Lessons from the Slow Lane

 

The beginning of March marks two years since I began this blog. This is my 105th weekly post, the first of Slower Traffic’s third year. I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read and comment. I’ve always seen this blog as a pebble thrown into the pond of a larger conversation.

I gave up car ownership in 2007, initially for a year. It’s the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept. A decade later, I can honestly say it’s changed my life.

Only after I began to do some research did I realize that I was part of a movement, small but growing, a pushback against the ubiquity of the car and the car culture. I seldom questioned my need for a vehicle, even as I simmered in San Diego freeway traffic, or scraped the bottom of my bank account to buy snow tires. It wasn’t until I gave up owning cars that I saw how unnecessary it was for me to own one.

Can everyone do it? Of course not – but that’s not the point. Many of us can. Many of us only think we need a car at our disposal, all the time. I know. I was one of them.

Cars always kept me broke. They got me to jobs, but they also sucked up a good part of my paychecks. In his seminal 2006 book How to Live Well without Owning a Car, Chris Balish elucidates the economic case: “Car ownership can rob you of a secure retirement. It can destroy your ability to save for college, start a business, or invest for the future.”

Consequently, when I came to Bangor and discovered that the bus could take me to and from my new job at the University of Maine, I sold my last car. Since then, I’ve been divorced, lived alone, and now live in a two-person household with a driveway barely big enough for one car.

But you can’t give up owning cars without making a few adjustments. I’ve been able to find places to live near bus lines and businesses that I can walk to. This isn’t true of all areas even within city limits. I’ve written about food deserts among Bangor’s neighborhoods, where the location of grocery stores almost mandates the use of a car. There are parts of the city that the bus doesn’t serve. It’s hard to get to the Cross Center on a Saturday, for example, because the Hampden Town Council eliminated Saturday bus service.

It isn’t hard to live without owning a car. You will be amazed at the money you save. And you will feel better physically. Here are a few words of advice, from insights I’ve gleaned over the past ten years:

Invest in a good pair of walking shoes. In the winter, this means boots. You’ll walk more. But that’s okay, because walking is good for you. I dropped ten pounds in two months without even trying. I dislike gyms and ritualized exercise. But it’s a rare day that I don’t walk the half-mile between home and downtown at least once. I shop on foot. A walk is a good way to clear your head, meet your neighbors, and get out into the natural world.

Ride a bicycle. This I do in the warmer months, though I see intrepid souls out there throughout the year. Everything I said about walking goes double for a bicycle. It’s great exercise, and the more cyclists there are on the roads, the safer the roads are for everyone.

Use public transportation. Bangor has a great bus system, with friendly drivers and convenient routes. I have long advocated for later evening hours, and when that happens, Bangor will see an uptick in ridership and an increase in commerce. The bus is free to anyone affiliated with the University of Maine, Husson University, and Eastern Maine Community College, and even if you pay for a monthly pass, it’s way cheaper than driving.

Be nice to the car owners in your life. I’m not a purist. I’ve renewed my driver’s license twice since giving up car ownership. Sometimes friends will give me rides; I make sure to do something for them in return. When I borrow the lovely Lisa’s car, I buy her a tank of gas. We live among cars, especially here in Maine. That is only going to change gradually, one former car owner at a time. But that’s how most lasting change happens.

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