The Car

Pickle Me This has posted its picks for 2011: Canada Reads Independently, and this year I was asked to champion a book, not an easy thing to do as it turns out. How to choose? In the end, though I wanted to go with something newer or more obscure, I had to champion a writer who has been with me for many years (in my imagination, I mean), and who has deeply influenced my own writing–and whose work I return to perhaps even more often than L.M. Montgomery’s or Agatha Christie’s. (My taste is not highbrow). Interested in finding out more? Click here.

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In other news, I find myself obsessed with an accident that occurred in our neighbourhood, in which a twelve-year-old boy was struck by a vehicle while crossing the street (in the crosswalk). (He survived, but will have a long recovery). The boy was outside, on his own; not unlike I hope for my own children and other children of the neighbourhood to be able to be. And for all my primitive brain fears of losing a child to a stranger, my rational brain understands that the car is a much greater danger to them, outside, on their own.

My children have walked with me since they were very small, all over town; a fairly large proportion of our conversations, while walking, have related to how we are negotiating with traffic. Let’s just say I’ve had a lot of teachable moments while walking with my children. My conclusion is that our city is not a safe place to walk. Pedestrians can follow the rules of the road, but this will simply not guarantee their safety: they must use instinct and constant attention; a lot of ask to anyone, let alone of a child.

How many times have my children and I waited at a crosswalk, with the signal telling us that it is our right of way, while a driver, who wishes to turn right on a red light (her legal right, too), inches forward, head craning to look the other way: she will step on the gas and go if it’s all clear on her left and never look to see what’s before her: a child, a mom, a stroller, a cyclist. My kids have been taught to make eye contact with drivers before making the decision to cross the street. On their walks to school, they’ve waited for vehicles whose drivers are backing out of driveways without ever once checking behind for children walking on the sidewalk. An elderly woman waved to my daughter at a crosswalk, typically a sign that the car is waiting for the pedestrian to cross; fortunately, my daughter had only taken a step before the woman zoomed through the intersection. Apparently she was just saying Hello to the cute little child, as she hurried on her way. These are not isolated incidents; similar things happen every day. We might call them minor, but they are inches away from being major.

As pedestrians, of course we have to stay vigilant. But pedestrian vigilance is surely not the only or even the best answer to this problem, which seems to go much deeper, and speaks to the many sacrifices our culture has made on the altar of the car. Our cities are built not to move people, but to move cars.

The way we think about driving is mixed up, too. We consider driving to be a right; getting a driver’s licence is also a rite of passage. We forget that driving is actually a privilege and a responsibility.

To get inside a car is to enter a sealed bubble; it distances us from the world we’re driving through. How often am I hurrying to get somewhere, or late, or distracted by grumpy children behind me? Getting into the car does not make me a kinder, more aware, more empathetic person; it makes me quite the opposite. I become impatient. It’s the last place I want to be–in between, en route from somewhere to somewhere else, and not enjoying the journey. Inside the car is about the only place you’ll ever hear me swear (oh–though you might hear me swearing at cars when I am walking).

Yet I am very very appreciative of our vehicle. I use it primarily to ferry kids to activities that our family considers valuable: theatre school, music lessons, horseback riding. I’m not prepared, voluntarily, at this moment in time, to live entirely car-free. But I do want to try to live as car-free as possible. I want to remind myself, always, of the heavy responsibility that I bear as a driver: for lives both inside and outside of my vehicle. And I want to be able to walk safely in my city.

What are some next steps, as I consider how to bring about real changes? At the very least, a letter to the editor. But I also need to clarify my thoughts on the subject. Should I consider researching and writing about the car, about walkable cities, about how to get from where we are now to where we could be? How does change happen, especially change that feels enormous and structural? Any ideas?

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6 Comments

  1. I believe it is in Fredericton that the lights are set at intersections so that all cars stop when pedestrians are moving. I think this is one solution. The other is for the public to know there are hefty fines for not stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks. If you have driven on the east coast there really is a much better awareness of pedestrians…. could just be east coast friendliness!!!

