In Defence of the Urban Car

Periodically, another round of debate over urban cars flares up, with people hotly insisting that no one who lives in a city needs a car. These people are usually urban dwellers, of course, and they’re typically nondisabled with very specific kinds of lifestyles, yet they’re convinced, in their anti-car evangelist fervour, that everyone leads the same kinds of lives they do, and thus their ideas apply to everyone. After all, they’re getting by in the city without a car, and thus, so should everyone else.

There are, of course, numerous sound arguments for not owning a car in general, and in the city specifically. Cars are expensive to buy and maintain, for one thing, especially for those leasing or buying a car on credit who have a monthly lump sum payment to think about in addition to maintenance, insurance, fuel, and incidentals. Additionally, in cities you need to deal with the hassle of parking, which is both expensive and hard to find, particularly in heavily congested areas. Bridge and road tolls can be another factor, in addition with congestion fees, a growing trend designed to discourage driving into certain regions of large cities that are struggling with their traffic.

Cars add to pollution and other environmental problems, so not owning one helps reduce your environmental footprint, another benefit.

Public transit, on the other hand, can be low cost; passes for public transit typically cost less per month than the expenses for a car, although that varies by city. And it can meet your needs. And sometimes, people only need cars periodically, in which case a car share, hire, or membership program can be ideal; still less expensive than owning a car, but makes cars accessible when they’re needed. Taking a trip to another locale? Sign a car out for the weekend, and you’re good to go.

But these arguments are truly only IF you live a specific lifestyle. For example, if you primarily travel along serviced routes, and most of your ventures outside the house are during the day and early evening. If you go out late at night, work an extremely early shift, or have an irregular on-demand schedule, public transit is less than ideal. People who need to be on-call for work can struggle with public transit unless the system works extremely well, and other people need to actually transport items for work; public transit doesn’t work for them. Landscapers, some artists, designers, bakers, and so forth have large, bulky, and sometimes fragile items that don’t fare well on public transit.

And if you’re nondisabled or have a disability that doesn’t include mobility impairments or the need for frequent medical appointments, not having a car may be fine, but your experience isn’t universal. This is something few people seem willing to acknowledge in discussions about urban cars; for some disabled people, a car is a necessity. Mobility impairments in particular can necessitate vehicle ownership because it’s difficult or impossible to get around without a car; public transit is fatiguing to use, and services like WheelTrans are cumbersome and can be extremely unreliable, especially if you, say, work, which some disabled people actually do, and need regular transport to the office. These services can also be pricey. Paying $40 for a ride to work every morning from a service that sometimes shows up an hour late, or more, just isn’t an option.

For people with frequent medical appointments, making public transit mesh with their medical needs may not be possible, particularly if those appointments involve the need to bring a lot of things along, or to pick things up. Some disabled people need supplies; lots of medications, for example, which are a pain in the arse to lug on public transit. Incontinence pads. Diabetes supplies. Any number of other things. Yes, sometimes these things can be delivered, sometimes even for free or at low cost, but this isn’t always an option, and by arguing that disabled people should just rely on delivery, you’re effectively saying that they should just stay at home.

Sometimes a disabled person may need a car for reasons that don’t seem as evident or understandable to nondisabled people. A person with an anxiety disorder, for example, might need to know that she can leave immediately if she needs to, while an autistic person might prefer driving to have control over the environment and avoid the sensory overload associated with public transit. These are legitimate and entirely reasonable reasons to need a car; without cars, these people would be trapped in their homes. In their case, the car is a form of liberation, making the world more accessible.

And the next time someone says that everyone should just bicycle everywhere, I’m going to scream, I really am. Way to exclude people who can’t cycle for any number of reasons, some of which may not be immediately obvious to you and are none of your business. I love cycling and I think that cities should be more supportive of cyclists with full bike lanes, accommodations for them on public transit, and more, because facilitating cycling will encourage people who are on the fence about adopting it, but it’s not the solution for everyone and it shouldn’t be treated that way.

Some people in urban areas still need cars. And that’s okay. And they shouldn’t be judged for it. Moreover, before dividing drivers into ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ you may want to consider the fact that you don’t know a driver’s personal history, and that driver may not be comfortable volunteering it to you. Someone may be driving for reasons that aren’t visible, but that doesn’t mean that person needs to justify her car to you.