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Without a Car in the World

by Jane Holtz Kay

The trumpet sounded from eighth row center at a Washington University lecture hall in St. Louis five years ago. It was early in my exploration of our "asphalt nation," and I was happy preaching to the choir…or, I should say, to fellow passengers; for the students at the St. Louis architecture school were already on the same trip. They had seen the devastation from our architecture defined by the exit ramp. They knew intuitively, if not literally, the design formulas that I recited from the podium: that every motor vehicle required an ancillary seven spaces to hold it at rest (parking) or in motion (driving). They realized that big chunks, in fact some 30 percent of our cities, were hardtopped in service to the car's voracious appetite. And they knew the consequences: how that transformed the built environment into a grim "carchitecture."

The architecture students absorbed my other arguments, too, on the broader compass of America's car costs: financial, social and environmental. They comprehended the motor vehicle's economic toll--$6000 in personal costs and another $4000 or $5000 in 'invisible' ones borne by the public. They were startled by the health and environmental hazards of driving, from the more than l20 fatal accidents a day, to habitat destruction and global warming. They had experienced the inconveniences of congestion and chauffeuring, of parking and driving endless miles to get a quart of milk. The room darkened, and they chuckled at the slides of cartoons and auto-mated mayhem.

Then the questions came. Back and forth, the queries bounced. Towards the end of the evening came the telling one:

"Do you own a car?"

And with it my confession: Yes, I did.

Of course, I owned a car. With my first child I had bought my first car. In fact, I had recently purchased a new one, my third Saab, the most "environmental" one, I supposed. But a car, nonetheless.

With that question, I knew I had to sell my private chariot. I realized that to explore the options or preach the message of car-free living, it was incumbent on me to be carless (or, in the vernacular of the activists "de-vehicularized" ). For openers, I knew I would assuredly hear the question again from others, believers and skeptics alike. Yet, more important, I knew I had to learn the answer first-hand. If I couldn't function without a four-wheeled vehicle, I would have to alter the argument of Asphalt Nation's subtitle, "How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back."

A month later, my car was on the block at the dealer. I was car-free with cash in hand. And damn the consequences.

So what were the consequences?

Since this is a truth walk, I will offer another confession. Shedding the car was no ordeal. From the beginning, I had scant trouble adjusting to my non-motored life. And, as the months wore on, the pluses far outweighed the minuses. For me, at least, it was easy to be car-free.

For one reason, I live in a dense, urban neighborhood. I work Downtown. I walk. My office, my friends and family, my entertainment and medical care are reachable at the end of mass transit or on foot. Messenger services are available; so are taxis. My daughters have moved to transit-rich New York and Paris. The supermarket delivers; the fruits and vegetables I carry home may belie the professionalism of my briefcase but they fit snugly inside. Because Boston holds many people who walk or take public transportation, services spring up to cater to their needs. This isn't Manhattan with its 24-hour everything, but it is a city. Its neighborhoods and shops ease a hassle-free, less car-dependent life.

At times, it took some doing, I'll concede, and some thinking. I switched tailors. I learned to carry two books or two grapefruits at a time instead of four, to allow extra time to get to the movies or visit my mother. I traded chores for occasional rides and, sometimes, made friends and enriched trips with them by sharing driving. At times, I abandoned a venture to some more distant place or used phone or mail order. Was it a sacrifice to reorganize or reduce my movement? A bit. But it was pure pleasure to forego trips to the repair shop or the tow lot or, for that matter, to drive to the mall encased in a ton of rolling steel. Overall, I simplified my life. I saved time.

One spring day in my car-free life, a new friend took me on a ride to trace the geography of my childhood and child-rearing days in my home town. In only ten minutes, we traversed the arc of my life: by the courtyard apartment where I grew up in an intimate, sidewalk community...up a hill to the small house on a dead-end street where I reared my children...past the home of my high school days, just paces from the classroom. In short order, we had swung by the library, the corner store, the town swimming pool, my sister's house. "You have lived your life in such a small space," my friend, a planner, said thoughtfully.

