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Living Without a Car: My New American Responsibility

Giving up a car isn't easy -- even amid the gas crisis. But the covetous American way of life has become unsustainable.
 
 
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SAN FRANCISCO -- For the first time in nearly two decades, I am no longer a driver. A few months ago, facing spiking gas prices and much-needed repairs, I donated my car to an organization that takes care of foster kids.

It's an odd feeling to be on this side of being green. Without a car, my sense of time and space have been immediately altered. What was once a matter of expediency is now an effortful navigation.

"I'll be there in 15 minutes!" I used to tell a good friend who once lived nearby but who now resides, without a car, at an inconvenient distance. Going to my favorite Asian food market suddenly has turned into another arduous chore: Once a 30 minute event, it has become a two-hour ordeal, with bags in hands, and bus transfers.

Owning a car has always been a luxury in the Third World, something beyond the pale of the middle class. In countries like Vietnam, Peru and Bangladesh, just to name a few, only the very rich owned cars. When I came here from Vietnam with my family at the end of the war, I remember such delight when my older brother bought his first car. We were still sharing an apartment with my aunt and her children, but as we cruised the streets at night, it felt as if we were becoming Americans.

The automobile, after all, is intrinsically American, and owning one largely determines how we Americans arrange our daily lives -- it is as essential to us as the train and metro are to Japanese or Europeans. Indeed, a car is the first thing a teenager of driving age desires; to drive away from home is an established American rite of passage. Even the working poor are drivers here.

For immigrants, the car is the first thing we buy before the house. Vietnamese in Vietnam marvel at the BMWs and Mercedez Benzes that their relatives drive in America, and no doubt the sleek photos sent home cause many to dream of a life of luxury in the United States.

It seems a natural progression that the housing crisis should quickly lend itself to a car crisis. Both were readily available at one time, with easy loans and cheap gas. But now, with skyrocketing gas prices and faltering mortgages, many have had to give up one in order to keep the other.

Not surprisingly, the car is often the last thing that downtrodden Americans let go. "I can see losing my house, but I can't imagine losing my van," one unemployed friend told me. "I can live in my van. But not being able to get where I need to go would be worse than not having a house."

Mobility defines us far more than sedentary life, thus the car is arguably more important than the house. Americans, despite accepting global warming as de facto, are still very much in love with the automobile. On average, we own 2.28 vehicles per household.

Our addiction to the automobile is as much a symptom of our nomadic culture as it is a matter of necessity: Urban sprawl, combined with little public transportation, makes the car essential. A job seems almost always to require it. The distance between here and there is daunting without a vehicle at one's command.

The car, culturally speaking, is mobility and individualism combined. It is sex, freedom and danger. Thelma and Louise escaped from urban ennui by hitting the freeway with the wind in their hair, the horizon shimmering chimerically ahead. They found romance on the road. Indeed, their final moment approaches the mythic, as the blue Thunderbird Convertible flies across the Grand Canyon, taking the notion of freedom beyond any open road.

Our civilization, too, is driving toward an abyss. The covetous American way of life -- in the age of climate change and dwindling energy resources -- has become unsustainable.

On TV recently, former Vice President turned eco-activist Al Gore called for a radical change in our collective behavior. He wants us to completely replace fossil fuel-generated electricity with carbon-free energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal by 2018. "The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk," he said. "The future of human civilization is at stake." We are now being called upon, the Nobel Prize winner told us, "to move quickly and boldly to shake off complacency, throw aside old habits and rise, clear-eyed and alert, to the necessity of big changes."

I wish he were exaggerating, but my gut tells me that the green guru is pointing us in the right direction. How and if we'll ever get there, how we'll find a collective will to act, I have no idea. But I do know this: Humanity has arrived at a historic juncture and it now seems that a drastic shift in the collective behavior is called for. If this means finding the will to be frugal and give up certain luxuries, then so be it.

America was built on the premise of progress and expansion. Yet our vision of a future of unimpeded opportunities and comfort is now in conflict with the health of the planet. The consumer culture requires continuous acquisition, and it is built on the concept of disposable goods. Our way of life -- which is copied the world over -- has created an unprecedented crisis on a planetary scale.

I can tell you from experience, however, that being on the right side of the green divide is not easy. As I trudged to work this morning, a 40-minute trek, I dearly missed my car. As I budget my time and memorize bus routes and timetables, it seems as if I am returning to my humble immigrant beginnings, repudiating some notion of being an American. But I'm not. Giving up the car is my new American responsibility.

Andrew Lam is the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.