Posted by: salamandercandy | September 11, 2006

My Carless Decade

On this fifth anniversary, I’d like to describe something I’ve done to fight terrorism…

I have never owned a motorized vehicle. Neither have most humans alive today, I suspect, but my case is unusual given my other demographic stats. After all, many other 26-year old Americans have continuously owned a car for the past ten years. Money is probably a major reason why some remain carless, but I’m a middle-class graduate student, the son of public schoolteachers, and I’ve certainly had the financial means to purchase at least a used jalopy if I really wanted one. Furthermore, I enjoy hiking, camping, and traveling, so it’s not as if I wouldn’t have a use for a car. Most strikingly, I have lived in several very distinct settings in the past decade. Thus, my successful carlessness is not just owing to some weird quirk of my lifestyle (e.g. having a good friend who drives me everywhere) or geographic location (e.g. a city with excellent public transportation). Rather, I feel that I have demonstrated how millions of other folks in a variety of different places could live carlessly instead of carelessly, without changing their entire lives. Read on to learn how I’ve achieved a carless decade.


I had a bit of a head start, since I didn’t get me driver’s license until I was 17 ½. I spent my 16th year as an exchange student in Venezuela, through a program that forbade its participants to drive while abroad. After returning home, it took me a few tries to pass the test at the DMV, during which time I was still at the mercy of my parental chauffeurs. This was in rural Wisconsin, where cars are the only possible transportation option, but I am proud that my siblings and I were able to share rides and didn’t each require our own vehicle once we got our licenses. Although I did drive a Taurus the second half of my senior year, and a few summers when I was home from college, that car belonged to my parents, not me, and my two younger siblings inherited the privileges to it after I left home. My parents have been very generous with the use of their vehicles, but I have usually lived too far away to borrow from them on a regular basis.

I earned my bachelor’s degree at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Although Ithaca is small enough to bike through, this is not a very convenient option due to very steep slopes and icy conditions during much of the year. Occasionally I would borrow a friend’s car or take the city bus somewhere, but not very often. Mostly, I just walked a lot. Essentially everything I needed was located either on campus or very nearby, but the university is large, and a visit to a convenience store or restaurant just south of campus is not a quick trip if you live on north campus. To return home to Wisconsin, I became a loyal patron of Greyhound bus. Anyone who’s ever taken Greyhound knows that these trips can be long, dirty, and full of colorful and aromatic characters both friendly and frightening. I believe Greyhound is stuck in a viscous cycle here: it can’t afford to make the experience more convenient or comfortable, so it only attracts people who can’t afford to travel any other way, so it doesn’t make enough money for improvements. There is no reason why our nation shouldn’t have an efficient, pleasant, cross-country bus system, though. If more people who could afford to drive or fly took Greyhound anyway, like I do, it could easily grow into a more enjoyable service.

After college graduation, I returned to Venezuela briefly as a stream ecology research assistant, at a commune-like field site with a half dozen other scientists. We had two Jeeps among us for occasional trips to town, so we had to cooperate to meet our alimentary, social, and scientific needs. Most days I was confined to places to which I could walk, but I was far from bored exploring the biodiverse tropical countryside. After the field work was done, I explored the region on public busses and via car rides generously provided by my former host family.

My year in New York City was perhaps the easiest time in my life to be carless. Many New Yorkers eschew cars in favor of the subway, taxis, and good old foot power. Not that riding the D train daily was always a bowl of peaches, but driving into Harlem every day would have been even worse. To visit friends in Ithaca on the weekends, about five hours away, I took advantage of a regular shuttle bus that showed R-rated pirated movies to its captive general audience. I also tried to meet my need for green places by visiting city parks and cemeteries, instead of, say, driving out into the Catskills when I needed to get away.

