Low automobile usage can mean fewer miles traveled, fewer trips taken by car, or just less time spent inside of one. We all get to define it for ourselves based on our motivations. Some people strive to save money. For them, fewer miles - and less of that $3.98 per gallon gas - may be the incentive. Others hate feeling boxed up inside of a machine or are scared of erratic drivers and have no patience for traffic jams. Limiting the time spent driving might be their motivator. Then there are folks who are inspired to live an earth-friendlier life. Any of these metrics could apply to them.
But me, my motivation is freedom. It might seem counter-intuitive here in the United States, where open roads and a Ford convertible symbolize youth and liberation. My low-car flame was sparked when I was 12 – too young to drive - and I saw it as just the opposite: a burden. Riding in a car made me dependent on things outside of my control.
If Mom drove me to softball practice, it meant waiting for her to get home after work. Getting a ride meant pacing impatiently, being late and missing warm-ups. It meant corralling my baby sister and strapping her writhing body into a seatbelt (I grew up before children’s car seats), then suffering her flailing limbs and stinky diaper as I sat next to her in the car. It meant listening to the inevitable bickering between my two teenage sisters, if per chance Mom had chosen to combine my drop-off with delivering Shawn to ballet class and Liz to a friend’s house.
Luckily, softball practice was held at a playground only a mile away from my house. I discovered early on the many benefits of using my own two legs to get there. They far outweighed the traditional benefits of driving.
One – I got to leave when I was ready, not when the last slowpoke in our 7-member family finally dragged herself off the couch, fished her missing shoe out from behind the TV and remembered everything she needed for whatever endeavor she was off to.
Two – Being a stickler for punctuality, I arrived early and stayed off the coach’s naughty-list, simultaneously reaping the full rewards that warm-up drills, gossip and brown-nosing had to offer.
Three – I could vary my route to pass conveniently by the house of whichever boy I had a crush on that week. Fantasy chance-meetings filled my head as I calculated the timing with the highest probability of me passing his front door at exactly the same moment he stepped out. I would imagine our interaction. Him: “Oh, Hi Cathy, What brings you around this neighborhood?” Me (innocently): “Oh, me? Shucks, I was just going to softball practice!” Him (suspiciously): “Doesn’t your team practice at that park 3 miles from here? Are you lost? This is the third time I’ve seen you walk by this hour.” Me: “Uhhh…well…ummm….”
Four – I got to be outside, in Portland, in the summertime – what could be better than that?
Five – I usually ran to practice. Running built my muscles and endurance and made me a healthier kid. And I killed two birds with one stone, combining transportation and exercise. My teammates thought I was weird. They would ask me why I ran everywhere. “It’s just like walking, but faster,” I said. Truly, running to softball practice as a 12-year old set the stage for a lifetime of fitness and multi-tasking.
As a kid, eschewing the car when possible served as an important building block of growing up for me. The number of engagements I attended on my own slowly grew. I ventured out from our house, the centerpoint of larger and larger circles, and my arsenal of transportation choices grew to include a bike, Tri-Met and occasionally two roller skates. By transporting myself to important events, I learned responsibility and planning and I got to know my city in walkable chunks. My mom was relieved of some of the hardship of ferrying yet another kid around. But best of all, getting around without a car – or a grown-up - brought independence.
As my sisters waited around for our softy father to drive them to school, I stuck my nose in the air and walked, whatever the weather. It became a point of pride that I could take care of my own travel needs. As I hit my teens, I found myself easily running home at midnight after underage house-parties, 6 beers in my gut and flip-flops on my feet. Being self-reliant allowed me to avoid the high-school drama of begging friends for a ride and the shame of having my mom, decked out in curlers and bathrobe, pick me up from the scene of the illicit gathering. Sucking air as I ran converted my beer-breath to a natural, fresh-air scent and the wind whipping through my hair cleansed away any lingering clove-cigarette smoke. It also sobered me up a bit. Most important, however, was the fact that I never once had to ride home with a drunk teenager.
Of course, I never lived completely free of cars. Like most young people, I bought one for myself as a college student. Cars are very useful when you live 2 hours from Mom’s Thanksgiving dinner or when you get the urge to go to Mexico for the weekend. But something about my experience as an adolescent had set. Cars meant gas and repairs, tickets and parking spots. Driving felt like schlepping a large backpack into a crowded party – I always had to arrange for the car’s safekeeping (and pay for it). Although the car carried me to where I wanted to go, I felt the mental weight of it pressing down on me as if it were I doing the hauling.
Those rudimentary lessons from when I was a child still color my attitude and my lifestyle choices today. Yes, I drive. But whenever I can escape the burdens of bringing along my 2-ton, 4-door anchor, I choose another way. I choose freedom.