Hell Yeah, I Love My Car

The anti-car movement needs to get off its high bicycle and accept a simple fact — living in Boston without a car sucks.

Illustration by Shout

Illustration by Shout

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….

  • Pete

    Probably one of the most self-serving, fact-denying and irresponsibly combative articles I’ve read in a long time. And coming after the most vulnerable users on the road. For shame. Colin, why come after the cyclists when clearly you were transit bound before you bought your car? You obviously are not aware that a bike is far faster than a car in the city, and opens up your world so much more! On a bike, you can stop and say hi to a friend, stop anywhere you like because parking is easy to find. In a car, parking can take 20 minutes. Thank you, however, for expressing the argument for a healthier city before expressing the reasons for your own selfish choices.

  • John

    On the topic of myopia: Loved it when you said that it wasn’t cars that devastated cities only to conclude that it was rather car-centered planning—because surely that’s a worth-while distinction.

  • Jay

    And kudos for telling us what’s up from behind the wheel of your exceedingly feminine sports coupette. That cyclist-crushing pregnant rollerskate can handle almost twice the cargo of most bicycle baskets, so you’ve already made your point right there. And hey, Corky Romano busted heads for the CIA while whipping one, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Is it pink?

    Seriously, you’ve really made it now. You’re right to crap all over cyclists and Zipcar lusers.

  • Karen

    As someone who has made the decision to go car-free, I am having a bit of an identity crisis. Since my “voluntary carless lifestyle” has actually made my life easier, simpler, and less expensive, I must be a clueless yuppie with a well-paying job. Hmm, that doesn’t sound quite right. I do use Zipcar, so perhaps I am a “Fenway-dwelling” hipster? Or a helmet-wearing, bell-ringing bicyclist? Sneering “locavore”? Despite my inability to characterize myself according to these narrow stereotypes, I am happy with my decision to forgo car ownership at this point in my life. I for one have never found the experience of supporting local businesses and farmers rather than my local Shaw’s to be a “price-gouging hassle”, and appreciate the convenience and cost-effectiveness of using Zipcar.
    My favorite line in this article has to be that referring to the carless Bostonians who “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.” While it is unclear what point was supposed to be made here, I am wondering exactly how many of these people were actually consulted prior to writing this article. If the author…

  • Karen

    …had done some actual research rather than relying on unfounded assumptions as the basis for his arguments, he might have discovered that many of these people in fact do not own cars (whether due to choice or circumstance). And I’m guessing they would consider those who insist that car ownership is the only way and that there is no reason to invest in or promote alternative forms of transportation to be a much bigger threat than those of us who have made a personal choice not to own a car.
    I would also love to know the basis for the assertion that the “vast majority” of people require a car to “pursue the sort of life they want”. Funny, I seem to know quite a few people living an entirely non-sucky life without a car. Additionally, most of us do not in fact spend our carless commutes judging and scorning people who choose or need to rely on cars to get them where they need to go. Maybe if the author of this article stopped judging, stereotyping, and attacking everyone around him for 5 minutes, he would realize that the fact that people find him to be arrogant, ignorant, and obnoxious…

  • Savvy

    Haters haters everywhere.

    I concur, Colin.

  • Mea

    Now you have the best of both worlds. I have to admit, I too take the commuter rail and T to and from work but on my weekends I enjoy my vehicle. Yes, the city is great but getting out of it to see friends, family and go shopping is also nice. -Mea http://www.hertrainstories.blogspot.com

  • April

    I recently made the choice to go carless for several reasons. My car had 140k on it had become quite the money pit and between the stress of driving and parking, I was ready for a break. While yes it does take longer to go places my quality of life has not diminished. I am within a 5 minute walk of a T stop and buses that will take me anywhere. Also have zipcars very close too. I’m not exactly sure what the point of this article was. Having a car and being carless both have advantages. I wouldn’t say one is that much better than the other as long as you live close to public transportation. I think we can all agree that the cyclists are the worst. Hated by both drivers and non drivers alike.

  • Mark

    I live in the suburbs, work in Boston. I drive in because my employer provides parking and taking public transportation from my neighborhood would require long bus rides and/or a long commuter rail ride followed by the subway and then a bus. I am not against people riding their bikes safely and obeying traffic laws, and i am strongly in support of expanding the T, but the reality is that cars are a necessity for some people and we shouldn’t be removing traffic lanes and parking spots to accommodate bikes, and bicyclists should obey traffic laws, which they do not. I see them run red lights and cut out in front of cars every day, as well as ride their bikes far enough from the curb to cause traffic to worsen becaue people have to slow down to try to avoid hitting the bike riders. I don’t doubt that riding a bike around the city has its advantages, but having a car gets you out of the city and to any community in the area – or beyond – that you wish to visit. Cars are a necessity for many people, and the city should have planned better for…

  • Brian

    1) It takes me 45 mins to get to work by car. 25 mins to get to work by bike.

