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