At 21, in a sweating, dirt-floor shack on an island in a Nicaraguan lake, I ate a lunch of coarse tortillas and salted beans. My crooked-toothed host, who invited me for the meal when he saw me standing disappointed outside of the sole restaurant in the hamlet (it was closed), peppered me with questions about life in the United States. Soon, he broached the subject that most intrigued him, “Tu tienes tu propio ‘pickup’?” He asked if I had a truck.

The throbbing allure of car ownership—of the personal mobility, even freedom, that it represents—is powerful and pervasive.

  • His assumption was that since I was American, I had a motor vehicle at my beck and call. At the time, I did not. I was a college student in Ohio, a few weeks away from starting a low-paying job at a global issues think tank in Washington, DC.

    But, sure enough, four years later, I bought a used car. It wasn’t a pickup, but still, it was proof of my host’s prescience. I bought it so I could get out of town on the weekends to do a little rock climbing. But within a few months of buying the car, I found all kinds of other uses for it. (Owning a car is an all-you-can-eat meal plan: once you’ve bought it, there’s little reason not to use it.)

    Amy and I have owned a car for 16 years straight, right up until February of this year. We’ve lived in families with cars for all but 8 of our 41 years (four of those in college).

    We’re hardly experts—after five months without our own auto—in car-less living. (My grandmother, for example, never had a driver’s license her entire life.)

    And yet, we’ve drawn media like a porchlight draws moths. (Most recently, the Pioneer Press in Minneapolis-St. Paul  ran a column, and the planners’ website Planetizen picked up the story from this blog. Business Week and Plenty have also requested interviews.) And this fact proves nothing so much as how blinkered our national perspective is on vehicles.

    Take a wider perspective. Compared to most humans before us and the overwhelming majority of humans now living, we are utter neophytes at living without our own car. It’s not just in poor countries: in cities across Europe and the industrialized parts of Asia—even in New York—a family of five without a car would not be unusual.

    Yet in 2006, in the Pacific Northwest, our car-less family of five qualifies as a bona fide human interest story.