Car Free in Carmageddon

About seven years ago I gradually changed my trip to work from a two-hour car commute to a refreshing ten-minute bicycle ride.

After a decade of driving the freeway, my soul had grown weary of watching the sun rise and set from behind the steering wheel. Working closer to home meant a cut in my income, giving up my new Mazda mini van and downsizing to an older Toyota.

Around this same time I began reading a mountain of books on sustainable cities and saving the Earth; pleas for sanity like “If You Love this Planet,” by Helen Caldicott, MD, “How Much Is Enough” by Alan Durning, “The Geography of Nowhere”by James Howard Kunstler and “Asphalt Nation-How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back,” by Jane Holtz Kay.

Amazingly, these books all said the same thing: “The cumulative effect of 500 million cars worldwide is responsible for more social and environmental damage than any other artifact on our planet.”

I learned that half of all daily trips in the United States lie within a three-mile radius and a quarter of all trips are only a mile long or less; that people live in a realm much smaller then they think, using vehicles too big for the real scale of their daily travel. I began to note that cars often function as glorified shopping carts and saw that we use two tons of steel to haul a one pound loaf of bread.

Besides educating myself about the hidden cost of the private car, what really made me question the driving life was the observation that in spite of increased speed, people feel like they have less time then ever before. Greater mobility has had the paradoxical effect of lengthening how far people go rather than saving them time. Time-use studies find little difference in average commuting times in the car-centered US culture where we guzzle 40% of the world’s gasoline, and in countries that are virtually carless. People without cars walk, bicycle or take the bus to work a half-hour or hour each way; Americans drive the same amount of time.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify that I see nothing wrong with the car per se-I like their comfort and convenience as much as the next person does. Used wisely, cars have their place in a balanced transportation system. It’s just that there’s too darned many of them and our small planet cannot possibly cough up enough resources to provide every human being with their own air-conditioned/CD/phone/fax/micro-wave equipped “carcoon.”

I’ve always been a part time cyclist but what I learned about cars and the environment inspired me to take bicycling to a whole new level.

The day came that I began to resent paying insurance on a vehicle I only pulled out of the driveway two or three times a month.

Shortly thereafter I sold my Toyota. For the past five years I’ve been conducting an experiment to see if it’s still possible, in a culture that practically makes car ownership a mandatory condition of legitimate citizenship, to function AUTOFREE.

Cars define us and promise euphoria. Alas, cars are no longer our servants. They are our masters.

I made a vow that, except for emergencies, I would make all trips within a three-mile radius on foot or bicycle. I purchased a collapsible shopping cart and a bicycle trailer big enough to hold a fifty-pound bag of potbellied pigfood and four bags of groceries. I’ve learned to ride wearing almost any outfit -a business suit or even a long skirt, rain or shine. I have an electric bike to help me when my travels take me uphill. Occasionally I ride the bus and use the airport shuttle. And, in a culture where many families have two or three vehicles, it’s not hard to catch a ride or borrow or rent a car when a genuine need arises!

(Editorial, Ojai Valley News and other publications, 2000)

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