I will never forget the smell of the seats in our “brand-new”, second-hand car. My parents’ purchase had been a hot topic for weeks and it was finally there, a dark green Renault waiting outside my school. Unaware that a few years later it would be driven over my toe, nothing could bring more joy to that five-year-old.
Fast forward 30 years and I am now “driving” an initiative to get people out of their cars. I’ve been pondering over the journey that brought me here — the process my mind has undergone to arrive at a completely different take on private vehicle ownership.
I was raised in a lower middle-class Colombian family that relied on public transport but had the “luxury” of also owning a vehicle. I remember the conversations at school — a yes to the question “Does your dad have a car?” would get you points on the class likeability scale. In high school I took the bus everywhere and never imagined being able to own a car myself until I was a grown up with a job.
I ended up moving to the United States after earning an athletic scholarship that landed me in a small university in the Middle of Nowhere, Texas. In the US, from age 16 (during those days anyway), everyone knew how to drive and most owned a car. The first expense I’d have to incur was purchasing one. But nothing seemed more unnatural to that 18-year-old me.
I bought a beige Toyota Corolla and I had barely left the lot when a police officer stopped me. I was fined for not having insurance, even though I explained I was on my way to buy some. It was as if a car had gone over my toe again.
Suddenly I was unable to speak English and, drowning in tears, I drove off with my first fine in my first car to try to get insured for any other possible disaster. And so began my life as the owner of an automobile: with the expenses, stresses and hours in traffic that would accompany me on my journey in oil-rich Texas.
Then I moved to Syracuse, New York, a compact city that enabled me to cycle everywhere, even in the snow. I ditched the Corolla.
When I moved to Johannesburg, I had the dream of cycling from Melville, where I lived, to Newtown, where I worked, but never managed to build up the courage. And so with a colleague I would walk the 5km most mornings when I didn’t catch a lift with my housemate. The need for a car became inescapable and I succumbed. I bought a Golf Chico. It seemed the only way to survive.
Hitting the brakes
It wasn’t until I moved to Cape Town that I finally let go of car ownership, partly as a result of my personal agenda to create Open Streets but also, in all honesty, because of my privilege: I live and work near the city centre, which enables me to cycle everywhere. And when I need it, I do have access to private transport.
Nevertheless, while I understand that not everyone has this luxury, I continue to believe there is a better way to move around our cities. Driving is not the be-all and end-all, despite the behaviour displayed by many of us when we get into a car. The way some drivers claim and assert “ownership” over roads is truly remarkable. If anyone dares to get in their way, god forbid that might be a pedestrian, rage ensues. And in peak hour, everyone accepts that traffic will rob one or two hours of our precious lives. We might complain about it, discuss it and dissect it but in the end we accept it as normal.
Public transport seems a different planet, over which we have no control and dismiss as inefficient. But, as my friend and colleague Jodi Allemeier pointed out in a fabulous blog post recently, there are many other layers to public transport that illustrate deeper social ills, particularly in societies where economic disparities are so profound and divisive.
I see my relationship with the automobile as a mirror to the society I have lived in. As a child in Colombia, I viewed car ownership as a type of social affirmation, as a student in the south of the US, it seemed a complete necessity and part of becoming an adult, and as a committed public space supporter in South Africa it is a paradigm I’ve chosen to challenge. It might simply be the result of growing up, learning about the world and learning to make my own choices.
Perhaps, it is the result of the world around me changing: the automobile is quickly becoming a thing of the past and climate change is making it impossible to continue ignoring the impact of our consumption patterns on the planet, driving being one of the biggest offenders. Be that as it may, car ownership is a continued predicament in our cities. Though it is simple to condemn it, the reality is that car ownership goes beyond necessity; it is deeply entrenched in our culture, our generation and even in our sense of identity.
I would like to think that getting people out of their cars for a few hours to experience the street differently is one way to demonstrate the power of alternatives to the automobile. This Sunday in Cape Town we will do precisely that when Bree Street in the CBD is shut down to traffic for five hours so that we can all imagine what it would be like to go through the city without the constraints of that metal box that ultimately contaminates the environment, poses a real danger to human life and keeps us separate from each other.
It’s time to get out of your car and onto the street.