For years I have heard that “You cannot live here without a car” any time the subject of bike and pedestrian infrastructure is discussed, including the concept that a road is in fact bike and pedestrian infrastructure, much to the typical drivers consternation. With “here” being a dynamic thing that generally applies to wherever the discussion is taking place, be it urban, suburban, rural, or no mans land. It is an idea that I as someone that believes in non-car infrastructure usually reject out of hand, but, is my objection really supportable?
In order to understand my objection, we really need to understand the reasons that support the idea that a car is necessary.
- Every place we need to go is too far away
- This is not Europe where everything is close
- We need to carry passengers
- There is no public transportation
- It would take too long without a car
- The weather makes it impractical
While there are many other reasons that get thrown out there, these are the core arguments that we hear used most often. Reading through that list, it seems to be reasonable right? but do they hold up to scrutiny? Before going point by point, let us take a moment to look at some hard data numbers that are relevant.
Arguably the easiest metric to evaluate is the commute time and distances that exist today. These distances and times represent what the average person has deemed acceptable, and as such would seem to offer a good reference point.
The United States on average accepts a 26 minute 36 second commute time, each direction. Dedicating nearly an hour a day to the process of getting to and from a job. Since much of my personal advocacy is in the state of Georgia where that number is 28 minutes 24 seconds, the evidence is that here, an even longer number is acceptable.
While the time is probably more relevant, the distance has some value as well. In the United States, the average commute distance is 16 miles each way. Interestingly, one of the common argument, about how things are more spread apart than Europe, where bike and pedestrian commuting is more widely accepted would lead you to expect shorter commute distances, and yet the average in Europe is 28.5 km, or 17.7 miles in Imperial measurement.
Going Other Places
But what about other important places, like a grocery store? According the the national association of grocers, the average distance to a grocery store is just 4 miles. Schools tend to vary by age group, but even at the high school level the national average trip is just over 6 miles. In fact, the average distance of all combined trips, like errands, meals, entertainment, et cetera is just 9.4 miles.
In theory, the biggest advantage to a car is that it can carry more than a single passenger, and yet 85% of the cars on the roads are single occupancy. That said, this statistic is a little skewed, because what it fails to account for are trips that have more than one occupant for part of a trip. However, these partial trips of multiple occupancy could be offset by non-car transportation, or public transportation if it was offered.
Sadly, yes, public transportation is severely limited in availability and coverage in the US. So much so that it currently accounts for about 5% of all commuting. To put that into perspective, the bicycle accounts for 6% of all commuting in the United States. This lack absolutely factors into the perception that a car is required.
Speeds are really where the differences start to show up. While a car is capable of much higher speeds than almost any alternative, the realities of traffic, and the start and stop nature of most of our trips, the real average speed is about 32 mph. Compared to that of an e-bike at 20 mph, or a casual bike at 12 mph, or walking at just 3 mph, the speed certainly does make it easy to think of a car as a requirement.
But is it a requirement?
This is the crux of the issue though. There is nothing in the above data that conclusively supports the car as a requirement. The data presents a case that no, a car is NOT a requirement. We accept a nearly 30 minute transit time. Meaning that for anything less than 6 miles, a bike is acceptable in terms of speed. We do not need to carry passengers 85% of the time, so the car is not needed for those trips. So, really, where is the need? why is it a requirement? The answer is: it is not a requirement.
This is the real answer, and this is completely supportable. A car is not a requirement, but it is a convenience. A car makes it easier to go places quickly, and easier to go places further away. Less planning is required, and of course, it removes many concerns about the weather conditions. But these things are all about convenience, and not about requirement.
As per almost any discussion, there are exceptions, outliers that change the equation. There are people for whom the alternatives are simply physically prohibitive. Be it walking or cycling, or even public transportation, there are simply some people that have enough physical challenges that these simply are not options. There also people who would benefit from getting out of the car and engaging alternatives, but who simply cannot consider it due to the fears implicit in the idea that roads are for cars, and that a car is a requirement to live here.
So yes, my objection is fully supportable, and arguably, for the vast majority of the population, the assertion that a car is a requirement really is not supportable from a data perspective. This does not mean that I think we should take away cars, or even restrict them. What it means is that we need to reassess how we as a culture view alternatives, and our infrastructure, and do away with the entire presumption that a car is a requirement, or that a car has a primary right of use to our roadways. We need to return the idea that our roads are pedestrians first, bikes and other lightweight, low speed vehicles second with motor vehicles a distant third in terms of right of way, and right of use.