Home > Cultural Movement, Guest Writer > Life doesn’t end after giving up the car…far from it

Life doesn’t end after giving up the car…far from it

Part II: Giving up my car

by guest contributor, Bill Palladino

In Part One, I described the direct financial implications of purposefully going car-less. My own wallet was one consideration, but certainly not the end of the decision process. Along with personal financial impacts, I also analyzed the estimated financial effects on my local community. Beyond these immediate impacts there were other, less measurable, but still significant effects.

Bill Palladino can be seen around TC with his XtraCycle, which is an extend frame that transforms a bike into a useful cargo bike. (photo: Gary L Howe)

The convenience of convenience

A question that going car-less will teach you to ask is, “Do I really need to use a car for this?” It’s a question of need over convenience, and I believe it is the key to understanding our dependence on automobiles and our addiction to carbon-based fuel sources. If the car is there in your garage, lease paid, gassed up, insurance premium current…it’s unlikely that you’ll ask the above question.

Beyond monthly vehicle expenses the most significant economic impacts I’ve experienced from going car-less are the reductions in frivolous shopping and purchasing. Unfortunately, this kind of thing is difficult to measure, so in fairness I won’t venture to put any economic value on it beyond my own.

Shopping Habits

When I had the car, I’d head out to Meijer in the middle of the night out of boredom. Once there, I’d fill up the car with groceries and non-essentials and head back home. Today, with only my bike, a trip to Meijer from home is easily in reach, but its a trip I weigh carefully. I ask things like, “do I want to fight with Division Street and that parking lot madness tonight?” And, “do I really need this stuff?

These days I tend to shop more frequently, but in smaller quantities and closer to home.

Bringing home the produce from Birchpoint Farm on the TART.

Buying Local

In a constant effort to maximize my personal economic power locally, I concentrate purchases on local products when at all possible. From milk, meat, chicken, and produce to the types and origins of the breads I purchase. Many of these things have shorter shelf-lives than their commercial counterparts. That’s because they often have fewer preservatives, less packaging, and are picked when they’re ready to eat, not when they’re ready to ship thousands of miles.

This in turn requires me to be more thoughtful in how I plan to consume them. I’ve enjoyed learning again to be this thoughtful and to look at piles of produce and recognize that I know the farmer who grew and picked them; there’s real economic power there. Look at the work of the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Taste the Local Difference program for proof that it works.

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s Just Canned

I rarely buy anything in a glass jar or a metal can anymore. First off, they’re very heavy to carry and then packaging is still there when you finish the product. For me that means having to either recycle the container or return them somewhere for a refund. I’ve learned to bring my own bags and containers to the store. Refuse and reduce. I also make my own yogurt and kefir, stew my own tomatoes, and squeeze my own orange juice. These things, while far from being convenient, are all pleasantly satisfying to accomplish.

I’ll admit, living in northern Michigan makes this a challenge. We can only produce most food products during a very short season. Produce, fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers have a narrow ninety to one hundred twenty day growing window.

But here again, I’m learning to hearken back to the ways of our ancestors. Preserving the local fresh goods as soon as they’re picked is a useful and necessary skill. I’ve become expert in the subtle art of freezing, drying, and canning most anything that comes from my CSA (community supported agriculture) on any given Tuesday. I can only eat so much in a week… the rest finds its way into my larder for the winter months.

Physical Health

From a health perspective things have changed too. Part of my daily regimen is riding my bike to and from the events that make up my days. Because of that, I’m in pretty good shape for a guy my age with a hunger for strong beer. I put on a hundred miles a week on my XtraCycle just in and around Traverse City each week. That’s before I log my training miles on my road bike or mountain bike.

I’m a cancer survivor and putting myself on a bike every day of the year helps provide me with a good measure of where I stand in that battle. I just couldn’t get the same connection to my body if my first choice was driving a car.

Mental Health

It took a while, but what I noticed after being without the car was a decided decrease in my stress load. The act of driving the car as a part of a daily regimen was causing me a very specific type of stress. I was nervous and angry at times, especially in the car, but there was a residual effect that seemed to carry over into my other activities. I never understood it until borrowing my friend Dennis’ car on a couple of occasions after going without driving for a time. Within a minute or two of getting in the car, I’d be mumbling under my breath at the impertinence of other drivers or talk to them out loud things like:

Get out of my #&*$% way!What are you waiting for, the light’s green?!

