This is part four in a series I’m running about car culture. If you would like, feel free to read part one, part two, part three, and part four, which make the case for why we should move away from car culture, what barriers prevent us from doing so, and what alternatives we have to it. Subscribe and you’ll be notified by email when the rest of the posts in the series are published, as well as other cool posts about urban homesteading, environmentalism, and feminism!
What was originally meant to be one post on the various alternatives to a car centered culture has gotten so long that I decided to break it up into multiple posts. There are, it turns out, a lot of alternatives to car culture we could be utilizing, and that means there is a lot to discuss. That’s the benefit of discussing this in a series rather than trying to squeeze it all into one post. We left off talking about the different options for mass transit that we could use to replace some of our car usage in society, their benefits and their applications. Today, we’re going to discuss personally owned, human powered transit.
Personal Human Powered Transit
Personal transit is any transit that you own, or that you use just for yourself (and maybe a few passengers). Human powered means it’s powered by you. No engines, batteries, or sails, you are the only thing making it work. In general, these options are cheap (or free) to own, run and maintain, and using them improves your health. They generally allow you pretty good opportunity to interact with your surroundings as well. They require little infrastructure (some, but not much), and put very little wear and tear on infrastructure, meaning they are cheap for society as well as individuals. Most importantly, to this series, they have very low impact on the environment. Really, the only impact they have on pollution and climate is in their manufacturing, as none of them require any fuel (unless you count the food that you are eating as their fuel, in which case, I run mine primarily on tacos, dark chocolate, and local beer). Of course, these options may not be as accessible to some people, depending on your personal abilities, but they are an option for many people, and therefore they are important to discuss. Some of these are more functional and some are more fun, but I’ve tried to make sure all of them are relatively practical. I mean, yeah, you could probably use a pogo stick for transportation, but it’s probably not very practical. Just like with mass transit, no one of these options is going to be right for every person, or even every trip, but luckily we don’t have to choose just one method of transportation and use it exclusively. A world beyond car culture can and should offer us all lots of options to get where we need to go.
For those of us who are able, walking is the cheapest, cleanest, and simplest form of transportation there is. There’s nothing to learn, no equipment to buy, and it’s not dependent on any infrastructure to make it happen. Most of us already use it as a form of transportation from time to time, even if it’s just across the street to talk to your neighbor. Besides being cheap and good for the environment, walking has major health benefits for such a simple activity.
Walking has been found in many studies to lower your risk for several health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and depression, some of our nations biggest causes of death. It improves circulation, strengthens your bones and muscles, improves sleep, helps your cartilage, lowers your risk for Alzheimers, helps with arthritis, improves memory and academic performance, reduces stress hormones, improves balance, and might even improve your orgasms. Getting outside is also good for most of us, since indoor pollution is worse than outdoor pollution for most people, so walking reduces your pollution exposure, and being in the sun helps you get vitamin D, which most Americans are deficient in (of course, on the flip side, too much sun will cause painful sunburns and skin cancer, so depending on the time of day, your propensity to burn, and how long your walk is, you might want to not worry about vitamin D and put on some sunscreen/sun blocking clothes). Now its true that probably all exercise (and pretty much everything that will follow walking on this list) does most if not all of this stuff, but walking is much easier than other forms of exercise. Even casual walking provides these benefits. It may not do all of this stuff to the same degree as other exercises, it’s unlikely to build muscles quite as much as weight lifting, for example, but it’s doing a bit of all of this for comparatively little effort (sticking with the weight lifting example, weight lifting does not give you all of these benefits, and it requires much more effort than walking), so why not?
Walking also stands above and beyond other forms of transportation in it’s ability to connect you with your community and your environment. When you are walking you are going slow enough to notice a lot of things around you, and to stop to investigate, engage, and deeply consider those things. In a private car, you are going to fast to take in a lot of little details, and you certainly can’t stop to talk to people around you. You can talk on public transit, but your scope is limited. Even on a bike, your ability to interact is somewhat limited, because you are going too fast. Walking is the best way to travel that engages you with your surroundings.
Of course, walking is fairly slow compared to other forms of transportation, and you are limited in how much you can bring with you, so it’s not right for every trip. There are options for walking with loads. Strollers, carts and wagons can help you get cargo and small passengers (human or animal) places by foot. There are also a number of bags, backpack, and carrier options for both loads and small passengers. And while it doesn’t require infrastructure to facilitate it, some infrastructure does make it much better, safer, and more practical. Sidewalks and walking trails are pretty basic, and while not every community has them, every community should. The fact that cities don’t always prioritize putting sidewalks in residential and commercial areas is bullshit, people should be able to walk safely around their own communities, that should be a right (of course, so should housing and a living wage, but we’ve got a ways to go until we get those things too). Denser city planning, mixed zoning, and pedestrian focused architecture, like pedestrian bridges, also makes walking as a form of transportation more practical. And while it might seem like a luxury, taking the time to put nice parks, trees and plants, architecture, and public art make walking commutes much better, making us more eager to take them. Communities that make walking highly accessible and pleasant also tend to be richer communities, probably both because these infrastructure changes are easier to afford when there is a lot of property tax to work with, and because putting these ammenities in a community tends to raise property values, often pushing poorer residents out. This is one of the reasons why I believe strongly that every community should work towards ensuring class diversity within their borders (a topic I’ll have to address in a later post), because I think that everyone should have access to these kinds of resources, and this stuff isn’t free.
