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A street sign depicting a bicycle with the text “wrong way.”

Choice, freedom, cars, and the path to biking and walking

To drive a car is to be free, at least so-says our culture. I don’t need a citation for that. You can see it for yourself in every car commercial or by querying any member of the public. But it’s also an illusion.

Where does the idea come from? Most of us grew up living in un-walkable, dangerous, communities. The only way we could safely travel anywhere outside of our homes was by car. As children, this meant being chauffeured by adults or older siblings. As adolescents, getting a car and a license was the first step to living free of our parents. And even as adults, we still associate driving as an expression of our independence.

Car culture and its narrow definition of liberty

Let’s step back and look at the big picture. We’ve made questionable assumptions about not only how our communities are built, but about the concept of freedom itself.

First, this worldview takes for granted a culture built on top of car infrastructure. Our car-based system is not simple or cheap, nor is it maintained easily. Freedom to live by car means that everything in your life must exist inside that system. When you think about it, the fact that we can live our entire lives without stepping outside that car-culture bubble is incredible.

Second, it assumes a narrow definition of “freedom” itself. We want to be able to travel where we want, when we want, with who we want. But in order to do that, we need the state to build and maintain roads for us, then we need to take a driving class, then we need to visit the DMV and register a license, then we need to buy a car, which likely involves taking out a loan, then we need to pay for insurance, and then, finally, we are free to drive. Even then, we still have to follow traffic laws, which are some of the most strict and pervasive laws we encounter on a daily basis. As long as you follow those steps, and as long as you’re physically able to drive, and as long as the state keeps building roads, then yay freedom?

A richer liberty with biking and walking

One way to think of freedom is with a series of forks in a road. Each of our actions is choosing a direction. Getting a license was a choice, as was taking out a loan, as was buying a car, as was following traffic laws, and so on. Sure, anyone could choose not to register for a driver’s license, or choose not to take out a loan, but that would sidetrack them from the path to car ownership “freedom.”

This illustrates the false choice that car-culture presents us. To be “free” we have to always make all of the exact same choices. To choose not to drive a car is simply not an option for most people. Whether or not you think this tradeoff is worthwhile, it is certainly not freedom.

Now imagine the multitude of crossroads that exist outside of the ones leading to car ownership. You could choose to walk, take transit, or perhaps even stay home without feeling restricted. One of the ideas behind bikeable and walkable communities is that they are truly free in that they don’t offer false choices. Choosing to walk is just as valid as taking transit and just as valid as driving a car.

This concept is called “positive and negative liberty” in philosophy. “Negative liberty” is the freedom from obstacles. At every crossroads, there are no roadblocks on either path. But “positive liberty” is the freedom to make your own decisions. If everyone feels compelled to choose a certain path, then perhaps they aren’t truly free.

This isn’t just my idea

I saw an article published by AARP recently, Why Older Americans Should Give Up Their Cars, and I was struck by its subtitle:

It’s not what you think. Today, tossing the keys often means freedom, not infirmity.

It also has a great quote by quote by Jeff Speck from Brookline, MA:

Uber, carshare, bike lanes, bikeshares, good transit — with these, people can make a choice to own fewer cars.

Both of these lines echo the idea that biking and walking is a product of freedoms and choices.

AARP has been an advocate for bikeable and walkable communities because they understand that the same standards of freedom don’t apply to everyone. Many people simply cannot drive, or driving imposes too many difficulties for them. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t enable people to make the mobility choices best for them.

This makes you a better person, too

One of the concepts related to “positive liberty” is that it leads to self-actualization. If we are each enabled to make the choices best for us, then we can become the best versions of ourselves. When you spend hours sitting in your car week after week, year after year, is that the best version of yourself? Do you feel like you have any real choice in the matter? If not, then maybe it’s time to start advocating for biking and walking in your town.