This very effect has been researched extensively. The following quote is from an article by Drs. Leon James and Diane Nahl, (2002) titled Dealing With Stress And Pressure In The Vehicle:

My cumulative research using the self-witnessing reports of hundreds of drivers, reveals an agitated inner world of driving that is replete with extreme emotions and impulses seemingly triggered by little acts. Ordinary drivers can display maniacal thoughts, violent feelings, virulent speech, and physiological signs of high stress.”

Wow, that’s it exactly. So I’m not alone in this.

Here’s a partial list of key stressors associated with driving a car, even for a short time: immobility, constriction, regulation, lack of control, being put in danger, territoriality, denying our mistakes, cynicism, venting, unpredictability. The list is amazingly similar to what a soldier on a battlefield experiences.

An interesting side-note here from this same article is how this type of stress likely affects the perspective drivers have of bicyclists. Have you ever felt these effects while driving?

Worker health and productivity have also been measured. In a study by White 1998, comparative groups of commuters using cars, buses and a test group show astounding results – “those that drove showed increases in pulse rate and blood pressure. Those that rode via bus showed opposite effects and the commute times were essentially the same.”

Topping off my tank

Smelling the garlic, enjoying the ride.

Summing this up, after getting rid of my car I’ve had to make changes in my lifestyle, and those came easily. The financial savings were significant. The health benefits of having my bicycle as my first transportation choice, while difficult to measure, are nonetheless real. An added bonus are the social benefits of having a primary transportation source that allows demands that I interact with people along the way; it keeps a smile on my face and contributes to a my own sense of community. A lot of people in this community know me because I ride my bike everywhere. They see me because I’m moving slowly, without a glass and steel framework to hide behind. I’d also like to think the constant reminder that I bring to my friends and colleagues in the business community, that you can do this and not look like a freak, is critical to breaking down resistance.

Opportunities abound to go car-less

The opportunities today are many for individuals and groups wanting to shed a vehicle or two. You can donate your car to charity and take a tax break. You can join a ride-share or car-share group. You can ride public transportation, catching up on a good book as you commute.

You might even get to know your neighbors better if you have need to ask for their occasional support. I do, and it’s been fun!

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that the whole world get rid its precious cars. I am saying, doing it doesn’t hurt. And that we could have several hundred more crazy people like myself in Traverse City and it wouldn’t make a dent in the economy. But it might make the place feel different; a bit more hip and urban, a bit more like that elusive “cool city” Richard Florida defines in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class. A bit more like that place so many of us here see when we close our eyes, squint into the light of what might be, and think “Yes, that’s the place I want to live in.”

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This is Part II of the two part series. Part I explores the economics of going car-less.

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  1. July 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    This is a very inspiring, thought-provoking read. I am addicted to the convenience of a car (especially when grocery shopping…), but I have been thinking every day about getting rid of my car so we would become a one-car family.

    Have you spent a winter in Traverse City car-free? Or even a month of it? I’m intrigued by what you have to share on that. Also, do you take advantage of BATA and how often do you hitch a ride with someone else who might be going to the same–or nearby–place?

    I also have a toddler with me so that adds an element of intrigue, no?

    Long, sunny days make me want to sell my car today, but I fear January…

  2. July 21, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Good questions. With the number of bike riders out and about this summer, I’m sure you’re not alone in dreaming of going car-less.

    There are a lot of us who bike all year long in Traverse City. I don’t see a lot of children being pulled in January, but for running errands around town it is very doable. Dare I say, enjoyable? Invigorating is more like it. I personal use the full spectrum of options because when the north wind is coming off that bay, the mile walk to downtown can be intimidating. Luckily, BATA has a stop nearby.

    One of the first pieces published here was an attempt at describing the needs for winter riding. It is a popular subject come November; we will probably hit it again.

    Maybe we can encourage some moms to weigh in on being car-less in Traverse City…mums?

