How I Gave Up the Personal Automobile

This article was contributed by Robert Richardson, environmentalist and arborist who has planted over 1 million trees in the last 50 years.

After dealing with yet another unpleasant trip to traffic court, a friend said half jokingly, “Maybe you just weren't meant to drive!”

This bit of logic made perfect sense. He was absolutely right.

When I actually considered the costs of the car and its upkeep, the costs to the environment, and the inherent risks – like the reality of strapping myself to a ton of steel with only a painted line between people doing the same thing – I knew then that my transportation habits would never be the same.

Driving didn't have to totally go away. I could carpool with friends, take a bus, or hitch a ride if I planned to go anywhere. I could contribute a few dollars for fuel or pay fares, all contributing to petrol fuels, but still far less than the cost of another car on the road.

A New Beginning: The First 40 miles

Certain I could get anywhere without a car, I was anxious to test out my theory. I needed to go to the bank, a distance of just under 40 miles – about an hour's drive.

Being mid summer and in the middle of a heat wave didn't discourage me, but actually encouraged my commitment to traveling by my own power. With renewed purpose, I set out to prove my theory that, somehow, I could survive within my means and not depend on my own personal automobile.

I had to travel 40 miles and arrive at my destination before dark. "Even if I walked the entire way, I could do it in about 12 hours," I told myself half jokingly, half bravely. So, I started out in the cool predawn hours.

Arriving at the roadside at sunrise, I felt the heat still radiating off the asphalt from yesterday's scorcher. Looking down the expanse of empty highway, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of isolation while also being wrapped in the smell of petrol and rubber; it felt as though the world had stopped. The reality of how far I had to go over-ruled my earlier bravado. No wonder no one walks. It takes forever to get anywhere, and anything could happen.

I felt foolish standing there defenseless and vulnerable to anyone drifting a few feet over the line, or maybe some maniac who would suddenly be compelled to run me over or an elderly cardiac arrest veering off at the last second. Or worse, what kind of person would pick me up?

I knew I had to overcome these worries if I wanted to actually make the trip. Taking a deep breath, my mind became clear. I suddenly became of my surroundings. The shoulder of the highway was awash with colorful assortment of garbage and trash, small pieces of paper, plastic and, metal objects and countless thousands of cigarette butts, all covering the ground like a solid mat.

"Wow," I thought. "I'll be looking at this all day."

It's amazing how big the world is when your only able to move forward as fast as your feet can take you. The immensity of my undertaking became clear. I was not prepared for the boredom of standing on the side of the road, nor the reaction from the general public. These are the two things one must consider when attempting to use the roadway systems without the safety of a private vehicle.

Even worse: living in a small town, a ride could be while. Few people ever left town to cross the mountain, and those who were headed that way were likely passing through and would not recognize me.Twenty minutes passed. I decided to begin the walk.

Soon, the highway merged down to a narrow shoulder as it entered the wooded hills and began climbing. There was no place to pull over. I had to commit to walking over the mountain, only 16 miles, or stand in the one spot wide enough for a car to stop and wait for a ride.

Walking at 4 miles per hour would take four hours, and from there, I could surely get a ride the rest of the way before dark.

A mile into the walk I hear a car coming up behind me, the motor slowing then accelerating as it cornered its way up, stereo blaring. I stepped off the road into the weeds as it came around the corner and blew past as if at the Daytona 500, with a mega-bass sound system that vibrated the earth beneath me.

It would be impossible to get a ride walking up the mountain. I had to stay off the road or put myself at serious risk.

The Isolation of Commuting

Car after car flew by, each pushing speeds way past the limit, in and out of each corner, up and over the mountain. I'd take position well away from danger, and watch the drivers faces as they passed.

The impressions of their faces resembled their cars. Like pet owners look like their pets, the drivers looked like their cars.

The cars, like their drivers were all strained to the limit of their performance. I could sense their anger by the whine of the engine, pressing thier foot harder to the floor. Why are all these people so bent out of shape? A dissatisfaction with their cars performance, perhaps. Why are they in such a hurry? Late for an appointment, I guess. But how could everyone be late on the same day?

One driver in particular, heading down hill, came screeching into a corner, tires bent, barely holding traction. I caught a glimpse of her face. Grimacing with fierce determination, both hands on the wheel pulling hard. She could not have been under 80 years old but still driving like it was a dirt track championship. It was as if these people were suddenly endowed with a supreme power, an invisible magic that made them invincible and nothing could stand in their way.

