The trumpet sounded from eighth row center at a Washington University lecture hall in St. Louis five years ago. It was early in my explorations for the book that would become Asphalt Nation, and I was happy preaching to the choir. Or, I should say, to fellow passengers; for the students at the architecture school were already on the same trip. They knew intuitively, if not literally, the design formulas that I recited from the podium-for example, that every motor vehicle required building an ancillary seven parking spaces to hold it at rest. They realized that big chunks-some 30 percent-of our cities were hardtopped in service to the car’s voracious appetite. And they knew how that transformed the built environment into a grim “carchitecture.”The students absorbed my other arguments on the broader compass of America’s car costs: financial, social, and environmental. They comprehended the motor vehicle’s economic toll-$6,000 a year in personal costs and another car costs: financial, social, and environmental. They comprehended the motor vehicle’s economic toll-$6,000 a year in personal costs and another $4,000$5,000 in “invisible” ones borne by the public. They were startled by the health and environmental hazards of driving, from the more than 120 fatal accidents a day to habitat destruction and global warming. They had experienced the inconveniences of congestion and playing chauffeur, of parking and driving for miles to get a quart of milk. The room darkened and they chuckled at the slides of cartoons and auto-mated mayhem.
Then the questions started pouring forth. Toward the end of the evening came the telling one: “Do you own a car?” And with it my confession: Yes, I did.
Of course I did. With my first child I had bought my first car. In fact, I had recently purchased a new one, my third Saab-the most “environmental” one, I supposed, but a car nonetheless.
With that question, I knew I had to sell my private chariot. I realized that to explore the options or preach the message of car-free living, it was incumbent on me to be carless or, in the vernacular of the activists, “de-vehicularized.”
I knew, too, I would assuredly hear the question again from others, believers and skeptics alike. More important, I knew I had to learn the answer firsthand. If I couldn’t function without a four-wheeled vehicle, I would have to alter my book’s subtitle, How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back.
A month later, my car was on the block at the dealer. I was car-free with cash in hand. And damn the consequences.
So what were the consequences?
Since this is a truth walk, I will offer another confession. Much as the image of martyrdom appeals, shedding the car was no ordeal. From the beginning, I had scant trouble adjusting to my nonmotored life. And as the months wore on the pluses far outweighed the minuses. For me, at least, it was easy to be car-free.
For one reason, I live in a dense, urban neighborhood of Boston. I work downtown. I walk. My office, my friends and family, my entertainment and medical care are reachable by mass transit or on foot. Messenger services are available, and taxis can often fill the breach. My grown daughters have moved away-one overseas, the other to transit-rich New York. The supermarket delivers; the fruits and vegetables I carry home belie the professionalism of my briefcase but fit snugly inside. And because Boston holds many people who walk or take public transportation, services have sprung up to cater to their needs. This isn’t Manhattan, with its 24-hour everything, but it is a city. Its neighborhoods and shops ease a hassle-free, less car-dependent life.
At times, it took some doing, I’ll concede, and some thinking. I switched tailors. I learned to carry two books or two grapefruits at a time instead of four, to allow extra time to get to the movies or visit my mother. I traded chores for occasional rides and, sometimes, made friends and enriched trips with shared driving. At times, I abandoned a venture to some more distant place or used phone or mail order. Was it a sacrifice to reorganize or reduce my movement? A bit. But it was pure pleasure to forgo trips to the repair shop or the tow lot, or expeditions to the mall encased in a ton of rolling steel. Overall, I simplified my life. I saved time.
One spring day early in my car-free life, a new friend took me on a ride to trace the geography of my childhood and child-rearing days in my home town of Brookline, Mass. In only 10 minutes, we traversed the arc of my life … by the courtyard apartment where I grew up in an intimate, sidewalk community … up a hill to the small house on a dead-end street where I raised my children … past the home of my high school days, paces from my classroom. In short order, we had swung by the library, the corner store, the town swimming pool, my sister’s house.
You have lived your life in such a small space, my friend, a planner, said thoughtfully.
“Small,” I mused. It had seemed universe enough. Not small at all to a child on foot. Not small to an adolescent or a young mother. Not in the detail, the change, the shifting drift of streets, the palette of tree and vegetation, the variety of architecture, the scale of windows, the ornament adorning facades. Each locale, each corner, each doorway had meaning and actuality. Each segment had a rich and diverse presence as I walked from store to school to playground. To me, the arc was large as life: it was built at a walker’s pace, and paced it I had. Its mobility was the pedestrian’s-shifting, evolving, engaging eye and mind.
How different from carbound America’s hypermobility and its blur of passing faceless places. “Houston is the modern world par excellence,” the architect Daniel Solomon writes in his book ReBuilding. “The young man who drove me to the airport says he lives 30 miles from school, a one-hour drive each way. His 21/2-year-old truck has 78,000 miles on it and he hasn’t been anywhere. Fifty times the Odyssey, eight times the travels of Marco Polo, how many hundreds of times the walks of Leopold Bloom? And with what density of experience, what learned in his 78,000-mile journey?”
Not long after my hometown tour, a young German intern in my office gave me a Netherlands Friends of the Earth study of the motorized planet: the environmentalists calculated that to apportion the mileage of drivers in the industrial nations across the global population would allow each planet member only 400 motorized miles a year. A mere 400 miles! The thought was staggering. “How could we move?” I asked a friend. She responded ruefully that her daughter wouldn’t be able to live in California. On the other hand, her daughter would be within walking or biking range. My friend’s options were at once contracted and enlarged. Mine had been, too.