  3. Bill Palladino
    July 21, 2010 at 3:33 pm

    Ashlea:

    I’m a 365 day bike rider. I must tell you the embarrassing truth though. My favorite time to ride is in the winter… especially when it’s snowing. I’ve been caught a few times by friends while riding my studded tire mountain bike along Front Street at night, no-handed, with my tongue hanging out catching snowflakes. It makes for quite an image doesn’t it?

    Really, there are only a couple new skills to learn. The biggest hurdle is simply making the correct clothing choices and committing yourself to fray.

    As for tugging along chilluns behind you in the winter, I’ll have to refer to Ty and Johanna Schmidt for that one.

  4. Sharon Flesher
    July 21, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    Ashlea, we’ve been a one-car family for more than a decade. For a couple of years (thanks to car sharing), we were a no-car family, and this was when our children were small. I used to pull both of them in a bike trailer all year, even in the winter. I was in much better shape back then! Now that they’re on their own bikes, I don’t get as much exercise. We also used BATA frequently. Both of my kids, now teens, still regularly use BATA, but I rarely do, as 99% of my travel is within easy walking distance.

    Whether going to one car will work for your family largely depends on how your activities are arranged and how much you’re willing to compromise. I work at home and my husband works a few blocks from home; we also live within an easy walk of two groceries (Oryana and Glen’s), as well as plentiful other shopping and services. Our one car rarely leaves our garage, but over the years, we have had occasional conflicts, usually when my husband took the car out of town for work and I had a beyond-bike-range meeting. A couple of times a year, I borrow my neighbor’s car. I also bum rides, which has led to some terrific friendships.

    The car-lite lifestyle is actually more challenging with older children, who have activities. That’s where creativity and compromise really help. For example, when my son wanted to play sports, we chose the American Legion baseball program, which has all games and practices at the Civic Center. As he got older, he could bike alone there, which allowed me to be a lazy mom and show up at game time (or later). His karate class was a short walk from a BATA stop. My daughter’s dance studio was near a BATA stop, as well as within bike range. Her gymnastics class was also easily bikeable/walkable. Her piano teacher was three blocks from our house. And except for the East Junior High years, both kids have always walked to school. I never considered a school that would require me to drive them.

    Sure, restricting activities to avoid car use could be seen as draconian. But one side benefit is that we save so much money on transportation that I buy whatever I want at Oryana. We also took a year sabbatical and traveled, which I think was far more enriching for the kids than participation on a soccer team would’ve been.

    I’m happy to offer any other encouragement if you need it! Also, I can put you in touch with other Traverse City single-car families with kids of all ages. And even one car-free veteran mom.

  5. July 22, 2010 at 6:33 am

    Now Gary, my “wheels are turning.” It can be done in northern Michigan and with great success! Thanks for sharing your story, Sharon. I can’t wait to share this with my husband to get him thinking about it again too.

    I’m still concerned about pulling the bike trailer in the winter… I trust myself and I’m not worried about the cold; I’m worried about the people who can’t drive in the winter weather and the bike paths are not all well-groomed in the winter. What are your thoughts?

  6. July 22, 2010 at 6:34 am

    I love picturing you riding down Front Street, catching a few snowflakes. Dreamy ride!

  7. July 22, 2010 at 7:16 am

    My thoughts? Go for it. You’ll surprise yourself. There are ways to be smart about it, and a lot can be said for simply walking. Most things in Traverse City are one to two miles away. You can have snowball fights along the way.

    As for pulling the trailer. They’ve always seemed overly cumbersome to me. How about a Dutch cargo bike? Very sturdy and you’ll naturally take up some space. Throw the kiddos in a bucket!

  8. July 22, 2010 at 7:27 am

    Gary, funny you should mention the Dutch cargo bike. Ask Chris about it… I say yes to kiddos in buckets. Yes yes yes.

    I think my experiment will be–before outright selling my car, sniffle sniffle–to just not use my car for the next month and see how much I love the freedom of being car-free. What do you say?

  9. July 22, 2010 at 8:42 am

    Love it…why jump when there are stairs right there. Love the monthly challenge. Care to document it and I’ll give you call in a month? Anyone else?

