Hell Yeah, I Love My Car
Spring is right around the corner, and we all know what that means: streets and sidewalks bustling with fair-weather bicyclists dodging cars and pedestrians, screaming “On the right!” and ringing their cute little bike bells like we’re the ones breaking the law. I particularly love when they keep their helmet on in the Whole Foods checkout lines, lest anyone fail to notice their inherent superiority for riding their amazing bicycle to the supermarket. And actually, they’re merely the shock troops of the modern anti-car brigade: Zipcar-driving hipsters, bike-riding mayors, urban-planning professors, livability advocates, and even Ray LaHood — the secretary of transportation and a former Republican congressman — all convinced that cars are the worst epidemic cities have faced since cholera.
Marc Schlossberg, a professor of planning, public policy, and management at the University of Oregon, neatly summarized the indictment in the New York Times: “The costs of using the car for every type of trip…are finally apparent, from their contribution to global climate change, the national obesity epidemic from loss of daily physical activity and the 40,000 deaths per year on the road-ways, to the social isolation and neighborhood fragmentation that the roadway system creates.”
And here I was thinking that cars were just a mode of transportation that has done as much to modernize the world as clean water. Instead, cars are responsible for obesity, death, and terrible neighborhoods, plus the fact that we’re destined to a lifetime of loneliness. But you want to know something?
I don’t care. This past January — after three years of going without wheels — I was downright giddy to go to a dealer and buy myself a car. Because here’s the secret the anti-auto mafia doesn’t want you to know: The only thing better than living without a car in Boston — America’s third-most-walkable city — is living here with one.
When I officially went car-free a few years ago, it was for the same reason I have always been yacht-free and chalet-in-Gstaad-free: I didn’t have the money. I’d been driving a banged-up ’98 Ford Escort since 2004, when I started my software company, but by May 2009, every part of the business had grown except my own salary. So when I came up against a $1,000 estimate for repairs to pass inspection, I sold the junker to a guy with a flatbed truck and $105.
Car-free-and-loving-it types often describe dumping their automobile as a moment of liberation. I have to admit, for a while I kind of saw their point: There was no more waking up in terror that I’d parked on the wrong side of the street and was about to get towed. And when winter came, I’d look at my neighbors excavating their buried hoopties from a snowbank and think, “Suckers!”
Largely because my daily commute from East Boston consisted of a mere walk to the T, and because my bachelor lifestyle revolved mostly around an assortment of downtown watering holes, it took a while before things began to go to pieces. The train went pretty much everywhere I needed to go in order to survive, and I could grab the makings for dinner at my neighborhood market. And if a cute redhead with a smorgasbord of progressive buttons on her messenger bag happened to compliment me on my environmental awareness, well, it didn’t matter why my carbon emissions had plummeted, did it?
But slowly, my world shrunk. What had been a 20-minute drive to visit friends on the far side of the Charles or across Mass. Ave. was now an hour-plus schlep requiring at least two train lines and a bus. Which meant I wound up seeing a lot less of them. And those romantic, oh-so-European daily trips to the neighborhood market for fresh produce quickly became a price-gouging hassle. Leaving the city wasn’t worth the trouble of booking a rental car or hitching a ride with generous friends, so everything outside the 617 area code suddenly resembled the fringes of a centuries-old map inscribed “Uncharted Territories.”
As for those supposed car-ownership replacements? Ha! Zipcar is great for a trio of Fenway-dwelling Berklee students making the occasional Ikea run, but costs become prohibitive for regular users, and the need to return cars to central parking spots can make it more of an ordeal than taking the bus. Meanwhile, with four seasons that feature everything from blizzards and high winds to torrential rain and thunderstorms, bicycles are more a means of recreation than transportation for anyone who has to wear actual pants, let alone a suit, to work.
Here’s the truth: Going car-free is considerably easier if you are happy spending a relative fortune to rent a small apartment in an ultra-high- density neighborhood; enjoy one of a limited number of well-paying jobs in a downtown office; rarely need to move anything larger than a week’s supply of Lean Cuisine frozen dinners; and are happy within the confines of your neighborhood. Just imagine commuting from Dorchester to an office park on Route 128, or wrangling two children and a week’s worth of groceries onto a bus, which many less-well-off Bostonians do. Only a few neighborhoods — mostly Beacon Hill and the Back Bay — have the density to support the kind of mass-transit network and local retail presence to make car ownership largely irrelevant the way it is in Manhattan. No, in Boston, a voluntary carless lifestyle is only realistic for the young and childless with the luck of working at a well-paying job near a T stop. In short: yuppies. They’re the very same people who subscribe to locavorism and sneer that food in this country is far too cheap, but have no clue what it’s like to raise a family in a dodgy neighborhood or take the bus to a low-paying job across the city.
Needless to say, I was more than thrilled when my business finally took off last year and I was able to go out and buy some wheels. And no, I didn’t opt for a gas-guzzling eight-cylinder Ford F-150 with a gun rack and a collection of anti-Obama bumper stickers. I bought a sporty little Miata, for two simple reasons: It’s easy to wedge into small parking spaces and corners harder than a Green Line trolley. It’s the perfect city car.
The day I picked it up, I zipped over to Union Square for dinner with an old friend. It took 15 minutes, not an hour. Our conversation naturally focused on the new places I could now visit, all the quirky small retailers scattered around the fringes of the city (specialty barware!), and the jaunts up and down the coast. No longer hitched to the vagaries of the T or the availability of Zipcars, I knew the world was once again my bivalve.
It wasn’t cars that devastated cities, but urban planners with a terminal excess of confidence in their own genius. The midcentury notion that the world ought to be segregated into vast tracts of exclusively residential, commercial, or industrial zones linked by multilane highways is now rightly regarded as a radical and myopic shift from how cities previously grew — slowly and organically, boasting a combination of homes and businesses. Livable cities are, above all else, places where people can pursue the sort of life they want, and for the vast majority of people, that includes a car.
The morning after my trip to Union Square, I was just as delighted to once again get to work by walking out my front door and down the street to the T stop. Public transit is a boon of city living, and frankly, trying to commute in this city is madness. But now that I’m also armed with car keys, I can, and will, go far beyond the limits of my neighborhood.
Now, please excuse me. I think I hear a street sweeper coming….