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Happy Summer Solstice!

I am a happy girl on vacation this week and so far it has been marvelous. But with my next book group meeting coming up tomorrow night, I thought today I would finally manage to catch up on the last book group meeting.

The chapter we read in Making Home by Sharon Astyk was about transportation. I was very excited about this because I thought it would be all about buses and trains and bicycles. But of course it was more than that.

Astyk had an interesting approach. Instead of saying cars are bad because they are expensive and pollute the environment like I expected, she talked about how we as a society have normalized a thing that is incredibly dangerous. As she says, “We worry more about BPA in our cans than we do about the cars that are the leading cause of death in children.” While we are all focused on emissions, we fail to recognize the true cost of cars and what it means to be a car society where many seem to believe it is a right to own and drive a car.

Worldwide we can attribute 1.2 million deaths a year and forty million injuries significant enough for a hospital or doctor visit to auto related accidents. In the United States alone, forty million people die because of cars every year. And the disability claims because of loss of work or permanent injury reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Particulate emissions and pollution from road traffic also cause asthma, lung disease and other illnesses. And studies done in populations where car ownership is not high, show that owning a car can be correlated to a high risk of obesity. Cars are one of the biggest public health problems and yet we refuse to even notice.

We think most of our car trips are necessary, that we have to own a car because work, groceries, kids. But studies show that more than 25% of all car trips are discretionary. Participants from fourteen countries who took part in Riot for Austerity, a program that encourages people to reduce their use of resources, found that they were able to reduce their car usage 25-50 percent without making any major structural changes to their lives.

Giving up the car habit is hard, there is no doubt about it. In some places it is harder than others because of a lack of public transportation and other infrastructure. But, it is not impossible. Sharing a car between friends or neighbors, joining a formal car sharing program if you are lucky enough to have one available, carpooling to work, planning your car trips more carefully, only using your car when you actually have to (do you really need to drive to the library four blocks away?), planning activities that don’t require you driving to get there — there are all sorts of ways to be creative and mindful.

The book group fell on a beautiful weather day and almost everyone who showed up either biked or walked. We talked a lot about bikes, of course. One of the group members has an e-bike and she explained how it worked and what a difference it has made for her. She is now more likely to take her bike to get groceries or run errands because the electric assist makes it easier to carry heavy loads. Of course, the bike has to be charged so it is not carbon neutral unless you happen to charge it with a solar panel.

We also talked about carpooling and how we think it just isn’t possible because I need to stop at the grocery store or do this or that after work. But a group member told us about a carpool she belonged to once. The four of them got along so well that they would car pool to do their grocery shopping and other errands. Another person said he did a carpool where his workplace matched him up with someone who lived near him. The woman turned out to be a far-right talk radio sort of person. He thought it was going to go badly, but because they were stuck in a car together they ended up really talking. He learned a lot and she did too.

Mention was also made of electric cars. You know they are being touted as the cars of the future because no emissions. But this is not true. You have to plug the car in to charge the battery and the electricity you are using is coming from coal burning power plants. So electric cars are not emission-free, the emissions are just pushed elsewhere, out of sight, so you can feel good about driving a car.

Of course, I think more people should ride a bike. I know there are some people with physical limitations who are unable to and that’s cool, you get to be extra creative in finding ways to not use a car and if you have suggestions I would love to hear them. If you have no physical limitations, get that dusty bike out of the garage, put some air in the tires and go! What are you waiting for? Cycling can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. You don’t have to wear spandex shorts and you don’t need a $5,000 carbon bike. All you need is a comfortable bike that fits you, a good helmet (do not skimp on the helmet!), some lights and a backpack (but if you plan on carrying lots of stuff, get a rack and or baskets/panniers your back will thank you for it).

If you want any advice or encouragement, I’d be glad to offer some. Or, find a local bike shop, not one that caters to the hipster or racing crowds, but one that is interested in all kinds of cycling and doesn’t make you feel stupid asking newbie questions. If you don’t find one on your first try, don’t give up! I promise they are out there and finding the shop is worth the time and effort.

Whatever you do though, if you own a car, try to drive it less often and with more people than you in it. Limit the public health threat as much as you can.

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