    Here’s an NYTimes video story about a mom, her kids and going to school car-free, including a cameo by George Bliss of The Hub, who MyWHaT interviewed last week talking about glamor moms in “No Car Necessary

  10. Sharon Flesher
    July 23, 2010 at 11:30 am

    Ashlea, I can definitely understand not wanting to pull a bike trailer on winter streets. Most of my winter bike trailer trips were just down Washington or State, and even those were not always pleasant. Plus, I would get incredulous comments from “concerned” passersby, or even people I knew, who would ask in a shocked tone, “your kids are in there?” and make me feel like Bad Mom.

    If the routes and schedules work for you, there is BATA. I often used BATA even for short trips when the kids were little, say from F&M Park to State & Garfield, where we would walk the rest of the way to preschool. Don’t feel shy about hitching rides from friends, or even asking to borrow a car if you get in a real bind. The excess car capacity in this town is astounding.

    And when all else fails, there is a taxi service. I remember reading an article, I think it was from Toronto, by someone who calculated that she would be better off financially selling her car even if she had to pay cab fare for every single trip. As one of our former car sharing members said, “a car is a huge depreciating asset.”

  11. July 30, 2010 at 5:45 am

    Thanks, Sharon. It never occurred to me that I could take a toddler on BATA. I just thought that there wouldn’t be a child restraint system. How silly am I?!

    My wheels are still turning… and I’ve been second-guessing any trips I’ve taken in the car — good thing to do anyway, eh? Haven’t taken the plunge to no-car for a month. Will August be the month?!

  12. Julie Clark
    July 30, 2010 at 9:13 am

    Hi Ashlea,

    We’re new to Traverse City, but we’re a one car family ourselves with two kiddos under the age of 3. I think the one car won’t be as hard as you think. We’ve been single car family for 6 years now and have added a dog and two kids to the mix. I actually can’t imagine having 2 cars any more. I was told when I had a kid there’s no way we could stick to one car, but 3 years later and one more kid we’re still going strong. Good luck and have fun!

  13. July 30, 2010 at 10:13 am

    Welcome to the club, Julie. It’s nice to have you weighing in on the discussion.

    It should be a future MyWHaT post, but the short of it for readers is that Julie is the new Executive Director of TART Trails. She replaces Bob Otwell, who now spends his time harassing bloggers, playing in the streets and examining the finer points of life.

    Ashlea, I’d like to talk. There’s a story in this. If not now, when?

  14. July 31, 2010 at 10:04 am

    That is the question. If not now, when? Now is as good a time as any–maybe even better, if not the very best time of all. We’re off to walk a mile in the drizzle to get Wren’s first haircut… yee-haw! When the hubbie’s wrist heals from the break (bike commuting accident, nonetheless…), we’ll bike again as a family. ’til then, we’re bipedaling as a family. Cheers to human-power!

  15. July 31, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Bob, err, JULIE! Welcome to TC! I’m interested in hearing your one-car family tips and tricks. What has encouraged (or discouraged) you so far in your TC human-powered experience?

  16. August 3, 2010 at 8:29 am

    I’m going on nearly two months without even starting my car, and think more and more each day about going car-less. I, too, would have little trouble ditching the four wheels for two if the weather were like it is in the summer, and regularly think about what it’ll be like come winter. Kind of like Ashlea, I’m on a “streak” right now, seeing how long I can go without using my car. Admittedly, I’ve borrowed my girlfriend’s car a time or two, but As Bill P. mentioned, sometimes you need to call on your friends and neighbors for a little help in a pinch.

    Here’s to keeping the streak alive.

  17. August 3, 2010 at 3:06 pm

    Way to go, Joel! I caved in to my car when I wanted to go blueberry picking and spend the day at Esch Beach with some friends and another day to visit a friend in Leland. Oof. Keep on, keepin’ on.

    I certainly am even more conscious of my car use and this is a great beginning, no?

  18. August 4, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Thanks, Ashlea!

    That consciousness of how we use our cars is a huge, important step. I may need to use my car in a few weeks for some special trips, but I’ve pretty much ruled out using it for day-to-day use and for getting around town or any travel within 5-10 miles of downtown. I think we’re still on the right track even if we have to use the car for a trip or two here and there to visit friends, the Dunes, or other special destinations.

    Awareness is key.

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