Reflections on Car Brain?

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Illustration by Josh Cochran (NYT)

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article from The New York Times by Paul Salopek. Salopek is embarking on a round the world journey by foot.  He started in the Ethiopia where the first homo sapiens are said to have roamed.  In Ethiopia, he found that many people still travelled everywhere by foot.  He could ask for directions and people would know how to direct him.

However, as he travelled through the more affluent Middle East, people were not so able to give him good foot-based directions.  Their minds and mental map have already been shaped by car travel.

In Saudi Arabia, I had trouble simply communicating with motorists who have lost the ability to imagine unconstrained movement to any point on the horizon. Asking directions is often pointless. Like drivers everywhere, their frame of reference is rectilinear and limited to narrow ribbons of space, axle-wide, that rocket blindly across the land.

From experience, I have found the same “Car Brain” happens in North America.  On one occasion when my wife’s family was visiting from Hong Kong, they wanted to walk back to their hotel in Richmond.  They were at Richmond Centre and needed to walk back up to Bridgeport Road.  Whenever one asks for “how long it will take to get there” people here automatically answer with the car in mind.  Well for my wife’s family, they were told that it was 10 minutes back to the hotel. In good traffic and in a car, the answer would be yes, but by foot, it took closer to an hour with a senior as part of the group.  No one here would ever think that somebody would want to walk anywhere.

How parts of Richmond treats pedestrians – no sidewalk

I had another experience where I was at Stanley Park cycling with a group of friends.  An emergency situation with my wife had happened down by Burrard and Pacific.  I had to get there quickly. My friend insisted that he drive me there because that would be quick. Yes, a car can travel faster than a bicycle, but in downtown Vancouver with traffic and parking, I knew for sure that I would bike to the scene faster than joining my friend in his car.

Car Brain is well and alive in North America.  I suspect I have Car Brain too.  Another friend would regularly walk from King Edward and Main to Kingsway and Fraser. I thought that was way too far to walk, but he did it pretty regularly.  Another couple that I know, even walked from King Edward and Main all the way to a restaurant along The Drive.  It took them about an hour on a beautiful sunny day.  I probably would not have done the same trek.  And sometimes, I don’t even walk to the supermarket for groceries even though it’s only about 5 blocks away.  I’ll admittedly drive there.  Yep. It’s all Car Brain.

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