August marks my 10 year anniversary of not driving a car. I sold my car in Seattle back in 2006 and I haven’t driven since. The thing is, I almost never even ride in a car. At this moment I can’t remember the last time I was a passenger. I took a taxi in Madrid back in December, one trip from the train station to my hotel. On the return I went in the metro. In Valencia I either walk or take the bike-share to the train station. I certainly don’t miss cars and if I never drove again I would be very pleased with that. The things I sacrifice from not driving are more than eclipsed by what I’ve gained.
For almost a century many Americans have considered the automobile to be the very symbol of personal freedom and expression. Cars took the place in American mythology once reserved for the horse so we substituted smog for horseshit without missing a beat. We were indoctrinated into a culture that not only told us that cars made us free but that cars themselves were the definition of freedom. Your car made you stand out as an individual regardless of the fact that a million other people drove the same model. We built our cities around cars, our myths and legends pounded the car into our consciousness. On the Road was more than a novel, more than a catch phrase for a generation, it defined us.
More and more people are beginning to push back against this idea of the car as the essence of individual liberty as more and more millennials are choosing not to drive. My split with the world of cars has been anything but limiting or confining. Here is a short list of things I’ve avoided this past decade: traffic, parking, parking tickets, car payments, insurance, break-downs, stressful driving situations of any and all sorts, maintenance, and any and everything to do with the Department of Motor Vehicles, by far the most Orwellian or Kafka-esque aspect of my past life as a driver.
What I have gained is the freedom from so many nuisances that most people feel are not only completely unavoidable but necessary in modern society. One thing that I can never understand is why so many people choose to drive in Valencia when I’m certain that most people could walk, ride, or take public transportation instead of driving for most of their around-town trips. I think that once people own a car they feel the need to use it as often as possible to get their money’s worth without ever considering the alternatives.
It’s sort of like the elevator in my building. For every other tenant in the building the elevator is a necessity. I live on the fourth floor and I rarely use the elevator. I opt for the stairs for about 90% of my trips up and down. It is 72 steps, just a trifle. Of my two bikes one of them fits in the lift and the other doesn’t—goddamnit!—so when I use the one that fits—my city bike—I opt for the elevator. Trips on my city bike probably represent about 95% of my elevator usage. Sometimes when I’m loaded down with shopping I’ll take the lazy way up but most of the time I choose to walk. I think that I have shamed the teenage girl who lives on the second floor into walking, at least when she sees me either going up or down. I don’t know how I’d feel about walking up and down if I lived higher up in my building. The fourth floor seems just too easy not to hike up and down but if I were living on the ninth I doubt that I would be quite as enthusiastic about this habit (and I would have never purchased a bike that didn’t fit in the damn elevator).
My physical fitness hardly needs the boost from climbing 72 stairs 2-4 times a day but I suppose that it all adds up. Even I have to admit that there are times after returning from a three hour bike ride I will groan at the thought of having to hump up four flights of stairs carrying my now-useless mode of transportation, but for the most part the walk up is something I barely consider and I put about as much thought into it as I do in opening the front door—it’s just something I have to do. I’ve lived without a lift on a couple occasions and it was no big deal, at least it wasn’t for me.
Driving around town seems about as ridiculous to me as taking the elevator up a couple of floors instead of taking the stairs. Back when I lived in Seattle I had a car but living in the downtown area made it way too much of a bother to actually drive the stupid thing other than for trips out of town. My car was more of a recreational vehicle, like a jet-ski or a snowmobile, than an essential part of my life. For most of my life I have relied more on the bicycle than the automobile to effect my day-to-day transportation needs.
In Valencia I mostly make my way around town on the bike-share bikes. The weather here is harmonious with cycling pretty much 365 days a year but you could hardly say that about Seattle and I cycled everywhere all year long. I don’t expect everyone else on earth to be such an avid cyclist but there are other ways to get around than on a bike.
Valencia has a truly wonderful public transportation system of buses and underground metro. I rarely use either of these simply because cycling is so much faster for the most part. In the time it takes me to wait 5-10 minutes for a bus I could already be at my destination drinking a beer. This brings up another aspect of not driving: not worrying about a designated driver. Biking while intoxicated is the subject for another essay. Spoiler Alert: I’m really good at it.
I’m not advocating that everyone go without a car. What you choose to do is your business and I really don’t give a shit. All that I am saying is that for me living without a car has been much healthier for my body and my state of mind, not to mention my pocketbook (do I even have a pocketbook?). Not driving a car has eliminated so much frustration, aggravation, stress, and worry from my life that the benefits are impossible to calculate.