Carless in America… the end of an era

In the modest restaurant Dzib in the Centro Historíco of Mexico City, on a street that is part of a “superblock” closed to traffic, there is a painting of a punk kid with a sledgehammer in his hands who has leapt on top of a car. The meaning is clear, privately owned vehicles are an invasive species, and should be eliminated from the city’s center. I lived nearby for three years, but not on a superblock. Instead, I was awakened every morning by the blaring horns of cars and trucks stuck in gridlock right below my balcony. Many were the same commuters every day, I got to recognize them, and they me as I yelled “callate idiotas, la gente vive aquí!” That did little good, or the signs I affixed to lamp poles with an X over a horn graphic. These residents of one of the most populous cities on earth were enraged by the traffic, but oblivious to their own willful participation in creating it, even though a very efficient subway was right below their feet, not to mention the red metro buses in dedicated lanes whizzing by their noses. The honking continued all day as did the polluting exhaust, shortening my life by months, maybe years, and interfering with the concentration of hundreds of kids in a school just a few buildings down. It was all so unnecessary, after all, one couldn’t just ride a horse into the city willy-nilly, so why an automobile?     

Moving back to the United States, to spend time with my fading elderly parents, I decided to give the carless life a go. My hometown of Tucson is a city that epitomizes urban sprawl, where the conventional wisdom is one has to have a car. The main logistical problem was my parents lived 40 minutes away from where I was staying downtown. Fortunately, during the week, a bus came by every fifteen minutes that could deliver me to a stop about a 20-minute walk from their house, but due to Tucson’s extreme summer heat and my worn-out hip, there was no way I could routinely walk that final distance. I would need a bicycle. 

My aversion to owning an automobile was quite different a quarter century past, when I had last lived in Tucson. Having been carless in Madrid, where an excellent bus and metro system made getting around easy, I still missed the freedom of driving one’s own car. Within a week of my return, I bought a ‘69 Mercury Montego with a gas guzzling V8, and air-conditioning so powerful you could hang meat inside. Depressed and detoxing from a dope habit, I spent days just driving around, trying to figure out my increasingly unmanageable life. The bright red beast centered me, taking me out to the Sonoran desert to reflect and heal, the saguaros welcoming me back like weird loving ancestors from my childhood.  

When my Barcelona born and bred wife finally joined me, she learned to drive in that car. Thinking me a bad driver (there had been a few teenage “incidents”), my mother paid for my wife to take driving lessons from Sears. After the five session package ended, the smitten instructor begged my ex to keep taking lessons, and I had to grab the phone and tell him to get lost. Still, I could not blame him in the least, poor bastard, cars and desire go together like ice cream and pie. Generations got their first job, their first kiss, their first sense of real freedom from owning a car. Yes, the automobile served a vital role in post-war America, it captured our dreams and desires, kept the economy humming, created a suburbia designed around it. Surely this love affair would last forever…  

Well, no. Back in the late aughts, something strange started to happen. All over the country, teenagers no longer rushed to get their driver licenses at 16. Their smartphones took them places a car could not, and when one was needed, well there’s an app for that. Meanwhile, their parents were abandoning their homes in the suburbs, moving to urban inner cores transformed by gentrification. People had become sick of commuting, dealing with road rage and construction delays, ordering meals at drive-thru windows instead of cooking at home. The Jane Jacobs ideal of a local nabe that provides day-to-day personal needs on just a few city blocks was back in fashion, even in car-centric western cities like Denver and Phoenix. Growing more popular by the day, AmazonFresh and Peapod shopped for you, saving time and carbon emissions with multiple orders delivered by one large vehicle, the bus model. Uber and Lyft were reducing DUI’s and decreasing the need for parking around restaurants, bars, and sports venues. Like it or not, the personal car was fast becoming a vestigial hindrance, no different than a landline or a cable subscription, the modern horse and buggy.     

Logically, bicycles are a big part of this new reality, and have largely escaped the ideology wars. Tucson, mostly flat in a valley surrounded by mountains, had made significant commitments facilitating their use. A bike-share network was introduced along with a 131-mile bike trail circumnavigating the main urban area. Bike-friendly streets were designated where cars are reminded to share the road. A bizarrely controversial street trolley allows bikes onboard, connecting the University of Arizona to downtown and on to the west side. Public buses all sport front racks accommodating two bikes, sometimes three. Yes, a carless existence was more than possible in Tucson, now I just needed to find my steed.  

On Craigslist, a pair of old Dutch 3-speeds caught my eye, but with my bad hip I was only interested in the women’s step-through. When I saw both bikes together, and heard the widow’s story of them being wedding presents shipped to Cleveland 40 years prior, my heart melted. I bought them both and promised the gracious lady they would stay together forever, as she had with her beloved late husband. Early the next morning, I affixed a green Shamrock milk crate to the one, and pedaled over to the Santa Cruz River bike path that would deliver me to a grocery store close by. The dry wash was flowing again with semi-treated effluent, it smelled kinda funky, but it looked pretty and symbolized that things could change for the better. The numerous birds and critters along the trail reminded me that the future doesn’t have to be the bleak dystopian hell technophobes predict, that if we stay involved and engaged good things can happen, but we can’t just hand it all off to someone else to fix, we have to do our part.   

