North Americans are locked into an ongoing love affair-cum-addiction with the automobile. Fortunately, this vehicular romance is losing heat as the globe warms, thanks to a growing number of people who have decided to go car-free. “Give up my car?” some will gasp. But others claim it’s easier than you’d think.
Ottawa, Canada “enjoys” the title of second-coldest world capital. It’s not unusual for temperatures to dip to 20 degrees below zero in January and February. It’s also not unusual for Canadians to be rather nonchalant, or even downright proud, of their ability to cope with the cold. “I’m not a wimp!” says Heather Mullen, a former Ottawan, now living in Immenstaad, Germany, where average winter temperatures range from 15 to 50 Fahrenheit. Before moving to Germany, Mullen had already given up her car. “When my junker died I couldn’t find a vehicle that I liked enough to waste vast sums of cash on. I adapted readily to the bus system and bicycling and after several years, I had no desire to own a car.”
Mullen explains that she wanted to do her part in reducing air pollution from the 250 million cars on North American roads. A case study by the Federal Highway Administration calculated that, conservatively, bicycling and walking displace between seven and 28 billion passenger vehicle miles annually, as well as up to 1,590 million gallons of gasoline and 15 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
Dennis Winters of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania also gave up his car mainly for environmental reasons. “I owned the smallest, most fuel-efficient cars I could afford since the early 1970s, but I could no longer justify owning a car of any kind. And, Winters adds, “Auto dependency is not only extremely addictive, it is also a very expensive habit!”
The financial savings from living car-free are substantial. On average, maintaining and operating a vehicle every year in Canada costs about $5,000 (U.S.), and in countries like Germany there is a yearly tax based on engine size. As John Duerksen, an accountant with the Canadian government sees it, “Eventually, cars that run on fossil fuels will be outlawed in most places, or at least severely restricted. I might as well be ahead of the game and put my dollars towards public transit.”
In addition to the savings on maintaining, insuring and operating a car, Bob Thomas says that the time he has saved by not sitting in traffic amounts to another $5,000 to $10,000 annually. His Philadelphia architecture firm specializes in energy conservation, so his lifestyle “is also a great advertisement. We get a great deal of work because people see that we’re not only sincere, but successful.”
Cycling or walking can have a positive effect on the local business community. “Are you going to ride out of town to Wal-Mart to save 20 cents on shampoo?” asked Sam Fox of Missoula, Montana. “Nope. Because you have no insurance, payments or gas charges to make the ‘discount’ appear worthwhile.” Fox admits there are occasional inconveniences. “I have to grovel to friends for transportation to larger shops, like a furniture store. But on the other hand I buy my produce directly from farmers who leave their wares on the side of the road for payment. Forget supermarkets!”
Joan Stein and Jim Gregory own and operate Fresh Aire Delivery Service in the small town of Ames, Iowa. Gregory says his life has become more manageable without the worries of a vehicle. “The best thing is being more cognisant of the world around you,” he says. “You experience everything, both the beautiful and the ugly.” The family’s bicycle delivery company transports all sorts of goods around town, using trailers that Gregory designed. Gregory dismisses the question of how he runs errands year round. The business has delivered furniture, lumber, other bicycles, toilets, even a children’s playhouse. “We haven’t tried a refrigerator yet,” admits Stein.
Bob Thomas, who is in his early 50s, says he never worries about bicycling in the cold. “With good exercise, I rarely get sick, and my doctor tells me that I’ll live longer as I’ve been able to build exercise into my daily routine.”
Whatever the reason, car-free people find that there is a whole new life outside the automobile. “The experience of not sitting in rush hour has made us happier people,” says Belle Leonard of Baltimore, Maryland, who gave up her car a year ago. “We decided that we would rather spend more money on a house to live in the city than own two cars and live in the ‘burbs.” Although it’s only a 15-minute walk to work, Leonard finds that living without a car when you have two small children can be trying. “I live near a fresh food market and for other things I use a back pack, but it can be isolating some days not to be able to put the boys in the car and drive somewhere.”
Facing opposition, or at least strange looks, from peers, neighbors or family is also part of not owning a car. “It’s viewed as eccentric,” says Jeff Abrahamson, another Philadelphian. “In business contexts, I hide it. On a job interview, for example, saying I’m car-free often translates as pariah.” Once friends learn that John Duerksen doesn’t own a television or a VCR either, they aren’t all that shocked to hear he doesn’t own an automobile. “Most people say they couldn’t live without their car, but they focus on the short term. If they get a craving for Coke, for instance, they can drive out and get one immediately.”
Thomas, who prefers the term “pro-bike/pro-transit” to “car-free” sums up his decision to eschew the automobile: “Why would I choose a mode of transportation that is hundreds of times more expensive, subject to delays on a daily basis, and leaves me having to go to a gym, and pay more money, at the end of the day?”