Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Books Have a Life of Their Own

This morning I saw that Divorce Your Car! ranked #2 on Borders Books Australia’s list of “Top 5 Pollution Control Books.” Great! I thought, although when I looked at other titles on this list, I noticed that almost all of them are technical texts about remediation. A little different from Divorce Your Car!, which quotes Monty Python and tells stories about early car enthusiasts touting the supposed health benefits of the horseless carriage. But that’s ok, because yes, the book does also discuss how to control pollution by driving less – in several chapters, as there are so many ways to do this.

Finding Divorce Your Car! on this list is yet one more example of how, once they’re launched and out in the marketplace, books can take on lives of their own. I’m frequently surprised by the places in which this book gets listed, classified, or otherwise mentioned. Somebody in Australia must be buying Divorce Your Car! for it to make this list of top pollution control texts, so whoever you are, thanks! And thanks to Borders Australia for adding this pleasant and amusing little surprise to my morning.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Save Gas, Save the Planet

I write three blogs, and sometimes find unexpected synchronicities in bouncing between them. Just after I finished writing about the Mediterranean diet on one, I opened John Addison’s new book to review it here and found a beautiful passage explaining how a Mediterranean vacation -- in Italy -- led John and his wife Marcia to a life-changing realization: “The vacation was deeply relaxing, in part, because it was car free.”

Inspired, John and Marcia returned home and moved from suburbs to city, cutting their car use and ultimately going carbon neutral. Now John has written Save Gas, Save the Planet to urge others to take similar steps.

The book is a positive addition to the literature about greening transportation. A troika of tips sums up the solutions it covers: 1) ride clean; 2) ride together; and 3) ride less. In chapters that feature stories from folks both car-lite (he uses the spelling “car-light”) and car-free, he explores cleaner fuels, transit options, ridesharing, and self-propulsion by bike and on foot. The last few chapters focus on the bigger picture, covering issues such as climate change and the security ramifications of our oil addiction.

Each chapter ends with handy lists of specific actions that can 1) save gas, or 2) save the planet. Of course, many of them do both. It’s a nice feature that adds to the book’s utility as a how-to guide.

John draws on his expertise as editor of the Clean Fleet Report (tagline: “hybrid & electric cars smart charged with renewable energy”) in the book’s six detailed chapters about EVs, plug-in hybrids, biofuels, and other cleaner car options. Admittedly, all this ink on clean cars and clean tech is interesting and highly informative, but it does have a tendency to make me nervous. It’s not that we don’t need clean energy – we desperately need to wean ourselves from fossil fuels – but I fear too much focus on the technofix risks leaving people with the idea that EVs can solve the whole problem (see Chapter 14 of Divorce Your Car! for more on why they can’t). To his credit, though, John makes clear the need for renewable recharging when using EVs, and balances his approach with his chapters on shared transport and cutting the need for travel altogether.

One of my favorite chapters is titled “The Car-Free Option.” In addition to telling some good stories about folks living car-free, the chapter taught me some new acronyms. As John writes: “Enlightened communities are in the transition from car-oriented urban gas hogs (COUGH) to people-oriented development (POD).” If you know transport reform, you know it never seems to get done without a slew of acronyms.

I first learned about Save Gas, Save the Planet at last month’s conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), where I had the pleasure of meeting John (pictured at SEJ above). He now lives in San Francisco, where he and his wife enjoy walking, biking, and taking renewably-powered transit.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Car Divorce Goes Trendy

Car-free living has officially reached trend status.

Last week, the New York Times ran an interesting and evocative story about the increase in people choosing to live without a car. Perhaps it’s a trend that’s been building. Nearly a decade ago, shortly after Divorce Your Car! first came out, I got a call from a Time magazine writer wanting to know about this same trend. Were more people, in fact, going car-free?

At the time, Critical Mass rides had become a phenomenon, and a surge of transportation reform groups had drawn attention to the need to cut car use. Still, it was hard to tell how many people might be choosing a car-free lifestyle, and ultimately, the magazine did not run an article.

For last week's piece, NYT reporter Micheline Maynard dug up several numbers that serve as proxies for the car-free trend. Her article notes that young people now wait longer to buy a first car. She also quotes Jesse Toprak of TrueCar, a company tracking car-buying trends; the data Toprak has seen suggests suburbanites are down-sizing from three cars to one or two per household. Maynard also cites Toyota’s finding that in at least 60 U.S. locations, more people have moved into city centers and gotten rid of their cars.

There might well have been a budding car-free trend ten years ago, but it hadn’t yet found its way into numbers like these. What’s changed between then and now? The NYT article mentions the recession as well as greater environmental awareness. Here’s what occurs to me:
  • We already spend thousands per year on cars, but as gas prices have gone up and economic prosperity down, more people have indeed realized that cutting back on driving and car ownership can save big chunks of money.
  • Growing awareness of climate change has sparked a new wave of environmental advocacy, and awareness of the problems caused by all our driving – enough to inspire more people to cut back.
  • A shift in U.S. transportation funding that started with ISTEA in the 1990s has had more time to give us better facilities for walkers, cyclists, and transit users.
  • Congestion continues to be a problem, as tracked by the Texas Transportation Institute, and who needs it? Especially now that we have a few more alternatives to driving. With the better facilities mentioned above, it’s now more convenient in more places to go car-free.
  • Movements like Smart Growth and various livable communities initiatives have also had more time to promote and help establish denser and more walkable, bikeable and transit-friendly cities and towns.
  • The cutting edge – what Maynard calls “a fledgling car-free movement emerging in big cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco that echoes a much broader campaign in Europe and Asia” -- has actually been around for awhile, and has had time to strengthen and gain more influence. New York City’s own Transportation Alternatives was founded in 1973. Next year, the World Carfree Network will host the ninth Towards Carfree Cities Conference since these conferences began in 1997.
How would you answer the question? What’s changed between 2000 and today that has fed the trend toward more car-free living? I welcome your comments.