Katie Alvord is the author of Divorce Your Car! Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile. She lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Monday, 11 Feb 2002

UPPER PENINSULA, Mich.

It’s Monday morning and I’ve just completed my regular commute: strolling from bedroom to office, a journey of 22 steps, in my slippers. I love wearing slippers to work. I’m a freelance writer and work at home, using telecommunications to access the rest of the world. In addition to making for peaceful mornings, it’s a lifestyle that’s allowed me to divorce my car.

There are two main forms of car divorce: car-free and car-lite. I’ve done both. Going car-free means not owning an automobile, and instead taking public transit, walking, biking, and perhaps occasionally borrowing or renting a vehicle. If you’re car-lite you own a car, but often use other modes of transportation.

Your life circumstances, especially where you live and work, greatly influence which form of car divorce will work best for you. The situation is more or less comparable to human divorce: In some cases, you sever all ties with your former spouse and end up ex-free, while in other cases (say, if you have joint custody of kids) you still have to deal with your ex, but might take steps to minimize that — i.e., go ex-lite.

As a Grist reader, you probably don’t need me to tell you why car divorce is a good idea. Chances are you’re not like the fellow from Tennessee who, in 1999, tried to marry his car. He applied for a marriage license, listing his Mustang’s birthplace as Detroit, its father as Henry Ford, and its blood type as 10-W-40. When officials rejected the application, he vowed to keep trying.

That story is a telling indication of the love affair that’s raged in the U.S. for over 100 years. What can you say about a country that’s home to more registered cars than adults, and probably more total cars than people? Now the affair is globalizing, spreading more autos around the world — even to places like China, where until recently the din of traffic consisted largely of bicycle bells.

If, like me, you’re a bit worried by the implications of this (increased pollution, climate change, urban sprawl, etc.), maybe you’ve divorced your car, too. I first divorced mine in 1992, after meeting some citizen-activists who had already done so. They inspired me to embark on a trial separation: I parked my car in the garage, deciding to let myself use it in a pinch, then took out my bicycle instead. I equipped the bike for rain, darkness, and cargo-carrying, and it became my vehicle of choice, supplemented by bus trips, occasional taxi rides, and carpooling with friends. Choosing not to drive presented challenges, especially since at the time I lived in a rural part of Northern California, but on balance it turned out to be easier than I’d expected. It helped tremendously that I worked at home and had a flexible schedule.

The longer my car stayed in the garage, the more I realized I didn’t need it as much as I’d thought. A year into my trial separation, I counted the times I’d driven and didn’t make it from my fingers to my toes. So I sold the car.

I haven’t had the title to a vehicle since then, so technically I’m car-free — but I’ve moved, I’m now married, and my spouse owns a hybrid Toyota Prius, so usually I just say I live in a car-lite household. That household’s located where any form of car divorce is uncommon: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Here’s one of the first descriptions I heard of the U.P.: “Most people don’t realize how much it snows there.” Our average annual snowfall is around 200 inches. (The record is near 400.) Today we have a blizzard coming, so I’m especially happy that I work at home and don’t have to commute. I link to the world via telephone lines, and despite hostile weather like today’s high winds and ice, the lines rarely fail. When they do, I get an automatic vacation. UPS, FedEx, and snail-mail provide other links; later today, I’ll bundle up and ski the half-mile to our mailbox. Inside, a computer, fax, and a copier keep my home-office humming — thanks to solar power, when there’s enough sun (all summer and about half the winter).

In the U.P., services and destinations are often spaced miles apart, which makes it a very auto-dependent area. Sometimes I wish we lived in a town, instead of 11 miles from the nearest one; it would definitely ease our car divorce. But I’ve tried in-town living elsewhere and couldn’t handle the traffic noise. Plus, our out-of-town location is a special situation: it’s a parcel we’ve converted to a nature preserve, in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, and living on the land has helped that process. And there are still ways, even in a place like this, to reduce car travel. For me, working at home is one … and those slippers sure feel good.