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ENDING THE LOVE AFFAIR
WITH THE AUTOMOBILE

In 1999, a Tennessee man tried to marry his car. His application listed the Mustang's birthplace as Detroit, father as Henry Ford, and blood type as 10-W-40. When officials refused him a marriage license, he vowed to keep trying.

Like this Tennessee man, we've taken our romance with cars to an extreme. Licensed or not, society's love affair with the car is a marriage in many senses. Honoring a sort of transport monogamy, we rarely go anywhere without our cars. We lavish attention on them, build special spaces in homes and in communities for them, and build our daily lives around them.

The relationship didn't start out as a marriage, or even a love affair. Inventors who tried testing horseless carriages in streets were sometimes arrested. Queen Victoria called the motor car "a very shaky and disagreeable conveyance altogether." In 1903, a British member of Parliament called automobiles "slaughtering, stinking engines of iniquity." Even General Motors founder W.C. Durant called gasoline cars "noisy and smelly" at one point.

But for a number of reasons - some understandable, some honorable, some not so honorable, and some just foolish - we disregarded initial red flags like these and soon got hooked. Now, after more than 100 tumultuous years of romance with the car, the love affair has become a dysfunctional marriage.

Cars give us mobility and speed; they can be useful and convenient; they reflect our personalities, give us status, and provide at least a feeling of privacy in an increasingly crowded world. But the price we pay for driving as much as we do is high. Car crashes are the top killers of children. Auto emissions are implicated in global warming. Car-induced sprawl overwhelms the landscape. From the cities crammed with cars to the countryside wounded by their overflow, no place on earth is untouched by the negative effects of automobiles. With the damage they do to air, the oily messes they create, their congestion, their noise, and their cost not only in dollars but also in lives, cars have racked up a long list of grounds for divorce.

I was feeling uneasy about contributing to problems like these with my own car use when, in 1992, I met a few happy folks who were car-free by choice. Having quit driving to help the environment, they were still able to get where they needed to go on foot, bicycle, and transit, and none of them felt it was a sacrifice. In fact, they enjoyed not driving. I was inspired by their examples, and not long after meeting them, decided to attempt a trial separation from my car.

At first uncertain how I'd do without driving, I kept my car for a year and let myself use it in a pinch. But even living in a semi-rural area, three miles from the nearest small town and 17 from the county center, I found that a combination of cycling, bus rides for longer distances, and occasional taxi rides or car-pooling with friends met nearly all my travel needs. The longer my car stayed in the garage, the more I realized I didn't need it as much as I'd thought. After the year of my trial separation passed, I counted the times I'd driven and didn't make it from my fingers to my toes. This was hardly enough driving to justify the insurance, registration, maintenance, and depreciation costs of owning the vehicle - so I sold my car.

It helped that I worked at home, attending meetings only when essential, otherwise doing business by phone, fax, or e-mail. It helped that I outfitted my bike with lights for night riding and cargo-carrying racks for books and groceries. It also helped that our bus system was one of a growing number allow-ing passengers to bring bikes along; combining cycling and transit helped me travel with a range and convenience rivaling cars, for far less cost. But what really kept me going were the personal benefits I reaped from car-free living. I saved money. I got more exercise and dropped a few pounds without watching what I ate. I slept better at night. And I felt great! Being in shape raised my confidence, and being able to travel with less environmental impact gave me great satisfaction. Overall, I realized, divorcing my car was a lot of fun.

A couple years after my first car divorce, my life changed again. I moved to an even more rural area and married a man who owned a car. I figured I'd continue my biking lifestyle, and that we could both move toward ridding the world of another automobile. But when severe winters and a nearly complete lack of transit proved to be greater obstacles than we'd figured, we decided our location might call for a car-lite divorce. We continued to bike when we could, keeping the car in the garage to be used for longer-distance travel, some cargo-carrying trips, and during severe weather. We also added a small home-converted electric vehicle to our conveyance repertoire, charging it with solar energy when the sun allowed.

In divorcing the cars, first one way and then the other, I've found that there are opportunities to cut car use even in some of the most car-dependent places. I've also met a lot more people who have divorced their cars and are living happily ever after. Some do it by going car-free - not owning a car, taking public transit, walking, biking, or occasionally renting a car when a need arises. Others do it by going car-lite - owning a car, but using other travel modes more often. And along with the tried and true (walking or biking short distances, taking public transit for longer trips) they've used some innovative strategies to extract themselves from automotive marriage:

* Walking School Buses: These operate like a regular school bus, but everyone's on foot. Parents, teachers, and police map safe routes, then volunteer "drivers" walk the routes, picking children up and taking them to school. Some Walking Bus routes follow colored lines painted on streets; many use safety vests or colored hats worn by participants to increase visibility. Successful Walking School Bus programs have been established in Europe, Australia, and North America.

* Creative pedal power: Billy and Patti Romp and their family used a bicycle built for four plus a bike trailer to cross North America on vacation. Wisconsin teacher Steve Clark and his family have used pedal power to get to work, go camping, tow their canoe, and haul home an eight-foot Christmas tree. As a transport tool, writes Steve, "my bicycle gets an A-plus." The bicycle is a "common sense, outrageously simple approach" and "an elegant solution" for transportation, echoes Jan Vander-Tuin, whose Center for Appro-priate Transport (CAT) in Eugene, Oregon, teaches teens bike mechanics and other skills, offering an apprenticeship program in which they learn to build a range of human-powered vehicles. Among the creative - and practical - vehicles they've built are folding bikes, bike trailers, recumbent bikes, and cargo bikes like those used by the delivery company Pedal Express in Berkeley, California.

* Ride registries: In San Geronimo Valley, California, when residents needed a little more transit than the regular bus of-fered, they started "The Reg," a registry for safe drivers and safe riders. Residents can join after a background check with the Marin County Sheriff. If they pass, they're issued a laminated photo-ID card that identifies them as part of the program. Reg members in need of a ride simply stand at the side of the road and hold up their card. This shows they're safe to pick up. In turn, drivers show their cards to potential riders to identify themselves as a safe lift. People enjoy using it, and not just for transportation."One of the things we hadn't thought about was how much fun it is to connect with people you've never met before in your town," says Debbie Hubsmith, who helped start the service. "So there's a social component, too."

* Car-sharing: Car-sharing participants join a business or association that owns a fleet of vehicles and then sign up to use a car just when they need one. Car-sharing works in part because it charges members only when they drive, saving them money, and getting them cleanly out from under the burden of owning a car. A significant percentage of Co-operative Auto Network (CAN) members in Vancouver, British Columbia, have gotten rid of their cars after joining the group and, as CAN founder Tracey Axxelson has said, "They're feeling liberated." Car-sharing started in Europe, and now it's taking hold in North America: major Canadian cities have car-sharing, Portland, Oregon boasts the first car-sharing business in the U.S., and services are starting up or being planned in other U.S. locations.

Programs like these, where they exist, can make car-free travel easier - but some form of car divorce is possible almost anywhere. Those who try it often discover lives of higher quality by breaking out of car- dependence. "For the creative spirit, car-free living has a lot of po-tential," writes Ellen Jones of Washington, D.C., whose family was car-free for most of the 1990s. "How do we do it? My favorite guidepost is a comment my husband made one evening ... 'All we have to fear is a lack of imagination.'"

Written by: Katie Alvord


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