The Myth of the Open Road

I bike pretty much everywhere in the city these days. But I also have a driver’s license and 16 years of driving experience. And occasionally I still drive. Like the other day I ended up driving across town to run an errand. Now, if you live anywhere near a city, you know that the driving experience is not exactly as advertised:

Myth of the Open Road

It’s a little bit more like this:

Myth of the Open Road

Which is not a good advertisement for cars. But this is exactly what I found myself driving in.

After my errand, I decided I wanted to stay out. I was hungry and there are great restaurants downtown. And some shops too. (I know, because I discovered them all by bike.) But in a car, I realized that I couldn’t casually go to any of them. I was trapped…

Myth of the Open Road

…and had to pass them by. It was like I was carrying the weight of the car rather than it carrying me. And I was tired. So I went straight home instead. Cars are useful, but driving in a city is kind of like trying to thread a needle while wearing a boxing glove.

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61 Responses to “The Myth of the Open Road”

  • traffic cyclist

    Entirely way too much time and energy is (mis)spent glorifying the bicycle (rider) and scorning the automobile (driver).

    • Well, there is something to be said for glorifying cyclists – after all, cycling does have a certain iconoclasm to it. It’s a kind of new frontier of independence and rugged individualism in a culture that has always secretly despised all those things even as it pretends to be defined by them. Essentially, in a world in which nothing has come along in 30 years to shake up the status quo, cycling is the new Punk.

      And let’s face facts: motoring is no longer cool or individualistic – it no longer inspires independence of spirit, as it used to do when car ownership was somewhat rare. Driving a car used to be special, but now anyone can do it – worse – everyone is expected to do it. Not only is it not special – it’s boring! Despite the best efforts of marketing companies to make it appear cool, the car has become the modern equivalent of the pocket protector.

      And as I said earlier, the car, thanks to its popularity, has become a ubiquitous horror – a disgusting blight on the environment and on our health. So its devotees naturally fall victim to some measure of scorn. The automobile ‘was’ a part of the new frontier back in the early 20th Century, but like so many revolutions, it eventually got stale and staid. It had its 15 minutes of fame but it wouldn’t get off the stage, and when something gets that stale, people start to look at it more critically, and let’s face it, the car (and motorists) do leave something to be desired. When people in the ‘in group’ kill a million people a year, and when they aren’t even interested in curtailing their own abuses, it kinda leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the ‘out group’. If motorists would stop the killings, stop the polluting, take their responsibilities a bit more seriously, then maybe they would deserve a bit less scorn.

      And if you poll motorists, you find they don’t even like to drive! They are like abused spouses – they keep coming back because they just can’t imagine life any other way. The love affair was bound to end at some point. I’m just surprised the honeymoon lasted so long.

      One thing is certain – when the last car finally goes the way of the dinosaur and we get our natural world back again, a lot of people will breathe a sigh of relief (mainly because they won’t risk choking when they take their next breath).

      In the meantime, at the very least, motorists deserve scorn. It disappoints me that they don’t get a lot worse than that.

  • Kevin Love

    This is very true here in Toronto. There is a very good reason why downtown car commute mode share is at 26% and falling fast. That is because on major roads average car speeds are as low as 11 km/hr (6 miles per hour). And that is the average, achieved by averaging in a lot of zero speed. Here is a fascinating newspaper article about this:

    http://www.torontosun.com/news/torontoandgta/2010/01/09/12401501-sun.html

    One key thing about cycling is that commute times are always and predictably the same. Cyclists can simply go around an obstruction that completely blocks car drivers. Car trips take unpredictable amounts of time. If someone has a job where the boss expects them to show up at a certain time, it is just not feasible or practical to drive a car.

    Cycling is simply the fastest, easiest and most convenient way of getting around. Interestingly enough, a lot of people on bicycles really don’t like cycling. They lead busy lives and are just trying to get to where they are going without wasting any time.

  • Tim

    This. Is. Ace.

    So many accurate observations in such a small panel.

    I would only add a couple of additional things about not being able to stop in a car.

    The biggy is when you’re suddenly unsure of your directions, or location, or if you want to change destination and therefore need to plan a new route. On my bike I hop onto the pavement (US: sidewalk) and get my map (or more likely phone GPS/google maps) out. In the car I often feel like I’m stuck with “keep driving and hope”. It feels really stressful.

    Or when the phone rings? OK, there’s hands-free in the car, or just plain breaking the law (in the UK) by answering and driving. But so much nicer on the bike to just pull over carefully and stop for a quick chat.

