This year I feel slightly like my saddle has been pulled out from me. I’m left wondering what to think about the current situation and whether I should have an opinion about it in relation to transport. I’ve barely caught a bus for a month and there are some days I don’t even step out of my house. Meanwhile, cycling is booming, with many replacing gym memberships with two wheels and sunshine. Transport has changed a lot for most people, and it might also be a moment where we change how we frame transport. I’m going to give some scattered ideas that I see at the intersection of COVID 19 and transport. However, I feel like there is much to be learned from the public so I invite you to answer a few questions that I hope to use as I start to put together a short documentary on this time in transit.
Risking lives and livelihoods
We learn that cars are dangerous from a very young age. My 2 year old son knows not to cross the road without his mum. I have seen his shocked little face when a car has come a bit close to the footpath. A car can kill you and when you drive a car, you increase your chance of killing someone. Not only directly through a crash, but also through the fumes that your cars produce, and more indirectly through a myriad of ways. These include wars that are fought over oil, the destruction required to feed a very resource intensive transport system and a reduction in physical activity and inclusivity of the city. And yet people get into their cars without feeling like they are being irresponsible and without feeling the pressure that “we are all in this together” and hence should be doing their bit to stop the carnage – and drive less.
This feels in direct contrast to how we are managing the risks associated with COVID-19. And while I appreciate the urgency to deal with the coronavirus, which won’t just cause suffering and death but compromise our health system which isn’t prepared for such a load, I don’t feel it is that different to the car-related feedback loops that actually put stress and potentially threaten to collapse many of our institutions and eco-systems that help prop up civilisation. It’s really just a matter of timing…
Privilege of those with private spaces
Isolation is mainly about isolation from places that other people use i.e. where there is public access. It therefore privileges those with private spaces and motors. For those of us living in apartments, we cannot continue to enjoy the lifestyle we rely on for our well-being and joy. If you don’t own a private swimming pool, children cannot swim, if you don’t have a private playground, children cannot swing and if you don’t have a private motor (and you feel uncomfortable about catching public transport as I do with my children) you cannot visit the places past walking and cycling distance. For us, this meant foregoing our little bush walks that we normally catch the bus to.
Luckily, we live in a great area, with parks and beaches, and we are still allowed to access these places. Compared to the apartment dwellers in Italy and Spain who have been locked in their 40 m2 except to buy groceries, we are lucky. However, it is sad to see that some of our choices to make our lives more sustainable, by sharing public spaces and vehicles rather than acquiring private spaces and vehicles for ourselves, leads to greater impacts on our lifestyle and livelihood during these times. But it’s not so bad when you can ride a bicycle I guess….
A time for going forward or backward?
And this leads to my last point of discussion. As we see more people riding bicycles and walking for exercise and to get around their city, but less people using motorised transport, both private and public, we are left wondering what will happen next. With many countries taking measures to make cycling and walking safer (both for social distancing and reducing risks posed by motor vehicles), there is a sense of hope that this can be a moment of change. Fear that people won’t be wanting to use public transport to its full potential for a while, brings one back down but perhaps a balance will be found with active and public transport both playing important and supporting roles for each other.
However, last night when I watched car advertisements which glorified being big, aggressive, and untamed, along with a TV show targeted at my 4 year old showing a lady hooning around on a quad bike, all my hope was crushed. I started to think about a career change. I know there are many people having mini- mid-life crises, there are many marketing departments brainstorming how to make the most of this and they won’t be worried about any of the other problems afflicting our society and planet. They will be looking at how to get people jumping back into cars when this is all over – perhaps using it as the symbol of freedom from the lockdown, the symbol of control over your environment and who you are in contact with, or the symbol of sexual prowess for all those who have have been sexually repressed during these times.
The only thing that can stop the commercial interests winning, is a huge amount of creative will to free up people’s minds to reflect on, to experiment with and to envision their life and their world in new (less consumeristic) ways. I don’t have all the answers, but there is some great work happening in the space of tactical urbanism, in creative and caring communities and I urge you to support these initiatives and find your way in these confusing time. Here is what I can offer…
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