Driving for a car free future

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Stop Signs explores the deeper political implications of car culture and the ways automobiles reshape our living environments

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Today cars are everywhere in our lives, on city streets, printed on glossy magazines pages, flickering on TV screens, referenced in pop songs and embedded in mainstream political discourse.

Unwinding the deep relationship between automobiles and North America's lifestyle is certainly a revolutionary task, but is undoubtedly a challenge necessary to consider in the face of growing environmental catastrophe. Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism: On the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay, a recently launched book by Montreal authors Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler, is a striking attempt to deconstruct our bad romance with the automobile.

Focusing in detail on the smog-filled history of cars in North America and impacts of car culture globally, part narrative, part information-packed analysis, the book is a fascinating read with potential to revolutionize your perspective on the ever-present automobile.

"Private cars are bad for people, bad for our living spaces, bad for our health on different levels and obviously bad for the environment," outlines co-author Yves Engler, in an interview with rabble.ca.

A narrative rooted in a non-car road-trip throughout the U.S. taken by the authors, the book advances American city by American city, chapter by chapter building an impressive argument against the mass use of private automobiles in Canada, the U.S. and globally. The book presents page after page of stinging facts, breaking-down the automobile industry to a parasitic profit-driven corporate core, obsessively driving mass automobile addiction.

Beyond an issue specific approach, Stop Signs explores the deeper political implications of car culture and the profound ways that automobiles reshape our living environments. It also moves to outline, via historical accounting, the active destruction of public transit infrastructure, specifically tramlines, by the automobile industry in the past century.

"Private cars are a social problem, destroying the human scale of our urban landscape, cars lead to louder, uglier city environments with more pollutants in the air," explains Engler.

On urban planning Stop Signs reflects on the impacts of car culture on the cityscape in relation to political activism. The book identifies pedestrian-friendly cities, like Montreal or New York City, as conducive to grassroots political action like street protests, while highway etched American urban expanses, like Houston or Miami, as presenting urban barriers to protest culture in both distance and highway-laced urban geography.

"Where do you leaflet in the suburbs?," questions co-author Bianca Mugyenyi, in an interview with rabble.ca, "there is a social alienation imposed by cars and highways surrounding you, a lot of freedom is taken away by cars."

"Do we want to be spending this much time paying for cars, thinking about cars, being in cars?" continues Mugyenyi, "is it a good use of public money to be building roads, when that money could be going toward social programs or schools? Cars are bad for people and for the planet, a totally unsustainable mode of transportation that encourages an individualism, cars are bad for communities, for social movements."

In short, Stop Signs demands our society to turnoff mass automobile dependence, laying down the reasons readers should reconsider the car and take action toward common transport alternatives.

Both an engaging and at times entertaining read Stop Signs straddles a delicate balance between presenting a well-researched challenge to car culture and an experience driven narrative written by authors travelling in America, grappling with the challenges to freedom of movement faced by car-less authors on the road in the U.S.

At a time of growing global awareness and support for climate justice, Stop Signs is a key read for anyone looking to gain knowledge and insight into the contemporary crossroads faced by societies increasingly dependant and shaped by the automobile. Although factually and footnote heavy, it's an engaging and quick read. The travel-driven chapters create space and examples that make tangible key and often under-reported information on the destructive impacts of car culture.

As Canada debates our growing role in oil production, via the environmentally destructive tar sands in Alberta, Stop Signs is a critical critique on machines thirsting for the dirty oil that Canada produces at a massive scale. Too, the book explores the key importance of challenging the automobile as people engaged in environmental and social justice struggles.—Stefan Christoff

For more information on Stop Signs visit Fernwood Publishing.

For information on Canada/U.S. book launches for Stop Signs visit the website. Join the upcoming Car Free Day June 2011 in Vancouver

Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based writer, musician and community activist who contributes to rabble.ca. Follow him on Twitter.

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