1. Without a car, you look like you're in the fourth grade no matter where you go. That's because you have to lug a backpack around town if you're bringing simple things like lunch, a jacket for the evening, a change of shoes for work, a laptop or books for the café, an umbrella. A car is like having a closet, a desk, and a dresser on wheels--perhaps even a kitchen cabinet too. You can't really chow on chocolate in a shared Zipcar because it may fall and melt into the seat, which the next user won't appreciate.
2. Riding a bicycle in a city means taking your life into your hands, let's face it. Ditto for motorcycles and mopeds. But at least you'll probably die quickly if someone hits you, if you're not paralyzed instead. A Segway could get you killed simply because the sight of your smug, upright posture gliding uphill in a business suit can inspire murderous rage in passersby.
3. Taxis burn a hole in your pocket. They're never there when you need one. And again, there's the risk of taking your life into your hands.
4. You have to schedule a Zipcar usually days in advance, especially on weekends. You can't zip across town at night on a whim to meet friends. You get used to canceling plans and staying in your neighborhood. You miss chances to go anywhere interesting in any nearby cities, which can really screw up your job if there's a conference 30 miles away. And even if you do get a car, you have to leave it at the drop-off spot far from your house, then walk home from there on a poorly lighted street, again taking your life into your hands, when the evening's over. Every Zipcar reservation must be a round trip. Thanks for the "convenience."
5. Forget about petite shoes or pedicures. And while your seat may not spread out because you hoof it or bike so much, your lower legs start looking meaty. (This is pathetic; please pretend you didn't read such shallowness here. Scroll down to see #2 on the next list of why it's good not to have a car.)
6. Your life slows down. You wait for buses. You wait for trains. You wait at stoplights. You wait for an opening between the shoulders ahead of you on the sidewalk so you can pass dawdling walkers. If you want to call people you love in other time zones, you can usually only talk to them while you're panting on the way home because by the time you reach your couch, it's midnight on the east coast. In a car you could gab for hours, shielded from the rain.
7. In mountainous places, the bike can be painful or impossible to ride. In cities with snow, bikes are no-go half the year.
8. To jaunt off on a road trip, you'll probably have to rent a car from the airport to get a good rate. That means going to the airport. And it costs more than $60 per day to rent a car with a car sharing service. I might as well buy a couple of 1978 Volvos each month at that rate.
9. You feel like a mooch when asking a friend for a ride home--again--even if it's only 10 blocks out of their way. At the same time, you fine tune a bad attitude about drivers and start to preach to friends and family about how evil driving is, usually while they're scowling behind the wheel in rush hour during your chat. Mooching and self-righteousness are unattractive qualities, but you will learn to nurture them without a car.
10. Groceries are heavy. When will I get around to buying that backup case of Clif bars in case the Big One rocks the West Coast? And forget about picking up 50s furniture on a whim from a garage sale, once a beloved pastime. I've biked uphill from Alemany Flea Market with a folding table on my back. Won't repeat that.
11. You don't get to listen to NPR on the way to work. Scratch that, I forgot about iPods and podcasts. But I refuse to dangle those white strings from my ears, tuning out the real world around me. It's bad enough that I'm always on the phone while walking to and from work.
Am I a total wimp? Siel of Green LA Girl/Emerald City seems to love de-caring in Los Angeles. Many other people relish their petroleum-free lifestyle. But I still want to throw things in a trunk and wear cute shoes.
On the other hand, not having a car is great because:
1. Your life slows down a bit. You smell the flowers. Your sense of smell becomes acute, especially when exhaust fumes from muscle cars leave you in the dust.
2. Exercise is built into your form of transportation. That's hot, right--defying gravity and age without going to a germy gym--even though you fantasize about foot massage? Again, shallowness: blame me for having been a scholarship kid at a private grammar school.
3. Your carbon footprint shrinks. Of course, you're not supporting the evils of Big Oil (or the Big Agra ethanol lobby, for that matter).
4. You probably save money. I'll add this up and figure it out eventually. Car sharing does include gas and insurance, but I spent nearly $400 on it last August.