"Small…," I said. It had seemed universe enough. Not small at all to a child on foot. Not small to an adolescent or young mother. Not in the detail, the change, the shifting drift of streets, the palette of tree and vegetation, the variety of architecture, the scale of windows, the ornament of accretions through the years. Each locale, each corner, each doorway had meaning and actuality. Each segment had a rich and diverse presence as I walked from store to school to playground. To me, the arc was large as life: It was built at a walker's pace, and paced it I had. Its mobility was the pedestrian's--the person's--mobility, shifting, evolving, engaging eye and mind. How different from carbound America's hypermobility, the endless passing of faceless places.

Not long afterwards, a young German intern in my office gave me a Netherlands Friends of Earth study of the motorized planet: the environmentalists calculated that to apportion the mileage of drivers in the industrial nations equitably across the global population (and hence not increase the pollution and degradation) would allow each planet member only 400 motorized miles. A mere 400 miles! The thought was staggering. How could we move? I asked a friend. She responded ruefully. I could walk or bike to my daughter's, she said. Her daughter wouldn't be living in California, she went on plaintively. My friend's options were enlarged, yet contracted, too. What do we gain from our restless wheels? Emptied cities, rich farmlands vanishing at two million acres a year, and over 4000 dead malls follow from our car-bred sprawl and our scorched earth policy to the land.

"Houston is the modern world par excellence," architect Daniel Solomon has put it. "The young man who drove me to the airport says he lives thirty miles from school, a one-hour drive each way," I record Solomon's words in my book. "His 2-l/2-year old truck has 78,000 miles on it and he hasn't been anywhere. Fifty times the Odyssey, eight times the travels of Marco Polo, how many hundreds of times the walks of Leopold Bloom? And with what density of experience, what learned in his 78,000 mile journey?" Where is it writ that this nation of the fresh start did better by its policy of split and sprawl?

When a skeptical friend looked at me as an eccentric Mary Poppins wafted by air, I thought of all that. When I waited for a cab or stood in line at the car rental place, I put my mind to the pluses. Not so often, however, I should add. The cabs came; the rentals were few. And most friends were envious of my car-free condition--if stubbornly dubious of their own capacity to emulate it or approximate it. And, yes, for every minor inconvenience I suffered, I had compensations. I didn't have to park, I could read en route. Neither snow nor wind stopped my arrival. (Through the auspices of the Almighty, I was out of town when floods of Noah's Ark proportions engulfed the Boston subway last fall.) Car-free, not car-less, was my state of mind.

And, yet, for all the conveniences of my home life, being de-vehicularized in America is being disenfranchised. Moving around a car-dependent country is not easy. And last spring when I ventured outside my pedestrian-friendly city to give a speech to Westchester, New York, conservationists, I understood what such deviation meant.

Determined to push my car-free experiment, I headed some 200 miles south of Boston. My trip without benefit of a personal vehicle began with a three-hour rocky Amtrak ride to Stamford, Connecticut, and a 45-minute car ride by my host thereafter to the speech's destination in Yonkers. There I would meet my daughter who had come a dozen miles by mass transit from Manhattan. None of this was terribly arduous. The worst of it came on the return voyage.

My hosts had assured me that I could take public transportation back to Manhattan. One member of the audience offered to drive us to the nearby train station. Alas, as ll p.m. approached, the station's bleak environs unnerved her. She drove us to the "safe" bus in Yonkers instead. Anxious to get home, she dropped us at the bus stop on a lonely arterial. Across the street from our perch, a pizza parlor glowed lifelessly in the darkening hours. The sidewalks were mostly lifeless. Cars passed; one slowed down ominously. Twenty anxious minutes and a $7-fare later, we climbed aboard a bus for a 30 minute ride to New York City. Near midnight, we disembarked and caught a cab to her apartment.

