Car-freedom, purity, and guilt

A year ago I decided to start a blog called “Going Carfree” about just that. It never got off the ground but I thought a lot about it and wrote some test content. This essay is the one piece I didn’t want to let go. Rereading it now, it makes me think of the spreading network of simple living bloggers intent on downsizing their material lives. Just like with other movements, the minimalists vary between dedicated downsizers and the slightly more skeptical purgers.


What does it mean to be carfree? I hear this question a lot, often with shades of guilt and defensiveness.

I have trouble answering. The word can mean a wide range of things, some mutually exclusive.

To many it means something fairly extreme. There are folks out there all over the world who do not own a car, refuse to step in one, and are constantly seeking ways to eradicate all reliance on motorized transportation from their lives and the world.

I remember being a teenage vegan in an oblivious Connecticut suburb in the 90s. It was hard. I was a freak. Restaurant servers didn’t know what the word meant. Even vegetarianism was a foreign concept. My family ate meat with every meal. The most unlikely everyday foods turned out to contain animal products. When I quit meat, that became part of my identity.

In many places, to give up driving is even more freaky than giving up meat. Trying to simply drive less may seem futile when every single thing you do in your life involves cars. A car is a status symbol; it’s also taken for granted.
In places where it takes major personal sacrifices not to drive, taking up an anti-car banner loudly and politically isn’t just posturing, it can be a survival strategy and a logistical necessity.

If your history with something is of closely scrutinizing every choice and holding yourself to a standard that may seem nearly impossible, of course that will spill over into your interactions with others. Yes, living like this can lead to an all or nothing attitude, a tendency to judge. I think it goes the other way, as well, with people who have thought about what it might take to make that choice and found it too much may expect judgment and sense it even when it isn’t there.

So I generally fall over myself to build reassurances into my explanations. Our society has been built so that most people have to drive most places, it’s not your fault, you’re not a terrible person for immediately giving up your car, the world has to change along with our choices, you shouldn’t have to feel guilty about driving when there are no other real options.

I believe that. But I have to admit there’s still a teenage vegan extremist in me. Instead of purging animal products from my diet, I try to eat only local and organic everything. But I get the allure of giving up something so ubiquitous it seems essential to everyone else, of being the first and the craziest. In finding new ways to do every small thing, you see the whole world differently. And sometimes you find yourself in the midst of a movement.

I met a man who said he hadn’t used money in three years. I know people who have given up plastic, stopped eating tropical fruits, grown most of their own food, stopped flying entirely, ensured that they’ll never have children. I haven’t taken these steps and may never. But I get it, and I admire it, and I envy it.

Instead of radical renunciation, being carfree can be about freedom. I know families that keep one car and let it sit in the driveway nearly every day. Some prefer to call themselves car-lite or low-car, but it seems to me that the restraint they need to exercise is more difficult than living without a car when you’ve given yourself no choice.

Car-lite is a good descriptive term, but to me, it’s uninspiring as a vision for the future. Why not aim high, even if your reality is slow to catch up?

My favorite use of the term carfree is in describing places — carfree streets, carfree street festivals, carfree plazas, entire carfree communities. Besides being amazing public spaces, these return the responsibility for our transportation options to the commons.

Individual choice is a powerful thing, but we’re often so blinded by it that we can’t see the factors that have never been in our control, like streets that can’t be safely used without a car, territories like freeways and cul de sacs that can’t be easily traversed carless, and policies and practices from the government to the workplace to entertainment to neighborhoods that penalize anyone (a third of the population and in some places more) who do not or cannot drive.


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8 Responses to “Car-freedom, purity, and guilt”

  1. KJ June 28, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    Nice!
    I use -free in the way the kid free people do, to indicate that because I do do not have something does not mean you are missing something… as -less implies. I like that. I am without a car, I am without children(but not not a CBFCer) and it doesn’t make me less than someone who has those things.

    It’s hard because when you use these terms to mean them one way but people take them another, politically and defensively, that you are somehow judging their choices by admitting your own.

    I never thought of the term feeling different when describing places, it does take on a connotation all it’s own!

  2. Jim June 28, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    “Car-lite is a good descriptive term, but its uninspiring as a vision for the future.”

