Freedom’s Just Another Word for the Obligations of Owning a Car

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Ask a car owner to justify owning an automobile, and one of the first few words you’ll hear is “freedom.”

That freedom is the ability to get into the car any time, and drive to any destination, for any purpose whatsoever – to buy a loaf of bread, to mail a letter, to visit a friend, or just to get out of the house. Implicit in this is the expectation of clear roads and convenient parking.

In Maine, we don’t face many of the traffic problems that plague more populated places. But businesses continue to build in outlying areas, forcing employees and customers to drive to them. Real estate continues to be sold on the assumption that the owners will commute to work. And spending priorities continue to favor the automobile over less expensive, more efficient modes of transportation.

People cry foul when new restrictions are imposed. In Bangor several years ago, the city council enacted an ordinance prohibiting a left turn from State Street, which runs along the river past Eastern Maine Medical Center, onto Howard Street, which shortcuts through a residential neighborhood and meets up with Stillwater Avenue, near the Bangor Mall. Never mind that it is a dangerous intersection, or that drivers frequently speed and endanger pedestrians and children, or that the area is well served by three bus routes. Drivers circulated a petition to get the repeal of the ordinance onto the 2008 ballot. The traffic cones came down the day after the election.

Drivers in Bangor are again free to make a dangerous left turn. But take a closer look at that adjective: “free.” It’s frequently followed by a preposition, as in the sentence that opens this paragraph. Free as a bird. Free of charge. Free to do what I want. Free from your spell. The preposition changes the meaning. Car owners tend to think in terms of “free to,” which implies liberty but not liberation. That’s a different quality than the “free from” I discovered when I decided to give up owning cars. I’m free from compulsory car insurance and mandatory car inspection. I’m free from sobriety checkpoints, and parking tickets, and registration fees. I’m free from being immobilized by a car that doesn’t start or doesn’t run properly. I’m free from scraping ice off a windshield in winter and washing off bird poop in the summer. Fluctuating gas prices don’t drive my monthly budget. I don’t sit in traffic jams waiting for the car in front of me to move. My days are no longer planned around where I have to go in an automobile and how long it will take me to get there.

And surprisingly, I haven’t lost much freedom of mobility. I can still go where I want, when I want, most of the time. The exceptions are scattered events in small outlying towns. Even then, with a little planning and forethought, I can usually make arrangements. And do those few events justify supporting an automobile 365 days a year?

You do give something up when you decide not to own a car. You give up the perception of unlimited mobility – which isn’t really unlimited, since you can only go where the roads are. You can’t drive to Iceland, or to Juneau, or even to many places in Maine. My sailboat can get to places no car can. I can afford the boat because I don’t own a car. I can get to it by bus, and out on the water I experience a sense of freedom I’ve never felt in an automobile.

And I like to think I’m making life just a little easier for my neighbors, by removing one car from the daily traffic mix. By using public transportation, I’m boosting the demand for more bus routes, and by walking and riding a bike I’m increasing awareness of bicyclists and pedestrians. I’m also doing my tiny part to keep oil drilling away from the coast of Maine, to maintain the cleanliness of the air we breathe, and to discourage the use of American military power to secure oil deals in hostile countries.

Not everyone wants to live in a city. But that house ten miles out of town may not look like such a good deal in the face of rising gas prices and road congestion. Small-town life may not seem so idyllic when you’re spending fifteen hours a week driving to and from work. I’m not the first lifelong driver to lose patience with the demands of the car culture, and I won’t be the last. The biggest surprise was how little I had to lose.

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