Experiments in Living # 2: Living Car Free for Thirty DaysOctober 31, 2015
Experiments in Living is an ongoing series of investigations about trying to improve–my life, my self-awareness, my well-being, my freedom to choose. The experiments are about living into my vision of life; they serve as a means to try something new, check out the experience, and choose how to exist in life. Ultimately, the experiments serve to expand my freedom.
Experiments in which I choose to give up attachments especially increase my sense of liberty because they focus on making conscious choices rather than acting from habit. (See Experiment 1: Life without Television.)
Experiment 2 was to Go Car-Free for one month. I gave up driving a vehicle for thirty days. Alternative transportation had to be used—walk, bicycle, public bus, public train. Car-pooling was permitted, but only a limited basis and in another person’s car, i.e. if someone invited me to ride along, ‘twas ok. I did this experiment in 2014 in Atlanta, a city known for long commutes and a shortage of public transport.
Week 1—Car-free! I began to walk every morning to a coffee shop to work on my projects. The first couple days were fine, but it seemed to take a long time to arrive. I focused on where I was going and tried to choose the shortest routes. While shopping for groceries, I anticipated carrying heavy bags home and curbed my purchases to smaller quantities than typical. I realized I had stockpiled food for years and wondered, do I really need to keep so much food in my house?
After a few days of travelling on foot, my body adjusted and I looked forward to the walks outside. My mind adjusted, too. I relaxed and changed my focus from choosing the shortest route to observing my surroundings and being present in the moment. The experience reminded me of living in Beijing and walking throughout the city; I liked it. (Read more about my life in Beijing at Beijing Spirit.)
Week 2—What have I begun? The weather cooled down, but I still enjoyed the walks. I didn’t think beforehand about an upcoming walk through my neighborhood, it was simply what I did. The air was fresh, the walking was welcome especially since my dog died a month earlier and I no longer spent one hour per day walking him. Within fifteen minutes I could walk to my choice of five grocery stores, six coffee shops, dozens of restaurants and cafes, two parks, a post office, and my credit union. I agreed to meet friends to watch a hockey game at a sports bar 15 miles away and used public transport followed by a walk for the final mile. In spite of an hour spent travelling, I arrived on time. Later, a friend dropped me off at the train station.
Week 3—“You’re doing what?” Friends were surprised to learn I was car-free. I shopped at the grocery store more frequently than when I had a car to carry purchases; however, I shopped quickly and bought less which made me happy. By now, I’d grown accustomed to carry groceries home in my book bag along with full bags dangling from my arms –no big deal. For a weekend trip out of town, I carpooled with a friend living up the street.
Week 4–Adjusting I had forgotten about driving for the most part. Driving no longer entered my mind. To meet friends at locations outside my neighborhood could be challenging, but as long as it was not too late at night and I had time to plan ahead, then it wasn’t an issue. I became adept at using the public buses and quickly looked up timetables and routes. To never worry about having the correct fare, I kept my bus card charged with prepaid funds.
Occasionally things didn’t go as planned. One morning I tried to attend a presentation in downtown Atlanta at 8:30 a.m., but I missed my bus, had to wait 22 minutes for the next bus, and arrived 30 minutes late. Had I driven, I may have arrived on time, though I would have had to find and pay for a parking space. Life without a car required planning, but life was simplified.
I chose to drive to Florida for several days to meet family members. Driving for nearly five hours, it didn’t feel odd or risky in spite of not having driven for nearly a month. On my return, I shopped at the grocery store before going home. I chose to extend the experiment by one week to make up for driving to Florida and back.
Week 5—Car-free is Cool Another week without a car. It seemed normal and I didn’t feel like jumping back into the circus of traffic. Originally, I had planned to buy a new car after a month of going car-free, but instead I decided to extend the experiment for two more months. Now, I felt more comfortable to ride my bicycle on city streets, though caution was required at all times.
Month Two—Analytically speaking, I seem to be saving money. In order to move a king-size bed, I rented a Mercedes-Benz cargo van for a day ($30 including free mileage). Driving the big van felt amusing, but I didn’t miss the car. A friend from England and I did an urban hike across Atlanta, then returned home via train and bus. The urban hike exhilarated us and proved insightful for my friend.
We embarked on a road trip through the Southern USA. Though I reserved a compact-size rental car, I received an intermediate-size car from the rental company. The bigger car felt enormous, perhaps even gluttonous considering the available space for just two people.