    Call it an application of what is practicable.

  3. Izarra Varela June 29, 2011 at 12:03 am #

    Elly, you continue to inspire me. I’ve been proudly car-free since 2005, and I can’t imagine owning one again. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

    Last year, I had a kid. Contrary to the admonishments I received from car-owning parents and non-parents alike (—What if you need to go to the hospital?! What if soccer practice is clear across town?! What will her friends think?!?!?!—), the world hasn’t stopped spinning. We have done just fine adjusting to life with a baby and no car; in fact, with the money we’ve saved on car ownership, we’ve been able to afford two kick-ass vacations this year.

    Our daughter will have been on three continents by her first birthday. I think this experience, in terms of her growth and sense of place in the world, is far more valuable than whether or not her parents own cars.

    • Gabrielle Hermann July 6, 2011 at 8:55 am #

      You might want to “like” my carfree families FB page! I’m currently writing a phd proposal on how cities can better support carfree families! I live in Germany, so will be doing my research here, but would love to be in touch with carfree families in the USA too, especially since I’m from there :)

  4. Gary Kavanagh June 29, 2011 at 12:07 am #

    I wanted to go car-free for clear practical reasons like saving money and the hassle of driving in my life, but I did aspire also to the title of car-free. I found a certain hypocrisy in being such a harsh critic of the dark side of car culture , and still owning a car, even if it mostly collected dust and parking tickets when I forgot to move it for street cleaning in the last year that I owned it.

    I do worry about the title car-free being intimidating to some. Of it laying down a guilt trip, same thing with being vegan. I do try to keep it inviting and not condescending. I’m finding that having a tandem around when friends or family visit, and tricking them into riding the back and me giving them a tour of Santa Monica by bike, is an easy window into my “crazy” bike centered lifestyle, even for those skeptical and unsure of their own ability to ride. Since I’m driving the handle bars, it takes away the stress of not knowing what to do.

    It’s been a couple years now since selling my car, and there is no looking back. To me the car became more a symbol of economic entrapment and stress than freedom. I think being car-free allows me to live in the L.A. area and retain my sanity by allowing me to be oblivious of the infamous L.A. traffic mess and hyper-active freeway system. Giving up the car makes it more affordable to live in a more attractive, bikeable, walkable area within L.A. county, like Santa Monica, which has a bit of a rent premium than most cities and neighborhoods around it. I really see giving up the car as a trade up in quality of life, and while she was more skeptical at first despite riding a bike lots, my wife absolutely agrees in this sentiment now as well. She has expressed she’d like to never drive again if she doesn’t have to.

  5. Justin Morton June 29, 2011 at 12:15 am #

    I have been car free for the last six years. Four of those years were in Washington DC. One of those years in Chicago. And this last one in Portland.

    It is one of the best decisions I have ever made.

    I will say that in DC and Chicago, it was easier to be car-free due to the high level of mass-transit and dense neighborhoods. However, having and riding a bicycle is definitely easier in Portland. And the people are nicer.

  6. Lovely Bicycle! July 4, 2011 at 2:09 am #

    For us, being without a car was arrived at unintentionally, and we are still trying to process what it means to us, if anything. We never planned to be “car free” and if anything I’ve been against the notion of “car free” as a cultural or political identity. Also, while I personally have not been behind the wheel since 2007 (because I dislike driving), I never identified as a non-driver per se, because while we owned a car I often rode in it as a passenger.

    Then at the end of last summer, our car broke down and, being busy, we procrastinated taking it to the shop. A week passed. Two weeks. We kept delaying, but were surely planning to fix it “soon.” Oddly though, we did not need it nearly as much as we thought we did. In fact it was kind of easier to be without it! So weeks turned into months, until we stopped even pretending – cancelled our insurance and so on. It’s been almost a year now, no car and no problems. But we still don’t identify as “car free” : )

  7. Charmaine September 18, 2012 at 7:09 am #

    I have been car-free in the Washington, D.C. area for about 5 years. D.C. is very good for having other transit options: the bus, subway, Zipcar, Amtrak, and Megabus – - all of which I have used in getting around. It takes a little time and planning, but it certainly is not impossible. It saves a ton of money and you get your daily exercise. Give it a try – you may be surprised!

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