From doorway to doorway, event to event, I had spent eight hours transporting myself.

But the worst of it for harassed and auto-dependent Americans was that the curse of my car-less trip was no more burdensome than if I had depended on an automobile for the same trip. In fact, a car would have caused as many bumps and hazards in the driving and wayfinding, not to mention a few more in parking, tolls, and other expenses.

Such is the state of transportation in the most auto-mated nation in the world.

And the car-free alternative?

Whatever the wearisome aspects of walking and mass transit, of getting to and fro in a society designed for stasis without horsepower, I had an easy answer to any predicament in my car-free life. In the back of my brain I carried the mantra of the "$6000" I would save each year by not having the expense of a car. And this figure, now $6500, according to the AAA, continues to rise. A distant doctor's appointment, a delivery charge to get food or pizza, a cab here or there, paled in comparison to the cash benefit of almost $20 dollars a day I got from shucking my car. And, of course, I was practicing what I preached--and learning from the experiment.

In addition to my own private gains, of course, I was saving society almost that much in hidden costs, some in the form of pollution and environmental defilement; some on public costs of motor registry services, land consumption, congestion, accidents, and on and on.

What motivated me, of course, and what does and could power others, was an awareness that I would no longer be enslaved, bound to shuttling a minimum of 2000 pounds (3000-plus in a sports utility vehicle) to buy a popsicle. That may sound simply disparaging, but it is factually true. We are literally laced to spending our lives on that round of stop 'n drop. The Nationwide Personal Transportation Study's numbers substantiate that: our sprawling lifestyle of chauffeuring and consuming comprises two-thirds of the vehicle miles we travel, the bulk of what we put on the odometer; seven out of our ten hours in the car. And the trend is accelerating the time behind the wheel.

Of course, we want to escape. We also want to do better by ourselves and our planet. And, in the five years since I began Asphalt Nation, awareness of the car's social, economic, environmental, and architectural mischief has risen. Congestion grows as we travel ever more. So does awareness that our 5 percent of the planet's population consumes not only the world's goods but owns close to half the world's cars, carrying with that ownership the planetary destruction to habitat and fifty percent of the automobile's contribution to global warming.

This we know. But three-quarters of a century of catering to the car have driven us into a dead-end. How do we change? How do we reduce the average l0,000 to l2,000 miles apiece Americans drive their 200,000,000 motor vehicles, almost one car per citizen? Unquestionably, we can improve our carbound lot. Personally and politically, as I learned, we can lessen our car-dependency.

The 80 percent of New York citydwellers who don't drive and have the nation's best public transportation endorse the saying that a car is "more trouble than it's worth." They walk or ride the omnipresent rail and bus system allowed by places whose densely-settled, walkable land patterns and commitment to public transportation sustain it. Elsewhere, those who find driving oppressive opt for such independence and settle in the centers, cores, hamlets, or villages that let themselves and their children have independence of foot or bike travel. Many more would do so if given the choice.

Others run through hoops, or, more happily, on the hoops called bicycles. Enthusiasts would bike through truck-ridden, traffic-clogged mazes, of course. And some do. Others see bicycling as promoting personal and planetary fitness as they perform, say, the 40 mile daily roundtrip from country Dover to Downtown Boston taken by Douglas Foy, head of the car-battling Conservation Law Foundation. Pleasure, politics and time-saving power economist and activist Charles Komanoff who has five bicycles geared to the changing conditions of weather and terrain to transport his wife and two-year old on odysseys from Manhattan. Health and fitness and fun as well as commitment figure in journeys on foot for walkers, too.

You don't need to be a fanatic or impoverished to find a better way to join the nine percent of the nation's households (largely poor) that don't own a car; the 30 or 40 percent deprived of driving because they are too young, too old, or too "challenged," or the others who make their way without a private car through choice or inadvertence.