  • Yep. Bussin’ & bikin’ it here for over a year now. I’ve discovered things on a bicycle that I would not normally have behind the wheel of a car. It’s liberating to be free of arbitrarily imposed taxes (speeding tickets, etc.) tags, insurance, and most of all, gasoline. In fact, I laugh uncontrollably each time I roll past a gas station.

  • Lee Hollenbeck

    I also like that my ” fuel” for my bike is my breakfast. So coffee and cupcake, 2 mph faster commute. I live in the suburbs north of Boston, 17 miles for a one way commute, It takes me 20 minutes longer to get to work by bike than by car. I talk to my neighbors about biking and they look at me like I’ve done and impossible task. I go to the store to pick up bread and milk and my bike is the only one there. Lots of people have a stuck mind set, with an uphill battle about changing attitudes about transportation. Can we see $ 6.00 to $8.00 a gallon soon for gas ?

  • I’ve been car-free for last 30 yrs. I also gave up my license in early 20′s. I just wasn’t comfortable driving. Especially on the highway.

    I get into a car about 3-4 times annually for short trips. 1-2 days only. I was reminded just a pain in the butt it was to find parking for a car, just to have a restaurant meal.

  • Michael Sullivan

    Look. I love bikes. I ride one every day to public transport. They are great: I stay in shape, spend less on gasoline, and emit a little less smoke into the world. But, to put it bluntly, everyone who decries automobiles is a hypocrite. Nearly everything we use and depend on is delivered by a fossil-burning vehicle. Even our precious bikes. They didn’t come here on a bike filled with bikes, people. Cars and trucks are frustrating, but those of us who can afford to do without them are privileged, pure and simple. We live in centralized urban areas (for which we pay a premium others can’t afford), we are healthy or have access to altered cycles that allow us to overcome our physical disabilities, and we have jobs that don’t mind us showing up in crotch-hugging spandex. We can get all our groceries and luxury items because someone else drives them in for us—so we ourselves don’t have to drive.

    There’s a lot I dislike about this comic and these subsequent comments, but the worst is this smug, self-righteous feeling of superiority—especially from a bunch of people who routinely and blatantly flaunt basic traffic laws.

    • So you think I should be thankful that motor vehicles deliver our goods? Rubbish! I resent the fact. Sadly, in the first half of the 20th Century, the auto industry lobbied to destroy the rail networks that used to deliver goods. That’s hardly my fault.

      And I’ve never worn spandex in my life. Nor do I flaunt traffic laws. I do see them flaunted every day by motorists who speed, drive while using a cell phone, run stop signs, drive drunk, etc.

      I think what’s comical is that you’re claiming that cyclists are a privileged set of lawbreaking yuppies when the average car costs 100 times more than the average bicycle and scofflaw motorists kill over a million people per year.

    • And the idea that we’re “a bunch of people who routinely and blatantly flaunt basic traffic laws” is evidence that you don’t ride a bike anywhere. If you did, you would know that motorists are much worse than cyclists when it comes to casual lawbreaking.

    • You make that comment about goods delivered by fossil-fueled vehicles like it was unchangeable instead of an aberration of the latter half of the 20th Century. Goods are delivered by fossil-fueled vehicles because the infrastructure was re-built for them. The infrastructure can be rebuilt again for other delivery vehicles using other methods of propulsion. We can go completely fossil-fuel free for rail by simply putting a collector over the tracks and out to the side and hiring people to keep those collectors clean and clear of debris. I wrote a science-fiction story about one of the cleaners a few years back, I should probably submit it to someone to make a few bucks off it. But even at the current state of the art for solar cells and diverting 55% of the power generated to storage for nighttime use placing a contiguous solar cell cover over a track would supply enough power to get a train moving and keep it moving at about the same average speed and loading as trains do today only without having to stop to refuel. There would be a secondary advantage of having a roof over the tracks to prevent weather related delays.

      Then when the goods arrive in town they can be transferred to electric vans and cargo bikes for the “last mile” delivery, still without using fossil fuels. Not as cheap as today’s system of over the road semis and fossil fuels, but sustainable as long as they figure out how to recycle the tires, and make polymers from vegetable oils after they get used in the deep fryer. Similar to making bio-diesel except making synthetic rubber and plastics instead of replacing a fossil fuel. In theory any hydrocarbon (aka Fat) can be used as a feedstock for making polymers, it’s just that it’s easier when you have a bunch of different hydrocarbons to start with like in Crude Oil.

      So, if we get off our backsides now and start learning how to work without oils while we still have some to work with in the transition, things will be all right. Well maybe not All Right, but Not Too Bad.

