Without a Car in the World
Trips take longer, and you have to bum rides, but life is sweeter when you’re not tied to a ton of rolling steel.
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.
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.
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.
The Personal Becomes Political
Yet futurists who project declining automobile travel as a result of telecommuting fail to reckon how small a number of telecommuters now exists (3 percent of the population), how small a percentage of miles is racked up by the commute, and how large a percentage is needed for errands in sprawling suburbs. The stay-at-homes still pass their days performing the personal trips that run annual mileage into five digits. Only if we solve the land-use issue-designing and preserving compact neighborhoods-can we make telecommuting really count.
Some car-free citizens have worked to such an end by trying to make their communities more walkable, in the process turning the personal into the political. For Chris Bradshaw, president of OttaWalk, a pedestrian advocacy group in Ottawa, staying car-free means fighting to preserve the community center or the blockfronts of small stores, and battling for a public “bare-pavement” policy to keep sidewalks free of snow. Such services and institutions make “trip-chaining”-the traffic engineer’s word for performing serial errands-feasible on foot. To Bradshaw, too, staying car-free means coaxing a neighborhood shop to stock a missing item instead of driving to a Big Box store on the periphery.
For others, enhancing a car-free existence may mean stopping a road widening or extension that would bring traffic and threaten the pedestrian. Simple tactics such as widening sidewalks, building speed bumps, and planting trees to slow motorists can reduce the danger to walkers. Providing a safe route for a youngster to walk to school can eliminate two car trips per family per day. Approaching school committees or politicians raises the likelihood of success. Again, the personal becomes political when those who value walkable and bikable neighborhoods participate in zoning decisions to allow mixed commercial and residential development; when they fight to retain or add a streetcar route; when they lobby for more and better buses.
Efforts like these are multiplying as car-free advocacy groups grow in number and solidarity. The months-old WalkAmerica alliance already embraces more than 10 organizations. Advocates for greenways and bike routes, such as Transportation Alternatives, ally with environmental associations such as the 1000 Friends of Oregon, the Environmental Defense Fund, or the Sierra Club. Across the political spectrum, trolley and train fans are uniting with opponents of highway boondoggles. Many activists are engaged in the fight to retain the nation’s six-year-old Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). The act, which directs 50 percent of federal transportation funds to nonhighway uses, comes up for renewal this fall.
Perhaps the broadest front on which to combat car dependency is economic policy. Automobile travel is heavily subsidized by local governments’ underwriting of streets and roads, federal funding of oil wars (Desert Storm), and the hidden costs of the car-generated infrastructure that breeds sprawl. Hence there are many opportunities to curtail car use through the cash register. Our artificially low gas price of $1.25 or so is a quarter of Japan’s or Europe’s $4 to $5, which includes taxes to cover social and environmental costs. By paying the true cost of petroleum, other countries spend half the 20 percent of GDP that Americans spend on the private car (according to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York City) and can thus afford decent public transportation.
Stop subsidizing cars, and solo driving will go down while carpooling, cycling, and mass transit will rise, enhancing the car-free life. We can pay at the pump or pay in excise taxes or registration fees. Congestion pricing-charging more on roads and bridges during peak periods, as is done in Norway and Singapore-works well. So would a carbon, horsepower, or gas-guzzling tax: a nickel-a-mile surcharge would cut car travel (and hence automotive smog) 10 percent while reducing congestion 30 percent, according to research by economist Komanoff.
These are the choices our society must make collectively. If our culture rejects automobility, or hypermobility, as its Manifest Destiny, the car will be a servant, not a master. We have alternatives to a car-bound existence. People can live in places not encrusted with asphalt, improve their daily existence, establish a stronger sense of community, and know that they are advancing global well-being. For me, the long journey began with the footsteps toward a car-free life.
Keep up with the latest in sustainable energy at EmTech MIT.
Discover where tech, business, and culture converge.
September 17-19, 2019
MIT Media Lab