As one pedestrian advocate tells me, most of the time when people dispense with their horseless carriage, it's an accident. The buggy gets too old to move another mile. The parking gets too tedious. Money is short. Sometimes, there's another car in the garage --a likely scenario since (recall) half the nation's households own two or three cars. So they decide to scrape by or share. At first, they grouse and look for rides. If they are lucky, or live in that dense urban or old suburban area, they have some alternate transportation. They can rent or frame their days on the human mobility of walking or bicycling, and the shared mobility of mass transit. The backpack doesn't replace the car, but it helps.

Some have cast off a car through happenstance even in the most carbound parts of the country. I question Michael Eberlein, non-motorized coordinator in Michigan's department of transportation in car-locked Lansing, Michigan ("It's a lonely job," he says): "How do you deal with getting around?" I ask.

The sound of silence echoes on the other end of the receiver. "With guilt?" I ask.

"With guilt. Exactly," he laughs.

Eberlein reduced his household to one car for money reasons. "We were trying to find the extra $6000 and couldn't," he says. His wife's eyesight changed so he was already making one car do the work of two. Small shifts. A new reality. The scenario is not atypical.

A true recognition of how people use the motor vehicle eases others into realizing they can get by without using one. The reason they need a car, most drivers say is to get to work and take vacations. Since two-thirds of all Americans live in metropolitan areas, and spend ten 40-hour weeks a year driving to work, that sounds reasonable. Not completely, though, as the Nationwide Personal Transportation Study breakdown mentioned reported: only 22 percent of our vehicle miles are used to go to work; only 8 percent to vacation travel. The rest is errands, recreation, taking unlicensed family members--kids and elderly or disabled--where they cannot get. Whoever coined the term "Soccer Mom" should have called her "Soccer Chauffeur." And dad, as well.

Many who do make the choice for close-in suburbs or cities deliberately seek out the alternatives: the carpools, public transportation, sidewalks, and bikeable streets that let parents and kids move on their own. Mixed landscapes of residences with shops and services nearby--that is, a neighborhood zoned broadly enough to allow the lively functions of that corner store and other diverse places and uses--cuts down the distance and inconvenience of their errands.

Opting for more compact homes closer to a core can save both time and money. "Less house," as the saying goes, but more money. Living near a 24-hour store without a car is a money-saving proposition compared to driving to the mall or mega-mall. The question is: does the Wal-Mart or superstore save you $6000 a year? That's the cost of a motor vehicle. Then there's the cost of extra parking spaces and the driveway and garage that add money to the home. Finally, driving from ever-more-distant suburbs multiplies the expense. In the end, the spatial equation gets some buyers thinking. In fact, in California, the Bank of America has lowered its mortgage rates for those who cut down costly cars and live in non-sprawling communities. The trend to such so-called "location efficient" mortgages grows.

Even for car-bound consumers consigned to the fringe or exurbia by work, there are options to make them, if not car-less, then less car-dependent. Countless couples and individuals do so. Offices and institutions have begun to help: to supply emergency vehicles for parents; to give back money to those who don't use their parking facilities, hence encouraging mass transit and carpooling. The subsidy of free parking, like the subsidy of highway infrastructure, tilts the balance to being car-dependent. Chits for public transportation and paybacks for not parking have encouraged less driving. The infamous two-hour trek to work of, say, the Southern California commuters may be a vocational necessity; but it may also be a financial choice funded by hidden subsidies from cheap gas, to parking, to petroleum subsidies, to $93 billion spent annually on state, federal, and local roads.

Other innovations provide still more alternatives to the automobile. Canadians, Germans, and a few American communities have instituted the car-sharing system. Pay a fee and you have access to an automobile in a nearby parking lot. Informally, of course, Americans share cars. Paratransit--vans that loop through such industrial zones as route l28 or take elderly to hospitals--can help. A taxi system, too. Here, again, the tighter the land pattern, the more the possibilities.

