Gospel of the car ad–part three in a series

We sat in traffic in an automobile more than we like these past few weeks.

Zoom Zoom? Nah. More like creep, creep.

Fact is, we rented a car and drove from Toronto to St Jerome, Quebec, with our steeds enracked. There we cycled along something called the “petit train du nord” trail, along with a few dozen others. It’s a 200 km-long former railbed, paved for some 90 km of its length, fine gravel for the rest, that twists along forested hillsides, river valleys and lakefronts between the villages and towns of the Laurentian mountains.

The bicycle tour was a beautiful experience. We averaged some 18 km per hour for the entire four days of travel, but our travel was blissful and satisfying. We pulled over to photograph the wilderness, eat, or rest as we pleased. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife, but neither did we see much roadkill: a sqashed toad at one place, and one dead mouse somewhere else. The mouse wasn’t squashed; we suspect it was dropped by a lazy owl.

The experience of wheeling down the occasional incline got us musing on what it is to zoom. The ease with which we passed or were overtaken by other cyclists in turn contrasted with the creepy reality of driving a car.

We drove to St Jerome and back along the 400-series roads of Ontario, where speeds average 110 km per hour across all four-to-eight lanes of divided highway.

Zooming, right? Wrong.

There on the highway, which we shared with a good ten roadkill victims per hour including a young stag, many raccoons, at least two martens or minks, a cat and a couple skunks, one’s experience of “zooming” is dulled to a clattering sound of rubber wheel on broken pavement. You can tell you are “zooming” from the dull roar of air sucking at your vehicle. The taillights of the cars ahead, sticky and wet. The sun reflecting shrill in your eyes. Time…creeping…by as you tick off the clicks toward your destination.

We returned to find this reminder in our inbox, from a friend in the international bicycle conspiracy. He quoted Jan Lundberg’s Culture Change blob:

The average North American motorist is only driving 5 MPH (five miles per hour) based on the total time required to be in, support and maintain the car. Therefore, the roughly one hundred million cars in the U.S. are simply revving the urban machine in an illusion of speed. If people abandoned this illusion and started quietly walking the 5 MPH instead, or bicycling at 20 MPH, improving their health and awareness, they would be most of the way along to realistically remaking their lives and extricating themselves from the maw of the machine.

The Lundberg quote, of course, is derived from Illich’s great philosophical exposition, On Energy and Equity. Written in 1973 [egad, the dark ages! –ed.], it explains:

The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 per cent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent. What distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of life-time for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry.

It got us putting two and two together. There we were, at 100 km per hour, always in danger of butting bumpers with a car just ahead. We could speed up and pass someone, but there were others ahead of them and we would creep up on them too. If we slowed, others creeped up behind us. It was a slow dance of high stress belly scraping, roaring along in our man-made cyclone inches above hard reality. It was brutal. It was filled with just-checked violence, or not, as the occasional crash and as the roadkill illustrated.

It was creepy.

We traveled at speed with the cars around us, but in reality we slouched along, like the cars in gridlock fleeing Katrina. We averaged a mile a minute, but the time it took to earn the money to rent the car brought that pace down to less than tourist speed on a bicycle.

Our griping about gasoline prices, meanwhile, only hides a deeper, more fundamental crisis: a moral and political one.

Kunstler writes at the end of a particularly fired-up screed on the state of affairs in the U.S. today:

Meanwhile, does anybody remember a place called Iraq? A bomb that killed thirty people was reported on page 12 of the Sunday New York Times. That’s how important Iraq has become. But, I guess, a nation can hardly pay attention to a bullet in the foot when it has a sucking chest wound.

What an image! It reminds us of what it’s like to be locked in traffic, creeping, apace with the cars in front and the cars behind, casting a wistful eye to the just-glimpsable sideroad where a cyclist zooms past like the wind.

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