No Car, No Problem: The Benefits of Car-Free Living
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On cold rainy days in February, when my shoes are soaked and my legs are damp, I often find myself wondering, “Why did I decide to live without a car?"
Growing up as a teenager in the suburbs, I believed cars were a source of independence. Yet, over the years, I've come to see cars as a symptom of cultural sickness. In college, I decided to save money by not purchasing a car and found that I also escaped worries of shoveling the snow from around its tires, finding parking, and arguing with mechanics. Now, when parents or friends offer me their used vehicles, I turn them down, preferring to avoid the hassle of ownership.
Cecilia Kingman, a minister who convened a Common Security Club in her church, notes that her decision to live with out a car, “always draws curious comments.” Yet she managed to raise two children as a single mother without one.
Kingman's children now say that growing up without a car not only brought their family closer together, but also helped them develop a more relaxed schedule, environmental consciousness, and a strong sense of their own independence and capability. “They learned to take public transportation at an early age, and by middle school could get all over town on their own,” she says.
Lately, it seems, everyone is going “green”–even my mom is eating vegan and taking public transit. Still, as climate change unfolds on a grand scale, we all must wonder if our individual lifestyle choices are really making a significant difference. Although one can worry about paper or plastic, the Union of Concerned Scientists explains that the most influential environmental choices an individual can make boil down to three: Drive less; Eat less meat; Live in smaller, well-insulated homes.
A more radical consciousness raiser for me was reading Ecocities, in which architect and urban planner Richard Register explains how, in addition to environmental problems, cars cause a dislocation of community.
How to make it with less, share more, and put people and the planet first.
As Kingman points out from her own car-free experience, “We ended up supporting a lot of local businesses, because big box stores and malls were much harder to get to. We bought our groceries every few days, which supported a healthier diet. And most of my children’s friends were in the neighborhood, because I couldn't drive them across town for play dates, and that helped us know our neighborhood, which has benefits beyond our own family.”
My friend Danilo Morales grew up in Ecuador with six brothers and sisters. A car was more than his family could afford. As a child, he felt normal taking the bus, as most other families couldn’t afford a car either. Even though he wanted one in high school so he could take his girlfriend to the beach, the idea of going into debt for five to seven years—with little money left over for food and rent—seemed absurd. When he came to the United States, he was shocked to find that a lot of families have one car for every member.
As he began his U.S. job hunt, Morales considered buying a car in order to be able to go after the best available job. Yet he found the stress from the rush hour commute lingered. As he puts it, “When I was young in Ecuador, still finding my identity, a car was attractive in theory. But now I have core principles and I’ve overcome the status mirage of a car. I feel like I am doing something good by avoiding car ownership. Of course, you have to be strategic about where you live.”