Work options like flex-time and telecommuting stand high on some lists of solutions for those who want to lessen their auto-dependency. Telecenters, described as urban villages where workers share facilities and space removed from the office and near home, have opened from Oberlin, Kansas, to Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Sit behind your computer, your phone, your fax, on line, at home. Peer out at the green grass through the window. To the good, they reduce vehicle miles.

Yet, futurists who project the rising number of telecommuters fail to reckon how small a number of telecommuters now exists (three percent of the population), how small a percentage of miles are traveled by the commute, and, most important, how large a number are needed for errands in sprawling suburbs. So here are the stay-at-homes, passing their days still performing the personal trips that run annual mileage into five digits. Only if we solve the land-use, density issue--live closely by ridding ourselves of the car and planning in compact neighborhoods--can we make telecommuting really help.

Beyond altering our lifestyles, for some the personal inspires the political. Staying car-free for Chris Bradshaw, president of OttaWalk, the pedestrian advocacy group in Ottawa, means fighting to protect the community center. Or the library. Or the blockfronts of small stores. And also battling for a "bare-pavement" policy to keep sidewalks free of snow. Such services and institutions make so called "trip-chaining"-- the traffic engineer's word for one-trip or serial pickup trips and errands--feasible on foot. To Bradshaw, too, staying car-free means coaxing a neighborhood store to find a missing object or a replacement article for one not in stock--not driving to a Big Box store on the periphery, he says. It means asking others, do they save $8000 (Canadian) a year at the superstore.

For others, enhancing a car-free existence may mean stopping a road widening or extension that brings traffic and threatens the pedestrian. Providing a safe route for a youngster to walk to school reduces two parent/car trips a day. A small scale solution; yet actions to cut the whiz of cars with traffic-calming tactics--wider sidewalks, speed humps, trees--have worked to quiet streets.

Approaching school committees or politicians can broaden the success. Again, the personal becomes political when those who value pedestrian neighborhoods participate in zoning issues to allow a walkable or bikeable mixed commercial development nearby; when they fight to retain or add a streetcar route; when lobby for more and better buses or persuade a legislator to vote mass transit money. The number of pedestrian advocacy groups expands; the America Walks alliance numbers more than twenty. Planning associations like the l000 Friends of Oregon and environmental groups like New York's Environmental Defense Fund or San Francisco's Sierra Club ally with advocates for greenways and bike paths. From the Southern California Transit Advocates in L.A.'s quintessential car country to the railed city of Manhattan's NYPIRG (New York Public Interest Research Group), such groups provide political platforms and advocates.

A broad-based coalition of anti-highway advocates of many political persuasions is at work. Trolley and train fans from either end of the political spectrum and opponents of highway boondoggles from every end of the country have galvanized. Planners work on the larger scale. Perceiving the land use and planning problem--the need to assemble a dense population in a small space to allow transportation--and, reciprocally, to support this public transportation to encourage denser living--is their bedrock for change.

Especially this year, activists engage in the fight to renew the nation's six-year old transportation act, ISTEA, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, that allows fifty percent of funds to go to non-highway uses.

Not only ourselves but our subsidies have dictated car-dependency and limited our choices. Yet, ideas for pricing devices to make the car pay its way emerge. There are many ways to curtail the car through the cash register, to nibble away at the problem of the free ride given to the car. Our artificially-priced gas cost of $l.25 or so is a quarter of Japan or Europe's $4 to $5. By paying the true cost of petroleum, other countries spend half our twenty percent of the GDP on the private car and can thus afford decent public transportation.

Stop subsidizing cars and solo driving goes down while carpooling, cycling, mass transit advance in central cities and enhance the car-free life. We can pay at the pump or pay in excise taxes or registration fees. Congestion pricing, charging more on roads and bridges during peak periods of congestion (i.e. rush hour), works well. So does a carbon, horsepower, or gas guzzling tax. A nickel a mile surcharge would cut the car's travel ten percent, and hence its smog, all the while reducing congestion thirty percent. The activism and awareness of daily choices make a potent combination to bolster living less hassled lives in a better environment. Yes, it demands a re-orientation, a "newthink," as the Surface Transportation Policy Project leading the ISTEA fight calls it. Yes, it demands new attitudes but no more so than the glacial shifts of the two decades that have put women in the workplace, recycling in the vocabulary, and handicap access in buildings.

