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Travails of Travel

For all the conveniences of my home life, I soon found that moving around the wider, car-dependent country took commitment. When I ventured outside of my pedestrian-friendly city to give a speech to conservationists in Yonkers, N.Y.-some 200 miles south of Boston-I understood what deviation from the motorized norm meant.

My trip began with a rocky three-hour Amtrak ride to Stamford, Conn., followed by a 45-minute car ride with my host to the venue of the speech. There I met my daughter, who had come a dozen miles by mass transit from Manhattan. None of this was terribly arduous. The worst of it came on the return voyage.

My hosts had assured me that I could take public transportation back to Manhattan. One member of the audience offered to drive us to the nearby train station. Alas, as 11 p.m. approached, the station’s bleak environs unnerved her. Instead she drove us to the “safe” bus stop on a lonely Yonkers arterial and dropped us off. Across the street from our perch, a pizza parlor glowed lifelessly in the dark. The sidewalks were mostly deserted. Cars passed; one slowed down ominously. Twenty anxious minutes later, we handed over the $7 fare for a 30-minute bus ride to New York City. Near midnight, we disembarked and caught a cab to my daughter’s apartment.

From doorway to doorway, I had spent eight hours transporting myself.

But whatever the wearisome aspects of walking and mass transit, of being viewed by skeptical friends as an eccentric Mary Poppins wafted by air, I had an easy answer to any predicament in my car-free life. In the back of my brain I carried the mantra of “$6,000,” the amount I was saving each year by eliminating the expense of a car. And this figure, now $6,500, according to the Automobile Association of America, continues to rise. A distant doctor’s appointment, a delivery charge for groceries or pizza, a cab here or there, paled in comparison to the cash benefit of almost $20 a day I got from chucking my car. And, of course, I was practicing what I preached-and learning from the experiment.

Besides my own private gains, I was saving society almost that much in hidden costs, some in the form of pollution and environmental defilement; some in public costs of motor registry services, land consumption, congestion, accidents, and on and on.

In the five years since I began work on Asphalt Nation, my car-free lifestyle has begun to look less oddball. Awareness of the automobile’s social, economic, environmental, and architectural mischief has risen. Congestion, the most obvious symptom, grows as we travel ever more. So does the realization that our 5 percent of the planet’s population owns close to half the world’s cars, carrying with that ownership 50 percent of the blame for the automobile’s destruction of habitat and contribution to global warming.

Many people want to escape from this ruinous path. Friends now envy my car-free condition, though they remain stubbornly dubious of their own capacity to emulate it. And indeed, after three-quarters of a century of catering to the car, their reluctance is understandable. How do people change? How can we reduce the average 11,000 miles per year that Americans drive each of their 200 million motor vehicles?Unquestionably, we can improve our carbound lot. Personally and politically, as I have learned, we can lessen our dependency on the automobile.

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Tagged: Energy

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