Learning To Live Without A Car

by Mary Hrovat

It’s a Saturday in May. I’m 17, and I’ve spent the morning washing and waxing my first car, a 1974 Gremlin. I’m so delighted that I drive around the block, windows down, Chuck Mangione playing on the radio. Feels so good, indeed. I’ve successfully negotiated a crucial passage on the road to adulthood, and I’m pleased with myself and my little car. Times change, though, and sometimes even people change. Forty years later, with, I hope, many miles ahead of me, I sold what I expect to be my last car.

When I bought the Gremlin, I lived in Phoenix. I had walked to grade school, and my siblings and I regularly walked to the grocery store and the public pool; all of these places were within about half a mile of our house. However, my full-time job was 10 miles away. I’d been commuting by bus or riding with a friend who worked at the same place. I also took evening classes a couple of days a week at a community college (about 8 miles away), again riding with my friend. The college was not as easily accessible by bus as my job was, and I anticipated being a full-time student that fall. Buying the car was one step toward my goal of getting a degree.

I assumed, along with just about everyone else, that a car was necessary equipment for adulthood, or at least a necessary price you pay for independence. Buying the car was a way of beginning to separate myself from my parents. I was proud of myself for arranging and paying for my driving lessons, finding a car to buy, and writing a check to pay for it. These things represented initiative and independence (although I couldn’t have saved the money if I hadn’t been living at home).

I went to school full-time that fall and got a job on campus. It felt good to get to class on my own, go shopping when and where I liked, and come and go as I needed without worrying about when the buses stopped running or about waiting alone at a bus stop late in the evening. When I began dating the man I would later marry, I enjoyed going to see him without needing to ask him for a ride. It was also nice to be able to stay out a bit later than my parents wanted me to. Driving home late with the radio on, singing along with Billy Joel (“This is my life!”), arriving home at 10:30 instead of 10 in a very mild act of rebellion: This was probably as happy a driver as I’d ever be.

However, it quickly became clear that parking at my favorite destinations, school and the main branch of the public library, was limited. I learned to arrive on campus early to snag a parking spot, regardless of when my classes started. I also had to figure out the least busy times to visit the library, or else resort to the bus (a pretty good option, but it seemed wrong somehow when I had paid for the car and car insurance). In principle, having a car removes the temporal and spatial limitations of shared transit or reliance on others, but in practice it imposes other limits. I didn’t analyze my experience, though; I just absorbed the unexamined but pervasive idea that we needed more parking.

I didn’t do as much with my independence as I had thought I might. After two semesters of school, I got married. A year later, my first son was born. By the time my second son was born, my husband and I had moved to Indiana in search of a more natural lifestyle in the country, away from the hazards and tensions of modern life. We had ambitious plans for building our own house, having a garden and an orchard, and raising chickens and cows. The marriage ended before we had done much more than move out to a large old house about five miles outside of Bloomington and think about putting in a garden.

Our brief foray into the countryside depended heavily on the automobile. My husband drove to his job. I drove to town to buy groceries or go to the library or take the children to the doctor. On Sundays we drove to church, sometimes going home and then returning to the church later in the day for a social event. I found it hard to take the long evenings alone with the kids in an isolated house (my husband was working swing shift), so I started getting involved in various church groups that met on weeknights.

One of the things that had pushed me toward a supposedly safer life in the country was a crash that happened a few months before I got married. It killed two high school seniors who were riding a jeep on an undeveloped lot across the street from my family’s house. Yet I don’t remember ever being concerned by the fact that living in the country required an awful lot of driving. It seems to me now that living in a walkable location in town, where we could have had a few fruit trees, a garden, and maybe some chickens, would have been far more environmentally friendly and more sustainable, for both the marriage and the planet. But I didn’t think about it that way then. I didn’t realize that of all the things we feared might happen to our children, death or injury in a car crash was among the more likely ones. I didn’t know that the car’s carbon emissions were making everyone’s future more precarious.

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After the marriage ended, I moved back into town, returned to school, and completed a degree. Except for a year away, I stayed in Bloomington as my sons grew up. I worked mostly low-end jobs and lived paycheck to paycheck. The car seemed indispensable for getting to work, buying groceries, and picking my kids up and later returning them home every Saturday when they lived with their father.

I became involved with an environmental group, but my concern didn’t change my belief that owning a car was essential. I had lived through the gas crises of the 1970s, and I protested the start of the 1991 Gulf War; I should have been more sensitive to the vulnerability of fossil fuel dependence and the geopolitics of oil. Although mass transit as well as infrastructure for biking and walking in Bloomington were (and still are) far from perfect, I suspect I might have been able to live without a car. Instead, I put my hope in technical fixes such as higher fuel efficiency, better safety features, and higher emissions standards.

