Based on what I’ve said, written, tweeted, etc., about cars, I seem to have cultivated the perception that I’m anti-car. I’m not. It would be more accurate to say that I’m simply not a fan of cars in the city.
I actually like certain cars very much, particularly older ones. My dream cars have always been a 1965 Ford Mustang GT (in black) or a 1964 Aston Martin DB5 (in silver). I think the Tesla Model S is fabulous and the Speedback from David Brown Automotive in the UK is sex on wheels. But living in a city, I just don’t need a car.
When I got rid of my last car in 1993, which was a fun 1989 Mustang convertible, I was living in Boston. By that time, I had accrued so many parking tickets that it became more of a burden than a luxury or even a necessity to keep the car. So I got rid of it. Since I was both living and working in Boston proper, which has a pretty good public transit system and had easy access to taxi services (this was pre-Uber), it became clear that having a car in the city was not only a pain in my ass but also unnecessary. It also helped that Boston is a beautiful town that makes walking a pleasure. A year later, I moved to New York, a city where having a car is not just impractical but downright ridiculous.
In my decades living in cities without a car, I’ve come to see driving and car ownership in the city in a way that drastically differs from my hardwired training as a young American consumer. As consumers, we’re repeatedly sold the idea that car ownership means freedom. If one lives and works in rural or suburban areas where a car is essential, then, yes, a car is freedom. But in a city where one can either walk, bike or take public transit to most things while the occasional Lyft ride can carry us to people, places and things further away, I’d argue that a car is actually a constraint, both physically and financially. And never in the recorded history of successful cities has the aggressive accommodation of as many cars as possible been part of any city’s recipe for success. (Quite the opposite, actually.)
I’ve already written several posts about the amount of money I’m saving every month by not having a car in the city. Aside from the monetary relief, I also enjoy the psychological relief of not having to drive. For those occasional trips out to the suburbs to visit my mom, attend an event or head to my brother’s for a holiday dinner, it’s rather chic to be picked up by a driver and be driven, which was once a transport mode reserved for fancy people. I’ve never looked back on an Uber ride and wished I could have spent more time or money on parking instead of just getting dropped off and picked up.
Without driving, I’m freed up to observe. What I’ve repeatedly observed in the city are drivers struggling with traffic, parking, tickets, towing, scratches and dings, rage, unfulfilled entitlement and other headaches that come with dealing with a car in the city. In my own building, which houses two large garages, I’ve spoken with numerous neighbors who’ve complained about the little dings and dents they get from trying to maneuver around the garage. Dealing with a car sure is a lot different in real life than it looks in the commercials. From my side of the table, a car just looks like another thing to look after, take care of, spend money on and worry about. I’m not interested.
There’s also the idea of ownership. I used to own a lot of records, compact discs and digital media. It was expensive and, especially with the physical media, a considerable invasion of space. These days, it’s not about ownership for me but, rather, access. I pay a nominal monthly fee to Spotify for access to more music than I can wrap my head around let alone afford to purchase. I feel the same way about home ownership. After living at my mother’s house for a year and dealing with all the things that go along with (and wrong with) an owned house – like the gutters, the driveway, the furnace, the leaking faucet, the fridge on the fritz, the trash – I’d so rather not. I’m a very happy apartment renter who loves that my building manager takes care of whatever I need in good time and at no extra charge. With respect to owning a car… If I ever need to use a car for several days, I can simply rent a car without the burden of actually owning (and maintaining and managing) one and still spend dramatically less in the course of a year.
As far as I’m concerned, it all boils down to contentment. I think it’s safe to say that the overall goal for anyone is to lead a reasonably happy, contented and productive life. When I’m on a train or in an Uber, I can be productive and get work done. (I’ve written entire blog posts on a single subway ride.) And of all the people I know who own a car, I have never met one car owner who is discernibly happier than I am.
An ongoing mission for me is to refine my life with ways to live better. I’ll never be “done” or set in those ways. Rather, I’m a work in progress who is always learning, trying to stay open and teachable. As I get older, while others turn into virtual lint rollers collecting more and more stuff as the years go on, I find myself more interested in the opposite direction. One of my design heroes is Dieter Rams, who was famously all about the idea of less but better. And life without a car is definitely “one less bell to answer,” as the song goes.
I find cities to be very efficient places to life, with walkable proximity to work, play, restaurants, movies, theater, sports, concerts, parks, water and, most importantly, other people and other ideas. Within the city, I’m constantly looking for ideas and practices that enable me to live more contentedly and more efficiently without being defined or burdened by more and more stuff, including a car.