Carless by choice: Enviable or inferior?
Not everyone has the privilege of owning a car, but in the U.S., we don't feel as if we have a choice. What other options are there?
Thursday, June 9, 2011 - 13:43
CAR-OBSESSED: American cities and towns are rarely set up to be pedestrian friendly. (Photo: emilio labrador/Flickr)
I have a love-hate relationship with my car.
I am lucky to have had parents that encouraged me to save up, all the way through college, so that I could buy a car when I started working two years ago. It's been essential for the work commute, as well as visiting my far-away college friends and my long-distance boyfriend.
But I don't feel quite as lucky when I'm dealing with paying off the car, the insurance, the gas bills, oil changes, new tires, new side-view mirrors (thanks to a drive-by sideswipe) and more. And I'm all too aware of the environmental consequences of owning my own car, especially since I'm the only one using it.
Now I'm faced with the decision of whether to keep or sell it as I return to school. A big part of me says I don't have a choice — how can I get to class in the winter? What about food shopping and visiting people and, well, getting anywhere out of my neighborhood?
The problem isn't that just a matter of what to do with my car. The real question I should be asking is, "Why do I even have to ask how I'll get around in the first place?" Owning a car is such a celebrated part of the traditional American Dream that we've seemed to forget we can have it another way. I found a similar voice in an article by UK citizen Sami Grover: "Being Carless in America is Like Second-Class Citizenship."
"The fact is that being carless in most of America is, without doubt, a major impediment to social inclusion and economic well-being," Grover writes. "Denver," a commenter on the article, agrees: "People don't understand that I can't speed across town at the drop of a hat, that it takes me a full workday length to go visit my friends in the 'burbs (and I'm spending twice as long on the bus as at their house), I have to consider how late a bus runs and what type of neighborhood I'll be walking in at what hour before I can go out with them, and not to mention that it has limited my availability for jobs."
What are my car-free options?
There are some short-term solutions available, if you don't own your own car (or you're looking to decrease your usage). Zipcar and City CarShare (in California) are similar to renting a vehicle, but instead you can share the company's cars for a monthly or annual fee. Another idea that's catching on in some cities is to have car owners share their vehicles with their own neighbors (examples include RelayRides, Getaround and JustShareIt). Car owners can earn some bonus cash if they’re not using their cars.
One decision I made that's helped me reduce the use of my car is to ensure my workplace and residence are relatively nearby. Do you have this advantage? The Environmental Defense Fund recommends commuters take a bike to work at least once a week: "If everyone who lives within 5 miles of their workplace left their car at home just one day a week and cycled to work, nearly 5 million tons of global warming pollution would be saved every year — like taking about a million cars off the road." What an impact that would make — on your health as well as your carbon footprint!
If you're living in a metropolitan area, hopefully you have reliable public transportation. Trains and buses are a smart choice in the city rather than everyone driving individual vehicles, as it greatly reduces pollution and the amount of traffic on the road. (Even in Boston this isn't always the case, with constantly delayed trains, bitter cab drivers and the fact that trains stop at 12:30 p.m. on weekends.) For those of us in the suburbs, with infrequent options — it can be tough to know what to do besides buy a bike and hope for good weather. If you do have a car and don't plan to adopt any of these other practices, you can also make a difference by starting a carpool.
Photos: needoptic/Flickr and Marco Gomes/Flickr
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