5. You never have to deal with parking and parking tickets.
6. Without a car, you no longer power a weapon of mass destruction. If you're in an accident on your bike, at least you won't kill anybody (However, you'll be dead and won't know how good it feels to be the killee rather than the killer.).
7. Taxi drivers become some of your closest companions, at least for 15 minutes at a pop. Hey, they might hook you up with cousins to stay with when you travel across the globe.
8. When it comes to greener transportation, you walk the talk, or cycle the…something.
9. Without that broom closet on wheels, you have no car to wash.
10. Maybe I'll add more to this list. Trying to live a greener lifestyle is great, but mostly I'm finding that it's a pain in the rear. Call me coddled, an ugly, lazy American imperialist. I get it.
But people's approaches to alleviating the inconveniences of daily living, without considering the ecological impacts, have led to this inconvenient truth of global warming. It needs to be easier to be eco-friendlier so we as masses can make sweeping changes in our daily habits. Otherwise, major calamities--whether economical or ecological or both--eventually will force the issue.
A better transporation situation, for me at least, would be sharing a car with a cluster of friends who live nearby. That way, you could run household errands together, share maintenance costs, and yet never have to walk home far from where you park. If you really get along, you can go on the same road trips, or use a car sharing service in a pinch.
Alas, the era of communes is long gone, and they were a wreck anyway. People don't want to share anymore. Since nobody wants to share, would someone like to donate instead? Somebody, pretty please, gimme a car. I'd prefer leather seats and a sunroof. I'll give everybody a ride home like I used to. Thanks in advance.
By the way, I apologize for not having updated this blog in so many months. I'll blame that on not having a car as well.
Update: I finally uploaded video stuff to this post. Home now, but connectivity was too spotty where I traveled in Vietnam.
This is not speeding, actually, since Bao Anh is a cautious driver as far as Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City goes. You may feel that crossing the street is a game of roulette. Step into the flow of traffic, maybe with a hand outstretched, and it magically parts for you. Helmet laws are coming into effect by the year's end (see the billboard, right? I wish I could buy one).
By all accounts, traffic and air pollution in urban Vietnam have worsened as more cars have taken to the road since the nation's acceptance into the World Trade Organization in November dropped prices. Vietnam's GDP is growing at the second-fastest rate in Asia, just behind China. People are earning more money. Those who can afford cars and new cell phones every month will splurge. Cars cost double their sticker price due to taxes. Four wheels may be a show-off status symbol, but motorbikes are faster for most commutes.
Nobody here is pedaling to work out of any desire to be "green" and save the planet. They're just getting around the best way they can afford. Bicycles are still widespread, used by students and by workers to deliver perilously-balanced loads you'd be arrested for in North America, from bananas to bricks to granite for countertops for so much new construction (Think San Francisco's insane? Real estate here rises about a percent a day). You'll see the occasional electric bicycle, but forget about biofuels. You might spot the rare Segway every few months; a few are parked in front of Nguyen Kim electronics megastore, which is making a gazillionaire out of its 30something namesake.
In Florida last month, I reluctantly agreed to the Gator Tour. Please don't tell anyone. It really wasn't my idea. Just ask Tracy; I was tricked into this trip. But OK, I'll admit that I love the name of Miami Nice Tours, which take you to the Everglades.
"Don't you want to see it before it's gone?" my mom pleaded.
In the bus ride from the chain of downtown hotels in that construction zone called Miami, it was obvious how urban sprawl is eating up the Everglades. White fences low to the ground abut swampy waterways. That didn't stop some hungry alligator from getting in the yard of one homeowner last year, who unintentionally fed himself to the reptile (so the bus driver said).
The tour of a corner of the endangered Everglades is done by air boat, a noisy thing with a giant fan in back. Earplugs are included. Everyone in the boat stands up, gawks, and snaps shots when the guide calls out . I wished we had the grizzled guide behind us, whose voice sounded like a buzzsaw. But our guide was friendly enough. He talked a bit about conservation, regaled us with the wonders of the 3,000 teeth (I bought a pack of 12--but these as well as gator meat and leather come only from our farmed friends) an alligator may grow over its lifetime, and wondered if we had any questions. There was barely a peep back, so I made a peep.