At this point, it’s important to note that I’m no biking geek. I can count all the bicycles I’ve ever owned on one hand, and have never worn the spandex jerseys and padded shorts favored by some enthusiasts. I’m just a regular dude, who has no real mission outside of simplifying my life, and not contributing to the further poisoning of the planet. I’m also cheap, and relatively poor income-wise. The bus-to-bike to parent’s house worked well for a few months, until my mother insisted that I use her car, which she no longer drove. It had been an extraordinarily hot summer, climate change making 105° the new 100°, and in a moment of weakness I agreed. Relapse is not only for drug addicts, it happens to carbon consumers as well.  

That first week with a car, I noticed I was getting more stressed out and less empathetic. The bus I’d been taking goes by a park full of homeless people, and I had  gotten used to their presence. A few brought all their worldly possessions on board daily, just to ride a few blocks to a shelter or food pantry. Most seemed to be everyday people, and would share water and food amongst themselves, a real community. Now, safely detached in a car, I would see them at an intersection begging, or in the park sleeping in the shade, and I felt less pity. They became passing scenery, an unfortunate turn of events, but hey, let’s just turn the dial and listen to another station. The bus made me connect and think, and feel grateful for the things I have. The car kept me on edge and impatient, why was I in such a hurry anyway? Where exactly was I going?  

The rules of the road had changed as well. Bumper stickers had largely disappeared, most drivers too frightened to publicly display their feelings. Arizona Highway Patrol are trained to expect half the vehicles they stop to have a loaded weapon inside. That was plenty good reason to not make eye contact and stay in your lane, heaven forbid you accidentally cut someone off and wind up on the news, another casualty of car culture. People running red lights seemed to be the norm, and the streets were full of pick-ups and SUV’s whose design and function were completely at odds. What the hell was going on?        

Financially, I was also spending twice as much on getting around. Gas alone was running me a hundred bucks a month, a paltry sum compared to what my friends in Europe were paying, but for me a lot of dough. Having a car also increased the likelihood of impulse buying. I would pass a thrift store, turn around and buy a few shirts I didn’t need along with a cool knick-knack or two. Why? Sure, I could now buy groceries at the cheapest chain, but it took gas to get there, and did I really want price to determine everything? I used to joke that I was the kind of consumer who would waste a half-tank of gas to save 10 bucks on a new pair of sneakers. It was all so wasteful. I preferred the simplicity of my bike’s limitations, a basket on the back that could only carry so much. If I was buying more than it could hold, well, I was just over-consuming.  

After my parents died, my siblings encouraged me to keep the car, but instead I drove it out to California to give to a niece, soon to turn 16. She lived in the exurbs of SoCal, outside a little town called Acton, just north of LA. Although my movie-business cowboy brother stabled horses at his ranchito, she would need a car to get around. Eager to escape the heat, I first headed to La Jolla to enjoy a few days on the ocean. My motel was a former Travelodge, located just a 10-minute walk from La Jolla Cove. After parking in the motel’s lot, the car did not move for three days. With my limitations, the stroll down to the water was painful, but at least I wasn’t driving around looking for a parking space. There was the option of riding one of the dockless scooters scattered around town, but instead I limped along cursing and groaning, recommitting to getting my hip replaced. Mobility is freedom, and I no longer took it for granted.  

For provisions, there was a Vons nearby with a cool old diner across the street. I made a mental note that a car was simply not needed for any subsequent trips to the beach, maybe I’d even bring a helmet and try the scooters. Kept off of sidewalks, they certainly could be part of the solution, even with the rocky reception they’ve received in progressive cities like Austin and Portland. People resist change, it’s why conservatism exists, the fear of the unknown and the longing for an idealized past that never was. Liberals can be stubborn too, and illiberal in considering new ideas and projects if it means personal sacrifice for the greater good. This dying planet needs help, we’re all going nowhere fast, gridlock the metaphor for a polarized world that can’t even agree on which questions should be asked, much less what the answers are. I’d grown tired of the bickering, preferring to live my beliefs in the time I have left on this wondrous planet. A large sea lion in the cove reminded me of a certain someone, constantly braying and protecting his turf. It wasn’t easy to ignore his obnoxiousness, but I managed to block him out by concentrating on more pleasing sights and sounds. We do have a choice, every day, on how to interpret the world.      

