For many teens, “Independence Day” means the day they get their drivers license and can drive anywhere they want without mom or dad tagging along. A drivers license is seen as the key to freedom, to self determination, and to fun. And yet the irony is that though the car does give freedom of movement, it also brings financial, environmental, and social burdens. Each of these can become their own ball and chain that not only clip the wings of freedom, but for some people these burdens create dependencies that are anything but freeing.
The easiest of these obligations to grasp is the financial weight that comes with owning a vehicle. According to AAA, the average cost for owning a car in 2016 is $8,558 a year. That includes the price of gas, insurance, maintenance, license/registration/taxes, finance charges, the cost of tires, and the depreciation of the vehicle. This number does not include the amount you pay in sales tax each year that goes towards maintaining our Fort Collins streets. Nor does it include the costs associated with car crashes, polluted air (leading to asthma and other illnesses), or parking expenses (whether you pay them directly or through tax subsidies).
Environmental damage caused by our vehicles is cumulative, meaning that the negative effects build up over time. So driving “just this once” isn’t a problem. A brown cloud doesn’t settle over the city because one person drove their car to work. But it does settle over the city when many, many of us drive to work. This damage that we do as a community effects our quality of life. According to a report that came out this past February, air pollution kills 5.5 million people every year worldwide. And a significant contributor of air pollution is transportation — planes, trains, and automobiles.
But there are other environmental impacts to consider as well. There’s the pollution generated from the creation of the car, using the car (think about the parts that get replaced over the lifetime of the vehicle), and eventually the disposal of the car. There’s also the pollution caused by building and maintaining roads. There’s the natural resources that are mined in order to build the cars, roads, and bridges and the additional environmental problems caused by that mining.
Our freedom to drive a vehicle comes at a cost to the land, the air, and the water that suffer as a result. And those ills often boomerang back on to us in some form, whether its just the loss of a beautiful view due to mining, troubled sleep due to highway noises, or sicknesses caused by the pollutants we’ve created.
Our freedom to drive a car affects our society in ways that we might not realize are connected. One problem that’s particularly poignant in Fort Collins right now is the lack of affordable housing. We have miles and miles of free parking for cars, but many people are moving to Wellington, Loveland, and Windsor because they can’t afford to rent or buy a house here. In other words, real estate is cheap for cars since it is heavily subsidized by the local government or by us in the form of higher costs at the checkout counter (costs that were passed on to the retailer from the developer who was required to build a certain number of parking spaces due to zoning requirements).
And if a person’s job is in Fort Collins but they’re living somewhere else, then their commute is longer. Not only have they lost the freedom to live where they want, but they’ve lost the freedom of having spare time to hang out with friends and family or enjoy a hobby. Transportation expenses increase. Aggravation and stress increase. Deaths and injury increase. (An estimated 35,200 people died in the United States in 2015 due to vehicle crashes.) That’s not freedom. That’s bondage to the car.
This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how our car culture imprisons, rather than frees, us. But I believe there’s a solution. There’s a place for cars. They’re a wonderful tool that really can enable us to do things that we couldn’t do easily otherwise. But there’s also a tipping point where the number of lives lost to crashes, the number of hours lost to being stuck in traffic, and the miles of earth paved over to provide parking all start to form a prison of our own making.
It’s time to call for a new kind of independence. Rather than being so fully dependent on only one type of transportation, we need to start building alternative systems for the movement of people — improving walking, bicycling and transit options. And we need to start using the alternatives that we already have in place.
We’re smart people. We can do better than this. Let’s build a city with transportation options that will give us greater freedom — a freedom that doesn’t do more harm than good. Let’s break our bonds of dependence to the automobile. Even just leaving the car at home a little more often would go a long way towards reducing congestion, pollution, injuries and fatalities. Now that would be something to celebrate.