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Counting the joys of a car-free lifestyle

By Steven Martin

It’s been a dream of mine since the family spent the summer in Berlin in 2007. We lived in an apartment in what used to be East Berlin for about seven weeks. During that time, we shopped and toured many of the great cities of Europe.

We flew into Cologne and rented a van to Berlin. After arriving in Berlin, we went the rest of the summer without a car.

Seven weeks. A family of six. No car, no driving.

Berlin is a city where no driving is completely possible and practical. The subway system is extensive; we were never more than about three blocks from a subway station. Ride, walk and boom! And if you need to go to another city or even another country, the trains could get you there quickly, conveniently and oh-so-comfortably.

When we got back to the states, getting in a car made me grumpy. Anytime I had to drive, I was ragey. It was just plain unfair to have to get in a car to travel anywhere.

I tried to ride my bike more, but that didn’t work. Distances were just too far, and the city was not laid out in a way that was conducive to bicycling. Walking was definitely out of the question, as business would take me to neighboring towns nearly every day. It just wasn’t fair.

So when I moved to Washington, D.C., almost three years ago, I realized that I had an opportunity. I haven’t owned a car since.

At first, it was difficult. I made a hobby out of figuring out how to do ordinary things. One of the first things I realized is that a car is like a giant purse: It holds all the things you need either here or there. Most of us carry an umbrella in our cars. Why? Because if we’re at work when it starts to rain, and our umbrella is at home, we’re in trouble. If it’s in the car, the problem doesn’t exist.

The grocery store was two blocks away from where I lived. I would get off the Metro from work and walk a block to the store, then two blocks home. My budget was not controlled by the money I had to spend, but rather by the weight of the things I would buy. Liquids weigh more and are, therefore, more difficult to take home. So I’d buy a half gallon of milk, rather than a full gallon. I would buy orange juice frozen in cans, instead of in a gallon pitcher. And I got used to wearing a backpack so I could carry groceries home more easily, even if it meant taking it empty to work and back.

One day I decided I’d go to Trader Joe’s after work. I rented a Capital Bikeshare bike, rode a mile to the store, packed up my groceries in a tight bundle that would fit in the basket, rode back and felt that I had conquered the world. If Advent is about light penetrating darkness and the hope of things unseen, then the surprise of unconventional living must be in there somewhere.

Little tasks started feeling like big accomplishments. I was getting the hang of it. Since then, I’ve discovered a few life lessons from living without a car:

  • My blood pressure is considerably lower because I spend no time asserting myself against other stressed-out drivers.
  • Driving everywhere in D.C. is more a failure of imagination than a necessity. Yes, the Metro is awful and is practically unusable on weekends, but there are buses, bikes and sidewalks. And, if one must, an hourly car rental, such as Car2Go, Uber or Lyft, is cheaper than car payments, parking fees and new tires.
  • If you’re able to live in a city, a car is optional. If you have kids and need suburban amenities, I get it: A car is a necessity.
  • Not having a car forces me to think through the day. I must check the weather forecast, pack my lunch, dress for a meeting and have a plan for dinner.
  • Sometimes a weekend event will require me to rent a car. Weekend rentals are cheap. When I have rented a car, a trip to Costco or to IKEA is almost a requirement.
  • When the doctor looks at me chagrined and asks, “Are you getting any exercise?” I can say, “Yes, I walk to work and ride my bike.” And he says, “Wow. OK, then.”

Alas, in the past three months, I’ve motorized my life again. I purchased a 50cc Yamaha scooter. It is a lot of fun, but in some ways feels like I’ve taken a step backward. I’m enduring traffic jams and having to exchange aggressive glances again with other drivers. For now, I’m enjoying the cool air and humming “like a true nature’s child, we were born, born to be wild,” while motoring through the streets of Capitol Hill. It’s not wrong.

Last weekend, I picked up my daughter at the airport in Baltimore. I rented an economy car from Budget in Union Station. Because it was the end of the day, they had run out of everything, except a brand-new red Camaro SS. For a day, I drove it as much as I could! It was AWESOME. But, by the end of the day, I was relieved to return it to the garage and get back to my simple, familiar, low-stress existence of car-free living.

It’s been almost three years, and I’ve survived without owning a car. Here’s to three more.

Steven Martin is director of Communications and Development at the National Council of Churches.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.