In United States, is it possible to live without your car?

Millions of people do it in New York. Millions more do it in Europe’s largest cities. People have done it since the beginning of time, and most people on this planet still do it.

“It” is living without an automobile. People all over the world walk; ride bikes; take buses, trolleys, trains and boats; or ride on service vehicles. They get where they’re going, and not only survive, but can even flourish in comparison with a typical auto-dependent American, who suffers from car payments, commuter woes and, frequently, obesity.

But how easy, or hard, would it be for someone in a medium-sized town such as Durango, with its somewhat-decentralized shopping and residential districts, to live without a car? And why would he or she want to?

Those questions were debated in an online “sustainable issues” chat group I monitor. I found the discussion well worth sharing with the readers of this column. It began when someone in the group challenged me for giving a neighbor in distress a lift in my truck, saying that we should dispense with cars entirely for environmental reasons. Here, edited to fit this column, is my response and some comments:

“I agree that we should move toward a post-automobile society, or at least one with far fewer private cars.

“However, that’s a tall order, especially for the U.S., much of which was developed in the late 20th century – such as suburbs. As others have pointed out, America made a poor investment after World War II by creating a mostly auto-dependent society – building suburbs, automobile infrastructure and malls; creating auto-oriented consumerism and activities of all sorts. Now we’ve hit peak oil, global warming and massive traffic jams, and we have few resources left to invest in compact cities, public transportation and other remedies.

“Most people are locked into a lifestyle where they must get to too many places to take the additional time needed to travel by bike or on public transportation. Also, adequate services for replacing cars often don’t exist.

“For example, if you need to take your elderly aunt to the medical clinic three times a week, chances are you’ll drive her there because you don’t have the time to take her on the bus – assuming she’s even capable of walking to a bus stop.

“The bottom line is, cars are extremely convenient – so much so that we’ve built our entire society around them. I tried living without a car for about 18 months when I was going to school and working. I soon found that precious hours that could be used for studying or earning money were wasted waiting for a bus. (Of course, cars, gas and insurance were much cheaper in those days.)

“People can do a certain amount on their own – I bicycle to most places, use my truck sparingly, and ‘carpool’ with my wife whenever possible. But those who live such lifestyles are the exception in this country.”

A “car-free” member of the group who volunteers at our local bicycle collective responded:

“People who do the math will find that more time is consumed getting around by car than exclusively by bicycle, if you count the time spent earning your mode of transport. The majority of Americans spend more than half their working hours just paying for the car. As a friend of mine says, ‘Cars drive you to work.’

“We’ve been duped by the biggest marketing campaign of all time. We are sold cars precisely because their gross inefficiencies (relative to other forms of transportation) create (numerous) opportunities for profiteering.

“It’s not so hard to imagine living without cars. Ninety-nine percent of all the humans who ever walked the Earth have done it. I enjoy the vision of society minus a major source of pollution. Imagine no more car crashes, no more car repairs, no more car insurance ...

“Grow your own food. Pedal your own bike. Care for your neighbors.”

Another member wrote: “It’s easy to live without a car. I’ve done it for 18 years in many towns and cities. People can easily adapt.”

Adapt, yes. But easily? We’ll continue this discussion soon at Your Ecological House.

Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him via email through his website, www.your-ecological-house.com.

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