Katie Alvord, author
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.
Tuesday, 12 Feb 2002
UPPER PENINSULA, Mich.
Snow is flying, the wind is howling, the temperature’s dropping and I’m about to cycle an invigorating 11 miles into town. Once during a visit to our Congress member’s office to urge support for alternatives to cars, I mentioned that I had snow tires on my bike. His jaw dropped about a foot but I think he got a kick out of the concept. A lot of Yoopers (natives of the Upper Peninsula, or U.P.) are proud of how much snow falls here, and feel an affinity for anything associated with the white stuff. So snow tires for bikes are a natural in our region, given the standard winter’s snowfall of 200-inches-plus.
You can buy studded snow tires for bikes, which is what we did. You can also make them, using car studs or sheet metal screws and a good, thick tire liner — that’s what Jim Gregory and Joan Stein of Bikes at Work have done. (They also make a terrific bike trailer that can carry unbelievably big loads.) I don’t really need any other special equipment for cycling in snow — just the right clothes. As my husband’s Norwegian relatives say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” I dress as I would for cross-country skiing and stay plenty warm, often warmer than I’d be if I were sitting in a car.
My bike and its snow tires frequently carry me the few miles to our closest neighbors’ homes. We sometimes ski the neighborhood, too; some of our neighbors throw dynamite dinners and it’s a blast to ski to and from their parties. I’ve also used snowshoes to socialize. Last Christmas, I carpooled 17 miles to one party, snowshoed most of the six miles from that event to another gathering, then carpooled 11 miles home. That’s a U.P. version of intermodal transportation.
This winter, I’ve done more biking than skiing or snowshoeing because, despite today’s storm, the snow’s been sparse overall; we wonder what role climate change might play in this record-setting mild winter. There is still enough snow and ice on the roads, though, to make snow tires helpful, if not absolutely necessary.
My bike-with-snow-tires is a mountain bike which I’ve also retrofitted with a Zap electric-assist motor. The electric assist works great in spring, summer, and fall — you still pedal the bike, but can flick a lever to engage the motor when you need it and get a little burst of extra power. It’s pretty fun, and helps me travel to and from town more easily. Because it’s a friction drive, though (the motor turns a gear against the rear tire), it doesn’t function well in snow. So in winter I disengage the motor and take the heavy lead-acid battery off the bike, reverting to human-powered pedaling.
With the snow tires and electric assist, this bike is my workhorse. I also have a small trailer I use with it. I love bike trailers; they really expand the utility of a bicycle. My own is pretty basic but serves nicely for grocery shopping, hauling books to the library, or doing several errands at a time. I use my bike trailer as you’d use the trunk of a car. I throw in things I need on all my bike trips — spare tubes, bike lock, extra water bottles, etc. — and just leave them there so they’re always ready to go. Bike trailers are astonishingly versatile; I’ve known people who’ve used them to haul canoes for camping trips or move furniture across town. There are services that pick up and haul recyclables with bike trailers — Bikes at Work is one of these — and they can carry hundreds of pounds at a time. Bike trailers can turn your bike into a multi-purpose transport tool that can help with all sorts of tasks.
Today, however, is not a bike trailer day — too windy, and I don’t have much to carry. I’m a little concerned about today’s wind. Once I cycled to town on a high wind day and couldn’t cycle back: the 60-mph gusts reduced my pedaling speed to about 2 mph, so after a brief struggle against the elements I called a taxi. (Having one local taxi service around has been helpful as a transportation back-up.) This talk of wind reminds me of a Danish comedian who ran a mock campaign for a seat in Denmark’s Parliament. He actually won his election race after promising cyclists, “If I win, the wind will always be at your back.” With the wind behind me on the way in, it should be a quick trip to town today. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the wind will shift before I head back.
Wednesday, 13 Feb 2002
UPPER PENINSULA, Mich.
I’m sitting at my computer in cozy slippers and my favorite sweatshirt, getting ready for another work-at-home day. Outside my window a few snowflakes drift down between bare gray maple branches and deep green spruce boughs, a calm contrast to yesterday’s Arctic blast.
Despite that snowstorm, cycling yesterday was great. A 30-40 mph tailwind pushed me into town as it swirled snow along the icy roadway; mercifully, by the time I returned home, the winds had weakened. My snow tires gripped nicely, warm clothes and exercise kept me toasty, and storm reports had scared enough traffic off the roads that for a while I had them to myself. Who knew biking in near-blizzard conditions could be so pleasant?
There’s none of that gallivanting on today’s calendar, although I am booking some future long-distance trips this morning. I just hope Amtrak will still be there when I need it, since I travel cross-country by train. Right now Amtrak is under political siege and may cut some long-distance routes later this year if Congress doesn’t provide more funding. I’m also writing letters to Congress today, urging support of trains.
