Sustainability 102: How To Break Our Automobile-Addiction
Sustainability 102: How To Break Our Automobile-Addiction
Posted February 1st, 2008

By George Zens

We live in a manly man's world, which is why small, simple problems need large, complex solutions. Thus, for example, we install complicated air-exchange and air-filtering systems in buildings to provide the occupants with fresh air, instead of windows that one can open.

Simplicity is as much part of sustainability as of mathematics and beauty, although it tends to get lost in the sensory overload we have created as part of our modern artificial environment.
The fact that windows that can be opened are now considered part of "green" building indicates how estranged we have become from living in harmony with nature.

And no, I am not going to advocate a "back to nature"-way of life, but rather simple steps all of us can take to get rid of some of the material and mental clutter in our lives, as a way of creating a more sustainable lifestyle for ourselves, without drastically changing the way we do things. At least not at first.

We have created a very complicated environment for us to live in, and a good deal of our time and resources is spent trying to navigate the rules and obstacles we have established over the centuries. Which is why our children are condemned to hard schooling for the first 12, 15 or more years of their lives in order to prepare them for their adult lives; which is why we need ever-increasing numbers of all sorts of professionals to help us deal with our everyday lives, from accountants and lawyers, to psychiatrists and social workers, to motivational speakers and nutritionists (we are the only species that apparently is unable to feed itself naturally).

This way of life not only takes a toll on us physically and mentally (hence all the professional helpers we need to cope), but also on our environment and on the ability of future generations to determine their lives.

By taking baby steps towards living more simply, more sustainably, more consciously, we can slow down the hamster wheel we've been trained to run in, and eventually get out of it.
There are many ways in which we can have a positive impact on our environment, our communities and our own well-being. Some of the everyday-areas where we can make a difference are (in random order) transportation, waste management, energy use, nutrition, conservation of natural resources, buying habits - to name but these.

We have a love-affair with the automobile. Not just we Americans, but people worldwide. No other economic sector so dominates all other aspects of our lives as the automobile. Since the invention of the car more than a hundred years ago, we have subjected almost everything we do to its demands: urban, and especially suburban, planning have been, and often still are, all about making landscapes car-friendly; the automobile industry and its related sectors, which includes the huge oil industry, wield more economic and political clout than any other sector; a big part of our law enforcement resources are committed to dealing with automobile traffic; cars (well, their drivers) kill 40,000 people a year in the United States and send hundreds of thousands more to hospitals; we spend billions of dollars every year on road infrastructure; according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, cars cause more damage to the environment than any other consumer behavior.
According to a document by the Madison Environmental Group (EnAct Participant Guide, 2004) it costs about $17,000 to build one new parking space in Madison.

Also, 77 percent of commuters in Dane County drive alone, ten percent carpool, six percent walk, four percent use public transportation and two percent bicycle.

Obviously, it is unrealistic to assume that we could get rid of the automobile altogether, even if we wanted to. But we can lessen its impact.

Alternatives to driving are available more often than we think, especially when we consider that most urban car trips are short (less than a mile) or superfluous in that they could be combined with other errands.

In Madison itself, and some surrounding communities, Madison Metro buses can provide an alternative to the automobile, especially for commuters who work regular office hours in Madison. It becomes very complicated and inconvenient very quickly, however, for off-peak transportation needs.

Walking and bicycling are great ways to cover short distances. Between sidewalks and bike trails, the Madison area, including suburbs, is a pretty nice and safe place to bike and walk.
I bike quite a bit in all kinds of weather (more than 300 miles since the beginning of the year so far), but not very fast - only about ten miles per hour on average (but then again, my oversized cargo bike weighs almost 70 pounds empty - and I always carry a lot of stuff around with it). I can quite accurately predict how much time any trip will take me, and I don't have to worry about things like traffic jams or finding a parking space.

And while biking generally takes more time than driving (at least in and around the suburbs, like Middleton, where the Sustainable Times is published, and from the suburbs to Madison), it is also very relaxing (lots of time to think). And when the rider and bike are properly equipped, the weather really doesn't matter. Plus, the exercise is free.

Other alternatives to conventional car use include buying a more fuel-efficient car; car-pooling with colleagues, friends or neighbors; making our high school student take the bus instead of driving the family-SUV to school; and planning ahead, so we don't have to drive to the grocery store twice.

An alternative to owning, if not actually using, a car is either taking a cab or becoming a member of Community Car, a membership-based car-sharing organization. They have fifteen vehicles, including seven fuel-efficient Toyota Prius, located throughout Madison. All members need to do, is make a reservation, get in, drive and return it. (To be continued)

Further resources:

Madison buses:

Community Car:

Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin: