Ideas

Giving Up Our Independence

Losing one's driver's licence is only devastating because we've become so completely dependent on our cars.

By Ted Mitchell
Published May 16, 2005

"But Mom will lose her independence if she loses her license!"

It is a phrase I am very familiar with, and it is not just complaining. But only fifty years ago, this problem did not exist.

What has changed so rapidly to create total dependence on the car? There are two major reasons. The one-two punch of urban sprawl and family dispersion. Both are a direct result of laisse-faire social policy on cars and capitalism, created by the very generation that is now suffering the consequences.

I will argue the only wise use of suburban homes is for the retired population. They don't need daily use of cars, and can use them in off-peak hours. Still, any suburbanite whether age 15 or 85 is dependent on the car and becomes very isolated without it. A quick transition from driving everywhere to having no license can be devastating. But it should not come as a surprise to anyone who has given a second thought to the future.

This situation wouldn't be so bad if children were around to help. But the wealth needed to buy a single detached suburban home is highly correlated with smaller families. These few children are likely to also be caught in the chronic uncertainty of employment that is a consequence of capitalist competition. This forces mobility, which very often means living away from the parents.

Conventional wisdom comes with a dose of religious fanaticism in upholding the benefits of the free market without considering that any negative consequences could even exist. All the growth and prosperity in large suburban homes, more cars in the driveway and voracious need for building roads come with a catch.

Social consequences are ignored, even shunned, until some devastating event such as the loss of a driver's license drives home the reality that the very things you have pursued all your life come back to bite you in the ass. Sometimes, life is fair.

This is worth repeating: How could we construct a society where basic needs cannot be met without a car? The answer is not even considered by most people. Our capitalist system inherently ignores factors that don't have a price tag. This increases profit. Someone else pays the price of these externalized costs, or they are left unpaid.

There is nothing wrong with that if it is recognized and counterbalanced by governments aware of social needs. But our governments increasingly operate in the business model, which is ill-equipped to deal with social issues. Consequently, with good intentions we throw money at social problems, and not surprisingly it doesn't work.

The solution to this is common sense. First we must admit the massive limitations of capitalism. Next, we must expand responsibility for our actions, both personal and corporate. Governments, especially municipal ones, must pursue more public interest legislation rather than the socially disastrous backroom dealing in business affairs.

The consequences of suburban development are long lasting. This ill-considered short term growth will continue to force car dependence, high oil consumption, costly inactivity-related illnesses and social isolation for decades. The long-term economic liability might well render North America globally uncompetitive within a few short decades when oil becomes unaffordable for the masses.

The Councillors who approve this growth do so under severe pressure from the public and developers. But if all growth is good, consider Mom's social needs and independence. Some day soon, you may be Mom.

So when you are in your doctor's office lamenting the loss of a loved one's independence, consider where the blame lies.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.

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