When New Society Publishers released Divorce Your Car! and I ventured out on car-free book tours, I used Amtrak to cover the longest distances and would have been stuck without it. To reach the train, I traveled by bus and folding bicycle. I own a Bike Friday that folds into a suitcase; that suitcase doubles as a bicycle trailer when the bike’s not in it. I can cycle from home to a local Greyhound station, take my bags out of the suitcase trailer, fold my bike into it, and take everything along as regular luggage. A nine-hour bus ride to Milwaukee (prime reading and writing time) gets me to our nearest Amtrak station. At the other end of my train trip, I pull the bike out of its suitcase, unfold it in about 20 minutes, hook up the suitcase trailer, and cycle away.
I used this combination of folding bike, bus, and train for over 4,000 miles of book tour. Although bicycling did help me deal with the stress, book tours can be grueling. Once, while on tour in Seattle, I started feeling sick at a book signing (food poisoning, probably). I decided to cycle back to my hotel (if you’re squeamish stop here), hoping I’d get there before I had to throw up. I felt a bit better while on my bike, but this happened to be during Seattle’s commute hour; the streets got so clogged I had to get off my bike and use the sidewalk.
When I finally reached the corner across from my hotel, the crosswalk was blocked by an SUV so close to the car in front of it that Twiggy couldn’t have squeezed between them. My stomach gurgled fiercely. I felt frantic. I signaled the driver that I wanted to get through. He shrugged. I knocked on his window, thinking if he rolled it down I’d politely explain that if he didn’t back up (he had room), I’d throw up all over the big shiny hood of his vehicle. He ignored me.
Then some Seattle street life came to my rescue. Some muscular-looking longshoremen had been lounging in front of a store on that corner. A couple of them charged forward, yelling, “Hey, A——! Let the lady through!” The SUV driver backed right up. I admit this incident did make me nervous (at the signing I’d read some excerpts from Divorce Your Car! about road rage, and now I hoped the driver wasn’t armed; the caffeinated-to-the-gills state of many Seattle motorists is bad enough) but I charged through the gap and made it to my hotel just in time to throw up in the seclusion of a restroom. I am eternally grateful to those guys on the corner. I hope they read Grist and are reading this now, because I was too desperately ill to thank them that afternoon.
Seattle wasn’t all bad. Like many other places in North America, Seattle has buses with bike racks — another way to combine cycling and transit. Since we don’t have such racks here in the U.P. (we barely have buses), owning a folding bike enables me to combine bikes and transit. As long as Congress doesn’t force Amtrak to cut long-distance routes, I’ll continue using the bike-bus-train combination to take long trips out of the U.P. without driving.
I’ll write those support-trains letters to Congress next. But first, break time. Yesterday’s 22-mile bike ride kicked up my appetite, and a snack sounds appealing. Happily, the kitchen’s just 10 slippered steps away.
Thursday, 14 Feb 2002
UPPER PENINSULA, Mich.
I suppose Valentine’s Day is an appropriate time to share a ride into town with my spouse. With today’s trip we’ll attend two appointments and run half a dozen errands.
When we share rides to town, we often park in one central place, then walk to our various destinations. Today, for instance, while my spouse strikes off in one direction, I’ll stroll to the post office to priority mail some information to Wildlands CPR (Center for Preventing Roads), a group I helped start that works to restore ecosystems by getting roads closed in wildlands. Then I’ll walk 10 minutes from “downtown” to a local university library to drop off some books. Sometimes on errands I use an in-town bus service, although its town-only route and once-hourly, 9-to-5 schedule limit this particular bus’s utility.
Besides sharing rides with my spouse, I occasionally use the car for carpooling. I follow three car-use guidelines: I avoid single-occupant trips; I avoid single-purpose trips; and when I share rides, I try not to cause extra driving — I often just go where my ride is going, then walk to my own destination from there. Frequently, if a trip doesn’t meet my guidelines, I don’t take it.
The car belongs to my spouse, but we have a car-sharing agreement: I pay him time and mileage if I use it. We got the idea from the car-sharing services that started in Europe and have begun to take off in this country.
With car-sharing, a business or co-op owns a fleet of vehicles, and you join as a member. Then you just sign up to use a car when you need one. Most car-sharing services collect modest (often refundable) membership fees to start, charge members for the time and distance they drive, then bill monthly, like a utility or phone service. Members don’t pay for anything else; the service picks up the tab for gas as well as maintenance.
Car-sharing services usually leave their cars parked in neighborhoods convenient to members. Then members, once they’ve reserved a car, can walk or bike to its parking place at the appointed time, take the key out of a lockbox, and drive away. Members seem to love these services, and save money by using them. Car-sharing is a way for some families to avoid buying a second vehicle, and has helped others go completely car-free. One guy gleefully destroyed the last car he owned after joining a car-sharing service in British Columbia.
