A year of car-free living

Living without a car just got a little easier. I bought a bike three days ago. Although I took it for a short inaugural ride that evening, I couldn’t break it in yet. I didn’t have time to go far, since it was nearing dusk and I was without lights and locks. Yesterday, after work, I picked up the critical accessories and went for a ride as soon as possible. It served a semi-practical purpose this time: getting me to a coffee shop (what else?) a couple of miles away. I don’t know if it would have taken much longer to get there by bus and foot. It really doesn’t matter, because time flies when you’re on a bike. When cold weather began arriving last fall I resigned myself to running every errand via bus or foot. Both modes can be frustratingly slow. During summer, as my former roommate put it, “Biking is the only way to get around.”

It has been a year since I sold my car and bought my first adult bike. The 12-year-old car had been leaking all kinds of fluids, becoming more trouble than it was worth. Judging by the price I got for it on Craigslist, it wasn’t worth much. That was April 2008. I was planning to move to Portland in a couple months and I figured it would be relatively easy to live there without a car. Being car-free in Arcata wasn’t so bad after I got a bike. It’s a pretty compact little town. My commute was about three-and-a-half miles, which felt like a long distance for someone who’d been away from cycling for a while and had never ridden among traffic. On my mountain bike, I was pathetically slow. It took me about 30 minutes each way. My legs felt gelatinous after I got to the office and had to walk up a flight of stairs. I was proud, though, to finally be a part of the bike-commuter crowd.

When I moved to Portland, I got familiar with the transit system right away. I needed to look for a job. Traveling by bus to get to interviews, I imagine it might have taken me longer than the average person to land employment if I hadn’t been hired for the second job I interviewed for. To get to work from my home in North Portland, it took an hour on the bus. It was aggravating, but I settled in and got used to it. After all, it’s what I chose for myself. Currently my commute is about 40 minutes there, and an hour back.

I’ve never relied so heavily on my legs simply to get around.  I’ve never had to put so much effort into planning and scheduling everyday activities. (When I consider making a stop on the way home from work, I think carefully about how much time I want to spend, and whether there will be places to eat nearby if I get too hungry to wait for the bus ride home.) Mostly, I’ve grown accustomed to the inconvenience. It’s probable that I’m saving money by not having a car, and that is a consideration, but I choose not to focus on monetary factors when I think about costs vs. benefits. It matters less than the loss of convenience; it also matters less than than the benefits to my health and lifestyle.

The greatest thing I’ve gained from being car-free is an appreciation for my surroundings. In a car it’s easy to see a lot of things in a short span of time, but how many things would you stop to examine? Wandering and exploring on foot (or on bike) keeps me in touch with the world at a neighborhood scale. It lets me soak up the vibrancy of a street—to feel the pace and volume at which life happens there. I can stop any place within seconds, and when I move on I don’t have to slam doors and ignite an engine that kills every sound I’d been enjoying the moment before. I can slow down to check out something that catches my interest without having to find a parking space, and without being smashed from behind. There’s a certain kind of freedom gained, even as other freedoms and flexibility are lost.

Since it is time-consuming to stray very far from my neighborhood, or my home-to-work route, there are many parts of Portland and surrounding areas I haven’t seen yet. Rental cars and Zipcars are essential for some excursions. Even the various districts of Portland seem far from one another when I have to wait for a bus or two to get out there. When I do go exploring, it can feel—in the best possible way—like taking a day trip to a different town. (In the case of Sellwood or St. Johns, that other town is small.) I wonder if I would appreciate the variety of Portland as much as I do if I could access any part of it, by car, at any time. And although my life isn’t driven by concerns of health and fitness, I know that walking and cycling are doing me a lot of good. It’s killing three birds with one stone: getting from Point A to Point B, exercising, and seeing the world. The personal benefits of riding transit are less impressive, I admit, except for the lack of stress from piloting your own vehicle through traffic.

If having my own car will make it easier to take hiking and camping trips, then I probably will get one someday. I’m not naive. Also, I like to drive. But I want this stretch of car-free living to continue for a while. As long as I live in a walkable city with good bus coverage, it’s a lifestyle worth adapting to.

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