by BEN WOOSLEY
Thoughts from my own choice to give up my car:
Thoreau said that freedom was not only a situation apart from ourselves, from which a person could be plucked or into which one could be thrust, but also could be a consequence of our choices, the things we volunteer ourselves into, for our own reasons or on behalf of society.
In particular, he contrasts the lifestyles of the native peoples, whose simple habitations were easily constructed, with the farmers who would spend decades of work to pay off the mortgages on their homes. The farmers may have seemed better off, but at the same time they were bound to this heavy burden, which drove them to work the land rather than write, as Thoreau did, or simply live more simply. I don’t mean to romanticize the state of the natives, but there’s a legitimate question to be asked here: how free were the farmers, really? Had they unknowingly chosen to punish themselves because that was “the right thing to do” in the society they lived?
This concept of the unacknowledged burden became quite real to me recently when I unloaded myself of a burden which had once been, and remains to many, a symbol of freedom: my car.
I’ve been living in Capitol hill for the past year and a half. My drift away from the car started immediately; first it was obvious that the bus was an easier commute than my car, because on the bus I had my time to myself, and it spread from there. I’ve since read books, watched films, learned a fair amount of French and even done a bit of work on the bus. In fact, I largely wrote this post on the bus.
Over time, I built up a pretty clear case for giving up the car, which I share here because some of the arguments can be subtle, and may have been missed. I’ll try not to cover the obvious reasons, (i.e., the inconvenience of parking and the cost of gas and insurance), just 3 oft-ignored costs.
The Inconvenience of Maintenance
One cold night, a friend and I went to take my car out. It’d been a few weeks since I’d used it, but it had always been dependable, so imagine my surprised when the engine refused to turn over. No problem, it had just been out for a while and the battery had discharged. A jump from a helpful friend later, and I’m on the road. Perhaps I only need to drive a little while and the battery will be charged back up and good to go.
Wrong. Only after a month and a hand-full of attempted jumps, including one from a re-neg-er who said “um, this is taking longer than I expected, I’m gonna go back to my house” (5 minutes in and half a block away from her house) did we make it back to be fixed. The battery had gone bad.
All told, this event required hours of time, $200 in the cost of jumper cables and a battery, and the priceless aid of friends and passers-by, to be fixed. Time, money, inconvenience.
But beyond that, upon checking the car for the battery problem, the mechanics came back with a laundry list of concerns, adding up to thousands of dollars in potential maintenance, of questionable necessity.
Driving home the point that I didn’t have time for maintenance, one of their suggestions was that I replace my wiper blades, which were in fact bad. Apparently, they had failed to notice that I had a fresh pair in the backseat, which had been there for months but I’d never had the time to put in place.
The Cost of Depreciation
Yes, depreciation: the difference between what you could sell your car for last month and this; the value that your car loses over time. In my case, I drove a distinguished but not flashy two-door coupe, bought it for $9000 and two years later could sell it for around $6000. $3000 dollars over 2 years, and this for a 10 year old car!
This is not the cost you see flowing out of your wallet, but it’s the true economic cost. It exists, it’s substantial, and it’s an amount you should account for when comparing alternatives.
The Goal of Density
I’ve an appreciation for density for one important reason: cultural diversity. A major part of what determines whether a certain obscure genre can be represented in an art gallery, music venue or bar is the quantity of patrons willing to make the trip out to support that establishment. Greater density means more people within a given radius and thus a greater likelihood that enough people will be willing and able to travel to and support this establishment, keeping it alive.
This is one reason rural and suburban areas are so often cultural wastelands. Institutions can’t muster the support they need when their potential patrons are so spread out. You can’t have a gay bar and a metal bar and a indie bar and so on when you have a handful of each.
And spread out why? For the sake of lawns and parking. If there’s one thing which prevents a place from effectively becoming more dense, it is the roads and parking lots needed to support the car-only lifestyle. A one-car-per-person society has a hard limit on how dense it can become, and thus typically a practical limit on how culturally diverse it may be. But if we make the choice to minimize our own footprint, we open the door to greater density and all the attendant benefits.
So, when I finally relieve myself of my car, I not only save money (by relying on public transit and zipcar), lessen my impact on the environment, clear my mind & schedule by offloading the concerns of maintenance to those I rely on, and give myself time to read and to write, but I also help support a society in which it is possible for minority ideas & establishments to flourish in the support of their nearby constituents.
This is the liberation I’m finding as an ex-motorist.