Being car free
Voluntary car rejection in a landscape dominated by automobiles can be financially, environmentally, and even physically rewarding.
Mon, Jun 01, 2009 at 10:01 PM
Illustration: Christian Northeast
James Kirby wakes before sunrise, earlier than most residents of Bryan, Texas, a sprawling suburban community that markets itself as “The Good Life, Texas Style.” Wearing a mesh cap, Oakley wraparounds, a T-shirt, and faded Levis, he embarks upon his 30-minute commute to Texas A&M University, where he works as an electronics technician for the physics department. When Kirby, 43, arrives at work, he doesn’t park in one of the school’s 34,000 available parking spots — the most of any university campus in the country. Instead, he walks his vehicle into the office and tucks it away in the small space behind his desk. There the recumbent bike remains until it’s time to head home.
“I can’t think of a single thing that I’m really incapable of doing,” says Kirby about his decision to sell his truck four years ago, commute via bicycle, and go completely automobile-free. “I can go anywhere within 50 miles on my bike and not even think about it.”
Kirby is not alone in the movement to shed auto dependency. As he and others have learned, voluntary car rejection in a landscape dominated by automobiles can be financially, environmentally, and even physically rewarding. As America now boasts more vehicles than actual drivers, a small cadre of people are bucking this trend, opting for biking, walking, and public transportation in lieu of car ownership.
Statistics on this trend are hard to come by, but money and environmental consciousness are probably the most obvious motivating factors — and it’s not just homespun hippie-types and urban subway riders who are choosing to live this way.
For his part, Kirby was motivated by a sense of obligation to U.S. soldiers in Iraq. He had driven to the grocery store shortly after the U.S. invasion began in March 2003, and once inside, he noticed that he could see his apartment through the store window. Then and there he decided to sell his Chevrolet S10 pickup. “People are dying just so I can fill up a gas tank?” he asks. “I couldn’t in good conscience drive a car to the store just for a few groceries.”
Others arrived at their decisions due to less idealistic factors. After totaling their minivan in an accident seven years ago, Julie and Brad Henderson of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, simply got rid of it and have been car-free ever since (except for a brief relapse with a Toyota Corolla). They say that combining bike-riding and walking with public transportation has made them and their three children — ages 14, 12, and 10 — healthier, as well as more tuned in to each other. “At first, there was a little bit of ‘Why can’t we just have a car like normal people?’ but now all three kids are okay with the idea and have quit rolling their eyes,” says Julie. Sarah, their eldest, is even becoming “a huge advocate for going car-free.” And being without a vehicle has also yielded unexpected connections to their community: Instead of quitting 4-H because the local chapter was located ten miles away, they formed their own chapter with neighbors.
Even in auto-centric Los Angeles, it’s possible to drop out of car culture. San Fernando Valley resident Eric Kamm, 46, has been vehicle-free for six years, a state he originally found himself in after the DMV botched some paperwork and impounded his automobile. He found that he actually enjoyed the seven-mile bike commute to the electronics company where he works — so much so that he never picked up his car. Kamm has saved money and reduced his carbon footprint, and riding to work has built up his quads and lung capacity as well. “During work days,” he says, “I can go the same rate as traffic flow.” Biking does require a pit stop at the gym near his office for a shower and change of clothes, but the trip takes about the same amount of time as the drive would.
Of course, a completely automobile-free lifestyle will likely be the choice of only a small group of Americans, but there is some evidence that many people are becoming inspired to simply drive less. The government is even getting in on the act. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) recently instituted a $100 million Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, in which four communities will become the testing grounds for an experiment in car-free, or at least car-light, living. The program, launched last year in Columbia, Missouri; Marin County, California; Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minnesota; and Sheboygan County, Wisconsin, involves building sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and trails to connect schools, residences, businesses, and recreation areas. The FHA plans to release some initial data on the study this September, and the final results are expected in 2010.
For those who have already given up the daily gas-guzzling commute, though, there’s no question about their preferences. As Kamm explains, even if he does eventually buy a fuel-efficient vehicle for out-of-town trips, his everyday routine will never again involve looking for parking, fighting congestion, or pumping gas. “Why change? There’s just no reason. Maybe it’s just a drop of water in the ocean, but it’s my little drop and I’m going to keep it up.”
Story by Trevor Stokes. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.
Copyright Environ Press 2006.