Editor’s note: Willie Weir, a globe-traveling adventure cyclist and friend of Sightline, has recently published another book about his travels. We were particularly interested in his observations about how traveling had changed his experience of car-lite living at home in the Northwest. He prepared this post for us, drawing on a chapter in his new book.
Update 7/29: Willie has a follow up post on his own blog. Read it here.
My wife Kat and I gave up our car four years ago, thanks to the Washington State Automotive Redistribution Program (it was stolen). Whisked out of our lives one sunny afternoon in March. It was an old, red all-purpose Subaru GL Wagon with four-wheel drive and just enough room for the two of us to sleep in the back.
This loss was fortuitous for me, because I had often pondered giving up on car ownership. Now I didn’t have to get rid of our car … I just had to not replace it.
I fixed Kat a drink and made my case.
“The most amazing, enriching, enlightening times of our lives have been while bicycle touring in countries around the globe. Like many touring cyclists we relish the simplicity of the bicycle travel experience. We’re always amazed how few possessions we need to make us happy. So why not try and live without a car, just as we travel without a car? What do you say?” Kat looked up at me and said, “You arranged the theft, didn’t you?”
“The key is to think of this not as a massive inconvenience, but as a grand adventure,” I countered.
Kat didn’t smile.
“OK. Maybe not a grand adventure,” I conceded.
After much discussion we agreed to try it for a year.
Living without a car is not easy in the United States, even in Seattle.
Yes, Seattle has lots of bikes (and the largest bike club in America). It also has lots of hills and lots of rain.
In the wet winter months, or wet summer months, it is often best to be multimodal. To bike and bus, or to walk and bus.
But walking or biking or busing often takes more time to cover the same distance than driving. Busses can be late. Feet get tired.
The biggest adjustment was mental. We too often romanticize our travels while trivializing our daily lives.
Loading up my touring bike with all kinds of gear and food in Colombia is an adventure. Why not at home?
Poring over maps to find the best cycling route through Romania is exciting. Why not apply the same gusto to finding the best cycling route from Seattle to suburban Renton?
Kat and I have happily walked many miles across foreign cities from Budapest to Bogota to dine or see a movie. Why not trek across our own city? Culture, cuisine, sightseeing, and exercise all in the same evening.
Once we began to live our daily lives through the eyes of a traveler, living carlessly presented us with opportunities, not hassles.
The number 36 bus into downtown Seattle runs every 10 minutes from our neighborhood of Beacon Hill. Through the eyes of a commuter it is a crowded, slow-moving container of steel occupied by people wearing too much cologne or too little deodorant.
Through the eyes of a traveler it is a fascinating mix of humanity that runs the socio-economic gamut. Kat once heard eight languages spoken on one commute.
I have an annual speaking engagement in Sequim, on the Olympic Peninsula. It is 68 miles away—a simple car trip. I figured it was impossible via public transportation. Then I contacted Mark Canizaro at the Bicycle Alliance of Washington. He has lived without a car for many years. He sent me everything I needed to know to make the trip car-lessly.
My trip to Sequim involved cycling from my house to the ferry dock on Seattle’s waterfront. A 30-minute ferry ride across Puget Sound took me to Bainbridge Island. Waiting on the other side was the Kitsap County Transit bus number 90, which took me and my bicycle to Poulsbo. Then it was a transfer to a Jefferson County Transit bus number 7, which left me at “Four Corners” where I transferred to a number 8 into Sequim. I took my bike off the rack and pedaled to the venue. The trip took three and a half hours and the total round-trip cost was twelve dollars and fifty cents.
What could be seen as a massive multimodal scheduling headache was, from a traveler’s perspective, an exciting challenge. But do that trip every day and it becomes a hassle of epic proportions. Which is why giving up the car also changed our lifestyle.
We quickly began to shop, recreate and socialize closer to home. Our little neighborhood in the city of Seattle began to feel more like a village.
Because we walked and cycled much more, we began to discover the hidden gems of our neighborhood—the pocket parks, the gardens, the funky houses. The same sorts of discoveries we make in villages in other countries on our bicycle journeys.
We know more of our neighbors, because we are outside more. We meet them walking to the bus stop or cycling to the grocery store.
And like a bicycle journey, our lives have become simpler. We don’t buy the 144-roll package of toilet paper at the warehouse store, because we can’t carry it. We don’t schedule three different social engagements in one evening (like we did when we had a car) because we simply can’t move that fast. We pick which events we truly want to attend. And we no longer travel 43 miles round trip to save a few bucks at the movie theater (what were we thinking?)
To top it all off, car-less living costs less, which allows us to save money for our next bicycle adventure.
I’m not saying that everyone needs to give up the car. There are plenty of places where car-lessness is impractical and plenty of professions that require a car. What I’d like to suggest is to bring your adventures home.
The way you observe life on the road. The way you interact with people. The way you are in touch with the world and yourself when you are an adventurer…bring it home. Adventure doesn’t have to stop at the end of a journey.
And as we have discovered, life without a car can be both simpler and more adventurous at the same time.
Great article! It’s yet another example of how changing one’s attitude can lead to wonderful things.
I think we should have a good, better, best approach to lessening oil usage (and emissions). Best – no car, and the bicycle is the most efficient machine. Better – My Euro 3 emissions compliant motorcycle that gets 65 MPG. Good – we should have a much higher US fleet efficiency for remaining cars. An article from New Scientist says overall US fleet fuel efficiency was 14 MPG for the years 1924 – 1935. The all-time low was 11.9 MPG in 1973. By 2006 it was 17.1 MPG – 3 MPG over what it was 85-90 years ago. Shameful. Article
Turbodave—Good points. Check out Eric de Place’s article, 18 Is Enough, about the impact of raising US fleet efficiency from the bottom up.
I’m right on the verge of selling my car, and I think this post more than any other I’ve read, is what I needed to make my final decision to go carless.
Like you two, my favorite travel memories were on bike or on foot. The excitement of pouring over maps (paper maps) and planning routes is core to having a great adventure. So, you’re right, why not have my advernture right here in Tucson!
Anyone want to buy a 1992 Subaru Wagon?!
Thanks for the great post.