"Can't they run these things with diesel engines, and run them on biofuel, so they don't pollute the ecosystem?"
That would make the boats too heavy, he said.
"Um, really? I doubt it."
"How many tours are there on average?" I continued.
Some 50 each day.
I imagined alligators and egrets gulping the rainbow swirls of gasoline left by the busy air boats. But I hope I didn't offend the tour guide. The other boat passengers studiously avoided me, or maybe I'm imagining that.
Update: Admit it, I may be the foolish-looking one for doubting the boat would be too heavy for a bigger engine, now that an air boat overturned last week and dumped tourists into the Everglades. But no reptile snacks became of them.
Whatever happens at the Commonwealth Club stays at the Commonwealth Club--on its website, that is, as a podcast you can hear in case you miss all those big-brained events. Here's what happened at its panel on biofuels last week, in case you don't have time to listen. In a nutshell:
Hybrid sales continue to climb, while Hummer drivers look dumber than ever. Maybe global oil supplies already peaked within the past few years, if not decades ago. Green indie fuels for trains, trucks, and automobiles are hot. Why buy oil from countries run by dictators when our cars can chug along on corn, garbage, rice straw, banana peels, or french fry oil made in the U.S.A.?
Only in the next decade can we keep climate change trends from zooming so high off the charts that Al Gore will need to punch holes in conference room ceilings to fit his PowerPoint presentations. So shall we pop the cork (or prepare a casket) for the end of the oil age? Just a sec.
"The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones," said Roland Hwang, vehicles policy director of the National Resources Defense Council. In other words, just because we're running out of fast, cheap oil doesn't mean we're going to stop trying to squeeze it out of stones. Literally. Rather than push for biofuels, much of the oil industry in North America is exploring tar sands, oil shale, and coal. These methods pollute air and water and expel more greenhouse gases than the conventional drilling that made the characters on "Dynasty" drip diamonds from their shoulderpads.
In Alberta, Canada for instance, stripmining sand covered with tar requires blasting with superhot water, using lots of natural gas (and nuclear reactors, if the companies really had their way). The process creates ponds of toxic waste, where canons are fired to keep birds from landing in the poison water, and it de-lovelies boreal forests. Blame a behemoth called Syncrude (with a convenient, Dickensian name), whose website links off the bat to a tidy sustainability report (left).
"We have the potential to drive our crossroads into a highly destructive path with these so-called unconventional sources," said Hwang. "After these investments are made, it's going to be very, very hard to turn back the clock and keep these out of the marketplace."
Ryan Lamberg of Community Fuels said he hoped that biodiesel will replace petroleum-based diesel for trucks, school buses, as well as construction and farming equipment. "While most Americans drive gasoline cars, all Americans feel the effect of diesel prices and diesel pollution." But the demand for biodiesel is bigger than the supply. Lots of Californians want it, but they've got to ship the materials from the Midwest.
Rick Zalesky of Chevron said it would be wonderful if today's technology could convert biomass to a molecule chemically identical to gasoline but carbon neutral. Then we could just keep our fuel distribution centers and gas stations and combustion engines--presto, no new infrastructure or hyper hybrid-electric-hydrogen cars of the future necessary.
Ethanol is a drag, and would require using all our farmland if every gasoline car used it, noted Alex Farrell
, UC Berkeley professor, who called waste fuels the next big thing in biofuels. "There's no silver bullet. We are likely to see in the future a number of different technologies."
Last Friday, my feet were among some 2,500 pairs pumping the pedals in the Katrina anniversary edition of Critical Mass observed in about 30 cities. The monthly Critical Mass bike ride has been complicating rush hour urban traffic while dumbfounding, enraging, and even
delighting trapped drivers around the country for 14 years.
Last week's special course
was designed to trace the floodline around San Francisco, to show where global warming might lead saltwater to swallow parts of the city within decades.
Gulp; that's quite a bit of turf (map it yourself).
But cyclists weren't donning much to
mark Gulf Coast culture, aside from a few Mardi Gras beads, rainless raincoats, and
handwritten "Save New Orleans" pages stuck to their spokes. One bearded
guy wore only salmon-colored, generic Speedos (to swim?), but I missed the feather-bedecked dude who handed out organic carrots
from his basket last month. There was way more Patagonia gear than nudity and glitter. (Stay up for Midnight Ridazz if you're jonesing for fishnets or boogaloo bunny suits.)
