My Life Without a Car — guest

I never thought parental sacrifice would mean losing transportation, at least for a period of time. However, for the last few months, three college age children and a spouse, who absolutely needs a car, have rendered me “carless.” Now you may say why must three young adults need to have cars while their mother sits at home without one. Well, lets just say what they have as cars are really four wheeled wonders of machinery. To be more specific, one drives a 10-year old van, the other drives a 7-year old Saturn, with all the parts of the engine having been replaced at least once. The other drives a newer car but has to keep a job to make the payments.

With my economic misfortune set aside, I have learned a lot about surviving without a car in a car dependent city. I have some knowledge of mass transit living because I moved from a small town to the big city of Chicago in 1979. This was the time of the gasoline crisis, when long lines of cars formed at gas stations across the country and the cost of gasoline hovered around $.80 cents a gallon. But my meager salary was still too little to fill up my gas-guzzler Dodge. Fortunately though, I didn’t need to drive. I had the luxury of living close enough to my job so that I could walk to work, and the school my husband attended provided shuttle transportation from the campus where we lived to the downtown campus.

Upon arriving in Chicago, we quickly learned the ropes of riding the rails, or els as they were called. Being a small town girl I was always a little afraid of them, but I was also fascinated by the luxury of not ever having to park the car if you attended a function downtown. Overall, using mass transit was a pleasant experience. As environmental writer Karen Street wrote in “Making Transit Work,” 2/3 of all transit use in the U.S. is in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia or Washington D.C., with New York having the largest use. According to Street, nationwide, a quarter of transit users make less than $15,000 (1995 dollars). In the suburbs, 70% of users are poor.

There was a renewed effort in many cities in the 1980’s to revive and finance mass transit systems. However, many cities that built rail systems found that the more frequent riders of mass transit had low incomes and many riders from upper income levels were reluctant to switch over and give up the use of their cars for their daily commute from the suburbs to the city. Consequently, from an investment point of view, the rails were not considered profit-making ventures.

I don’t consider myself poor and my misfortune of not having a car has occurred at a time for me when it was the most convenient. I don’t have young children to hurry across town and my job allows me to work from my home so I don’t have to commute to work each day. So with my given set of circumstances, I realized I had to develop new transportation survival skills. Unfortunately, Austin does not yet have its rail line stretching from Leander to downtown, with stops along the way, so I was faced with other, more limited choices. Here is what I have learned so far:

(1) Asking for rides is not as easy nor as customary as one might think. I have found that people in my age group are a bit reluctant to offer or honor a request to be picked up or taken home from a meeting or event. Maybe it shouldn’t be this way, but it has been my experience that carpooling, outside of work and kids, is not a customary feature in Austin lifestyle.

(2) Taxicabs are nice, but of course, costly. There are several companies that operate in Austin. I have called and used some of them, with positive results. Of course, cost is always a factor, but at times, like when my husband’s car broke down and my son had to get to his guitar recital, I had to hail a cab as fast as a New York minute to get him to his show on time.

(3) If you live in certain hilly suburbs, (I live in Northwest Hills) the walk to and from a bus stop is time consuming and hazardous. I’m up for the walk, but in the heat of Austin, walking to the bus stop requires taking a change of clothes and shoes, if you want to look nice for work.

(4) Bus maps are difficult to read, but the CAP Metro website is very helpful. I decided that I could have the car a few mornings a week if my husband, not I, took the bus. On some days, his work requires that he stay downtown for several hours. Maybe this was the solution.

However, to convince my husband to ride the bus, I had to be organized and persuasive with my reasons. I printed out the itinerary choices from the Cap Metro website and let him choose the best route. I told him he would feel more relaxed at the beginning and end of each work day because he wouldn’t have to worry about parking or paying for it. And he could even read the newspaper in leisure during the ride. When he considered these advantages, he agreed to try.

Next day, bright and early I drove him to the nearest bus stop. It’s located near our home and is a quick drive. He waited at the bus stop like the nouveau businessman he is. Soon the bus pulled up and he boarded. I left. Three hours later, when his work downtown was done, I drove back to the bus stop and waited. Sure enough, just like the days of waiting at my neighborhood park for the yellow school bus to appear and drop off my treasures, the Cap Metro drove up, and off he got. My husband was well rested, agreeable and had been able to return several important phone calls during the ride home. I was happy because I was finally able to be released from the kitchen/computer duties of my existence to do volunteer work. Experiment completed, it was a success.

I anticipate that I will remain carless for the next few years as my children finish college and enter the workforce. But even if I were to win a car, or better yet, the lottery, I still may remain carless. In my budget, I’m saving at least $400 a month on the costs of a car payment and/or repairs, gas, and insurance. As part of the 5% of Americans who make up the world population, I can do my part not to contribute to the greenhouse pollution that causes global warming. And if the recent report from non-OPEC producers called “The Outlook for Energy: A 2030 View,” (pdf) is correct, non-OPEC oil production will peak in just five years. Additionally, the majority of non-OPEC producers such as the United States, Britain, Norway, and Mexico, provide 60 percent of world oil demand, and they are already in a production plateau or decline. So I better get used to doing my part to conserve energy for the world.

Whenever I do decide to purchase a car, I plan for it to be a hybrid or alternative fueled car. Despite the onward march of technology toward developing cleaner, more cost efficient fuels and engines, I still wonder if a blast from our past will propel us to better use of our cars in the future.

For example, in the book Affluenza, the All-Consuming Epidemic, writers J. De Graff, D. Wann and T. Naylor report that we drive twice as much per capita as we did 50 years ago. America now has more cars than registered drivers and we spend three full days every year vacuuming, polishing and cleaning the windows of our cars and waiting for them at the car repair shops. It seems to me too much time and money is consumed on our automobiles, and just a tiny adjustment on many people’s part could greatly enhance the health of our planet.

Finally, I hope that my young adult children will help our future leaders of the 21st century throw away the hubris of the automobile and replace it with walking to the common bus, el-train or the hybrid car.

Ellen Fleming- Hughes is a free-lance writer and former social worker. She has written for several regional publications and newspapers. Her hobbies include walking her dog, anything about dogs, weightlifting and reading. She still hopes to win a car, but probably won’t get one any other way. And she is still learning how to decipher a bus schedule.

2 Responses to “My Life Without a Car — guest”

  1. sherwood says:

    I also think bicycles and motorscooters would be good alternatives to the car. Interesting article. Hopefully Austin will soon get their mass transit up and running soon.

  2. Tori says:

    I want to be carless. I do not own a newer model car but we live in the Rural South and my child’s public school is 20 miles away. I feel that Bush should take some of the funding for new technology and build sidewalks and trainstations.