Many Americans would stop putting the pedal to the metal if they had other options. Choices are large and small. Awareness, say, that one-third of the automobile's depletion of energy and other resources comes in the manufacturing of that new car may make us keep a "junker" car, not purchase a new one. Consciousness of the Superstores and the money spent on the infrastructure and automobiles to support that architecture of the exit ramp, may work to bolster walkable centers. Consciously trying to reduce mileage and to reject automobility, or hypermobility, as our Manifest Destiny will bring us down the road to a better existence. At the least, it could make the car a servant not a master, enable us to live in places not encrusted with asphalt (the more parking space, the less place is my saying), help us enjoy our daily existence, enhance our sense of community and advance global well-being.

And one more thing.

Last fall, at the end of five car-free years, I had an epiphany in seventy-mile an hour America. In the midst of the automakers' celebration of the l00th anniversary of the motor vehicle as, first, a talk-show host and, then, a film-maker documenting the interstate, interviewed me, I perceived the most striking aspect of my non-auto-mated life: its humanizing elements. The questions that fired at me were analytical; my responses more or less cerebral. For several hours, I plucked sound and sightbites from the Asphalt Nation chapters I had labored on since I discarded my car. Typically, the interviewer's questions tended to play the sentimental chords: What about the nation's love affair with the automobile? what about our romance with the open road? Equally, consistently, I responded with skepticism.

"Love affair," said the interviewer.

"Jilted," I replied. Thrust into traffic jams of enlarging proportions. Put on a treadmill by shop' n' drop lives in a land where subsidy for the private car deprives us of decent public transportation.

"Cushioned" from inconveniences, the announcer described the role of the motor vehicle.

"Bombarded," by congestion, not to mention toxins that haze the air and besmirch land and sea alike.

"Cheaper" than any other form of transportation.

"Subsidized," I described the government's underwriting of highways, its funding of oil wars, and the hidden costs of the car-bred infrastructure that breeds sprawl.

I had ricocheted two-hours worth of such answers when the filmmaker turned to me somewhat abashedly. Did I drive a car, he asked.

"No," I replied taken aback by the repeat of the question that had first driven me to sell that vehicle.

Well, he went on, I ask all our guests to imagine themselves behind the wheel of a car and describe their experience driving. Afterwards, we insert the vehicle's image in the background, he explained.

"Oh," I said feeling rather unsportsmanlike. "Drive a car?" Pause. "How about a streetcar?" I perked up.

In short order, I took my film-ready trolley "seat" and began the charade of riding a make-believe trolley before the camera.

Describe your experience in the subway, said the interviewer.

"Here I sit," I began rather tentatively in the small studio space. "I'm on my way home from work," I went on uncreatively. "I've got a book but, well, it may be too jammed to sit and read it. I...."

"What else," he said.

"We-l-lll," I said. "I'm looking around. And I see...I see everything. I see students. I see a polyglot lot. I see half a dozen ethnic groups. I see a lot of ages."

"What else."

"Well, I'm making up my mind. Do I get off at the Arlington Street stop and pick up a salad. Or do I get off at Copley Station and make plans to meet a friend there? I have all these options. These choices, and I don't have to park a car."

"Anything else?" the interviewer prodded.

Silence on my part.

"What don't you see?" he asked again, exasperated.

Don't see?" I questioned uncomprehendingly.

Isn't there something you don't see, he said as I turned quizzically towards him.

"Traffic," he continued impatiently. "You don't see CARS," he offered.

"Ohhh, yes." I said. "I see."

Jane Holtz Kay is architecture/planning critic for The Nation and author of Asphalt Nation: How the Autombile Took Over American and How We Can Take It Back