Saturday, June 5, 2010

Living Without a Car

In my last post I mentioned that I've taken a vow to never own an automobile. A fellow asked me to write a few words about this, so I'm making the time to do so now.

I tell people that I decided to never own an automobile or fly in an airplane again as part of a pledge to limit my footprint on the earth. It was relatively easy to do both of these things because my interest in travel pretty much died-out at an early age. Moreover, I grew up in a family of traditional peasants from Southern Ontario. People in that class never did travel much because they needed to be present twice a day to take care of their livestock. (Farmer's called it "being tied to their cow's or pig's tail".) In a couple decades of marriage my parents went on one two week vacation to Chatham Ontario, and only because my father had won the trip by selling seed corn and my brother and I were old enough to take care of the chores while they were gone.

Of course, times change. And it is essential for country people to drive cars. I got my driver's license at 16 like everyone else, and did things like drive to movies. But one thing I did do from a much earlier age was drive tractor. And sitting in a tractor seat for 10 hours a day taught me to hate sitting on my butt bored out of my skull. Long distance driving ultimately seemed to be more of the same, so I never really thought that "road trips" were all that cool. That was reinforced by a job that I had one summer for the Ministry of Agriculture---it involved spending 10 hours a day driving down dusty back-roads auditing crops.

What this did for me was dramatically lower any interest I might have had in acquiring a car. Everyone else in my family moved heaven and earth to get their first one, whereas I just built my life around doing without. This meant I tended to live in the older parts of town, which were built before most people bought cars and where it is still possible to live without one. Once in a while I would rent a car, but eventually so many years had gone by without doing this I let my license lapse and can no longer legally drive.

A lot of people find it hard to believe that anyone can live without a car, but this is easily refuted by the fact that many people do. The issue is one of adaptation. Without a car large areas of the community are simply off limits for living, working or shopping. If might be that there is public transit, but unless it is very good---and in many places it isn't---it just isn't worth the hassle. This needn't be quite the problem you might think if you just build your life around it.

I live close enough to work that I walk there every day. I also live close to the down-town, the farmer's market and transit hub. In a world without autos, this would be a "desirable" place to live. It once was, as you can tell by all the once very nice homes that have been converted into cheap apartments and rooming houses. I bought one with another person, which we have converted back into the top/down duplex it once was. We paid a very low price for it, but it needed a lot of work. My friend the Mayor tells me that as the price of energy increases and the city intensifies, our neighbourhood will only improve in value while the more remote suburbs will collapse in value. Paradoxically, in my town the cheapest place to live is the one where it is easiest to live without an auto.

I say "paradoxically" because you save a pant load of money not having a car. The average middle-class person in Canada spends about $8,000 annually on their transportation. Since a bus pass in our town only costs about $72/month, or $864/year, the pass costs a little under one tenth of a car. I don't use a pass because I rarely take the bus and either walk or bike. For larger purchases, I have a bike trailer that I got for $100 (I got a heck of deal by buying a prototype from a person who owns a company that builds them.) For even bigger purchases, I will take a bus and hire a cab to bring home what I've bought. I also bike over to lumber yards and have things delivered. I also have friends with pickup trucks who are usually more than willing to do barter deals where I help them with stuff in exchange for the odd dump run or trip to the building supply store. If worst comes to worst, if you look at the classified advertisements on things like Kiiji or Craig's List, there are always people you can hire with pickups who are willing to do your small jobs for a modest fee.

Needless to say, if you are saving $8,000 a year on not having a car, this gives you a lot of flexibility with regard to other things. This raises an important point, however. Some people see not having a car as a way of avoiding the necessity of making that extra $8,000 per year. In a sense this is true, but people have to remember that it is much, much, much easier to live a modest lifestyle on a middle-class income than on a poverty one. Really poor people can't buy homes in areas where it is easy to live without a car. They can rent, but one of the things that comes from low rent is instability. Land lords that only ask for cheap rent are usually "land banking" the building until they can tear it down and build something new. This means that people on reduced income often find that they have to pack up and move over and over again.