Fortunately, I did find opportunities now and then to walk rather than drive, and circumstances sometimes pushed me in this direction. Most notably, I lived for about a year in Ann Arbor in the late 1990s. Parking stickers on campus were so expensive that I finally got the message conveyed by costly or inconvenient parking: I found an apartment within walking distance (about a mile and a half from my job) and walked to work. I never drove to work again after that.

When I returned to Bloomington in 1999, I lived on campus with my younger son. I walked; he walked or biked. All the day-to-day things we wanted or needed to get to were well within walking distance (it helped that my concept of a feasible walking distance had expanded while I was in Ann Arbor). I still drove to the grocery store most of the time. I thought I needed a car for the occasional longer trips in town or just outside of it. So when the old car I’d been driving died, in 2004, I replaced it. At least I had learned something from my years of driving less. When I bought a house a couple of years later, I chose a small one in a walkable student neighborhood over a larger one in a quieter but less walkable area.

I was also fortunate in that my older son doesn’t drive. I learned, from watching him, how a life can be built largely around human-powered transport. My grandkids are growing up mostly pedestrian. Every week I spend some time with them, which includes a walk to their house. I hold their hands as we walk. We debate which route to take and say hello to people and dogs we meet. We check out the progress on buildings under construction. We notice the birds and flowers; we watch our shadows or talk about the clouds or planets in the sky. I hope my grandsons will remember these times happily; they’re among the best times of my week.

Of course, sometimes it rains, and we get wet. Some days are miserably hot and humid, and I grumble. I spend more on shoes and socks these days. I bought a high-quality rain poncho. I ride the bus sometimes as well as walk, so I have to keep bus fare on hand and pay attention to sometimes inadequate bus schedules. Car ownership, of course, also demands money and time. Driving has additional costs that are less visible because they’re delayed or unpredictable, or are borne mainly by other people. In comparison, the logistical requirements of walking or taking the bus are small and manageable, and as I walked more, they became second nature.

Walking is also its own reward. Exercise is part of my everyday life rather than a chore that must be scheduled. I feel better, even on those hot days, when I walk. I nod and smile at other people on foot. I love walking under sunset skies or through falling snow and even falling rain. I feel more connected to my city and to the planet. Walking signifies freedom to me.

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One reason it was easy to believe that driving was the most convenient way of getting around is that walking and cycling are often more stressful than they need to be, because cities are generally designed to favor driving. I’m becoming more vocal about urging my city to change this. As I learned about urban design, I saw that car-centric cities don’t really do as much for drivers as they seem to. Building or widening roads to accommodate driving generally increases traffic congestion. Cities in which most people drive are intrinsically less healthy, less energy-independent, and less sustainable.

Walking with my grandkids and hearing my son’s stories about cycling made me particularly aware of the vulnerability of pedestrians and cyclists in a transportation system designed primarily to move cars at speeds that satisfy drivers. The only truly negative thing about walking, I realized, is the presence of cars. Owning a car began to feel like complicity in a destructive system. After my grandsons became pedestrians, I drove even less and tackled some of my more challenging transportation tasks, like carrying home larger loads of groceries, without a car. Despite my uneasiness with driving, however, I kept my car. I couldn’t quite let go of the idea that there were still some destinations for which I’d need it.

A couple of summers ago, I noticed a few small spots of moss growing on the car. I would periodically worry about whether I should try to remove them, and how (I assume you can’t just buy Moss-Be-Gone at the auto parts store). Washing the car was an obvious solution, but I thought the paint might come away with the moss. I also noticed that the thought of facing the perpetually busy parking lot at the grocery seemed ever more irksome. On the increasingly rare occasions when I was in the car, I envied the people striding along on their own two feet. Driving was becoming a chore.

This became ridiculously clear a few months ago when a friend asked if I could help him out while his car was in the shop for a few days. I was glad to help, but the experience revealed that I had become pretty much a driver in name only. To get to a car rental place on a Sunday morning, I found that I needed to have the car jump-started because I’d left the battery unused too long. I also needed to put the new license plate on. It had arrived in the mail, but because I wasn’t planning on driving anywhere any time soon, I’d left it in the envelope. Then I learned that in addition to the moss, my car had ants. Life was giving me the push I needed. My next insurance payment was due in about six weeks, and I could see that the amount of the payment would cover rental cars or taxis for the relatively rare trips I couldn’t make by bus or on foot, with plenty to spare. That would reduce my car footprint to about as low as it could go.

I found a buyer and sold the car in mid-July (I got rid of the ants first). I thought that this might be a watershed moment, but I’d been driving so little that it was no big deal. Instead of paying my insurance bill, I threw it away and received a small refund on the existing policy. I bought a utility cart and a couple of reusable insulated shopping bags to haul groceries home. I stopped worrying about the moss. I went on walking into the future.

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