Sunburned but happy, I reluctantly checked out to complete my mission. Then reality hit. It took almost as long to drive 150 miles to Acton, as it did the 400 miles from Tucson to San Diego. First a truck accident on I-5 near Camp Pendleton, followed by what the autobahn dependent Germans call staus (traffic jams) all the way to LA. Finally, the GPS gal suggested I hop over Angeles National Forest to reach my destination, avoiding the jammed San Fernando Valley. It was a scenic but dangerously snakey route, and when I finally reached my brother’s place after a five-hour drive, handing over the car keys in exchange for a cold beer was the easiest thing in the world.  

The next morning, over a hardy diner breakfast, my brother explained that Acton was losing folks to Idaho and Texas because of rising property taxes, and the county meddling in zoning and whatnot. This horse country, where many a classic western had been shot, would soon be just another suburb, the endless sprawl of LA made possible by cars. Dropping me off at Acton’s cute little western-themed train depot, I caught the Metrolink train that chugged through beautiful little canyons and gullies, the California of old, all the way to Union Station. The packed double-decker passenger train crawled through the lovely first section, then picked up speed through the San Fernando Valley, and on to downtown. Near Burbank, scores of dilapidated RV’s could be seen parked on side streets near the tracks and freeway, with forlorn looking folks hanging outside trying to stay cool. Back in Tucson, I myself was living in a ‘72 Winnebago, ensconced behind an old duplex owned by friends. The difference was my air-conditioned RV had a nice adobe brick patio with a flat-screen TV, along with a hard-plumbed toilet and shower. Out the window, I could see the small details of marginalized lives: laundry hanging to dry, a man crushing cans to take to a recycling center, two kids throwing a frisbee. Yes, these were real living people, not quite shelterless but close, and I could easily have been one of them without caring friends and a lucky break or two along the way. If you think it can’t happen to you, you’re not paying attention.  

At a very busy Union Station, I followed my phone out the back exit to a parking lot in front of bail bond offices where I would catch a bus to Tucson. Flixbus is a German company offering cheap fares to specific markets. The bright green buses had nice seats, wifi, clean bathrooms, everything you think Greyhound is not. I had grown to love bus travel in Mexico, where aggressive companies offering nice amenities had knocked the corruptly run passenger trains right out of business. I was eager to see how Flixbus compared, the price was right at 35 bucks, but the bus was late and made too many stops, including 30 minutes in hellish Blythe, along with a superfluous stop in Tempe after just being at a Valley Metro Rail station downtown. You can’t have it all, Flixbus would have to tweak their schedules to attract more mainstream customers. Still, it was a valid option to driving or flying, both hard on the planet, and increasingly impossible to do in a pleasant fashion. Fortunately, travel as we know it will soon change for the better, guaranteed.  

As a traveling musician for most of my adult life, I welcome automation and the death of the private, personally owned car. The idea of getting into a vehicle and not having to drive, or watch someone else drive, is extremely appealing. Short-haul flying will also be affected, who wants to suffer through endless security at airports, only to fly in tortuous staph-infected planes, when one could just relax in a designed for comfort passenger vehicle for a few hours? I’m guessing all flights under four hours will get less business as self-driving cars flourish. If you believe this is fifty years away, think again. The smartphone changed the world in a decade, electric driverless smart cars will do the same, and force communities to rethink and transform parking lots, strip malls, and streets now choked with privately owned vehicles taking up space and resources. Instead, corporate-owned subscription-based vehicles will be constantly moving, communicating to each other and the streetscape itself, profoundly reducing accidents with their attendant injuries and death. When not in service, they’ll return to a vertical or underground maintenance/storage facility to get them back in use as quickly as possible. Yes, I hear you laughing, like they did back in 1900 when that first car came chugging down the road. Just you wait... 

In a city like Tucson, self-driving automobiles could reduce the amount of paved surfaces greatly, thus mitigating the heat island effect that currently plagues car-based cities in the West. It’s a second chance to get the zoning right, to beautify our public spaces, to plant trees in those empty parking lots, and get us all moving again in a most positive way. Will the transition be easy? Of course not, our personal identities are wrapped up in our cars, just as guns are for so many. The 1st Amendment will inevitably be invoked as the car being a means of expression, and a right of liberty. Will you still be able to own a private vehicle if you want one? Sure, but it must play well with others, and pretty much be stabled outside of urban areas like one would do today with a horse. My analogy is deliberate, it will be like owning a horse, where the two best days are the day you buy it, and the day you sell it. 

Now I know what you’re thinking, corporate owned vehicles that one summons like an Uber or Lyft? Aren’t they bad enough? Yes, but we already are consumerist slaves to our corporate-built cars that require corporate insurance, corporate fuel, corporate parts, on and on. The ultra-rich are buying safe harbors in New Zealand, or eyeing Mars, they know what’s happening. It’s gonna be up to the rest of us to change our habits and get this planet breathing again. After all, every purchase is a political act, but also every non-purchase. My love affair with the privately owned car is over; it’s been an intense and interesting era full of adventures, mishaps, and magic, but we all know every road trip has to end.   

        

           

  

   

 

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