Carless in a Car Culture

Trying to explain what it is like to live without a car in contemporary American life is like trying to explain what it is like to live without water to a fish. Just as the fish can’t imagine life without water, it’s virtually impossible for most Americans to imagine life without a car.

Personally, while I’m firmly convinced that the invention of indoor plumbing and the hot shower rank right after football as the greatest inventions of Western civilization, the thing that I would most like to be able to do, and can’t, is drive.

The ability to drive is so deeply embedded in American culture that, except for the handful of large cities that have a good mass transportation system (and you can pretty much count them on one hand with a couple of fingers left over), it is completely taken for granted. After all, nothing symbolizes the passage from childhood to adulthood like getting that first driver’s license. In primitive cultures, you might have to slay an enemy or be subjected to the rites of the witch doctor to become an adult, but, in the U.S., all you need is some gas and the keys to the car.

Imagining life without being able to drive is all but impossible for most Americans. If you think I’m exaggerating, just listen to the self-pitying whining of a friend the next time their car is in the shop for a day. I have the milk of human kindness flowing in every vein but can be transformed into a homicidal maniac whenever someone I know wants to tell me how terrible it is that their car won’t be ready till 4:00.

Let me sketch only a few of the ways in which life is transformed without a car. In doing this, I assure you that this is not offered as a list of complaints but as an exercise in education, conscious-raising from the world of the carless.

Emergencies. It’s 3 a.m., you’re so sick you wish you would die but know you won’t, and you need to go to the emergency room. You don’t require an ambulance but don’t have a car. Admittedly, this is a rare experience, but it only has to happen once for it to be something you’ll never forget. For me, it was trying to locate a friend to take me to the emergency room with what turned out to be kidney stones. I would have sold my soul to have a car that night and not to have to have waited that additional four hours to get something for the pain.

Employment. This is an extremely big deal! There’s no point in even applying for most jobs if you can’t arrange for dependable transportation, and your options are very limited. If you’re exceptionally lucky, and I do mean exceptionally, you might be within walking distance. Of course, there will be days you show up soaked to the skin when all of your co-workers are dry, but that’s the price you’ll have to pay.

There are alternatives, but each is distinctly inferior to the automobile. Buses are more or less dependable but, even under the best of circumstances, be prepared to sacrifice a chunk of your day to waiting outside in all weather. Don’t minimize the inconvenience of doing this. After all, if this weren’t a big deal, we’d all choose to ride buses rather than cars.

And, yes, there are taxis. To be sure, Uber and Lyft have made this more convenient and cheaper, but you’ll need to take a second job to pay for the cost of transportation to get to your first job if you rely on them with any consistency. Of course, if you live in a rural area or small town, you can probably forget buses and taxis altogether.

Housing. Without a car, the decision about where you’re going to live goes from being a preference to an absolute, non-negotiable demand as to location. When my wife and I were looking for our present home, for example, the first thing we told the realtor was not to bother showing us anything that wasn’t in the city limits or near a bus line because There was virtually no access to mass transportation in the county and rates for a cab were prohibitively expensive. Our dream home might have been ten feet outside the city limits, but it wouldn’t have mattered; it might as well have been on the moon.

Routine tasks. Run out of milk – get in the car; take the kids to school – get in the car; pick-up a prescription – get in the car; go out to eat – get in the car; deliver a package to the post office – get in the car; go to the doctor – get in the car. You get the idea. There’s almost no limit to the number of routine tasks that are made easier, far quicker, and, sometimes, even more cheaply with a car.

If you don’t have a car, you must carefully plan your errands so as to maximize the limited time you have access to transportation. Gone are the days of running to the store for the butter you forgot. If you haven’t planned for it when you did have transportation, whatever it is just has to wait until the next time, and the next time might be next week.

Incidentally, one of the interesting side-effects of living life this way is that a disproportionately large percentage of blind and visually impaired people who have really lived on their own for some time are hyper-organized.

So, the next time your car won’t start and you’re out of valium, reread this blog and count your blessings.

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