the extent they free one’s attention from operating a vehicle, offer ample opportunity for contemplation.
2. Inadequate public transit. Before individual auto transit became the dominant mode of transportation, public transit was a fact of life in almost all communities in this country. That is certainly no longer the case. If you have no public transit in your area, advocate for some. Keep in mind that communities with no public transit are by definition out of bounds to the many people too destitute to own a car; and they help impoverish those of slightly higher economic means who pour a substantial portion of their incomes into keeping a car. Your advocacy for public transit is working toward more open, economically diverse and just communities. In the meantime, set up a ride-share program, formally or informally. Undoubtedly, others in your community who can’t drive would also benefit from your efforts.
Where I live, there is one bus that runs a limited route twice a day, late morning and mid-afternoon, of little use to those of us who work more than three hours a day. Once I got it into my head that I couldn’t rely solely on public transit, I nonetheless found it plays a role in my ability to get around sans car. All of our buses are equipped with easy-to-use bicycle racks. Thus, I can bike to the office early, and take the bus home mid-afternoon. And when I have longer distances to travel, I can ride my bicycle to one of the areas well served by more frequent buses, and thus significantly extend my car-free travel.
3. I have children. Ah, children. Daycare, diaper bags, and doctors. When our children were very young, and travel meant toting them and a 50-pound diaper bag, I could never see a way around using a car. But then they got older, and we moved on to dance classes, music lessons, school plays, basketball games, track meets, proms, and college visits. Who can say "no" to well-rounded, educated, talented children? There can be a lot of miles tied up in our children. But this isn’t inevitable. As children get older, we do have more choices.
When our first child was a newborn, I came across the notion that parents use "creative deprivation" in raising their children. The idea appealed to me, having myself been raised in a small, isolated town surrounded by a large extended family. Although I never had much to do, my childhood was rich with relationships and direct contact with nature, contact that I’d never have sought out if I hadn’t been "bored, there’s nothing to do." With my own family, my husband and I chose to live in a place where our children could walk to school, walk to their friends’ houses, walk to their music lessons, walk to the library. Now that they’re older, they bicycle, too. When they wanted to take on an activity that would have required considerable driving, we talked about whether it was worth it, and frequently decided that it wasn’t.
Our children will not be hurt if they are treated as if they are not the center of the universe. I think we should spend time with our children, create with them, cook with them, play basketball and bicycle with them. But drive them for hours each week from one activity to the next? No way. It’s been easy for us to say no to them because we willingly set those same limits on ourselves. And frequently there is a positive opportunity in saying no to car travel. We’re not going to do that far-flung orchestra, but who would you like to play with right here in town? We won’t drive to the Jersey shore, but how about a week-long family bicycle trip to the ocean? Limiting car travel with our children means that they probably will miss some wonderful activities and opportunities; but it can also help them gain the confidence and skills to find and add to the unlimited richness in the
local and near at hand.
4. I need my car for work. Many of us use a car not only to get to our workplaces, but also to do our work. I fit in this category, though I have made substantial changes over the years in the kinds of work I do to lessen my need for during-the-day car travel. One way to deal with needing your car during the day is to leave your vehicle at your place of work, and focus on finding alternate means for your travel to and from your workplace. On days when car travel is inevitable, be as efficient as possible. When I need to drive for work, I almost always use my vehicle for errands more easily done by car: a bi-monthly dry goods trip, stocking up on office supplies, a trip to the recycling center, or the like. Having to drive also gives us the opportunity to offer rides to others whenever possible.
5. Riding a bicycle is impractical and too dangerous. Because of the limited public transit where I live, bicycling is a cornerstone of my and my family’s sustainable transportation. Admittedly, this is not an option for those in poor health or with certain physical limitations. However, bicycling is an option for everyone else, and is quite practical and safe, once you’ve put the time and effort into learning how to ride safely. You can also learn to equip yourself so that your travel is most efficient for your purpose.
