It took a few years for me to realize that I could live car-free. When your car expenses are pretty low (no payments, minimal insurance), it’s easy to make excuses to keep the car. Just seeing the car in the driveway appealed to my inner teenager. I could go ANYWHERE with that thing – just think of the possibilities and the freedom. However, for about 6 years I lived a less car-intensive lifestyle. I believe that with some minor adjustments, many people could live a less car-intesnive lifestyle. “Less car-intensive lifestyle” is kind of a clunky term. I’ve noticed some people use “car-light” as a contrast to “car-free.” Sounds good to me, so let’s go with that. For many people, going completely car-free can seem like an impossible dream. But becoming more and more car-light – I think most people can do that. Here’s the story of my car-light years.
For 6 years before going car-free, I lived in various degrees of car-light. I lived in the Boston area for a few of those years where I owned a 1989 Ford Thunderbird, and later a 1998 Chrysler Cirrus. I lived in three different neighborhoods, Jamaica Plain, the Davis Square area of Somerville, and finally the Central Square area of Cambridge. For most of the time, I worked in Cambridgeport. My office was about 3.5 miles from my place in Somerville. There’s no highway between the two places, it’s all narrow city streets, completely clogged with rush-hour traffic. It took about 30 minutes to drive from my Somerville apartment to my office. That’s an average speed of 7 miles per hour! If you plug the route into Google maps, it says it will take 13 minutes. I suppose that’s assuming that there is no traffic at all (when is that, 3AM?) – still that’s an average speed of 16 miles per hour. This for a machine that is designed to be most efficient at 50 mph, extremely comfortable at 70 mph and have a top speed of over 100 mph. It’s just stupid how wasteful that is. So, I tried biking the route. It took me exactly 30 minutes. So I could drive, or I could bike – same amount of time! However, it’s just so easy to drive. First, parking was free in Somerville – I just had to pay a nominal annual fee to the city, and I could park on the street. Second, parking was free at my office. Then of course, there are all of the usual incentives – lack of proper bike lanes, and the inherent comfort of being in your own cozy vehicle, listening to NPR, sipping on coffee. Eventually, I started biking to work more often, and I began to really enjoy it. Biking in Boston can certainly be stressful, but when you are familiar with your route, you can cruise along pretty well. Also, riding a bike at 7 mph when its optimal speed is 15 mph is far less frustrating than driving a car at 7 mph when it’s optimal speed is 70 mph. Still, I would only bike when the weather was nice. Looking back at it now, I was pretty wimpy. I wouldn’t get on my bike if the temperature was below 40, and forget about biking in the rain. But as I biked more and more, I was driving less and less.
I was living with roommates in Somerville, and although they were great roommates, as I approached my 30th birthday, I felt like it was time to get my own place. One of the perks of working for a property management company was getting a pretty good deal on an apartment in Cambridge. So, for my last year in the Boston area, I lived just off of Central Square in Cambridge. And still, my apartment included a free parking space! So there was little incentive to sell the car, despite the fact that I now lived about a mile from my office. On most nice days I biked, on less nice days I walked. I only drove to the office a handful of times, and only when I was driving somewhere else directly after work. There were 3 grocery stores in my immediate neighborhood – on next door to my office, one 3 blocks away from my office, and a third 2 blocks from my apartment. Now that I look back on it, I’m not sure why I didn’t sell the car! In America, the car represents the possibility of adventure. The car promises freedom, the ability to drive out to Mass MoCA (did it once that year), or New York (again, once), or Cape Cod (never did it – too afraid of the traffic). I know that I put less than 3,000 miles on the Cirrus that year, but I don’t really know where those came from. About halfway through the year, I decided to move to Edmonton Alberta (Spouse was offered a post-doctoral fellowship there). At that point, it was easy to rationalize keeping the car. I had no idea where I was going to work, where we were going to live, or what the commute would be like between the two. At first glance, Edmonton seems like a very decentralized city, with a low, suburban-like density. It sounded like I might need my car. How wrong I was.
To be continued with the Edmonton years…..