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How I divorced my car
It was very difficult for me to let go of my car. I grew up in a suburb of Washington, DC where we had two cars parked in the driveway which were essential to get anywhere interesting. Obtaining a driver's license marked a transformative rite of passage. Up to that point, you were a dependent person, a passenger, but upon the 16th birthday you became licensed for the open road and all the freedom it holds. In my world, a car was equivalent with freedom.
Yet by the time I was 30 and living in the heart of Washington, DC the magic had dimmed. The car had become a burden, something that you hardly ever needed to use, and when you did, it better be worth it because you'd have to search a half hour for a parking spot to let it sit another week. I had already been a bike commuter since college, and I was comfortable using transit, but I kept my trusty old Corolla because I might just want to use it to go out of town or something. As these infrequent usages became less and less frequent, I was forced to acknowledge that there was no practical reason to own a car: it was simply an emotional attachment. The thought of not having a car as a backup possibility, just in case I needed it, was scary. My car represented flexibility and convenience and security.
Then the day came where I realized that I had made a decision to give up my car without consciously deciding to. I came home on a lunchtime errand, glanced at my car parked out on the street, and noticed that a homeless man had taken up residency in it. It wasn't the first sign indicating that my car was slowly evolving into urban habitat. A few weeks earlier someone had broken one of the small windows. When I'd tried to move the car, I found it wouldn't start, and then lifted the hood to discover that rats had gnawed through the rubber casings around the battery cables. I was in denial. I finally took action and donated the car to charity.
I share this story because even as someone who is totally committed to alternative transportation, it took me about six months to actually relinquish car ownership. It's hard. It feels risky. I don't know that I would have managed if I hadn't been able to join the two car sharing organizations in my neighborhood at the time. But once I became car free, I discovered another kind of freedom. No car expenses, no breakdowns, no parking worries. I get more exercise and save a lot of money. I have no regrets.
Not owning a car has changed my habits and lifestyle. I am less stressed. I notice details about homes and people in my neighborhood as I cruise around on my bike. I notice smells and subtle changes in the weather. When I move to a new place I select housing based upon convenience to grocery stores, bike trails, transit, and car sharing pods, in that order. I go shopping less frequently, and I buy fewer items per trip. My grocery bike has a rack and two large panniers which can carry more stuff than I thought was possible before I discovered bungie cords, like a toaster oven and half a dozen houseplants. When I do need a car, I have a fleet to choose from with carsharing. Sometimes I want a fast little sportscar, sometimes I need a truck, and they are all there at the touch of my cell phone.
There are downsides to not owning a car. Extra planning is required on rainy days. Either I try to wait for the rain to let up, if possible, or I leave extra early to take a bus. Buses are are always late and crowded on rainy days. I don't go to regional or state parks for hiking as often as I might if I had a car. Car sharing is expensive for daytrips, so I usually go when I can carpool with friends who have cars. My lifestyle is more parochial, more localized and limited in some ways; I mainly go to the same stores in my neighborhood and have little sense of the suburban areas of the region. My sense of time and distance are normalized to moving at 10mph, so when I drive, I am as amazed as someone in 1910 would have been at how quickly I get to the same places, and how close they are. Some might say that living local and slow is beautiful. But there are trade-offs; I think the car-free lifestyle would be more difficult if I had a different job or kids. I feel lucky it's feasible for me.
It's been about seven years now, and I will likely own a car again at some point in my life. But if so, I don't think it will be for the same emotional reasons that kept me a car owner in the past. At this point I think of a car as one of a menu of options - the most expensive and hassle-laden option, but still super fun when you manage to find that elusive open road.