Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Car-free, whether you're ready or not

This was the scene about a month or so ago, when my loyal and mostly trouble-free Subaru was hauled off to a junkyard. Unlike those dumb commercials from  few years ago, I didn't drive my Subaru out into a field in the rustic country and park it under a giant old tree, where crying hipsters could come filch parts from the rusting hulk. No, I called a bunch of random junkyards who advertised paying cash for junk cars, until I got one that actually answered their phone. They asked me a few questions.

"Do you have the title?"
"Does it run?"
"Yeah, kinda. It misfires pretty bad on cylinders two and four, but it will still start up and go."
"Does it have catalytic converter (said in a thick, indeterminate accent)? Cuz if it doesn't you get $100 less."
"Yeah, the exhaust is completely intact."
"When you want to have it pick up? Today good for you?"
"Yeah, sure. I'm home all day."

It just so happened, I was busy building the bike that was going to replace this Subaru wagon, so I wasn't going anywhere. A little over an hour later, I was $275 richer, and one car lighter.
The tow truck driver had me sign over the title after which he unceremoniously yanked the license plates off the car and handed them to me. "Plates still good! You can put on another car!"
"No, I'm good," I told him. "I'm going to go car-free. Yeah, that's right, I'm not going to own a car anymore." It didn't seem to register to him that someone would not want to own a car, so he continued talking about various makes of cars he liked. He said he like Mercedes and BMW, and how one of his daughters who was going to go to medical school insisted on a new BMW. No used car for her.

So, how did it all come about? Well, for the last three years I've been a pretty diehard bicycle commuter. I rode my bike a minimum of 120 miles a week or more, depending on how many days I might make side trips to the grocery store or somewhere else to run errands. During that whole time, I still owned a car. As the car was driven less and less, I started to think more and more about whether it could be possible to go truly car-free. I know from reading other people's tales that it was indeed possible without much in the way of undue hardship.

If  my wife and I really needed a car, there was always the option of rentals or some form of car-sharing service like Zip Car. Fortunately, my wife has been able to walk to work as we live mere blocks away from the university where she works. I have a relatively easy commute to get to work by bicycle, and our car was increasingly driven less and less. Things began to really gel in 2014, when the car was seldom driven more than once or twice a month. Even then, the total mileage put on the odometer in a month was typically no more than maybe 30 miles or so at the most.

What really planted the car-free seed (pun intended, as you'll see), was coming out to use the car one day last summer. In the area between the hood and the windshield there were actual tiny green plants starting to grow in the layer of humus that accumulated there. Over months of neglect, trees dropped their leaves on the perpetually parked car, and birds regularly fertilized the paint job and windshield, no doubt contributing the seeds of whatever it was that now grew from the loamy medium collected there. I laughed about it at the time and pointed it out to my wife. It was as if I'd unlocked a trophy in a game on my Xbox 360 console. Bike commuter car neglect - Achievement Unlocked!

We had indeed talked about getting rid of the car, but it was always more me talking about it, and my wife insisting that we should still own a car, "for emergencies," even though she never actually drove it, being mortally afraid of having to drive in Chicago traffic. In all the years we owned the car, it was almost never needed for an emergency, the closest thing being a last minute need to get to the grocery store or hardware store without taking the bike on a lengthy trip, or slogging through two feet of snow for a mile round trip walk. There was also one time we needed to take a cat to the vet on a weekend. Looking at going car free, we surmised that as long as any cat emergencies were not dire, we could use a car share vehicle or call a cab if necessary.

It was the car itself that eventually forced the issue. Through neglect, things had begun to break down. The struts needed replacing and their mounts made annoying clunking sounds while the failing struts allowed the springs to groan and complain loudly. A check engine light would periodically come on, but since the engine ran fine once it warmed up, I chose to ignore it, frequently resetting the CEL with a code reader I had bought for just such instances. Finally, the car experienced a major failure of the exhaust system driving it home from work back in January. The engine was running terribly, no doubt because of a sensor now in alarm mode due to the sudden decrease in exhaust back pressure.

I parked the car in early January and never drove it again. Once the snow finally melted away enough, I walked out one day to start it up and see if it would still run. We'd decided a few weeks before to get rid of the car, briefly dithering over purchasing a used Volvo 240 wagon for $2000 from a local dealership. We decided instead to take some of our tax refund money not to pay for another car or fix the existing one, but instead to pay off all of our remaining credit card debt. The car we decided, we could do without. If we absolutely needed a car there would be cabs or car shares. We'd make do.

So, I called a junkyard and had the car towed away. The immediate cost savings of no longer owning a car came a scant few weeks later when I was able to ignore the dire warnings to buy my city sticker for display on my windshield, or suffer late payment penalties and fines. A few days after I gleeful threw the city sticker mailing in the recycling bin, I was pleased to see street cleaning signs appear on the street. I wouldn't have to move my car from one side of the the street anymore, lest I incur an expensive ticket or a towing for impeding the operation of the street cleaner.

A few days after that, a major storm blew threw, knocking numerous tree limbs down and pelting the area with hail. Once again, I didn't need to worry about whether my car was damaged or not. Little by little, the trepidation of being sans auto has lessened. It's a hard thing to adjust to not owning a car, especially when you've been driving for the last 29 years and have always had a car at your disposal. Still, I think the last two to three years of driving so little had begun to prepare me. Here in America, we've been taught that getting one's driver's license is a rite of passage, a passport to freedom. With our rampant car culture we're taught to think in terms of using our cars for even the shortest trips.

As my car rolled away on the back of a flatbed truck a month ago, I felt no sense of remorse or foreboding. I wasn't losing any measure of freedom. I wasn't free because I owned a car, I was free because I no longer owned a car.


  1. If I did not need my car for work - and sadly, I do - when my last one urped its last in November of 2014, I would not have bought a new one. Lucky you!

  2. Great article! I enjoyed reading it, and can empathize. I'm selling my car this week! I've so excited it's kinda silly. Thinking about all the "won't have to do THAT anymore" items is a good feeling.

    Now the big temptation will be NOT spending the money I'm saving on bike stuff!

  3. Yeaaaaaaaaaa! Nice job