Reflecting On 20 Months Of Car-Free Living

In September, I finally ditched 37 years of the single life and married my beautiful wife Amanda.

Twenty months prior to our wedding, my car stopped working.  Trust me, I’m going somewhere with this.

I had let my car dive into such a state of disrepair it would have cost a sizable chunk of money to fix it. So I did what any completely insane American would do and went car free for nearly two years, including two Rochester New York winters. We average just south of 90 inches of snow per year by the way.

I biked to and from work every day, rain, shine, snow, monsoon, blizzard, ice storm, 50mph wind and 95 degree heat with 100% humidity. I had the benefit of living in the city, and living only 5 miles from my work. My commute by bike was about 26 minutes, and I could easily reach downtown Rochester in 20. When necessary, I rode the bus, and occasionally took advantage of Uber and Lyft, which is relatively new to Upstate New York. And when I really needed a car, I utilized Zipcar, which is a wonderful service by the way.

I made a life out of the car free experience. I wrote about it, I encouraged others to try it, I connected with others who did the same. I wrote about the freeing feeling of saving money, living sustainably and getting regular exercise. I believed it. I still believe it.

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So back to my wedding. It was wonderful, everything I thought it could be and more. And what did my in-laws give me for a wedding gift?  My car… completely repaired and ready to drive again.  Their kindness and generosity was amazing.

The day I re-registered my vehicle was the end of the car-free period in my life.  Perhaps I will do it again sometime in the future… but as a wedding photographer that so often travels for work, having a car is realistically a practical requirement.  So what did I learn from my time without having immediate access to a vehicle?  Now, with the winter months upon us and a warm car readily available, I find myself looking back on a time when I had to keenly plan every move to account for weather, distance, clothing, destination and more.

It Was Hard

As much as I love to bike for transportation, to do it exclusively in a city built for cars that has about 6-7 months a year of decent weather is not easy.  It’s possible for sure, as I proved to myself and everyone else.  And I’m not the only one.  But don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy.  You have to constantly push yourself, think ahead, and sometimes, there are just things you can’t do.  Physically and mentally, you have to be 5 steps ahead, thinking about the weather forecast for the next few days and the tasks you need to accomplish in that time.  You have to know bus routes and times like the back of your hand.  You have to always make sure you have armaments that you never thought you would need on an every day basis… deodorant, bungee cords, bike lights that are charged and ready, rain gear… the list goes on and on.  You have to constantly maintain your bike, making sure it’s ready for that next trip.  You are in a constant state of mental and physical preparation, and it takes time to get into the rhythm of this.

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With all this being said, once you get in the habit, becomes second nature.  You know what you have to do and you do it.  Almost always, you can find a way to get to where you are going.  Furthermore, you don’t have to think about the things you think about with a car… gas, oil changes, keeping it clean, paying for it, etc.  There are certainly pros and cons to each.

Not Having A Car Takes Time

Biking takes a lot more time to get around than driving, especially in a city like mine that lacks the real density of a big city.  A 12-minute car ride to work was more than double that on a bike, which might not seem like much until you just need to sleep that extra few minutes in the morning, or finish that project before you head out the door.  It’s getting home at 5:10pm instead of 4:45pm, and not being able to make that big grocery run on the way home.

And if I wanted to take the bus?  Well, I start work at 8am, but the only bus combo that would get me there by then would leave at around 6am and arrive at 7am.  Yes, that’s an hour on the bus only to arrive an hour before work begins.  I could take a bus at 7am, but it would put me into work at 8:11am, and I can’t be late!  If I were to take the bus and arrive at my work on time, I would lose nearly 9 hours of my week over driving, and that’s just the morning commute!

Even when I rented a Zipcar, the nearest ones were a couple miles away.  It was still a bike ride or an Uber to the location, and back when I was done.  Just the added time of accessing a vehicle at the moment I needed it made life harder.

Say Goodbye To The Burbs

We are a suburban nation.  Whether you’re in favor of this or not, you simply can’t reliably get beyond the first ring suburbs without making a significant time and effort commitment when you ride a bike alone.  Transit service is erratic or nonexistent when connecting to these areas, so typically you’re out of luck. I have friends who have moved to the suburbs and quite honestly, I didn’t get to see them anywhere near as much when I didn’t have access to a car.

Honestly, I Feel Less Stress Now That I Have A Car Again

It’s true.  My mind is clearer, I can do more in less time, and I am more productive.  Sure, I’ve gained 5 pounds, but other than that, having a car again has been easier on my mind.  I am, in all honesty, happier with a car than without.

Before You Call Me A Sellout…

So why, after years of smearing the automobile, am I writing to tell you I am genuinely happier with one in my possession?

Because our cities, our suburbs and our country is still so staunchly and fervently hell-bent on building our economy, our homes, our employment and our entertainment around a single mode of transportation.  Sprawl and suburban expanse has caused even the heartiest of car-free enthusiasts to throw up their hands in defeat.  The modest token improvements to this construct such as road diets, bike lanes and improved transit routes don’t begin to tip the scale in the other direction.  While very much welcomed, this is still an America ruled by the automobile.

I’m not writing this to wave the white flag.  I’m not writing this to discourage anyone from making a stronger commitment to a better way of life… one that diminishes the need for a car.  My time without a car was one of the most important and eye opening periods of my life.  And even with a car, I will continue to bike to as many destinations as possible.

I’m writing this because more than 25% of the households of my city don’t own a car.  I now know and understand first hand how difficult it is to get to work in all weather conditions, access resources, even go to the bank.  For a significant percentage of our neighbors, not having a vehicle means that you essentially have a 5-8 mile radius around you that you can access.  And accessing these resources often takes hours of extra time every day… that’s time away from family, time you can’t get chores or errands completed.

There was a brief time when my work was considering a move outside of this radius for me… what would I have done if my car-free lifestyle wasn’t a choice?

And that’s just it.  I had the privilege of making the choice.  So many in our community must deal with the difficulties of living in a world unlocked only by cars and not having that key.  To make the choice for sustainable transportation takes strength, guts, patience, planning and ingenuity, and it’s still hard.  I can only imagine that having to do it by default is simply exhausting.

I encourage everyone to make better choices regarding how we move about our communities.  Walking, biking, taking public transit… use these whenever possible.  The more people there are like me that can afford to make the right choice, the more our cities and communities will build around multi-modal transportation options for everyone.  But when we continue to cling to a car-only America, we continue the narrative of generational poverty.

I will always recommend alternative transit over the use of the automobile. I will push against sprawl and advocate for the centralization of jobs, resources and affordable housing so that everyone in our community, regardless of their ability to make the car-free or “car-lite” choice, can have equal access. Until then, the knowledge I take away from my 20 months without a car is simple… we have created a country that is, for the most part, only practically accessible by the automobile. If you are unwilling or unable to conform to this model, life is extraordinarily more difficult.