License to (not) Drive

I have a confession to make: I am 40-something years old and I have never had a driver’s license. When I disclose this fact, I always brace myself for people’s reaction in case they say what I sometimes feel; “Are you kidding me? Anyone can get a license from a cereal box! And cars nowadays practically drive themselves! What’s wrong with you?” Learning to drive is such a rite of passage in modern life that it seems inconceivable that anyone would willingly choose not to. After all, society’s love affair of the car that begins with, but also goes beyond, viewing them as simply a mode of transport is deeply ingrained.

However, there is increasing evidence that the infatuation with vehicles and driving is decreasing. Younger people, if they do obtain their licence, are increasingly choosing to not purchase a vehicle or drive as much, if at all. There are varied reasons for this shift. Awareness of environmental issues such as the reliance on fossil fuels is certainly one aspect. Economics has been another main catalyst for change. The 2008 global financial crisis hit the United States hard and highlighted the fact that vehicle ownership in the United States (and presumably other Western nations such as Canada) is often the second-largest household expense behind housing payments. Another hypothesis is that the millennial generation is the first group to earn a lower income overall than preceding generations, and therefore will be unlikely for some time to have the disposable income required to purchase and maintain a motor vehicle. But whatever the reason, there is a small yet growing segment of society that is eschewing car culture in favour of public and self-propelled (e.g. walking and cycling) transport..

In many places of the world the car culture is much different than in North America. For instance, Great Britain loves its cars and prides itself on its network of motorways, but also boasts a thorough cross-country public transportation network, something that is lacking in many North American cities and regions. Generations of Brits, even up to those in the post-war and Depression years, never drove or owned a car, but they didn’t need to because everything they needed was in their neighbourhood. In modern Britain, especially in cities, it is considered perfectly acceptable to choose not to drive, even though most households own a vehicle. Granted, compared to North America, it is much easier to navigate local areas and even travel cross-country due to extensive bus and train networks and the local tram. And of course, London’s Underground is an iconic part of British transport infrastructure.

In contrast, North American car culture is a completely opposite experience. Despite many cities boasting local rail networks, most urban areas are still extremely car-dependent and some are extremely difficult to navigate by walking at all. It is difficult to travel to rural areas without a personal vehicle. As well, the harsh winters can affect the number of people who choose alternate transportation methods. The arguments made in favour of travelling by car are that employment opportunities may be limited or it is more difficult to ferry a family around to various activities without one.

But perhaps because of increased awareness of economic and environmental issues, there is a growing movement that openly challenges reliance on vehicles. There is now more concern about the “livability” of communities and whether the dependence on vehicles has contributed to a sense of people’s isolation and dissatisfaction with society, as well as an overall reduction in quality of life. Citizens are also starting to feel disillusioned with trying to impress the neighbours with an affluent lifestyle that includes multiple vehicles in the driveway.

One such family that has successfully lived vehicle-free is Peter and Andrea Tombrowski from Calgary. Peter is a videographer and filmmaker and Andrea is a writer. Together with their two children, they gave up car ownership over a decade ago and use transit, walking, and occasionally a car-sharing service to get around. They admit in their self-published book Urban Camping that “the learning curve has been steep at times, the adventure not for the faint of heart?life is often physically and mentally challenging without a car.” They have also produced several short films detailing their experiences. In 2013, they also directed and produced a full-length independent documentary, “Car Less in Calgary”, that follows two families as they go car-free for a week and examines the car culture in North America as a whole. The Tombrowskis say that the reaction to their efforts to get people to examine the car culture is a mixture of curiosity, resistance, and even slight animosity, but they hope to continue to open up the dialogue about society’s love affair with cars.

However, on a larger scale, city planners are beginning to realize that creative solutions are necessary to create inclusive and healthier neighbourhoods. Organizations such as Carbusters, Undriving, and Walkscore are helping to rethink what it means to drive and be car dependent, and enable people who choose to be car-free to connect with one another. In Calgary, the Route Ahead initiative by the City of Calgary is working to incorporate public transit into city planning. Other cities and regions in Canada and the United States are beginning to do the same.

But perhaps the biggest influencer in the future might be the shifting of society’s demographics. As the Boomer generation grows older, they may decide to give up their vehicles for health and economic reasons, but they will still require mobility and independence. However, the Millennials may be the ones who will influence this change the most in the future. Higher unemployment in this age group, their passion for environmental concerns, the hassle of obtaining licenses under graduated licensing schemes, the many expenses associated with car ownership, and the fact that they can connect with each other through the networks of the Internet and social media rather than the road network is leading to a decrease in the number of teenagers who are learning to drive and a shift in the prestige associated with driving and car ownership. This trend will no doubt be monitored by governments, businesses, and think-tanks alike to assess its impact.

Of course, anyone who goes against dominant societal norms has feelings about being “different”. Perhaps, non-drivers will eventually be viewed not as misfits, but trailblazers. Perhaps drivers will eventually see them as the lucky ones, because they do not have to deal with the stress that accompanies driving on congested roads. Perhaps, eventually, those who drive will be viewed as the outsiders.

Carla is an AU student majoring in English. She welcomes comments and discussion on her Twitter feed, @LunchBuster.

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