Bicycles are widely considered to be the most efficient form of transportation ever invented. With average care, they last longer than cars, they are cheaper to buy, practically free to run, less polluting to make, less polluting to run, and they go pretty fast with relatively little effort. In fact, in some conditions it is faster to travel by bike than car, since cars spend so much time sitting in traffic. They require no insurance, and are arguably safer than cars. Bikes themselves generally aren’t dangerous to bikers, it’s cars that cause safety problems for bikers. Cars are what are dangerous, not bikes. Bikes also provide all the benefits of exercise, and can be lower impact on joints if that is a concern for you.
There are lots of options for transporting passengers and cargo by bike. I have been coveting a cargo bike since Elijah was a baby. In his No Impact Man project, Colin Beavan basically drove his family around town in a bike taxi (side note: Jeremy and I rode in a bike taxi from our ceremony to reception during our wedding). There are a variety of bike seats and trailers for kids, and kids can learn to ride bikes fairly early so you can ride as a family. Bicycling together as a group or family can be just as social as riding in a car, in many cases more so. And while not as good as walking, it still provides more opportunity to interact with the world around you than cars. I love family bike rides so much! Bikes are fun, and if you haven’t bicycled in a while, you might be surprised at how easy it is. I know I was. While it does take more effort than walking most of the time, I was able to get in shape for it very quickly. And the increased speed compared to how much extra effort you put in is way worth it. It’s not that much harder than walking, but it is so much faster than walking. Further, if you’re the type of person who likes your vehicle to make a statement about your personality, you can get just as fancy with bike models and upgrades as you can a car. Hell, even if you aren’t that type of person with your car, you might be with your bike. I am (or, I would be, if I could afford it).
Bikes can be a challenge to use in very hilly areas, since going up hill is really the only hard part on a bike. On the other hand, down hill is really easy, and super fun, so some residents of hilly areas might argue that bikes are better in hilly areas. Also, bikes benefit from all the same infrastructure that walking does, plus bike lanes and bike parking. Bikes can cost a fair amount of money up front, and you do occasionally have to replace tires, fix brakes, and grease your bike chain, that is maintenance that costs money (though it costs far less and happens far less frequently than car maintenance). Bikes aren’t always practical in all weather, either. While there are some bad ass bicyclists who bike all winter, I certainly am not willing to bike in the snow, and I love bicycling. It can also be too hot to bike, which is another reason why infrastructure like parks and trees is important for these kinds of transportation. Bikes can be a nuisance on sidewalks, especially when there are a lot of walkers, so bike lanes are really important if we are hoping to increase non car transport of all kinds. You also want to invest in some safety gear for riding a bicycle, at least a helmet, but maybe some pads or weather gear as well. Another issue with bicycling is that because it’s faster, you tend to go further distances, and you tend to get sweaty. Sweatiness may or may not be a problem, depending on where you are going, but sometimes it definitely is.
Skateboarding is generally viewed primarily as a stunts hobby, but it’s actually a viable form of human powered transport. I see teenage kids using it as transport somewhat frequently, but I’d like to see more. Skateboarding is fun, and you can do cool stunts, but it’s also faster than walking and can safely be done on sidewalks, so there’s no reason not to use it as transport as well as for doing stunts. Skateboards are cheaper than bikes, and definitely have the self expression factor. You don’t have to park skateboards somewhere when you get to your location either, they are small enough to be carried or tucked out of the way in a workspace, but maybe having some form of storage for those types of transport at various locations would be a worthwhile investment. Lockers you could rent, or something like that. That might increase use of this (and the next few) forms of transport. Just like with a bike, you’ll want to invest in some safety gear when riding a skate board. Skateboarding as a means of transport benefits from the same infrastructure that walking does, and actually probably requires it. You can walk in the grass or gravel on the side of a road, but you really need sidewalks to skateboard. Having never skateboarded myself, I can’t speak to how sweaty it leaves you or the work out you get doing it, but I imagine those factors can come into play as well.
In recent years, I have gotten into quad skating again. It was something I used to do in elementary school and early middle school, but gave up when I hit my teen years because I was self conscious and was really starting to excel at hating myself, after all those years of being trained by the patriarchy to do so. Since rediscovering it, I have learned that it is super fun and I can’t believe I ever stopped doing it (I have the exact same story with bicycling and swimming). I am still afraid to do it outside much (sidewalks are a rough surface to fall on!), but for those who don’t have an irrational fear of falling on skates but still love doing it (like me), I recognize that skating, whether on quads or inlines, could be a wicked awesome form of transport. I don’t see people out on their roller blades as often as I used to, and when I do, I can pretty much guarantee that they’re only doing it for a work out, but it’s just as viable an option for transport as skateboarding. Yeah, you’d need some safety gear, and the skates are probably harder to carry (say, around a store) than a skateboard is. Plus, you’d have to bring shoes with you on every trip, because once you remove the skates you’ll have to put shoes on (or we could change our laws surrounding wearing shoes in public places, which there most certainly is a movement for), but I still maintain its a great option for some transportation.
Another form of transport used by Colin Beavan’s family during the No Impact project was a scooter, used by his then wife, Michelle. I have never used a scooter either, but it seems like it’s a less scary option than a skate board, with less of a learning curve. Apparently, Michelle found the scooter to be a lot of fun and it was definitely faster than walking. It has the same benefits and issues as the skateboard, from what I can tell.
Other forms of human powered transit
Are there other forms of human powered transit I’ve missed? This is what I see and hear about most frequently, but there very likely are other things out there that I don’t know about or have foolishly forgotton. If you can think of something, or have anything to add about these methods of transport, tell us about it in the comments!
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