On this driving tour of seven-states-in-seven-days we racked up 1641 miles and burned more than 70 gallons of fuel. Though intermediate-size vehicle gobbled gas and delivered only 24 miles per gallon, the total cost of the rental car was less than the total cost of driving a personally owned car ($543 vs. $944).
As an aside, we considered to travel by bus for this trip to reduce our carbon footprint. However, the bus took would have taken even longer than the 29 hours we drove and the bus was more expensive. Hence, we consciously chose not to travel by bus.
Month 3—Physical Benefits I began to bike further away from my neighborhood as a combined means of exercise and transportation. My legs became stronger from so much bicycling. I learned new routes pedaling along tree-lined streets in residential neighborhoods to avoid traffic congested roads. The steady pace provided time to gage neighborhoods and to notice changes on return rides. My pants fit a little looser around my waist. Many middle-income people in Atlanta still didn’t believe it was possible to function without a car. Granted, I was not commuting 20 miles to the suburbs to work, but even in that case public transport often was available. Living car-free felt awesome!
Month 4 to 6—Life is More Calm I wondered if it might be possible to avoid owning a car forever. Why should I return to life behind the wheel? I cringed at the thought of commuting to work through traffic every day. I still didn’t drive.
Having spent so much time outdoors walking and biking, I easily acclimated to the heat and humidity of summer in Atlanta. I continued to travel around my neighborhood and the city by foot, bike, bus, and train. The planning and time required to get somewhere had become second nature. I used extra travel time at bus stops and aboard public transport to read books, check email, study Chinese, observe other people, and more.
To describe the change in feeling gained by stepping away from the car is difficult. My life felt less cluttered, less congested, less impacted by others’ actions. Now, I had created distance apart from people who drive reckless, with a sense of entitlement, or with an apparent belief that their time is more important than mine as they cut me off in traffic. I no longer jockeyed among those drivers in a constant fight to get ahead. My life was more calm.
Month 7—Foreign Reminders During my seventh month, I travelled in Germany, Istanbul, and China. I learned to drive a Chinese tractor in the countryside of Guangdong province in south China, but otherwise avoided the driver’s seat during this month. Aboard many forms of public transport I always felt comfortable. In Germany, I rode city trains, a cross-country bus from Munich to Bielefeld, and a high speed train from Cöln to Munich. The trains and train stations in Germany were clean and pleasant. Istanbul had an easy to use train system. China provided the always wonderful subways and somewhat crowded city buses, but I never can understand anyone’s desire to own a car in Beijing or Guangzhou.
I spent five days as a passenger in a personally owned car while motoring through the beautiful landscape of Inner Mongolia—an area of well-deserved fame for driving tours. A visit through Inner Mongolia was possible aboard a large tour bus, though for many that would defeat the purpose of the trip and eliminate the freedom to stop and wander at will amongst the scenery. Only on a road trip did a car seem like a positive asset.
Conclusion In the end, the assumed necessity to drive a car is not the reality of life, it is only a mindset. While alternative transportation may be lacking for those who live in rural areas of America, the choice to reduce the use of a car is always available. Life without a car—give it a try. Like me, you may find more freedom with less car.
What I Learned
Living in Atlanta without a car is easier than expected. Previously, I thought this was only possible in cities with bigger subway systems such as Chicago, New York, or Boston.
My life is simplified by walking within my neighborhood. Without a car, I didn’t rush or feel impatient at red lights; I didn’t think about parking or buying gas. To walk felt pleasant, preferable to a car, and worth the time; while walking I had time to think, to reflect, and to observe my own neighborhood.
Walking is great exercise, simple to incorporate, and corresponds with my life priorities and joys. Though I had walked my dog an hour each day for twelve years, the additional time I spent walking to and from the grocery store was different and healthy. “Health, Fitness, and Well Being” is one of my top five priorities in life and being outdoors is on my list of things I enjoy, so walking fits perfectly into my lifestyle. (You may be interested in my article, Do You Do the Things You Like?)
Giving up the car saves me money and reduces my carbon footprint. Public transportation costs less than gasoline and maintenance of a car. Also, each of gallon of gas conserved also kept over 8 kilograms of CO2 out of the atmosphere.
I will continue to walk or bicycle within my neighborhood, but will own a car. Travelling to meet friends outside my neighborhood in the evening for dinner or entertainment was time consuming and sometimes a bit of a hassle; this is the other reason, along with commuting to work, for me to continue to own a car. An available car could be tempting to use within my neighborhood, but I find I generally walk or bike if possible. In fact, nearly every weekend I do not drive at all.
Life without a car. Another way to step out of the grind and find freedom. Peace.
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