My family hasn’t owned a car in more than 6 years. It’s wonderful. Wonderful to not have to think about parking, wonderful to not worry about traffic, wonderful to be able to focus on our kids or to read a book if we’re taking public transportation, or to be a little bit more in control and get some exercise if we’re riding bikes. Except for those few times a year when we want to head out of the city for a day trip or a weekend excursion, we are completely happy to be carless.
But that is the thing. We live in New York City, where public transportation is plentiful, where bike lanes and racks are popping up everywhere, and where walking is expected. Not to mention the fact that our local grocery store is a four minute walk from our apartment, and there are three other grocery options within a 10 minute radius. Whenever I visit my family in the suburbs, where grocery stores are much farther and often located across busy streets or on roads without sidewalks (or with sidewalks that are built scarily close to fast-moving traffic) I am shocked at how often we end up getting in the car even for short distances simply because that’s “how things are done.”
This is a real shame. According to Jane Brody’s recent piece in the New York Times, not only does so much time behind the wheel mean so much less time exercising and larger waistlines and more physical health problems (like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol) it also leads to a lower quality of mental health. There’s a lot of stress associated with driving everywhere from being stuck in traffic, to finding a parking spot, to following directions. Large amounts of driving has also been connected to exhaustion, depression, anxiety, and social isolation. Not to mention the fact that you often end up trying to appease children in the backseat while keeping the car in the correct lane.
With all of the mental and physical ailments associated with driving, it’s clear that the costs of owning a car go way beyond fuel prices, insurance policies, and oil changes.
But the good news is that many communities, city planners, and individuals are recognizing that the “freedom” of owning a car and being in charge of your own movement has such a high cost on quality of life that it’s worth doing something about hence the added bike lanes in New York and other large cities, and new developments with walkable layouts.
While changes of this magnitude planning and building more walkable neighborhoods are slow in coming, there are things we can decide to do as families and individuals to decrease our reliance on cars like re-evaluating daily activities to see if they lie along a bus route, or if we really could walk them if driving just weren’t the way things are done.
However, I suspect that many people are not going to find many ways of ditching their cars on a daily basis yet. Several months ago, when I challenged my brother to get a bike and use it to get around town, he gave me a skeptical look before recounting the many reasons trading in his car for a bike wouldn’t work for him from large distances between his normal places, to streets that are difficult and dangerous to ride on. And while I think it is unfortunate that he and so many others are not able to decrease their dependence on cars right now, perhaps the shift in mindset that is going on in younger people will speed up the process of reversing car-dependence.
For my part, living without a car these past several years has made living in a walkable place a high priority. If/when my family does move from New York, we’ll be looking closely at bike lanes, sidewalks, and bus routes to find a place that lets us leave our car if we ever get one in the garage, unless, of course, we want to make a weekend getaway.
image via istockphoto.com