Car-freedom, purity, and guilt

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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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