True convenience and independence come on two wheels, not four!
I'm a city girl, an urban woman, a person who likes to live within walking or cycling distance of all of my day to day needs. Up until a few months ago I had never owned a car. Let me be clear: I'm 37 years old, and I grew up in that bastion of fossil foolishness, the land-eating giant, that endless sprawl of suburban hell--Calgary, Alberta.
My parent's house is in the near-burbs built in the early 60's and only a few minutes by car to the downtown core. As a child, I bicycled every night, even into the dead of winter until it got too cold or too dangerous. I was free: exploring alleyways and careening down steep grassy hills, teaching myself how to hop onto sidewalks and navigate the steepest, curviest trails of nearby Edworthy Park. Sometimes in junior high I would get up really early on a Sunday to ride downtown, flying straight down the middle of the three lane road, perhaps pausing on a deserted off-ramp to enjoy the sunrise over the city. Then I would ride around the office towers...road to sidewalk and back again, enjoying the thrill of being somewhere I should not be. It was fun. It was dangerous. It was the closest to church I've ever been.
Two of my three best friends had cars by the time we were in twelfth grade. By that point I was already a dedicated cyclist--an oddity by their (and most other Calgarian) standards. I remember one of them laughing while pointing to a picture in a Sociology or Psych text of a lone kid on a BMX bike on the sloped concrete side of the L.A. River. It was being used as an example of typical sociopathic behavior. Our friendship didn't last.
When I moved out after university, I rode to work at my soul-sucking office job downtown. I have packed countless loads of groceries, laundry, and recycling. I have been a bike courier and experienced the violent jealousy of motorists and bus-drivers who know they "own" the road. I still ride for fun. I've never stopped riding. My bike has always been the instrument of freedom, the safest way home, the best therapy.
I have been more self-sufficient than most people I know. I have commuted to work and school in all seasons and all weather, which in Canada sometimes means -30 degrees. Thanks to my frugal lifestyle, and my bike, I have been able to travel to Europe, Asia, and Central America. I have experienced the amazing thrill of cycling in Beijing, where the critical mass of bicycles sometimes obeyed the traffic signals but more often did not. I have lived in and traveled to places many people will only ever dream of. In Europe I learned how possible and preferable it can be to live a whole lifetime unshackled, in a place where bikes are respected and transit systems actually work. From the age of 24 to 34 I was completely debt-free, yes debt free! How was this possible? I'm a cyclist not a motorist. This has become startlingly clear to me now that I actually own a car.
I never really wanted one so how did I end up with one?
It was a gift. Literally. A good friend of mine sold it to me for a dollar. He was concerned for my safety. (He's a cop.) He is, like most people, also convinced that it would make my life so much more "convenient." I justified it to myself because I was tired of borrowing other people's cars to buy necessities that can only be found in the heinous big box stores in the burbs. (I live in the urban core of another Canadian city that has been nearly destroyed by brand-name imperialism.) Car Insurance was cheaper than I ever would have believed. It's a Toyota, a Standard, so more fuel-efficient than most. I have sworn only to use it when absolutely necessary, when I will carry at least one passenger, when I have no other viable means of transport. I have kept to these rules most of the time.
What I didn't realize is how much of my identity has been wrapped up in being a cyclist. What I did not realize was how deeply entrenched the auto-addiction is, how pervasive and persuasive to even me, a person who has been resisting consumerism and limited thinking her whole life.
I realized the incredible depths of the Big Lie that cars are convenient, liberating, a sign of true adulthood and, best of all, "independence"! This has become especially clear with a few feet of snowfall and then a brief thaw. With temperatures hovering around zero the unplowed roads are giant slurpee's on top of a foot of hard-packed ice. Cars are getting bogged down everywhere. Strangers help each other out, it's touching.
People complain about not being able to get out of their own driveways to get to work. The city has blown the $3.5 million snow removal budget, and it's only the first week of December! Last time I tried to get my car out of the parking lot it took the help of 4 people to move the car 8 feet. This is the opposite of independence.
Having known the true independence of hopping on my bike whatever the weather, and getting wherever I have to go with almost no hassle and zero expense, it was a shock to learn just how inconvenient and debilitating car-culture is, and how inured most of us have become to the multiple sufferings of car-ownership. In the brief time I have own this car the obvious cons are outnumbering the pros.' My Toyota now seems like an expensive, irresponsible indulgence, a greedy, surly beast crouched among the mucky snowdrifts.
I am not sure how much longer my rationalizations can last....