This is not only wearisome and potentially expensive (there are always moving costs---even if it is just goodwill amongst friends), but it stresses the lifestyle you've built up. People who live without cars exist in an ecosystem in the same way that hunter/gathers do. If you move a culture from one area to another, there are problems in that people lose some of the cultural knowledge about where the best hunting, fishing, plant gathering areas, etc are. In the same way, if people have to pack up and move on a regular basis they have a hard time building relationships with neighbours and don't learn important survival skills like where the cheapest necessities are to be had locally.

Another thing to consider when doing without a car is what sort of impact it is going to have on your personal relationships. In North America many family members have adopted lifestyles that are totally car dependent. This means that if you opt out of owning a car you could end up being frozen out of family events like Thanksgiving and Christmas because it is impossible to get to the homes of people hosting these events without an auto. Also, just because you decide to not own a car doesn't mean that any significant others you may have in your life want to do so. This means you run the risk of either "bailing" on these connections or ending up forcing people into becoming your chauffeur. If you do end up relying on others to drive, it is imperative that you make big efforts to show how much you appreciate this by doing things like offering to buy gas, take people out to supper, etc. You are saving a lot of money buy not owning a car, show that you appreciate the help with some of that money saved.

One other thing that you should remember is that it changes your consciousness dramatically when you stop driving. It means that you no longer can do things as spontaneously. You have to plan out your itinerary around transport so you don't end up wasting time on extra trips. It also means that you have to be careful to only buy as much as you can carry on your back or on your bike in one trip. My ex and I really noticed this fact when we got involved. She ran around in her car from place to place and would make plans on the fly. I would carefully think out what I needed and how I was going to organize my trip to get it. The car enabled her to do what she did whereas not having one forced me to do what I do.

Another thing thing people probably won't think about unless they try it, is how not owning a car changes your understanding of velocity. If you drive a lot you get used to several ton objects flying around at very high speeds. This is a very odd and dangerous state of affairs, as our annual accident reports will bear out. If you don't drive or even ride in cars much, you being to start experiencing how very odd this state of affairs is in a visceral fashion.

This means that I am literally afraid of cars. I see them roaring down the street, controlled by people who have precious little control over their emotions and who are not terribly bright or self-conscious. This makes me very careful when I do things like cross the street or ride a bicycle. It also absolutely terrifies me when I ride in a car. I usually try to hide in the back seat and recite mantras in order to avoid freaking out. Unfortunately, people often force me to ride "shot gun" because of their misguided attempt to show me "respect". This makes things even worse. If I don't watch myself, I end up flinching or even crying out at various situations---which bugs the hell out of drivers. Lately, I've developed a strategy that helps by envisioning Daoist immortals flying around the car and defending it. This at least keeps me from freaking, which helps. (I doubt the driver would be helped much though if he knew what I was doing.)

One last point. Part of living without a car has to mean living where it is possible to do so. I read somewhere that during the last big hike in gasoline prices that poor Americans suffered much more than poor Canadians. Poor Canadians tend to live in urban areas and are serviced by public transit. Poor Americans tend to live in rural areas and drive everywhere. I suppose it is possible to live in rural areas without a vehicle, but it would be a lot harder than it is for me to live in the middle of a Canadian city that has done a lot more than most to keep its downtown viable. But then again, choosing where you live is part and parcel of the whole livestyle.

1 comment:

The Rambling Taoist said...

My brother (age 46) has never owned a car nor obtained a driver's license. He lives in a large city and generally walks or takes the bus wherever he needs to go. He gets by quite fine, in this regard.

My wife & I, on the other hand, own a car and both of us have driver's licenses. My wife needs the car for work and I need it to get off of our steep hill. Owing to my disability, it would have been better to purchase a home on level ground, but our attempts to do so kept backfiring!

While I'm sure we drive more than we should, our contribution to lessen our carbon footprint is two fold. First, up to four years ago, we each had our own vehicle. We decided to become a one vehicle family. Second, we now own one Chevy Aveo which gets great gas mileage and spews out less crap than many other vehicles.

I recently was approved for our dial-a-ride transit system, so I think I will be driving much less than before.