My last car was knocked off the road back in 2008. I’d just visited the Trees of Mystery and was on my way out of Crescent City when a truck coming the other way turned left in front of me. I stood on the brake and managed to get down to about 35 before we hit.
I just sat there a minute, then got out of the car and looked at the bashed in front end. It felt like losing a friend. I knew that this was the end for Phoenix, a 1980 Honda Civic that had come to me through another bad accident. That time his rear end had been crushed, but the SUV that had done it had been so high off the ground that the frame had survived. No such luck this time. The front bumper was leaning at a terrible angle, the whole side of the car bent downwards. I was a couple of hundred miles from home, hundreds from my destination, a three month long sailmaking course in Washington State. I felt like crying, but there was no time for that. There were people running towards me, and the driver of the other vehicle was babbling that he hadn’t seen me and had really had to pee. I calmly reached inside and grabbed my coffee cup out of the teapot I’d been using as a cup holder. Phoenix hadn’t spilled a drop.
The insurance company of course wrote off my car as a total loss. a hunk of metal good for nothing but the scrap yard. They rented me a car, and blind with tears, I unloaded the friend who had given his life for me into the rental. I sent him off well. Two brand new tires, four quarts of oil lined up on the back seat, and a plastic Viking helmet I’d brought along on a whim perched on the dashboard. I remember thinking that it was as close to a Viking funeral as I could manage for him. I christened the rental Jeeves about ten miles down the road, out of frustration for his annoying habits of doing everything for me, whether I wanted it or not. The doors locked the moment I began driving. The GPS “helpfully” asked me if I wanted to set a destination at the beginning of every trip (no thanks, I carried perfectly good maps, and it’s damned hard to get lost on Hwy 101).
I bought a real junker to get me through the three months, and sold it as soon as I got home. I’d decided a while back that Phoenix would be the last car for me. I think that as a culture we have to rethink our relationship with the personal automobile, and as I said in my last post, it might as well begin with me. I’ve gotten by on a carshare, a bicycle, and public transportation ever since.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking. I’m not here to judge you, or really to convert you. I’m just relating my experience and asking you to think about the way we get around.
Yes, it does take a bit longer to get some places without a car. Some places are out of reach without one. This is why I belong to a carshare. There are rewards, however, and I’ve had adventures and made connections I never would have if I’d stayed strictly behind the wheel. I have to think before I go places, but I have freedoms I didn’t have before, and luxuries as well.
I’ve gotten a much deeper connection with my neighborhood. I know the fastest walks and the nicest ones. I admit I know the trees better than I do most of the people, but that’s mainly because almost no one walks in this neighborhood unless they have a dog. I live in the heart of the city but I feel at times as if I have grounds and a large estate because there is so much greenery and wildlife to be seen. I’ve learned a lot about plant identification simply by walking and identifying what I find. And I have all the wild onions to myself, sadly.
I know the public transit system very well. This has shown me how much we have been neglecting this vital set of links between places, but I will never be stranded by the loss of a vehicle or a breakdown of any one system. When BART went on strike, I just switched to the transbay bus. My commute is my gym. It may cost me a little more on a daily basis to commute, but I have no insurance bills, gas costs, or tolls. Or gym costs. When I had a car, it was easy to decide to drive to BART that morning instead of bike. Now I can’t get out of walking or riding, and I’m in better shape because of it. And I really like walking. It’s a chance to think, and explore. It’s also a great way to do errands. When I’m walking, I can stop in at any store I please without having to look for parking. I don’t have to backtrack to where I parked, I am free to keep walking, or hop on a bus.
When I travel, my habits really pay off. I know how to learn a public transportation system, and how to explore an unfamiliar city. I don’t live in the greatest part of town, and traveling around it without a car has given me a certain amount of street smarts. I’m not saying I’m superwoman, but I do know a bit about keeping out of trouble. I really get to experience the places I go because I see them at a walking pace, able to stop anywhere that interests me. I know how to use a map and love doing so. When I go home I can relive the trip from my marked up maps and pictures.
The carshare is turning out to be cheaper than my car ever was. I spend less per month on it than I did for just the insurance payment on my last car. If I’m short one month, I can just not use a car that month. When I do drive, I’m always driving a car much newer than any I’d ever owned, and I don’t have to pay for gas or maintenance. Sadly, I always have to drive an automatic, but that’s a small sacrifice to make. I don’t miss doing tuneups and oil changes in the street, or unexpected repair bills one bit!
Not being able to go to out of town wild places as often as I used to or visit my out of town friends as much makes me treasure those times more, and if there is one thing I wish I could change about being without a car it’s that. I don’t think getting back in one is the best way of solving that particular problem, though. If the public transportation system in urban areas has gotten less useful over time and doesn’t give convenient access to all the places it used to, we are partly responsible. We have overwhelmingly chosen to travel by car even when it isn’t the best option.
I’ve learned, above all, that there are many definitions of freedom. A car has been sold to us as a nation as a symbol of freedom and a way to express our identity, but I’m no longer so sure of that. No, I can no longer step out my front door and instantly into my “seven league boots.” But I have learned that most of my regular destinations don’t really require a car. I’m not a big drinker, but when I do go out, I don’t have to worry about not being safe to drive home. I’m a lot more physically fit because now I’m in the habit of walking and biking and I have time while doing that to do a lot more thinking. I get more reading in because I’m on the bus a lot. And I’ve got more options financially because I’m not having to pay all the costs associated with owning a hunk of metal that spends most of its time parked.
I leave my house early each morning and walk through my quiet neighborhood. I hear the dawn chorus of birdsong and feel the song of the earth around me. Is it gray and cool, or is the sun beginning to paint the clouds pink? What is the shape of the day just beginning? I imagine what it could be like, if my neighbors were out here as well, if we were all sharing the streets, the buses, if we could put a name to a face and so had some idea who we share these folded hills with. I wonder what it would be like if the stores that sell cheap liquor and junk food sold staples like flour and milk and produce, if I could walk around the corner and barter the eggs from my chickens for milk or butter or produce with my neighbors. What if we hired the people with spray cans who are currently shouting their existence and worth through scrawled tags to paint murals on retaining wall and storefront with the owners’ blessings? What if our neighborhood was safe because there was always someone on the street?
I look at the trees in the yards and next to the freeway. There’s a lemon tree that drops its fruit at the top of the hill and I usually pocket one good one. The rest are left to rot anyway. I can name many of the trees and plants, and some of the birds. I have my own little hedge school each morning. The wood grain of the fence behind me speaks the language of the forest it came from. The concrete below my feet was once part of the floor of the ocean. At the bus stop the fennel, oxalis and plantain colonize the glass-choked dirt behind me. Weeds, or healers? It all depends on your point of view. I know I never would have seen the things that I do if I’d stayed behind the wheel. I am a pioneer of the post-gasoline age and I like it.