I was recently asked to write my story about being car-free for the Alliance of World Scientists website. The story was published in abbreviated form. This is the full submitted version.
Growing up in rural Ohio, I took for granted that every adult human relied on a personal motor vehicle for transportation. However, growing up in rural Ohio, I was also unprepared for the stress and anxiety that would come with driving on busy city streets and multi-lane freeways when I moved to the city for college. Worst of all, perhaps, I had never learned to parallel park (no, pulling back and forth between traffic cones is not the same). As soon as I realized that alternatives were available, reducing my car use was all but an automatic response. I walked whenever possible. I used city buses when necessary. I relearned how to ride a bike (no, it’s not like riding a bike if it’s been long enough). I drove my car every other Saturday morning to keep the battery from dying.
As I relied less and less on an automobile and more and more on active transportation, I felt healthier both mentally and physically. I also experienced unexpectedly deep and transformative changes in my conception of what transportation can and should be. For one, I discovered that walking or cycling transformed transportation from a merely instrumental means of getting from point A to point B to an intrinsically rewarding activity. Every journey is not merely a journey but, at minimum, a source of exercise, fresh air, and awareness of one’s community. For another, I realized that it is the pedestrian who enjoys the purest form of freedom of movement. The pedestrian, for example, can make a spontaneous decision to pause on the sidewalk to window-shop, greet a passing friend, or admire an interesting bird or flower. If she doesn’t stop but then regrets it, she can turn on her feet and backtrack. The motorist, in contrast, is often deprived of the liberty of spontaneity — forced to proceed with the flow of traffic at risk of mortal danger. The pedestrian, in other words, enjoys much greater leisure both to be distracted by her surroundings and to succumb to distraction; it is she, not the driver, who can literally stop and smell the flowers.
When I finally decided to sell my car, it was the most liberating thing I’ve ever done. Gone were all the remaining worries of car ownership – maintenance, insurance premiums, agreeing to give a lift to a friend only to face the embarrassment of being unable to parallel park upon reaching the destination, etc. Best of all, however, it felt to me like the ultimate act of social defiance: I had officially rejected the expectation that all adults must own a car. That was over six years ago. I have never once regretted it.
If there is a problem with car-free living, it’s that it forces you to realize how darned annoying it is to live in a world designed for cars. When you’re out on foot or bike in a high-traffic area, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that automobiles are loud, smelly, omnipresent threats to life and limb. When you’re moving at a slower pace, you have ample time to reflect on how much space is wasted on parking lots that could be dug up and transformed into community gardens. And even our freedom of movement is too often curtailed by impassable busy roads.
Another problem with car-free living is an arbitrary consequence of American culture: in the US, car-free living is often assumed to be a prerogative of urban dwellers, and car-free individuals are effectively denied access to wild nature outside of city parks. It is a sad irony, considering that the lifestyle should be an appealing choice to many who favor a quiet and slow-paced life of greater connection to the natural world – the same preferences, that is, that tend to drive (no pun intended) many folks to move away from the city. Perhaps the saddest irony of all is that, in much of the US, it’s taken for granted that it’s necessary to use a personal automobile to escape the noise pollution caused by personal automobiles.
I had made my personal choice to go car-free, but I did not want to continue to be confined by a world manufactured for car users. I did not want to drive just to find relief from the sight, sound, and smell of motor traffic. I did not want to drive just to go for a walk in the woods. I did not want to drive just to see the Milky Way. I did not want to have to rely on such a destructive technology as the personal automobile just to experience the natural landscapes, soundscapes, and nightscapes that have been stolen from so many of us due, in large part, to car culture and its associated sprawl.
Thus, on more than one occasion, I left my home country to spend time living nomadically in Europe, where there are many more opportunities to live car-free away from major cities. In my experience, this difference is due to three main factors: (1) transit infrastructure that makes rural areas reachable from cities; (2) dedicated foot and bike paths even in rural areas; (3) numerous small grocery stores scattered among villages instead of centralized megastores. Most of my formative experiences happened in the Nordsjælland region of Denmark, which is certainly not car-free yet very suitable to bicycle-based living. I also spent time on completely car-free islands like Sark (Channel Islands), Silba and Zlarin (Croatia) and “car-lite” islands like Anholt (Denmark), Vlieland (Netherlands) and Eigg (Scotland), where only the small permanent populations are permitted to use cars. I researched others, perhaps for future sojourns.
Selling my car was liberating, but what has been truly unforgettable has been the experience of living in small and quiet communities designed for people rather than two-ton hunks of metal. Once experienced, the quiet, safety, and freedom cannot be unlearned. We all deserve a better way of life than car culture.