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Roads to Freedom

What motivated me, and what does and could power others, was an awareness that I would no longer be forced to shuttle a minimum of 2,000 pounds (3,000-plus in a sports utility vehicle) to buy a Popsicle. Most drivers don’t realize the hours spent behind the wheel on “shop ‘n’ drop.” They think they use their car mainly to get to work and take vacations. Since two-thirds of all Americans live in metropolitan areas, and spend ten 40-hour weeks a year driving to work, that sounds reasonable. But the big picture is sobering. According to the Nationwide Personal Transportation Study done by the U.S. Department of Transportation in the early ’90s, only 22 percent of our vehicle miles are used for commuting, and only 8 percent for vacation travel. The rest is errands, recreation, chauffeuring unlicensed family members. This realization alone should be enough to envision a better life without a motor vehicle.

A different set of wheels, the bicycle, can often take up the slack or eliminate one of the two or three cars in half our households. Some enthusiasts bike through truck-ridden, traffic-clogged mazes. Others see bicycling as promoting personal and planetary fitness as they perform, say, the 40-mile daily round-trip from Dover, Mass., to downtown Boston taken by Douglas Foy, head of the car-battling Conservation Law Foundation. Pleasure, politics, and the opportunity to save time motivate economist and transportation activist Charles Komanoff, who keeps five bicycles (for different weather and terrain) on hand for family odysseys from Manhattan.

But you don’t have to be fanatical to join the 9 percent of the nation’s households (largely poor) that don’t own a car or the 30 or 40 percent of the population deprived of driving because they are too young, too old, or too disabled. As one pedestrian advocate tells me, most of the time when people dispense with their horseless carriage, it’s through happenstance. The buggy gets too old to move another mile. The parking gets too tedious. Money is short. Sometimes there’s that other car in the garage. Michael Eberlein, coordinator of nonmotorized travel at Michigan’s Department of Transportation in car-locked Lansing, reduced his household to one car for financial reasons. “We were trying to find the extra $6,000 and couldn’t,” he says.

At first, the newly car-free gripe, and feel guilty about cadging rides. They sometimes learn to rent cars or take cabs, but otherwise frame their days on the human mobility of walking or bicycling. If they are lucky and live in a dense urban or old suburban area, they can take advantage of mass transit. The 80 percent of Manhattanites who do not drive endorse the saying that a car is “more trouble than it’s worth.” They walk or they ride the omnipresent rail and bus system allowed by places whose land patterns-densely settled, walkable-and commitment to public transportation sustain it. The backpack, the walker’s constant companion, doesn’t replace a “roomy interior,” but it does help.

Opting for homes closer to a core-that is, accepting less house for the money-can save both time and transportation costs and offers the public life of parks, shops, and libraries. Living near a 24-hour store without a car is a money-saving proposition compared with driving to the superstore. Think again: does the Wal-Mart save you $6,000 a year? Then there are the extra parking spaces-the driveway and the garage-adding to the price of a home. Finally, driving (at $1 a mile, by some estimates) from ever-more-distant suburbs compounds the expense. In the end, the cost equation changes mindsets. In fact, in California, the Bank of America has lowered its mortgage rates for those who cut down on cars and live in nonsprawling communities. The trend to such “location-efficient” mortgages grows.

Even car-bound consumers consigned to exurbia by work can find options for becoming less car-dependent. Businesses and institutions have begun to supply vehicles for parents to use in emergencies, provide chits for public transportation, organize car pools, and refund money to those who don’t use their parking facilities. (The subsidy of free parking, like the subsidy of tax-supported highway infrastructure, tilts the balance to being car-dependent.) Paratransit-vans that loop through industrial zones or transport elderly and disabled people-can help. So can messengers and taxi systems; the tighter the land pattern, the greater the possibilities. Communities in Canada and Germany, as well as a few in the United States (including Eugene, Ore., and Boston), have instituted the car-sharing system: pay a fee and you have access to an automobile in a nearby parking lot. Just make a reservation, retrieve a key from a safe-deposit box, take a ride, and return the car.

Work options like telecommuting also stand high on some lists of solutions for lessening autodependency. Telecenters, urban “villages” where telecommuters share facilities and space near their homes, have opened nationwide.

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