A little more than three years ago I read Taras Grescoe’s Straphanger. In the book he profiles the public transit infrastructure of major world cities, including Philadelphia. It started me thinking seriously about embracing a different life. This month marks three years since I sold my Acura TL to experiment with life without a car.
What’s the experience been like? Great. Access rather than ownership eliminates a giant financial and logistical nuisance from my life. I’ve taken a lot more Ubers and walked at times when I probably always should have. But more than anything, I’ve come to see cars as just one means of transport rather than the obvious and primary means. Cars are the costliest and truest form of public transport, because they and the roads they require alter our landscapes and dominate our cities, towns, and countryside. When autonomous transport becomes a reality, their place as just another form of public transportation will become more obvious. For now, cars are just privately managed public transportation.
(It has always sort of made me sick to see Philadelphia’s abandoned trolly system tracks and wires still linking the city, but unused and deteriorating due to a basic civic failure of vision. Learning about near-mythical efforts to create a true subway system reaching beyond the city’s core into the Northeast and other areas makes me cringe in longing for the boldness of New York or Chicago. It’s a future we can still have—one with real civic transit infrastructure for more people. Living without a car for the past three years has increased my sensitivity to the need for a broader vision. Autonomous transit might solve these infrastructure needs from both sides of the spectrum.)
I like to think I’ve gained a firmer sense of locality in the process, too—of a sense of distance and place. This was something I really enjoyed in 2011 when traveling Amtrak coast to coast, twice—a deep sense for the sheer size of the American continent and the scope and wealth of its culture, capacity, and climate. When traveling on a slow train through the New Mexico desert, the size of the desert becomes real in a way that it can never be in a climate controlled SUV traveling 80-100 mph. We’ve built ways to avoid dealing with the vastness of the country, whether nationally or in daily local life, but the older and slower America lingers as a living reality for those curious enough to make its acquaintance.
I’m still in love with great cars and classic American car culture’s sense of craftsmanship and excellence. If on-demand, autonomous Teslas don’t become a reality, I’ll probably buy one when they’re affordable for the middle class.
In the meantime, life is good and the experiment works.