Each car that passed brought with it a wave of anxiety and impatience. Totally oblivious to my presence, they'd fly by and with them would go this offensive assault like a big cloud of toxic waste following them.

The smell of exhaust and melting brakes would soon fade and I'd find myself alone again, enjoying the sights and sounds of the woods around me. This was a road I had driven countless times, but had never stopped to actually see it as there is no place to pull off if one wanted to.

My walk was everything I had hoped; the trees swaying in the breeze, the warmth of the sun on my face, the scent of sweet cedar and pine. The occasional screetch of a red tail hawk announcing my presence was the only interruption to the quiet peacefulness of nature. Tolerating the speeding cars was a minor distraction. As long as I was certain of my safety, this was a great adventure unfolding under a cloudless June sky. I soon realized just how isolated commuting in a car made you. It pulled you away from this natural paradise.

Random Acts of Kindness, where art thou

This next part of my journey underscored a fundamental flaw in my assumptions: people would be likely to help a stranger. This definitely was not the case.

When I reached the flat, straight roads of the valley I thought I'd get a ride easily. It was not to be. As I walked in the open, I became a target. Shouts like 'Get a Car' could be heard and the frightening trick of blaring the horn just as they come up from behind seemed to be a form of demented entertainment.

A couple times, a car would stop, then speed off just as I would run up. One car actually rolled down a window and shot me in the face with a water canon, then sped off. The blast hit me right in the eyes, temporarily blinding me. This was probably the scariest thing that happened, when I realized it could have been acid or bullet from a gun.

I gave up thumbing, and stayed well off the road for the rest of the journey. The last ten miles were the hardest, my feet ached, every muscle in my body felt strained. Even the muscles in my stomach were burning from this long walk.

I finally made it to the bank just minutes before closing time. I cashed my check, feeling defeated, and violated. I called a friend who was commuting back over the hill. I told him my story, and asked if I could catch a ride with him. He could not believe I had walked 40 miles that day, in a little over 10 hours.

To my relief, he was happy to give me a ride. On the way, I watched the trees pass in the window. I looked at the trash on the roadway. I felt the roar of the engine, once again beneath me, not behind me. The contrast was remarkable.

A Lesson Learned

My walk has since lasted fifteen years. I've driven a car since then, but over the years I've learned how to minimize, and change habits. My goal is to maintain a lifestyle that does not require driving a car.

As a converted minimalist, I need so little that a car is just a potentially unnecessary luxury, a waste of time and money. I live by the work invested in the garden. I am able to barter with neighbors for other resources that I can't get from the land. I am in no hurry to go anywhere that I cannot enjoy the journey along the way.

I've learned a lot about how to live in a society that does not give incentive to or make allowances for people who do not drive a car. My mode of transportation has changed over the years, depending on where I need to go. Public transportation and carpooling have replaced the costs of a personal vehicle quite effectively. Greyhound is a great way to travel long distance, very affordably too. Recumbent bikes and Human Powered Vehicles offer all kinds of personal freedom in our break from being enslaved to our cars.

I bought a three wheeled bike and have used it to haul hundreds of pounds of goods like groceries and tools. For heavier goods or longer trips, neighbors in our community plan group trips to town , splitting costs, reducing consumption yet still providing for everyone.

The money I save not owning a car, I don't need to work for. For many people, the cost of owning a car is all they make from working anyway. Drive to work, work to drive, an endless, arguably vicious assault on one's own freedoms.

Without the costs of owning a car, suddenly there is plenty of time to enjoy life. Yes, walking or bike riding and even public transportation poses risks and dangers, but with careful planning and keen observation, a person can safely negotiate this fast paced world from the safety and sanity of Human Powered Transportation.

It is my hope that the concept of strapping yourself to a ton of steel filled with highly flammable liquid and propelling yourself directly at others, with nothing between you but a line painted down the middle, does seem as ludicrous to you as it sounds to me. Add to that the costs of gas, monthly payments, insurance and the always present danger of accidents, both personally caused and those caused by other drivers, and you may find yourself questioning driving, just as I did.

Life is about the quality of the time you have, not the quality of your possessions. Walking, in many ways, is a way to protect and preserve your freedom, your health, and the planets health. And its free.

“The order which we impose on nature is never more than temporary or illusory. In the end the logic of nature will win out over the logic of capitalism, the logic of a industry, the logic of efficiency. Its always been so and it always will be so. Nature is stronger than any of our designs. Nature resists our control.” Michael Pollen 'The Botany of Desire'