Carless America?


A friend of mine lives in a city where it’s feasible to live without a car. I live in another place where it would be possible to get around just fine without a car—especially if you have the time/fitness/etc. to walk or cycle to your destinations. It’s a romantic, appealing idea. Living without a car is good for the environment. It’s good for your wallet. And moving around more is probably pretty good for your health too—because let’s face it, as a country, we’re not moving around enough.

But I grew up in a place where it would be nearly impossible to function without a car. The roads are too narrow for the amount of traffic they hold. The roads are in bad condition. There are few bike lanes—and the ones that exist largely don’t connect. There are not pedestrian/bike paths in many parts of the city. And, probably the biggest problem, people just aren’t used to looking for cyclists. These problems don’t mean you can’t bike. More and more people are doing so. It’s just a question of how safe it is to bike—it’s not a city with a biking culture by any stretch of the imagination. The roads sometimes don’t even contain shoulders.

What’s worse, the public transportation is something of a joke. Granted, the infrastructure for public transportation has begun to improve. There’s now a (short) light-rail system. The bus system got overhauled a few years back. Things are changing. But many of the bus stops, particularly in inner-city neighborhoods don’t have paved areas around the bus stop, much less bus shelters. The buses don’t come near suburban neighborhoods. The bus schedule is not well published and distributed throughout the city.

When my friend asked if it was a bad idea to sell his car, I didn’t know what to say. No, I thought, probably not where you live. Where you live, it’s probably fine. Maybe you’ll never need a car again (he’s also working on paring down his possessions so he owns less stuff). But I thought about how I’d function without my car when I move somewhere else within the next year and I’m not sure I could. Again, it would depend on where I moved—or that’s what I tell myself.

On the other hand, I think I could get by without a car in most parts of the country. There are clear problems with food deserts—both rural and urban food deserts—but I don’t think I’m particularly likely to move to a food desert, certainly  not by choice. A car is something of a burden, with the financial expenses that go into maintaining it—from repairs to fuel to oil, not to mention the insurance most states require you to hold—and with the obligations that come with owning a car. I routinely give people rides to other places because I have a car and when I feel pressed for time, it’s nice to be able to hop into my car and get across town and back in the amount of time it would take me to simply get to my destination.

But this mentality is part of the problem. Why should I feel so rushed on a regular basis? Why can’t we just slow down and start to actually live life? It’s not the American way—at least not right now, but that’s something I’d like to see change. A few years ago, there was the “Take Back the 40-hour Work Week Campaign.” Granted, that was just before the housing bubble burst—but why don’t we take back the 40-hour work week? I don’t want to work more than that per week.

It’s occurred to me from time to time, especially in the past three years, that the car I currently own—a car that’s nearing the 20-year mark, might be the last car I own. And it’ll have been the only car I own and I got it used. The cost of buying a new (or even new to me) car is prohibitive and it works against the environmental values I hold. The more I consider it, the more it probably works against my personal ethics. I walk or bike most of the time anyway (part of this is definitely economic, I simply can’t afford gas on my salary) and I don’t particularly enjoy driving in urban areas—if I’m going to drive, I want the long stretches of road where cars uncluster from one another.

But I wonder, if the economy continues its current pattern of stagnation, as the price of fuel continues to rise, as the infrastructure of American roads continues to deteriorate—which will take a serious toll on our cars—if opting out of driving will become more of the norm. I want to live somewhere where my commute to work is short enough that I can walk or bike or take in public transport. Midsized towns are a good potential for this, as are cities (though I believe I may have had my fill of cities growing up).

It’s nothing new to say we love our fossil fuel economy. But can we—figuratively, of course—learn to love the bomb it represents?

I kind of hope my friend decides to sell his car so I can hear about his experiences of being in his 20s and carless and make my decision based on those experiences. I think I’m okay with the car I currently own being the last car I ever own. I don’t know that I can make the decision to sell my car, not yet. But part of that is my fear of carrying a large bag of dog food on the ice during winter—and I live in a climate where that’s a realistic concern. I need a few more years of living in the cold to figure out how cold weather transportation really works. And I need to know that I’m moving to a place where it could make sense to live without a car.

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