How I learned to stop worrying and love the car

 

My first car was a worn, weary, 1981 Mustang (not as pretty as this one)

 

Looking back upon my 34 years in the world, my most complex and frustrating relationship as a consumer has been in the realm of transportation.  I have owned six vehicles personally, and at various points relied on different transportation choices out of choice or necessity.  At times, I was frustrated with the financial investment in transportation.  Without doubt, I would prefer to live in a place where I could rely on public transportation, and forego ownership of an automobile altogether.  Where I live, a bus that heads into the city every 30 minutes is only a ten minute walk away; from there, access by train into Boston and New York is very convenient.  However, I also find intrinsic pleasure in driving vehicles.  Additionally, I value the freedom that my automobile offers in terms of scheduling.  As a result, while I sometimes scold myself for choosing to drive, I remain locked into that consumption pattern.

As a teenager, the automobile represented freedom, a freedom that was not accessible to me.  My father bought me my first car, a weary, worn, 1981 Ford Mustang.  The engine of the Mustang was in disrepair to the point that each week I replaced a quart of oil, and power steering fluid as well.  I finally gave up on the car after the battery died on top of a mountain.  At the age of 20, that automobile was definitely present, because I could barely afford to take care of it, and it required constant attention.  The Mustang was easy to give up, because I was not yet accustomed to freedom, and I lived on a college campus.

However, my desire for the freedom of the automobile did not die, and I purchased a brand new Saturn Coupe months before graduation.  I was able to get a loan because of my impending commission as a Naval Officer.  However, I did not quite budget out the costs of the automobile, so after graduation, I left the Coupe behind in California to sell, and headed to Newport, Rhode Island, without a car.  I depended on my bike, as well as the kindness of strangers, to get around Newport for one summer.  In fact, that dependency, led me to have a close connection to my community.  After I moved west to Everett, Washington, I again chose to live without an automobile, relying on public transportation and the kindness of friends to get around.  However, the lure of freedom inevitably led me to get another car.  I have had a car in the years since, and never really questioned the need, until I spent three years living in Japan.  I found the trains there to be very convenient, and even though I bought an old Honda within a month of arriving in Japan, I rarely drove it.  Once again, in Japan, I felt a closer connection to the community around me.

Today, the costs of the two cars my wife and I own are ever present on my mind.  In the future, I would like to work in either Providence or Boston, and can see myself relying on public transportation instead of my automobile in daily commuting.  However, while I could rely on public transportation today, it would change my daily life significantly.  It would force me to plan ahead more for meals, and would limit my ability to travel around the larger community.  However, my wife works within a mile of the house, so in theory we could both manage with one automobile.  However, our communities are designed around the automobile.  Many of the businesses nearby are designed for automobiles, not public or personal transportation.  To not have an automobile would require a lot more planning, and some sacrifice.  We are used to having what we want, when we want it.  This logic defines nearly all of the decisions we make today as consumers.  To not have an automobile which I can always access would require me to rely on others more, and would potentially affect my ability to accomplish business or personal needs.  However, it would also bring me closer to the community around me.  When I walk home from the bus stop, I often speak to neighbors that I wouldn’t see otherwise even notice from the seat of my automobile.  Even my sense of place is affected, as I notice little things about the world around me.  In the long term, I would like to avoid the purchase of any more automobiles.  I would like to rely on public transportation and my bike.  However, to make that happen, I will need to be willing to go against the grain, to slow down my life, to sacrifice mobility; if my past is any sign, I may gain much more in terms of a connection to my community than I give up in terms of freedom.

 

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5 Comments on “How I learned to stop worrying and love the car”

  1. T. Caine says:

    Great post. I think that your analysis is dead on, The conclusion of recognizing the current status quo in addition to realizing how the desired changed will actually come back to change the way we live is a point we need more suburbanites to reach.

    Most of our suburbs are not programmed and designed to facilitate the car-lite plan that more people are beginning to consider. Like you said, there is no way to go about your normal day without the use of a car. A car-free experience is just trying to utilize an American suburb for something it wasn’t intended, like taking that ’81 Mustang off-roading.

    Having said all that, I think we agree that it still has to change. Designing new suburbs in a different way is one thing, but it pales in comparison to the task of reformatting the ones we already have. At some point, it has to grow out of its residents wanting to use their environs in a different way. Those use decisions can help drive change on the local level.

    • inafutureage says:

      Thanks, I am reading Eaarth right now, and there is a section where Bill McKibben confronts the reality of how much it will cost to redesign existing communities. The reality is that our infrastructure is old, and badly needs repaired, but we didn’t plan ahead to do so. It is tough to see how all these suburbs, especially in the dry west, will transition in the next few decades.

  2. The other driver says:

    In order to have one car in the future, you may have to teach your wife how to drive a manual car….

  3. The choice to have a car (or not) is always framed as a personal choice. This overlooks the collective choice factor; the way we have built our infrastructure to be far more accomodating of those who own automobiles, than those who do not. 🙂

  4. inafutureage says:

    Indeed. LA is expanding their new subway network, it will be interesting to see what impact that has over time on habits there.


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