The Car, The City and Freedom

I’m not like most people. A few minutes sitting at a light in automobile traffic with not much to listen to besides Dr. Laura or the greatest hits of the 70’s countdown– and not much to look at besides the sticker that reads “If you can read this you’re too close” on the bumper in front of me–and I’m ready to get out and walk. It’s not aggravation with traffic that sets me apart. Most everyone who drives feels that way. That’s why they honk, make rude gestures and scream about how much of a moron people in all the other cars are. As if they can hear or are even listening…. No, that’s been me too. I’m just like everyone else in that respect. Driving makes me crazy. The difference is that it aggravates me enough to keep me from going back for more. About 18 months ago I moved to San Francisco and gave up my car.

The CarI left it where I parked it and it sits rotting in a driveway outside Pittsburgh. While there are times that I miss my car, there hasn’t been many occasions when I’ve actually missed driving. But there was a time, in my teenage years, when driving was very important to me and the car was something to caress and protect. It meant freedom and independence; it was the first thing that was my own. Even if the 1978 AMC Concord wasn’t anything that could be considered “precision engineering,” or even remotely “cool,” to me it was the perfect car–because it was my car. And I worked hard to convince myself it was perfect. Pretty hard to do…when it had a vinyl top and AM radio. I drove it from my hometown in Central Pennsylvania to New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and even Nashville. The brown six-cylinder machine with tan vinyl seats was my ticket to the highway and the world. I was so much convinced the AMC Concord was the ideal car that I bought two more of them! They all met the same fate. Like most things American, metal and made in the 1970s, they rusted before their time.

It was in the K-mart parking lot of the West Park shopping center north of Pittsburgh on route 65 that I gave up the Concord and decided to quit thinking of the world in terms of exits, parkways, state routes and left turns. Sitting in traffic and thinking I could walk faster, dealing with expensive repairs, trying to find a ride when the car wasn’t working, all made me realize the confinements of my “freedom machine.” I decided there was a world to be seen on the other side of the windshield, a view that’s not restricted to the frantic glimpse of an available parking space.

It didn’t happen all at once. There was no vision. I had also decided long ago that people who decide they’re going to live some other way or be somebody different at a moment’s notice were pretty strange. I wasn’t going to do that. This was a process. So I bought a less-than-ideal silver Subaru station wagon. It worked just fine, served its purpose and got me through the daily commute to college. But I told myself when I bought it I was not going to like it. Like all things metal and made by Subaru in the 1980s, it would eventually turn to rust as well. This was a fleeting thing and I was lucky it was going to last until I graduated. Since I don’t like it, I thought, maybe I shouldn’t even bother washing it. I gave in. I tried to take care of it. I changed the oil and the wiper blades.

The Subaru lasted through graduate school and about a year after, when they told me there was no frame left. It was time to move on and try to live without a car. That would be a tough choice in a city like Pittsburgh, though there are people who do it. I know several people with cars who don’t use them, and even a few without a car at all. They get around and probably have experienced more of the city than a driver. Even when I had a car, the Northside neighborhood I lived in was close enough to classes downtown so that I could walk. As it is for many people, walking for me is the most convenient form of transportation. All you need is shoes. There are no traffic lights, no need for parking, and no schedule to figure out. Walking is true freedom. When I was going to graduate school at the University of Akron, my apartment was close enough to downtown to walk to school and to work. While many people say they’d like to walk if it were convenient, far less consider it when looking for a place to live. People in Akron don’t walk much either. It’s one of those places where you feel sort of strange when you walk, being one of few people on the sidewalks and obviously an annoyance to drivers when you’re in a cross-walk.

Both Akron and Pittsburgh had little to offer in the form of transportation other than walking or driving. Both cities have busses, but I don’t think I’m alone when I convey my dislike for them. They smell, they jerk, and you can never quite tell where to wait or when they’re going to show up. Pittsburgh does have a short subway built in the 1980s, but it doesn’t go much of anywhere and since then the focus has been on building busways.

