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Image: State Library of Queensland, Flickr (public domain)

One of the symptoms of dyspraxia, a neurological condition I have, is something vaguely defined within lists of symptoms as ‘sensory issues.’ Among other things, this means that when there is too much stimulus in my vicinity, I freeze up – my vision shifts into the middle distance, my brain produces a kind of all-consuming static, and I feel a disconnect with the outside world while simultaneously becoming hyper-aware of each of its details all at once. This, naturally, does not lend itself to being behind the wheel of a car. Once, in the middle of a driving lesson, this occurred as I approached a four-way intersection.

This is why, at the age of twenty-three, I do not have my driver’s licence. Some people with dyspraxia do drive, but not all. I invested much time and effort into getting my licence, working with my instructor, a friendly, chipper old bloke with the patience of a saint, who has assisted many disabled people get theirs. But then I moved a few suburbs away, could no longer feasibly get to him, and it was over: I wouldn’t be getting a licence any time in the foreseeable future.

Emotionally, I felt something vital slipping away from me. I’d failed a rite. The embarrassment I felt during my final year at high school, waiting for an unreliable bus to turn up while the first cars of my peers whipped past me, became routine. People reacted as though my not driving was somewhat inexplicable, a kind of moral failing. ‘You should know how to drive,’ I was told, by one of my dad’s friends. I mentioned dyspraxia and got a once-over that ended with a dismissive shrug. ‘No reason you can’t drive,’ he said. I watched the expiry date on my learner’s licence creep closer with alarm, uncertain how to prove my adult status at bars. There was a general sense throughout my late teens and the beginning of my twenties of exclusion, a frustration at my inability to change from my dyspraxic self. There is a kind of marginalisation faced by non-drivers, based in deeply ingrained ideas around the centricity of cars and driving to our society and culture.

There is a kind of marginalisation faced by non-drivers, based in deeply ingrained ideas around the centricity of cars and driving to our society and culture.

A few years ago, I stood at the back of a classroom during a practicum placement for my teaching degree, as a teacher asked a particularly bright Year Twelve English class what was being symbolised by the closing shot of a film in which the protagonist drives off into the distance. ‘It means he’s a real adult now,’ was one memorable answer. Cars stand in our culture as symbols of independence, masculinity, and freedom, but these associations did not happen out of nowhere. Much of it was inherited from the American dream of the open road, and driven by loud lobbying voices in the earlier half of the 20th century, in the form of motoring associations such as the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria and the National Roads and Motorists’ Association. In his book Car Wars: How The Car Won Our Hearts and Conquered Our Cities, historian Graeme Davison notes George Broadbent as a particularly loud voice in Australia – a racing champion, manager of RACV’s touring department, and weekly columnist in the Argus newspaper who called frequently for lower taxes on oil and, by way of supporting pedestrian education programs and regulations, the shift of blame around car accidents from drivers to pedestrians. Rhetoric of other lobbyists of the time, at a crucial moment in the formation of cities, sought to drive a connection between the individual, freedom, and liberal economics. ‘Perhaps the motor car gives physical expression to our love of independence, just as in the economic sphere that love of independence finds expression in free enterprise, and in the political sphere of our democratic form of government,’ wrote Albert Bradley, then vice-president of General Motors, in New Zealand’s Radiator magazine.

There is also the relationship between cars and masculinity to consider. Cars have tended to be characterised by elements which are also held to be masculine: the car is painted as powerful, independent, and indomitable. There is also an ostensibly hypermasculine culture of car-focused events, such as Canberra’s infamous Summernats, which has a history of sexual assaults. While I’ve never put much stock in being perceived as masculine  being queer, I’m estranged from the concept to begin with – I couldn’t help but notice that my lack of access to the road was more remarked upon by men than women.

There is nothing like a move from the far-flung northern suburbs of Sydney to inner suburban Melbourne to highlight the artificiality of cars’ domination of our landscapes and lives. Living near Hornsby, 25 kilometres from the Sydney CBD, I had to gain an internal memory of when the buses and the trains came, and towards the end of my life in Sydney, an upgrade to my train line meant that my morning commutes to university were interrupted by a station closure. I now live in a street on a tram line (a point I’ve been vocally excited about since I planned the move), and my sense of distance has changed as a result. Melbourne, which has the fortune of not being developed around a basin, feels less clustered and more accessible. I feel confident that when I leave the house, I will get to my destination on time.

There is nothing like a move from the far-flung northern suburbs of Sydney to inner Melbourne to highlight the artificiality of cars’ domination of our landscapes and lives.

At the same time, though, public transport use feels increasingly punitive and hostile. I was alarmed at the frequency with which transit officers have asked for my ticket, and approach people who have not bought their tickets as if they’re dangerous. Just a few weeks ago I witnessed three physically imposing officers crowd around the far end of my carriage because a high schooler had not brought his ticket. This mirrors what feels like an increase in surveillance on commuters and more severe punishment, in what may be a consequence of privatisation of public transport. For a time in Melbourne, transit officers were equipped with EFTPOS machines which were used to take money for on-the-spot fines (but not to top up myki cards), until public outcry and a scathing Ombudsman’s report led to the abolition of this practice. In NSW, the state began phasing out RailCorp Transit Officers in 2012, shifting their responsibilities to the police in the form of a Police Transport Command. A few years later, Transport NSW launched a series of advertisements reminding patrons that they are being watched and will be punished if found fare-evading. This general climate in this state has culminated grotesquely into the NSW Police recently putting up ‘privacy screens’ in Sydney’s Central Station, used to conduct strip searches in an attempt to find drugs.

Furthermore, as utopian an ideal as public transport is in the abstract, it’s very much a metropolitan dream. We can’t expect everybody to move closer to cities; it is perhaps much easier to sell the idea of decreasing car usage to middle-class urban dwellers than it is to those living in the suburbs or the regions. However, the question is becoming less about whether a car-centric future is desirable than whether it is possible.

Whatever meaning cars have accumulated across their lifespan, recent decades have forced them into a new one: that of the environmental degradation that their existence relies on. In 2016, it was reported by the Climate Council that Australia’s cars emit the same amount of carbon emissions as Queensland’s entire electricity supply. As oil reserves continue to dwindle, as the harm we are doing to ourselves and our planet due to cars becomes more clear, as the affordability of maintaining a car drifts out of reach for more and more of the population, the car may simply fade out, impossible as it may seem today. This is reflected in the statistics: for the first time, car ownership among under-25s has fallen rather than risen.

Whatever meaning cars have accumulated across their lifespan, the question is becoming less about whether a car-centric future is desirable than whether it is possible.

The imperative to profit from enabling people to get around currently severely limits present thinking about alternatives to cars. While technology start-ups spruik self-driving cars and subscription services to transport as solutions to the problem the car represents, as long as they are run by profit-seeking entities, they will only continue the trends of exclusion. 

The assumption of cars as a vital component of modern civilisation is one that must be challenged – our current environmental and economic crises call for nothing less. While cars feel intensely personal, it is clear that there are very real cultural and pragmatic pressures which maintain their position at the centre of our culture. In a country as large and sparsely populated as Australia, most people drive cars out of practical necessity. Due to my inability to drive, practical necessity was also the thing that made me shape my life into one where I did not have to. But, due to the forces that shape the world we live in, most don’t have that choice.