How I Survived Breaking Up With My Car

Personal Health

Where I grew up, owning a car was a necessity rather than a choice, and where it’s not a choice it can quickly become an emblem of pride.

I was the kid of an environmental science teacher in the skeptical South—in high school I once delivered a punctiliously researched speech about global warming after which I was heckled by the teacher. But still, I loved cars. My first car was a four-door 1989 Nissan Maxima with a spoiler and chrome trim. You could push down the back passenger window from the outside and crawl in if you’d locked your keys inside. I was even proud of that.

Every morning in central Kentucky, well over 100,000 vehicles pour onto Interstate 65, which runs north to south, bisecting the state between Franklin and Louisville. They drive 45 minutes, an hour, even two hours to work, crossing county and state lines and filing en masse through the fast food drive-throughs at outposts in Shepherdsville or Elizabethtown. They need their cars to go where the work is, where the grocery is, where the stores are. There’s a good chance I was proud because I was 17 years old and that car offered me my first taste of real independence. A kid that grows up in New York City can hop on the subway anytime she wants. But I grew up in Kentucky, and by fifth grade I was living in a rural county about half an hour outside Louisville. To go to any friend’s house I needed a ride. In fact, I needed a ride to do more or less anything: to buy a snack, a shirt, even a pack of gum.

I commuted like this for two years—back and forth several days a week between Louisville and Bardstown, more than 70 miles round-trip. Driving wasn’t a choice for me or my fellow travelers. Eating and working are not choices.

But when I moved to Seattle a few months ago, I had a choice for the first time. I decided to sell my car and try a life without it—though it shuddered to an unsurprising halt before I had the chance to sell. Considering I already couldn’t park it on hills (where it refused to roll any direction but down), it wouldn’t have survived Seattle anyway.

After having driven a few times in Seattle, driving seems not only more expensive, but also more stressful, and, in the city, rarely faster. And in an attempt to achieve entirely free transportation, riding my bike has become a means to an end rather than simple recreation. As a result, these days I get a lot more incidental exercise (and a lot fewer drive-through burgers). I don’t miss that car—it was no 1989 Maxima—but surprisingly, after more than three months without it, I find I don’t miss cars in general. It’s the first time I’ve been without a gas-powered vehicle since I was 17. My keychain is strangely light. I carry milk longer distances.

But this is only possible because the infrastructure exists here: bike paths, frequent buses, and the first line in what promises to soon become a train system.

Meanwhile, Kentucky is only negligibly better off without my car bellowing pounds of exhaust into the air. If the Ohio River Valley is famous for one thing, it’s for just how hard it can be to breathe there. And it’s not just allergens—a few years ago, a University of Louisville cardiologist told me that when it comes to high levels of particulate matter, the Ohio Valley ranks alongside Beijing-Shanghai and Delhi. Certainly, Beijing and Saharan Africa are worse off, according to a NASA map of global air pollution, but the Ohio Valley is the U.S. hotspot. And the particulates problem doesn't take into account the climate effects of all the carbon dioxide our cars emit. The transportation sector coughs up 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—97 percent of those from fossil fuel combustion, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Right now, the infrastructure isn’t there for bigger changes—and while some of us will try to do our part to produce less exhaust and waste, “some” only adds up to so much. Environmental groups in Kentucky are aware of Kentuckians’ reliance on their cars, and are aiming at practical solutions: the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District campaigns against vehicle idling, while the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development has provided loans and expertise to cut energy use in grocery stores throughout Appalachia. Working with groceries to cut one of their biggest expenses has kept a few from shutting their doors for good, while others have even hired more workers. In an area where people often have to drive 45 minutes to buy food—and where many can’t afford that drive—this is not only an environmentally conscious but also a humane endeavor.

And the culture isn’t quite there, either. For all my independence from cars these days, and for all that I know about what vehicle exhaust does to the planet, I still love the vehicle.

How do you ask people to shed this emblem of independence — perhaps the greatest source of independence most Americans experience day in and day out? Without an incredibly far-reaching infrastructure overhaul, the short answer is that you don’t. The more complicated answer is that first, you have to ask us to want change, and that takes meeting us somewhere between Franklin and Louisville.

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