Today, I live in San Francisco. Here cars are an annoyance to pedestrians. Things have changed for me since I first started looking for alternatives to the car. And they’ve changed for American cities. When I walk out my door, I have several options within reach. Subways, street cars, walking, and yes, the busses. There are at least two grocery stores, music, electronics, and clothing stores, and hundreds of restaurants and cafes within walking distance, and everything I need seems to be close by. That also makes it easier to walk, and the increased number of people walking make it easier for stores to survive from foot traffic, which increases the number of stores, making it more enticing for more people to leave the car behind and walk.

The opposite effect occurs when transit options are taken away. It becomes more enticing to drive. More people driving means less foot traffic, which leads to fewer stores in retail districts, making it more attractive to drive to the mall. But a somewhat unforeseen phenomenon may be occurring. Not only have middle-class people slowly rediscovered the value of living in cities and being close-by, but the Internet has made driving, and traveling in general, less necessary. Shopping on the Internet is no more fun than shopping at Wal-Mart. It’s for convenience and doesn’t fulfill any desires to be social. Being confined to a virtual world after a while is no more fun than being confined to a suburban acre without a car. So, I think people are looking back to Main Street to be social as much as to shop for things they need. The Internet may also be slowly having a second effect on the way we live. Technology has made going to work as needless to going to the store. But again, time away from the computer is a necessity. As virtual as everything gets, we ourselves are real and need to have “brick-and-mortar” contact.

I don’t know if the Internet has had any effect on traffic or driving patterns, or even if it has had any real effect on where people live. As a city resident, I do know it’s easier to get things I had to drive to suburbia to buy just a few years ago. The Internet has definitely made it easier to live in the city. That’s where the real freedom is. It’s where most everything is in reach. Nothing is separated by cyberspace or concrete. You don’t need the car or the computer for most things.

Now, while I gave up my car, I wouldn’t give up my computer, and most people won’t give up either. Many city residents have cars. Urbanites like them just as much as suburbanites. The rediscovery of cities, though, provides a unique opportunity to present real alternatives. I’ve tried to walk in places built for the car. It’s almost impossible and dangerous. But most cities, at least at their core, were built for the pedestrian. It’s easy to walk–and convenient, fixed-transit like street cars, light-rail and subways will only make it easier to know the freedom and mobility that can exist without a car.

The New Colonist is for people who like and live in cities. And it’s for people as diverse as the cities themselves. Learning to live in the city is a challenge. The car often is the easiest way to get around, especially when you have laundry or groceries to carry. But Internet-grocery can change that. And for many tasks, walking or using a street car is much more convenient, if for no other purpose than to save a parking space. Eventually, when the options are familiar, walking and using public transit become more attractive and the need to save the parking space becomes unnecessary because the car the default mode for travel.

Like the “colonists” who came to unknown territories in days past, today’s urban colonists have to discover something that may be completely foreign to them–how to live in a city. As I found out, there are adaptations and learning curves when you leave the car behind and live where there is no grass between you and all the other people on the planet. There’s noise from neighbors and restaurants, homeless people, socialists and libertarians, every idiot on TV might be walking past you on the sidewalk. Then, there are the more mundane aggravations that occur just from common stress and being around other people. Only you’re not in a car anymore. There’s a daily necessity of dealing in one way or another with every moron who used to be separated from you by a steering wheel, two bumpers, glass and steel. Knowing they can hear what you say sometimes is a great civilizing factor. And that’s what the city, as such, is: the home and root of civilization. Interacting with other people and being exposed to different cultures and ideas is also a factor in learning, and critical to our age of information. Lewis Mumford commented that the human progress that has come about in the last century–electricity, the Empire State Building, the car and the world wide web–would not likely have existed if people stayed away from each other, on farms, in small towns or in caves. The interactions on the sidewalk, in the cafe’s and on the street cars are an essential spark that has allowed every advancement known to man, as well as much of the art, literature and life we know to exist and progress. Knowing them, being where minds as well as bodies bump, where ideas are born and great things are made, knowing the world outside of the car, is true freedom.

I hope you enjoy The New Colonist, and will use it to help discover the benefits and necessity of urban life in a new and promising urban century.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me