Let me use myself as an example of the practicality of bicycling. I live in an area of the country that is hilly and sees considerable seasonal temperature variation and wet conditions. I work in a profession that often requires me to dress in suits, sometimes to work long hours, and frequently to carry a briefcase and case files between home and office. I have a husband, children, a house, and a full religious, civic, and social existence. And yet I use my car infrequently, a few times each month. I notice that to many people who learn that I travel by bicycle, I might as well have three heads. These are the questions I am asked most frequently: Aren’t you afraid of getting run over? (No, I follow well-researched safety guidelines for riding in traffic, and I’ve been riding for many years without injury.) What if your tire goes flat? (I’ll fix it; it takes about five minutes and is much easier than changing a car tire.) What if it rains or snows? (I’ll get wet, but I usually carry a rain jacket if the weather threatens to rain.) What if you’re not home yet when it gets dark? (I’ll turn on my lights, front and rear, so I can see and be seen.)
With the benefits of modern bicycle design, a person doesn’t need to be in great shape to start bicycling, though riding frequently will undoubtedly aid one’s health. If you find yourself huffing and puffing, put the bicycle into a lower gear and peddle slowly. You will become more efficient with greater practice.
As for getting the riding skills you need, pay attention to this. You didn’t go out and operate a car on the roads without learning how to do so first. The same is true for bicycling. Contact the League of American Bicyclists ((202) 822-1333 or) and get a reference to the nearest league-certified instructor of the safe cycling course. Take the course. Join in, or if it doesn’t already exist, start your region’s Bike to Work program. Find cyclists who look like they know what they’re doing and ask questions.
One final point about bicycling: it is fun. Years ago, when I was still car-bound, the few times I saw a bicyclist out in wet winter weather, I thought, "That person must be miserable." Now, even on the darkest and wettest of winter mornings, I am on my bicycle and I can assure you, I’m not miserable. I warm up a lot more quickly than I ever did in my car, and any immediate physical discomfort is an acceptable tradeoff for the contentment I find in knowing that this effort is just what it takes for moving myself across the face of the Earth. I’m usually quite pleased to be out and about under my own steam, so to speak.
Steps We Can Take
Dealing with our car dependency is not an issue of all or nothing. Any step we take to lessen our use of cars is a positive one, and as long as we continue to think, one positive step will probably lead to another. Set a goal of replacing one car trip a week with walking or bicycling; then move to two and three, on to where your good sense tells you to stop. In addition to lessening your own individual reliance on your car, consider the following few ideas and how you might put them to use in your communities:
Meeting miles: Make an estimate of the total number of miles driven by car by your entire meeting community when you meet together at your regular site, and publicize this in your newsletter. Be conscious of the "meeting miles" cost in how often, where, and for what purposes you meet as a meeting. You may want to hold all committee meetings on First Day, when most of you are already gathered, or on a common night, to facilitate ride-sharing. Perhaps you can group social with work meetings. Or meet in more geographically proximate groups to promote walking.
Tax thyself: Sponsor a program where participants sign on to pay a set tax for every car mile driven, then use the funds to: donate to your local pedestrian/bicycling advocacy group, or start such a group; donate to an environmental group; start a ride-sharing or even a car-sharing program in your community. In my experience, Quakers are both frugal (I, Queen of Cheap, consider this a compliment) and generous. This activity takes advantage of both of those characteristics. The frugal in us will make us drive less; the generous will rightly feel good about supporting actions towards reduced car usage.
Peter’s Pledge: About a year ago, a particularly thoughtful ten-year-old in our meeting, Peter, got up and announced that we should have a "car fast" and he immediately passed around a sign-up sheet. Since then our meeting has refined the idea to a personal pledge to walk or bicycle or use other non-car means for all travel up to a certain mileage. We printed up certificates and handed them out, with a return tab to be sent to our local alternative transportation advocacy group. While this may seem insignificant, it’s not when you consider that nearly two-thirds of all car trips are to a destination of five miles or less, and that cars are most polluting in the first few miles of travel, before the engines are warmed to peak performance. Feel free to make up your own pledge sheets, or to contact me (email@example.com) for copies of Peter’s Pledge.
As Keith Helmuth’s article set forth, there is a dreadful and inevitable cost to wrong living. Yet there is also ample reward in better living. By sharing rides, we get to know our neighbors and friends more intimately. By not relying on our cars, we will naturally begin to move against the isolating development patterns of modern life. By walking and riding bicycles, we get to appreciate nature evident in the nooks and crannies of even the most urban settings. All in all, moving away from reliance on our cars returns us to a pace and sensitivity that is wholly in line with our Quaker values.