    2) When all the motorists are stopped at stop lights, I get to speed right past them and blow through the light. (Sure, it might be illegal, but so far I haven’t been caught, haven’t caused an accident, and I haven’t been killed.) You motorists are just jealous that bikers get away with breaking the rules and you don’t. We can get tickets just like you can, we just don’t. It’s not our fault that the cops look the other way. It’s awesome.

    3) NO PARKING TICKETS! Ever!

    4) Going to the front of the intersection each and every time! I know this really pisses you motorists off. Everyone wants to butt in the front of the line, but we’re the only ones skinny enough to ride in between the lanes and get up to the front. And we do only so that we can slow you down in between red lights, where you’ll have to stop while we yield and then cruise on through the red light without getting a ticket. SUCKERS!

    5) Bikers are sexier than car drivers. We just are…

  • Brian

    Continued…
    6) Riding all willy-nilly down the middle of the street. Not only is it super fun to take up a whole lane (which is much roomier on a bike than it is in one of those four-door metal boxes) but this way we don’t crash into all the cars illegally parked in the bike lane, or get doored by people who fail to look before getting out of their cars. It’s also really fun to ‘slow down traffic’ only to pass by the same cars over and over again on my commute due to ‘congested traffic’ that occurs even when there are no bikers in front of the cars. (Funny how city traffic can just be at a stand-still even when there is no biker to blame for it, huh?)

    But there is an issue where I think us bikers and you motorists can totally agree. And that is that PEDESTRIANS SUCK! Am I right? Whether you’re breaking the speed limit in your car on Tremont Street or running a red light on your bike in the Back Bay, those pedestrians are a real danger and have NO business crossing streets and slowing us down!!! We can at least agree on…

  • Brian

    Last one, I promise!

    …We can at least agree on that, right?

    So, until us bikers start obeying all the rules of the road like all you motorists do out there (I’ll ignore the number of auto-caused accidents vs. bike-caused accidents in order to not totally discredit your ‘bikes are dangerous’ safety argument.) let’s stop our bickering amongst each other and focus on the real problem: PEDESTRIANS.

    Once we get them off the road, then we can go head-to-head against each other, bike vs. car. May the best mode of transportation win!

  • .

    This is exactly what my husband does several times a week. And he prefers it to taking the car and sitting in traffic.
    As for getting out of town? We have a car, but prefer to take our bikes on those long trips out of the city. Cars are useful and convenient, but that doesn’t mean they should be the only way to get around.
    Also the indication that lower income families can’t afford the luxury of not owning a car? really? seriously?

  • Yahoo

    The author of this article is worthless (yes, that is a personal attack). His perspective is so obviously flawed, baseless, and immoral, that it is not worth a rational person’s time to criticize him. Instead it behooves me to admonish Boston magazine for deigning this drivel worthy of print. For shame.

  • Lucas

    sporty little Miata… dinner in Union square… quirky small retailers… What a yuppie.

  • Billy

    That is all. I really have no more words than that.

  • Erik

    “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.”

    Funny, that’s how I felt when I switched from the T to cycling for transportation. Try it!

  • James

    Has the author considered living near the places he wants to visit? Choosing to live in East Boston makes it a hassle to visit almost everywhere else Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Somerville, etc. regardless of mode of transport. Where else in Boston is (almost perfectly) isolated from the rest of town by water? The Blue Line is only convenient if your destination is the airport, Aquarium, or Government Center and the Sumner tunnel is open only to cars…

    Housing is much less expensive in East Boston for this reason.

  • Meg

    Obviously this guy didn’t really give biking a try. (I mean, have you seen his picture – he’s LARGE.) I’ve got a car too (for once in a while trips for work), but can’t wait to get rid of it. My bike is my main mode of transit. Add a basket and rack on the back and you can carry all your groceries easily. 1 hour bus trips have become 35 min bike trips. But mainly, it’s just way more fun.

  • hack

    The author clearly never tried cycling. All of the advantages that his new car offer are also advantages of cycling. Plus, no searching for parking or paying all those extra costs. Also, cars break as many laws as cyclists — just different ones. Ever seen a cyclist speeding?

  • Paul

    The comments here demonstrate the relentless liberal utopian attack on sensibility. Colin K. mentions what everybody already knows, i.e., if you don’t own a car you pay more for other services a

  • Peter

    This article is lame. I own a bike, car and charlie card. I like to transport myself using all 3 but my spouse needs the car to get to work. Living in Boston without a car IS NOT lame and dumping on all cyclists IS QUITE LAME because there are bad bikers AND drivers. Thanks for all the data you cited too.

  • Irishman

    Auto-bashing is a load of nonsense – and having heard all that bull for the last 20 years in Ireland, it’s just old and tired thinking. As you say, planning is the problem, not cars. What we need is integrated transport policy that uses the right tools for the job. As you say, cars have their uses, public transport has it’s uses, as does walking/cycling. We also need better planning and industry has to learn to spread out a bit so as to further shorten commuting distances.