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  2. One of the first things that I noticed when we moved from Vancouver to Edmonton, was how drivers here actually *stopped* for you at cross walks. It was very strange, coming from Vancouver, where the just don’t, unless you are in the middle of the crosswalk. I was hit once in Vancouver, exactly in a situation which you described. I was at a crosswalk. The driver was turning right, looking left for traffic, but not right for pedestrians. Luckily she had been stopped before hitting me, otherwise I would have been hurt. I yelled at her and walked away. I can still remember the look of horror on her face and that there was a baby in the back seat. I know at least three friends who have been hit in Vancouver.

    I thought it was a cultural thing, the difference between here and there, but then I learned that there are very hefty fines for not stopping at a cross walk ($425, if I remember correctly), and, more importantly, the police enforce this! Apparently there are laws in Vancouver, too, but it’s never enforced. Hitting drivers in the wallet makes a big difference.

    You ask about making a difference. Talk to your city councillors. See what can be done about fines, or if they would be willing to do a public campaign reminding drivers to pay attention. There is one going on right now in Edmonton that I like. Pedestrians have become complacent here, because the drivers have mostly been so good: http://www.edmonton.ca/transportation/cycling_walking/heads-up-campaign.aspx

    Read Jane Jacobs, too. She’s a big believer in walkable cities. Start small. See if the city can put up a sign where the accident happened, or something like that? I don’t know. You’re right, so much needs to be changed. I think baby steps is the way to go.

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  3. part of our future will entail more walking (once we truly commit to fewer GG emissions). Walkable cities are fabulous (I live in one) – but drivers in other places feel as though they have a right to the road (I find) and it is not in anyone’s interest to have this be the culture of driving. While the papers are always *full* of airplane disasters whenever there is one, the likelihood that any of us might be killed by a car is staggeringly greater (and is usually completely ignored by government & media). As usual this is a problem with many dimensions – but your children have been taught important vigilance. Cities that treat green people as friendlier to our environment (so, allow walkers their “due” – and cyclists too) need to be created in the cities that currently aim at those pedestrians from all directions.
    I think you’ll find this interesting. In post-war America GM, Standard Oil, and other companies formed a subsidiary (jointly-owned) that bought up and systematically destroyed nearly all urban light rail transit systems across the USA, (except SF’s) in a very few years (automobilization). Now China is consciously planning the same kind of innefficient, congestion-creating, smog-producing, pedestrian-harming, activity. Someone who might be interesting to look at is Stanly Fischler in a book on mass transit. This is a serious, enormous and very structural problem. Many lines of attack are necessary.
    S

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  4. A number of cities have banned cars in the city core. I always love when King Street in Waterloo gets closed to vehicles and people take over the streets. Same experience when Yonge Street was closed for Nuit Blanche.

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  5. Carl Honore’s book IN Praise of SLow(ness) has a chapter on Slow Transportation.

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  6. Nothing brings out my inner potty-mouth like being a walker/biker in KW….talk about pedestrian rage! I am so sorry to hear about this young boy’s experience, and sadly, I’m also not surprised. It’s ridiculous how many drivers don’t even look when they travel through an intersection or crosswalk. I have, numerous times, had to rush out of the way, or step back onto the curb with my young daughter in tow.

    I’ve started making eye contact with drivers before crossing (as you have also suggested, Carrie), and I often stick my arm out in a bold “stop” gesture (rather than other tempting gestures) when I see a car nudging their way into an intersection. And while I can try to teach my daughter to be extremely vigilant, I have also come to a place of wanting more systemic changes.

    I agree, when I travel in my car, time and distance feel different, even as a frequent walker/biker, this shift is almost instant when I sit down behind the wheel. So how can frequent drivers learn to adjust their perspective, or is more a matter of intelligent lights, well-enforced laws, and thoughtfully designed cities, as suggested in earlier comments?

    I will be curious what this issue precipitates for you, Carrie, and perhaps I will also explore some actions of my own. Thanks for bringing it forth.

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