For the past four years, I’ve lived without the car. It’s been surprisingly great. Before that, I’d been sinking thousands of dollars into my vehicle: A beat-up Honda station wagon with 329,000 miles on the odometer and the words Dragon Wagon painted on its haunch. (I bought it from my mom. She’s into dragons. That’s another story.) When it failed its smog test, I dropped it off at a junkyard, then looked around that industrial no-man’s land and wondered how I would be getting home — not to mention how I would be getting around from there on out.
I was living in walkable San Francisco, working out of my home as a freelance journalist. I had a notion that I wanted to go car-free, but at that moment, it seemed incredibly naïve, stupidly idealistic. How would I race out to interview someone on deadline? How would I zip out to the Central Valley to talk to almond growers about bees? How would I get to work?
But life without a car was (shockingly) easier and better. Of course, there were the annoyances you’d expect: slow, crowded buses, flat bike tires, and the misery of unexpected rain showers. But I could get to work fine, and there were plenty of Zipcars and cabs around if I needed one. Because I had to pay by the trip, I almost always found ways to get around without a car. In the end, it was much cheaper. And then there were the unforeseen benefits.
Here’s what you don’t realize when you have a car: There’s a significant portion of your semi-conscious mind that’s consistently thinking about parking meters, street sweeping schedules, gas prices, tire wear, that weird sound when you shift, shady mechanics, and whether you should switch to GEICO. And, you may not be aware of it, because this quickly becomes second nature, but it also requires some bandwidth simply to remember where you parked. When I gave up my car, all of that evaporated. I suddenly had more brain-space for thinking.
I also had more space for living, because I was no longer changing my plans to serve my car. When I decided if I was going to have one more cocktail I could make the decision purely on the grounds of pleasure and (future) pain. Concerns about driving under the influence were notably absent from the equation. If traffic jammed up while I was out, I knew I could hop on my bike or a train, rather than dolefully queuing up so that I could convey my car home. I was free of an insidiously subtle master.
When my wife, Beth, got pregnant, we talked about getting a car. It seemed obvious that we’d eventually break down and get one, but when we thought hard about it we couldn’t imagine any situation in which it would be necessary. We’d picked a hospital nearby our apartment and, when it was time, we strolled over for the birth. I’d planned to bring our daughter, Josephine, home in a Zipcar, but Beth felt good after the delivery, and the sun was shining and we were both deliriously happy, so we walked. (These days they don’t let you leave the hospital with a baby unless you also have a car seat. Fortunately, I had a stroller to carry the car seat.) The wind was whipping in from off the ocean. Beth fussed with the blankets. Josephine boggled. I doubt I’ll ever forget that walk, and I can’t imagine the same would be true if we had been in a car. The world is closer at hand, and meaning is more easily made, when you aren’t sequestered in a pod and concentrating on driving.
Years passed. We built our life around our carlessness — choosing doctors and daycare within walking distance — and it was good. Then, a couple weeks ago, someone stole my bike. I’d locked it to a post while picking up a rental car (to visit my folks for Thanksgiving), and when I returned there was nothing but the twisted U-lock. When we returned the rental, friends lent us a car while I searched for a new set of wheels. For the first time in years, I was firing up an internal combustion engine, just to get around.
Josephine enjoyed the novelty, but protested loudly when I refused to let her drive (she’s 2 years old). It was nice to have it right there when we wanted it, rather than booking a carshare. When I went across town for a party it was nice to be able to leave at the last minute, rather than bundling up for winter biking. But after that party, I realized I had no idea where I’d parked. That part of my attention was, as yet, unattached to the car, and still available to enjoy the pleasures of the moment.
But having access to a personal auto reminded us of the conveniences that come along with cars. We’re expecting another baby. And we’d moved from a wonderfully walkable neighborhood in San Francisco (WalkScore 86), to a spot in Berkeley (WalkScore 69), with few useful shops, aside from a Trader Joe’s. Beth had been a little slower than I to find a means of getting Josephine around on her bike. When I left them both at home, Beth felt stranded.
“I was going stir-crazy,” she reminded me. “It was just me and Trader Joe’s, and depressing University Avenue.”
Once Beth got a bike trailer for Josephine the world opened up again. But when our friends offered to sell us the loaner car at a ridiculously low price, we agreed.
Now that we have a car, what are the chances that we will ever give it up, especially once we have another crawler? The only way that’s going to happen, by my reckoning, is if I find such a good alternative to the car that I never want to use that annoying hunk of metal.
I think it’s possible. As soon as I started driving after that long break, I began to notice annoyances that I’d always just taken for granted as a native-born American driver. It’s incredibly frustrating to wait in a line of cars backed up at an intersection when you are used to whisking by in the bike lane. Packed parking lots evoke a special kind of horror: The anger, the danger, the forced choice between reckless incivility and suckerdom — why do we put up with this? On my bike, I’d think nothing of stopping in at one shop for a loaf of bread, another for cheese, and a third for vegetables. But in a car that’s inefficient and harrying. The car drives me toward the one-stop big box. There’s got to be a better way.
I’ll be documenting my quest for a great, car-killing bike here in a couple following articles. I’m determined to beat this thing. Onward.