Living Without a Car

I was in the San Francisco Bay area last week for work. The first day, I had to commute from Oakland to Mountain View by car. The approximately 45-mile trip took me almost two hours: two hours of stop-and-go traffic and frustration, with only the radio for company.

That afternoon, after work, I drove to Palo Alto and rented a bicycle. In the remaining hour of daylight I went for a joyride in the foothills. The dry earthy smell of the chaparral gave way to the fragrance of eucalyptus and redwoods as I climbed in the woods above the Portola Valley. On my way home, speeding down Sand Hill Road in near-darkness, I looked up to see the moon shimmering above the dark bulk of the hills behind me. I felt very alive.

The next day I decided to leave the rental car parked until my return trip to the airport. The commute to my morning meeting was only 14 miles round-trip, and I wouldn't have to worry about rush hour traffic. I got on the road just as the sun was rising, a bright red ball veiled by the morning haze. I reached the client's offices with time to spare, energetic and in a good mood. My average speed had been only a little lower than on the previous morning's car commute.

This little story explains, as concisely as anything else, why I am "car-free." Bicycles are practical and efficient, they are fun to ride, and they make me happy.

Car-free? And why?

But really, what does it mean to be car-free? In my case, neither my wife nor I have a car. We use bicycles to commute to work, buy groceries, go to the theater, and so on. I have an 8-foot bicycle trailer to handle large grocery store runs or oversize loads, such as furniture. But we're not completely car-free. Both of us have driver's licenses, and occasionally---a few times per year---we rent a car to go somewhere for the weekend. I also typically rent a car at my destination when I fly for business. It might be fairer to say that we are "car-minimal" rather than completely car-free.

I grew up riding a bicycle, so it was the natural (and inexpensive) transportation choice when I went to college in the Boston area. Over the years, I have come to appreciate other advantages of bicycles as a means of transport. Time and again, my bicycle has proved to be the fastest means of transport for distances under 5 miles in the city. It is faster than a car, faster than the subway (when you factor in the time to get to the station and wait for a train), and faster even than Boston's famously reckless cabbies.

Bicycles have negligible environmental impact. They don't increase our dependence on questionable foreign regimes. They ease traffic congestion, and contribute to making the city a more pleasant place to live. Whereas cars foster expressways, suburban malls, and giant parking facilities, bicycles encourage a higher-density and more vibrant urban environment. When you ride a bike, you can stop to take a look at a shop window or talk to a friend going the other way; no such luck if you're barreling past the mall on the freeway.

Cycling every day allows me to eat almost anything I want and to stay fit without ever going to the gym. I don't need to sit in traffic for 30 minutes to go work out at the gym for an hour. Instead, I simply use my bicycle for transport, completing my errands more quickly and getting a workout to boot.

Bicycles are also attractively simple. They are one of the few devices left in my life that I understand completely and can fix myself. Try saying that about a cell phone or a car.

But, above all, I use a bike every day for the same reason that I did when I was five: because it's fun and exhilarating. Cycling clears my head and relaxes me after a day at work. Where a bad car commute puts me in a foul mood for much of the day, a good ride makes me smile even days later. Sand Hill Road last week, downhill at 40 miles an hour in the dark with the moon overhead, I felt that I was flying very fast, very close to the ground. The bicycle almost disappeared in the rush of air and speed and freedom. Maybe that's how swallows feel when they swoop close to the ground in their big graceful arcs.

Of course, not every day is a joyride in the moonlight, especially in Boston. You might get driving rain in November and deep snow in December. But while some commutes can be unpleasant, most are not. The harsh winter climate is just another cycling challenge, not much different from a steep climb or a long ride. Improving my snow-riding technique or my clothing strategies becomes part of the game, and simply increases my appreciation for the beauty and flexibility of the bicycle. And as an added bonus, I never have to dig my car out of the snow. The neighbors are jealous.

How to start

There are situations in which cycling is not a practical choice. It probably won't work in very remote or sparsely populated areas, and it may be a bad choice for someone with certain kinds of health problems. That said, though, I am convinced that cycling for transportation, even only occasionally, can improve most people's lives.

The key thing to realize is that the changes can be incremental, and that using a bicycle is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Every time you replace a car trip with a bicycle trip, you get good exercise, decrease your environmental impact, and have an opportunity to see your neighborhood from a different, more intimate perspective.

The hardest part, I think, is just deciding to try. Once you make that decision, everything else is a simple matter of logistics.

If you give yourself the chance to try, you might just find yourself becoming addicted. One of my co-workers started cycling to work as an "experiment" in the summer of 2003. He fell in love with the simplicity of the bicycle, the freedom from rush hour traffic, and the head-clearing effect of exercise before and after work. He began commuting five days a week, 8 miles each way, for a total of 80 miles a week. He rode daily through the Boston winter, and continues to do so today. Sometimes he takes his daughter to childcare on his bike.

Occasionally he mumbles something about maybe selling his car.