  • Scott Wagner

    When asked why I don’t drive the car, even though I have one, I have never been able to articulate an answer as well as Bikeyface did here! Thanks, Bikeyface! I will remember that one: “When I’m driving, I am limited. I feel as if I am carrying the weight of the car rather than it carrying me.”

    The only way I can even justify having the car is to share it. Not very altruistic – I’m condemning others to the very driving task that I so dislike. But otherwise, it’s just a big ugly curb ornament. Sigh.

  • tim

    AWEsome.

    love your drawings and stories. I just got a puppy and drive more often : ( soon I will have a big bike to take us all.

    tenspeedCowboy

  • Adam

    @ Bekka,

    “That cyclist is slowing us down.” Classic. ;-)

  • heather

    Exactly, I hate the way car commecials also connect you to nature, as if the car is part of nature. Yes, you can actually drive right onto the beach! Yes, you can drive right over that river and onto the beaver dam! I live in the country and I can see drivers trying to live that fantasy. They drive very fast, very very fast because the car commercials show cars going very very fast-usually on closed roads or actual testing tracks and driven by pro drivers who know how to handle curves etc.. My only car was a bmw and lasted about 2 years. I did think I was in a car commercial! Sadly I also know that riding into the nearest town only takes a bit longer than driving once you factor in traffic, stop lights, trying to find parking etc..
    Living without a car in rural areas is more challenging and sometimes wish I had one because the vast distances mean I have to cut out alot of things. Which is fine because the cost and sacrifice of owning and running a car is far too high for me. I recommend that if you want to move to the country and are a cyclist, consider the area, are there communities within biking distances that have stores, services etc..? Are there quiet rural roads or only a nasty snarly highway? Is there a bus system? My area has public transit and while not stellar, it will get me to the towns in either direction, and to the ferry terminal for big city girl days.
    We recently rented a car for 2 days to do a bunch of summer stuff we’d been missing out on like going up to swimming lakes and such. A solid summer of hot weather and we rent the car, and guess what? It rained and was cold! We couldn’t just stop and check anything out, it involved turning around, trying to park over and over.
    It is true that by biking you get to see so much more and support local businesses. Extra money not wasted on car ownership can buy cupcakes, pie and coffee to refuel and ride some more.

  • You haven’t driven a Mini, have you? ;

    Depending on your circumstances, cars may make sense, sometimes. I live far enough out of town that driving is always faster than riding. And doing a two child drop off at preschool in the winter is impossible for me. Having said that, a commute across Cambridge is quite an enjoyable part of my day when I can do it.

    No one is irresponsible for riding a bike but driving a car is often a necessity because of how we organized our older cities, which were built for horses and bikes. We would have parking in urban areas if cities were indeed designed for cars.

  • I’m only in someone’s car less than 10 times annually. I always forget sometimes how much effort there is to find parking just to go to a restaurant of choice downtown in big cities.

  • You’ve so drawn me the other day driving my daughter to gymnastics (which is half across town and you simply cannot ride through downtown traffic with an eight-year-old on her bike) and then tried to do some shopping while she was there. I had an hour, and the car, and it simply wasn’t possible to drive to a nearby shopping street, park the car, buy stuff, and drive back in that time! With the bike, I would have done it in 40mins. Thinking of buying a folding bike to deposit it in the trunk.

  • Max Schneider

    However easy parking for bicycles only works if not everyone is doing it. Once “everbody” cycles even cycle parking can become scarce. Of course it is still a lot less of a problem (you can fit a lot more cycles in the same space than cars), but if everyone is doing it it does actually become a problem.

    There are quite a few towns in Germany now with “bycycles will be towed” zones (they really do it – you have to pay a hefty fee to get it back *and* they will have broken your expensive lock too – happened o my brother in Freiburg city center). I got a “ticket” for my bike too at the train station, however it was only a gentle reminder not to park my bike where I did but somewhere over at the designated parking area for bikes (it was only there for a few minutes, but hey, I got a ticket nevertheless – they would have removed my bike after a certain time).

    Also see this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/21/world/europe/a-sea-of-bikes-swamps-amsterdam-a-city-fond-of-pedaling.html?hp&_r=0&pagewanted=all

    However, you are still far away from that situation so enjoy it while you can.

    • Tim

      > Once “everbody” cycles even cycle parking can become scarce.
      Nice problem to have, as the saying goes.

      You say “enjoy it while you can”?

      I would much rather “enjoy” having somewhere I could safely cycle with my kids on board without worrying they might get killed any minute, and have fewer convenient places to lock my bike up. I guess it depends on your priorities. Although, as you say yourself, you can fit a lot more bikes than you can cars in the same space.

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