Guest post by Ben Taylor.
The love Americans have for our automobiles may be a century-old cultural fixture, but it doesn’t mean that the way we design our public spaces—our streets and cities, the places we play and work—can’t have a significant effect on the degree to which we are willing to change.
It may not always seem like it, but the car as we know it is dying. And we along with it… at an alarming rate actually. In the last fifteen minutes one American was killed by a vehicle. In the 12.6 seconds you will take to read this paragraph, one will be injured. Traffic deaths in the U.S. amount to the equivalent of four airliner crashes every single week.
It’s tough to say what exactly, here in the 21st century, will upend the dominance the human-operated automobile has enjoyed for 100 years, but you can almost feel it coming. Will we soon all ride around kicked back in our own autonomous vehicles? Or will ride-shares replace privately owned vehicles altogether? Will the costs of burning fossil fuels catch up with us (the average American household generates 48.5 tons of carbon emissions per year), or will new transportation technologies replace our need for them in the first place? These are hard futures to predict, but none of them seems all too implausible.
Of course, this does not mean that the car isn’t at the center of the American transportation universe right now. Americans still own and use them at a rate significantly higher than the rest of our global neighbors, and most of us (myself, of course, included) depend on them daily. Our neighborhoods and public spaces are very much designed with the car in mind. If you disagree, ask a local cyclist and they will count the ways in which the car is king.
In his recent book, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes observes how our cars are “intrinsic to our culture…”
We associate them with personal freedom, and we incorporate them into all our big moments from the start of life to the end. We gaudily decorate our cars for the post-wedding cruise into married life. We drive our newborns home from the hospital in a flurry of photos and Facebook posts, and gift expectant mothers with car seats at their baby showers in preparation for that first ride. We go to work in them, we take our meals in them (19 percent of them nationwide by some estimates), we date and mate in them, we lavish them with polishes, waxes, personal decor, religious symbols, and political slogans, then show them off like prized Thoroughbreds. And at the end, we have built fleets of lustrous black cars for our last rides to the cemetery. (Door To Door, 2016, Harper Collins, p. 83)
It is thus no wonder that our deeply entrenched cultural fixation on cars would, perhaps even unintentionally, become a central determinant for how we create our physical spaces. Cities and neighborhoods which exist ultimately for the benefit of humans, might actually do more to serve machines. Humes elaborates:
America has organized its built landscapes around cars to enable their movement, their parking, their convenience, and our dependence on them. The country has enough parking spaces to cover every inch of Delaware and Rhode Island combined—as many as eight spaces for every car in the country, which adds up to about 30 percent of open space in the dense cores of our cities. (Ibid)
This is not even to mention the fact that we are perhaps far more accepting of the deadliness of automobiles. As Humes points out, in the 1920s there was a sustained public outcry against the rising trend of “motor killings” (a phrase, not coincidentally, we have replaced with the far more tame euphemism “accidents”). But car manufacturers and other related industries lobbied to shift the debate toward pedestrians, jaywalkers, and other “causes” of accidents… including, of course, bicycles. As such, many of our laws and spaces have been designed to protect cars and their operators far more than pedestrians and cyclists.
But what would a city look like if it were designed to be more anthropocentric, and less automo-centric? (Yes, that is a word I just made up and quite like, thank you very much.) What are the different ways that humans can imagine our urban spaces with our own flourishing, not to mention survival, in mind?
Bikes vs. Cars helps us do just that, in a case study of how several different cities have, with varying degrees of intentionality, shaped their spaces around bikes and/or cars. I won’t spoil it for you, but it probably isn’t hard to guess who wins most in the battle of bike versus car.
In the film, we visit the parking-lots-otherwise-known-as-freeways in Los Angeles, California. We learn that though it is a city infamous for car traffic, LA’s first highway wasn’t for 2-ton vehicles, but rather a wooden cycleway which, in the early 1900s, you could use to get to Pasadena by bike. In other moments, we enter the political battleground that is the downtown of Toronto, Canada, where a bizarre mayor paints a picture of cyclists as the enemy of drivers everywhere—“pains in the ass” even. We meet the two-wheeled activists of São Paulo, Brazil, who persist in advocating for better protections for bikes, even as their friends and fellow cyclists are killed and injured at an alarming rate.
Perhaps most fascinating, however, is the brief time Swedish director Fredrik Gertten spends showing us the Scandinavian bike-utopia that is Copenhagen, Denmark, where 40% of citizens use them to get to work. Snow or shine, thousands of cyclist commuters are shown flying down wide bike lanes, past grumpy taxi drivers who rarely have a reason to drive anyone, and right over our assumptions about what a commute could or should be.
Bikes vs. Cars serves to challenge the innate and unconsidered centrality of the car in our lives, and to ask of us—not only our local governments and city planners, but also businesses, commuters, and car-drivers alike—to consider whether the battle of bikes versus cars is worth fighting on new terms. As our assumptions about how we use automobiles are challenged every day by the likes of ride-share services and autonomous vehicles, perhaps it’s the perfect opportunity to remember the old-yet-radical technology of two wheels, a chain, and a pair of feet. As more of us reconsider the supremacy of our cars, Bikes vs. Cars shows us how we might also pedal our way forward into friendlier, human-centered public spaces.
Bikes vs. Cars will be screened at the IU Cinema on September 7 at 7 pm.
The Cinema’s presentation of Bikes vs. Cars will be accompanied by a panel Q/A session with Paul Helmke (faculty member and former mayor of Ft. Wayne) and Beth Rosenbarger (bicycle and pedestrian planner for the city of Bloomington).
The film is presented in conjunction with the Kelley Common Read, a first-year co-curricular program designed to expose students at the Kelley School of Business to broader questions at the intersections of business and disciplines outside their typical classroom.
Ben Taylor is the Assistant Director of Student Life for the Undergraduate Program at the Kelley School of Business. He oversees, among various other co-curricular programs, the Kelley Common Read.