Twenty-two or so years ago, I needed a car. I was in real estate development and had to zip between sites and the office, drive my son to school, all those things that people do in cars. When mine died suddenly, I bought a friend's 1990 Miata and drove it everywhere around town. (We had another bigger car for family trips.) My wife enjoyed driving it around the city too, our little go-cart. We loved that car.
But my work world changed. I lost that development business, and started a new one in prefab where I had to do a lot of really long drives, so taking our Subaru was more comfortable and safer. Then I started writing for a living, working from home, and I didn't need to drive at all.
The city changed. Every parking lot disappeared under condos and office buildings; the roads all became seriously congested, and driving in the city was no longer fun as you did more sitting in traffic than actual driving.
The cars around me changed. Everybody started driving big high SUVs and pickup trucks. With my bottom a foot off the ground in my little Miata, I sometimes felt that I could drive under the F-150 pickups. I was always petrified that one would change lanes right into me, that they couldn't see me if they looked — and it seemed to me that they never looked.
But most importantly, over the last 22 years I changed. Writing for MNN sister site TreeHugger, I came to realize how bad cars were for the city and started riding my bike everywhere. When I started teaching sustainable design at Ryerson University, I would bring my folding bike to class in the middle of winter to demonstrate that yes, this can be done. Being a TreeHugger type, I started worrying a lot about climate change, about CO2 emissions, about air pollution and about the need to get people out of gasoline-powered cars.
I also got older. I didn't like driving at night anymore, so I started taking transit to events instead of driving; transit has discounts for seniors, and gas and parking just cost more every month. (Transit happens to be very good where I live; there's a fast streetcar a five-minute walk away and a bus even closer.) I had read all the studies on the importance of exercise and would rather walk half an hour to reach my daily goal and close that ring on my Apple watch.
Driving is also like everything else in life; you need to practice to stay good at it. My wife does all the long-distance driving now in our Subaru. I prefer to look at the surroundings and my phone, and when I do get behind the wheel, I realize that I've become a terrible driver, that I'm totally out of practice.
It seemed to rain every day last summer, so I think I drove the Miata two or three times. (It's hopeless in snow, so we never drove it during the winter.) In the fall, I took it to a mechanic to get the mechanical fitness certificate needed to sell it as a driveable car, and he laughed, saying there was so much body rot that it would cost more to fix than I could ever sell it for; he advised that I wait until spring when peoples' hearts turn towards convertibles, and sell it "as is." I drove it once this summer — a couple of blocks, stuck in traffic, boiling in the black seat, hating every minute of it — and then put it up for sale.
A guy came to look at it, said the rust underneath was far worse than he expected, that my last repair of the floor was terrible and would have to be redone, and offered me a third less than I was asking. I accepted it, and last night, he came and drove it away.
This morning, my wife and daughter are sad; they both loved the car. I, on the other hand, am relieved.
Turning the tables
When my mom lost her car, which she had used for shopping and visiting friends, it was like taking away her freedom. For many people, it's a seriously traumatic time. According to one researcher quoted by the CBC, "it's been demonstrated and said many times, that receiving the news that you will be losing your driver's license has the same weight as being diagnosed with cancer." An older driver said "When you can't go out and get in your car and go where you want to go, it's like having your arm cut off."
But that's only when it's a surprise; you can prepare for it. Last year, when I asked When is it time to hang up the car keys? I concluded:
For the majority of aging boomers, I honestly believe that instead of waiting for someone to take away our car keys, we should be figuring out the alternatives about how to live without a car right now. Just throw away the keys. We will be healthier, wealthier, less stressed and will probably live a few years longer because of it.
For me, the time was now. Having said goodbye to my Miata, I feel like I've thrown my own keys away; I'm done with city driving. I have my bike, my discounted transit card, and my walking shoes and can get anywhere I need to go. Often, I can get there as quickly as I could in a car.
I also have the example of my son, who has refused to even get a driver's license in the first place; he demonstrates that if you live in a city, you really can get by without one. Lots of millennials are doing this — living in the city, walking, biking, taking transit, strolling to brunch for their avocado toast.
All the cool kids are doing it, and we can, too.