We started late, since I had to run home first and buy a helmet to replace the one that disappeared this month, and then we followed the floodline backwards hunting for the cyclists.
Just when we gave up, arriving an hour past the launch near the waterfront, ta da! Suddenly, the flood of hyperempowered humans-on-wheels surfaced down Market Street. Wheee! Gradeschool fun. A highlight, after the initial climax when everyone circled around a guy climbing a light pole, was blocking the Stockton tunnel to ride through it once, then back the other side.
But it was overkill when some riders hijacked the tunnel a third time. Irrational exuberance can rule the flow in these situations, and at that point the police escorts revved their motorcycle engines uncomfortably close to my rear tire. Yeah, we get it, the car culture stinks and bikes rule, etc. We cut out and got some fish tacos. Once again, here's some Mona Caron art (left); you can still buy this Mucha-inspired poster that commemorated the decade birthday of Critical Mass in 2002.
Thanks to "Who Killed the Electric Car?" as well as pricey oil and theend of the worldaswe know it supposedlybeing nigh, Zero Air Pollution (ZAP) vehicles are in high demand. They're cute and zippy, but you can only drive the Xebra about 40mph for 40 miles before needing to plug it in again. And as you can glean from the photos, the interior is less than luxurious--more alongthelines of aYugo. Take heart, however; the plastic seat coverings are removable and were probably for display only. I'm 5' 5.5" and fit comfortably in the front, though you might feel cramped if you're taller. But who needs leg room and speed when you're just running errands around town?
In San Francisco, at least, a dawdling Xebra might be perfect. I've come to believe that so many drivers here are simply too stoned to enter the freeway on-ramp without first pausing to take in the view and breathe in that ominpresent scent of non-native eucalyptus. This is frustrating to a native of Chicago, where we drive (yes, defensively) as if steering a tommy gun. And have patience; charging the Xebra takes about six hours. Once you're rolling, though, it only winds up costing a couple of pennies per mile worth of electricity.
The Santa Rosa-based ZAP company sells a whole line of two, three and four-wheeled electric cars, scooters, bikes, and ATVs, many of which Brazilian drivers have enjoyed for some time. An ethanol car is planned for next year. ZAP owns the U.S. rights to distribute Smart cars, which you may have snapped a photo of on some European vacation.
You can buy a ZAP Xebra for around $10,000 from a handful of U.S. dealerships in Santa Rosa, CA; Elizabeth, CO; Salem, OR; Mesa, AZ; Reno, NV; Exeter, NH; Vandergrift, PA; Kirkland and Fife, WA; and West Palm Beach, FL. But expect a wait list. The company is enjoying record sales, which is just about 300 cars, yet for now it's operating at a loss.
If you're partial to your old VW van and live in Northern California, you can contact Larry to help you convert the beast to a plug-in electric engine for around $4,000. Never mind, I misplaced his e-mail. Let me know if you find it.
The freedom of your first driver's license may be exciting, but few things make you feel more trapped than getting behind the wheel with a halitosis-challenged drivers ed instructor, and then sealing the deal at the political-appointee-staffed-DMV--not to mention the depressing fact that your presence on the road makes you another mobile soul sucking up petroleum, polluting the planet, just so you can idle outside the White Hen Pantry Friday night while a bribed college student buys your friends a six-pack to chug in your mom's basement.
But a greener form of driving instruction puts a twist on the initiation rite of learning to drive. Drivers Ed Direct has taught about 10,000 teenagers how to safely steer a hybrid car. The online lessons help you earn a license in the Golden State, the Longhorn State, as well as in Florida and Nevada, where the company advertises on Craigslist. In-car sessions are available around L.A. with a hybrid Toyota Prius or Ford Escape. The company doesn't offer instruction for biofuel cars (but you don't really need that anyway). Founder Blake Mycoskie, a former contestant on The Amazing Race, also runs TOMS shoes, which gives a pair of duds to a needy kid for each pair that you buy.