Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why We Are Car-Free

Whenever I tell someone we don't own a car (which I avoid sharing in this town, depending on the perceived open-mindedness of the person in question), the questions I get in response are almost always along these lines:

"How do you get groceries?"

"What do you do in the winter?"

"What if there is an emergency and you have to get one of your kids to the pediatrician?"

These are all valid questions, I suppose, in a city built primarily around automobiles, where everyone (including people who really shouldn't) owns at least one car.

But honestly, to me, I am disappointed that people are so focused on the "how" of car-free living that they forget, or don't care about, the "why." I find the why so much more interesting, and it is different from what many people assume. Often it seems that people are happy to place us in the ecologically-minded hippie liberal camp, and they leave it at that. But for the record, here are the major reasons we do not own a car.

We never bought a car.

This sounds like a tautological response, but this is an important distinction. I believe it would have been much harder for us to choose a car-free life if we had had to consciously change from a life of car ownership. Selling a car and moving to a more walkable area is much more difficult than never buying a car, much as quitting smoking is much harder than just never starting.

When we married, neither of us had ever owned a car or had access to a car for our exclusive use in adulthood. We were moving to DC shortly after the wedding, so we didn't buy a car then, either. Over the years, we built our lives and various moves around the ability to get around without a car. We grew into car-free adults, rather than having to take the seemingly drastic step of getting rid of a car or two.

We enjoy active transportation.

Walking has been the mainstay of our transportation, exercise, and relational lives for a long time. Having never owned cars, we have both done a lot of walking in the various cities where we've lived. We love to walk together and talk. We love getting to see the world around us as we're traveling, to notice the little details and be able to stop and look. We honestly like the feeling that we've worked hard to get somewhere. We like experiencing the entire fabric of the space between here and there.

Bicycles only entered the picture about a year ago, but we have enjoyed the different experience of cycling. It is fun and surprisingly fast when one is used to walking. Our 3-year-old son is happy to ride his bike at any time, to almost anywhere, making transitions that much easier. We can cover more ground on bikes, while still getting exercise and having the joy of self-propulsion. 

When we do use a car now, we feel odd - stifled, restrained, tired, and cut off from the outside world. Cars have their place in our lives, but for the vast majority of trips, we enjoy being in the fresh air. 

We save thousands of dollars.

Having transportation expenses close to zero, we are able to save a large percentage of our income. When a car is seen as a necessity, like food or housing, it is easy to overlook the fact that cars cost lots and lots of money, every year, and every time you drive. The average American spends over $9000 per year on car expenses. Whether or not we can "afford" this extra expense, we don't like spending money unnecessarily, and we prefer to put it toward more valuable activities. 

There are many ways to make car ownership less costly, such as buying a used car with cash and driving as little as possible. We know that even if we do buy a car one day, we will have developed the habit of getting around in other ways, so we will be able to own just one car and use it for the times when it really is a logical choice.

We're contributing to our community.

Finally (and you'll notice that the altruism shows up in last place), we feel that by not owning a car, we are contributing to our community and world. I'm sorry to say that we are by no means the kind of people who would make such a major life choice based primarily on concern for the environment or the community, but it does figure in to our decision-making somewhat.

First of all, we're doing a little bit of our part to be less wasteful, to limit our carbon footprint, and to take up less space. This is not to say that our food and material goods don't travel on trucks and planes from far away, of course, but we can at least say that we don't use automobiles just to get our little selves around. We have a strong aversion to waste, and using 25 times more energy than necessary to accomplish a task just doesn't suit our style.

Second, by walking and biking, and even riding the bus, we are out on the street, in the community, seeing and being seen by our neighbors. Having people out on the sidewalks and on bikes does so much to promote a feeling of community and safety. It makes us happier, and it makes our neighbors happier. And, as a bonus, we are out seeing what needs to be fixed in the community - crosswalks, sidewalks, bike lanes, bus routes, empty lots - and we are not shy about sharing these issues with our local representatives. If we were always or even usually in a car, we wouldn't notice these problems and likely wouldn't care.

In reality, we are not deciding against owning a car. We do not see this as an absence or a lack, or that we're choosing to abstain from something. We are making a decision for the many wonderful experiences and opportunities that present themselves because of our active lifestyle.