I have spent the last three years in Corvallis, Oregon, a town similar to Ithaca in size and attitudes, but without the freezing temperatures or hilly topography that make biking difficult. There are plenty of wooded slopes right outside of town though, so lots of nature experiences are within easy riding distance. Public transportation to nearby towns is not ideal, but it works. I do borrow cars from friends sometimes, and a couple of times I’ve rented a vehicle for a few days, but that’s not part of my everyday life.

In all of these places, I’ve been fortunate to have adventure-loving friends, whom I have accompanied on many exciting trips. Thus, although I’ve had to be patient and dependent on where others wanted to go, I almost never feel like I’m trapped at home or missing out on something. It hasn’t always been easy, but by sharing rides, riding my bike, and using public transportation, I’ve managed to avoid a car this entire time and still live a full life. So can you, whether you live in a big city like New York, a town like Ithaca or Corvallis, or a rural community like our Venezuelan field site or my parent’s house in Wisconsin.

At this point, some of you may be wondering why I put myself through all of this, and why I’m encouraging others to do the same. Simply put, I’m living the future. Our country’s crazy obsession with the internal combustion engine just cannot last much longer. There is a limited and rapidly dwindling supply of oil on this planet, and the amount that we ought to burn is much smaller still, since every tank of gas pollutes the air and contributes to global warming. Not to mention that just building a car requires a great deal of energy and resources. Yes, new technologies like hybrid cars, biodiesel and hydrogen fuel show some promise, but they don’t completely solve the problem. I can’t imagine a way that every adult on Earth could sustainably drive their own vehicle every day, at least not without either a drastic reduction in population size, or else technological innovations that we are nowhere close to achieving. Furthermore, the attacks five years ago were funded by oil revenues. True patriotic Americans protect their country by reducing thier fossil fuel consumption.

I’m not saying my lifestyle is perfect. I probably still contribute to more than my fair share of fossil fuel burning, even if most of it is through public transportation and carpooling. Still, if even half of all Americans adults lived carlessly for a decade, the environmental improvement would be significant. And I’m not saying that environmentalists can’t own cars. We don’t need to get rid of cars entirely, but there should be fewer of them and they should be used less often. I myself will probably purchase a car eventually, but if I do I will use it minimally, share it with others, and sell it if carlessness again becomes a feasible goal in my life.

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Responses

  1. You three are like a cute gang of geeks. I bet you three have every world problem solved by the time you’re collectively 90. Good for you. I’m rooting for you. Someone needs to. I don’t love salamandars but that’s ok, isn’t it? Cause I’m good with it.

  2. Okay, I’m with you. But you know durned well Americans won’t part with their wheels until absolutely forced to do so. Wish we had the kind of rail system here that they have in Europe, now that would be something. I threaten my relatives all the time that what I’m driving now will be the last vehicle I’ll ever purchase (I’m 51). I live within walking distance of most everything I need and have a bus stop not far from my front door, so I could do without the car and I do own a bike. And think how smart it would be if no one could drive a car until he/she reached 21. Or if only guys could drive, tee-hee (that would be cool with me). And I’d vote for taking them wheels from anybody over 50. I’m serious. I don’t see a down side to it, do you?

  3. As one who has experienced the author’s driving skills first-hand many times, let me be the first to congratulate him on not only fighting terrorism, but making America’s roads safer by strategically limiting his time behind the wheel. Seriously though, I think that perhaps the greatest potential for luring Americans away from their beloved autos is to promote not only the environmental and geopolitical benefits of public transportation but to also highlight the potential safety and quality of life improvements that would come from getting more people out of their cars. Driving (especially in traffic, at night, while tired, with screaming kids, or any combination of these) is very dangerous, and also wastes a huge amount of time. Those who do their daily commute (or cross-country trips) on a train or bus can sleep, read, think, relax, socialize, you name it. I took my first long greyhound trip this summer and was amazed at how enjoyable it was (despite getting hit on by a very large female truck driver, and almost getting stranded in Belfield, ND). Three cheers for carless Jacob! I hope that I can make it a decade too (permanently “borrowing” my parents’ mini-van certainly will help)!


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