No Car, No Problem
On cold rainy days in February, when my shoes are soaked and my legs are damp, I often find myself wondering, “Why did I decide to live without a car?"
Growing up as a teenager in the suburbs, I believed cars were a source of independence. Yet, over the years, I've come to see cars as a symptom of cultural sickness. In college, I decided to save money by not purchasing a car and found that I also escaped worries of shoveling the snow from around its tires, finding parking, and arguing with mechanics. Now, when parents or friends offer me their used vehicles, I turn them down, preferring to avoid the hassle of ownership.
Cecilia Kingman, a minister who convened a Common Security Club in her church, notes that her decision to live with out a car, “always draws curious comments.” Yet she managed to raise two children as a single mother without one.
Kingman's children now say that growing up without a car not only brought their family closer together, but also helped them develop a more relaxed schedule, environmental consciousness, and a strong sense of their own independence and capability. “They learned to take public transportation at an early age, and by middle school could get all over town on their own,” she says.
Lately, it seems, everyone is going “green”–even my mom is eating vegan and taking public transit. Still, as climate change unfolds on a grand scale, we all must wonder if our individual lifestyle choices are really making a significant difference. Although one can worry about paper or plastic, the Union of Concerned Scientists explains that the most influential environmental choices an individual can make boil down to three: Drive less; Eat less meat; Live in smaller, well-insulated homes.
A more radical consciousness raiser for me was reading Ecocities, in which architect and urban planner Richard Register explains how, in addition to environmental problems, cars cause a dislocation of community.
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As Kingman points out from her own car-free experience, “We ended up supporting a lot of local businesses, because big box stores and malls were much harder to get to. We bought our groceries every few days, which supported a healthier diet. And most of my children’s friends were in the neighborhood, because I couldn't drive them across town for play dates, and that helped us know our neighborhood, which has benefits beyond our own family.”
My friend Danilo Morales grew up in Ecuador with six brothers and sisters. A car was more than his family could afford. As a child, he felt normal taking the bus, as most other families couldn’t afford a car either. Even though he wanted one in high school so he could take his girlfriend to the beach, the idea of going into debt for five to seven years—with little money left over for food and rent—seemed absurd. When he came to the United States, he was shocked to find that a lot of families have one car for every member.
As he began his U.S. job hunt, Morales considered buying a car in order to be able to go after the best available job. Yet he found the stress from the rush hour commute lingered. As he puts it, “When I was young in Ecuador, still finding my identity, a car was attractive in theory. But now I have core principles and I’ve overcome the status mirage of a car. I feel like I am doing something good by avoiding car ownership. Of course, you have to be strategic about where you live.”
As for myself, I am not very rigid about my lifestyle choices. Of course, I still can take taxis—which is recommended on cold, rainy days. I still rent cars to get out of town or to visit relatives. I often borrow cars, if I have big shopping trip to do. And I always accept a ride, if it really isn’t an inconvenience.
I’ve learned some wonderful lessons from living without a car:
- Commutes are wonderful times to read, and I find the subway relaxing despite the loud roaring and screeching sounds of the wheels on the rails.
- Walking is when I get all my best thinking done. On a sunny day or summer night, long hikes through the city can be as beautiful as long hikes through the mountains.
- Shoes are beautiful and important and worth spending money on.
- Community is vibrantly alive in my neighborhood! Every day, I bump into a neighbor while walking down the street and spend an extra ten minutes chatting–there is a village within the city, and I feel embraced by it.
Any lessons you other car-free folks want to share? I am curious to hear reflections from people thinking of driving less.
Orion Kriegman wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Orion coordinates the work of the Great Transition Initiative, a project of the Tellus Institute. He also coordinated the creation of the Urban Ecovillage Network, linking world-wide efforts to create sustainable urban communities. Kriegman holds a Master in Public Policy and Urban Planning from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
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