Tragedy of the Commons: The car as enclosure

Chris Bradshaw, Canadian planner and new mobility innovator, takes us on a quick peek into cars as “enclosures” of what should more rightly be the common domain in our cities. When we look at it this way, the concept of a “right to park” starts to look quite different. We are once again back to the concept of “worst practices” on the one hand, and on the other, our the understanding of space as public, private . . . or social. All of a sudden we have a new and quite different base for discussion and policy.

– Chris Bradshaw, Ottawa, Canada. 2 August 2011

We should initiate land claims in the name of aboriginal transportation modes and their users to get back these places.

The reference to “enclosure” (as per the special Ecologist issue of 1993) is apt. The spaces between properties has always been “public” in the sense that anyone can use it for truly public purposes, on the assumption that their use is relatively frugal, space- and time-wise.

Yes, some “commons-sharing” works in long-time resource sharing situations, as Nobel Economics-prize winner, Elinor Ostrom (in Governing the Commons, 1995, and elsewhere) has proven. But the city is a much different place; too many people, too anonymously related. We can’t expect a committee to form in each block to protect the common resources of public space.

The introduction of cars has created this crisis. The car, itself, is an enclosure, but of about 20 times the space a pedestrian needs for fairly free movement. Driver locks his enclosure when he leaves his car, denying any passersby access to 4-6 seats that pedestrians never can find when they need it.

Drivers also assume they have privacy in their cars, and will use tinted glass to get it, also masking their identity in cases in which their driving has injured or endangered vulnerable road users. If a passerby even leans against the car’s exterior, it is seen as a major social faux pas.

In Canada, we are settling land claims with aboriginal people, as process that is well over a hundred years old. This is somewhat ironic, since aboriginals’ system of wisdom doesn’t provide for the European model of private ownership (enclosure). I live in downtown Ottawa, on lands which are still being negotiated over.

But what about the public places, as the European system has created: the spaces that form the public-access system that all properties front on?

People on foot, and those who own common conveyances for hire (e.g., rickshaws) of fairly frugal dimensions, are being pushed off their land by vehicles that are far larger, faster, heavier, and less frugally utilized, all to provide a private space for its own owner while in the public domain.

Cars are an invention that has no use except to be used in public spaces. Because of private ownership, the car is much larger/heavier than urban use dictates, its versatility being our bane.

We should initiate land claims in the name of aboriginal transportation modes and their users to get back these places. The provision of sidewalks, which are meant to display a kind of sharing of this space, fails badly when those on foot want to get across the street to the other side. As was pointed out, crossing at places where it is approved, is often more dangerous than doing it mid-block where is is supposedly more dangerous. When did pedestrians give up our right to cross the street freely and safely?

The problem arises because the motor-traffic portion has been improved to appear to be a singular conduit channeling vehicles from far and wide along that stretch of space, while the thousands of different walking routes that transcect are formalized (‘enclosed’).

Ottawa has just put in separated bike lanes along the sidewalk edge along a 10-block section of a downtown street. A number of parking spaces were removed to make room for it, but also it has become more of a problem for pedestrians to cross the street, with these stand-alone curbs creating a barrier that is more problematic than the sidewalk’s curb (since there is a drop-off on both sides). At corners, crosswalks have been shifted further from the sidewalk alignment to make way for a bike ‘island’ to be used by cyclists turning left.

When I questioned the proposal, I was told this will increase the modal share for cycling, which is what happened when Copenhagen installed them throughout the downtown. But I now realize that they are intended to keep the cyclists out of the motorists’ way, more than the reverse. Copenhagen already had achieved its legendary cycling modal share; it was motorists who found the ‘going’ tough downtown, who probably demanded some separation.

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About the author:

Chris Bradshaw retired from city & regional planning in 1996, and co-founded Ottawa’s carsharing company, Vrtucar in 2000. He has been an advocate for walking and pedestrian rights for 30 years. In retirement, he is championing a society-wide transition to a second-generation version of carsharing (integrating car-sharing, taxis, ridesharing, car-rental, and delivery). He lives ‘car-lite’ in downtown Ottawa with his wife of 40 years.

* Editor’s note: This essay appeared today as a letter in the discussions in the Sustran Global South forum looking into the concepts of “worst practices” and “social space”, both of which are extensively reported in the pages of World Streets.

One thought on “Tragedy of the Commons: The car as enclosure

  1. Just stumbled upon this article and am thrilled to see the notion of commons/enclosure applied to our current urban reality. If I insist on having big things that don’t fit in my own space, why should I be allowed to put them in public space? If it’s ok with cars, what about other things? A famous Italian comedian (Grillo) in one of his hilarious spiels about cars, questioning the rights of private car owners to occupy public space says, “fine, I’ll park my sofa”.


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