I mentioned earlier this week that my spouse’s car is a hybrid Toyota Prius. The Prius has both an electric motor and a small (four cylinder) internal combustion engine. A computer controls when the car uses the electric motor and when it uses the engine. At low speeds and stop lights, the internal combustion often turns off completely and the car is silent. A screen on the dash shows which power system is feeding the drive train at any given moment; it updates every two seconds with arrows that shoot across the screen in the direction of power flow. It’s mesmerizing to watch, which makes me wonder how many crashes it might cause. Fortunately, you can switch that screen to a less active one showing miles per gallon. My spouse currently gets around 50 mpg, and in the summer he might get up to 60.
The Prius is high-mileage, low-emissions, and pretty quiet, so in those ways it’s an improvement over a standard car. But it’s still a car; it still contributes to problems like sprawl, habitat loss, congestion, crash injuries and death, road kill, mobility-related social inequities, illness due to sedentary lifestyles, and pollution from manufacture and disposal — so in our household, it’s still used sparingly. Mostly, it helps us avoid the occasional situation where we might end up stranded because the Upper Peninsula is snowy, rural, spread out, and lacking in the kind of public transportation services available in more populated places. Otherwise, we can rely primarily on the options for car-free travel that are available even in a place like this.
This morning I have a little more writing to do — I need to finish a short article on the role of oil in the Afghan war — then I’ll get ready for the various appointments and errands I’ll be doing in town this afternoon. As we travel in, I’ll be the passenger in the hybrid, so maybe I’ll watch that ever-changing screen on the dash that shows where the energy is coming from to propel the car. But I’ll make sure the driver keeps his eyes on the road.
Friday, 15 Feb 2002
UPPER PENINSULA, Mich.
Yesterday I heard a rumor that there’s sap running in some of the local sugar maples. If that’s true, it’s highly unusual for February — sap usually doesn’t run until spring — but we may have had enough unseasonably warm days this winter to confuse the trees. Even the snowstorm that hit earlier this week didn’t drop the temperature as much as expected. People here are accustomed to snow until May, but this morning, the view out my window reveals patches of grass poking through a thinning snowpack.
As I sit at my computer, contemplating the day’s work, I wonder if I should move a couple of climate change-related writing projects to the top of my list. Are this winter’s high temps, sparse snow, and early sap related to global warming? The chance that they are makes solar home offices and car divorce seem even more important.
Again today, my own car divorce has me “traveling” by telephone line: emailing this diary entry to Grist, using the web to research an article, and phoning some folks to set up interviews. Telecommunications has helped me cut my travel tremendously, and it’s helped others, too. More employers now offer telecommuting as a work option; some of these programs have been started by just one person who wanted to telecommute and took the initiative to make it possible. Especially if you have a desk job and like to work on your own, telecommuting can be ideal. Even if you must spend some time at the office, you might still telecommute a day or two a week. If you want to do this but your workplace has no program, try writing up a proposal outlining the benefits of telecommuting — employers’ cost savings, better employee morale, etc. — and your employer may give it a try.
One caution: telecommunications can help if your intention is to divorce your car — research shows that telecommuters do drive less — but it also has the potential to encourage more travel, much as computers have led to more paper use instead of paperless offices. People have noticed that telecommunications could substitute for travel ever since telegraph wires made the Pony Express obsolete. Society-wide, though, telecommunications has complemented travel, rather than replaced it.
That’s why it’s important to combine telecommuting with other strategies for car divorce. I call this playing the field. This week, for instance, instead of being stuck in a monogamous relationship with a car, I’ve traveled on my bicycle, with skis, on foot, and with my spouse in his hybrid. I’m guessing my next trip might be on snowshoes. Things could change, but right now I don’t expect to be inside any kind of car again for about a week, when we’ll use the hybrid to carpool out to dinner with friends. Yesterday it got 55 mpg; when we use it to carpool, it’ll also keep another, less efficient, car off the road.
Living this way in the U.P. has shown me that some level of car divorce is possible no matter where you live. If you aren’t a car divorcee, and want to be, here are some suggestions for a trial separation.
Start by listing the non-car transport options available to you: walking, using the bike that’s been moldering in your garage, taking the local bus, riding the train, using the phone instead of traveling — everything you can think of. This list is your “transportation menu.” Then pick a day — just one, to start — when you can go car-free for the entire 24 hours. Plan ahead for it: get transit schedules, pump up bike tires, whatever. That day, instead of driving, use the options on your transportation menu. Over time, increase your number of car-free days. If you start at one per month, ratchet up to one per week, then two, then more. See how many consecutive days you can go without driving. After awhile, maybe your household can cut down from two cars to one, or you might go completely car-free. At this stage you can save thousands of dollars a year. Car-free folks have been known to do things like pay down mortgages, cut back on work hours, or tear out their driveways to plant gardens instead.
Maybe you live in a place where a car-lite divorce is the answer; you’ll still benefit yourself and the planet with every mile you don’t drive. Car-lite or car-free, who will do this if we don’t? Yesterday’s announcement of Bush’s inadequate climate change plan shows our current leadership certainly won’t.
Enough said. Time for a break. Today I think I’ll go for a quick ski through the woods near the house. Better do that now before the snow all melts.