Going carless in Cartopia

Everybody knows you really, absolutely have to have a car in San Diego. It seems unthinkable that living without a car confers other important benefits...

by Michael Joseph Oshman
t feels impossible to live in Southern California without a car. I am writing this, on vacation in New York public transportation heaven. Here, I can walk a few minutes from the apartment and catch a subway to almost anywhere I desire, in a shorter travel time and cheaper than a private vehicle or cab. But by the time you read this, I will be back in San Diego, America's Finest City, built for cars.

I have always believed that the fundamental source of our environmental/economic problems is our dependence on oil. Oil for plastics; oil for gasoline; oil to generate electricity. Oil for oil spills. Oil for Persian gulf wars. Oil for asthma. Oil for polluted skies. Oil for half of our trade deficit and oil for domestic unemployment. The most environmentally destructive act committed was driving my car. But I had gained my freedom at age 16 and all of a sudden I could travel anywhere at my own whim: a friend's house or another city. I was living at a time of great freedom. I was not about to give that up.

At age 20, I lived in Israel where again I depended upon public transportation, as I did as a young teen. But this time, it was a refreshing break. I could talk with my friends and relax, not worry about parking, gas, or my car being knocked or stolen. I felt a sense of freedom.

At age 21, back in the United States and back in my Ford Mustang, I became quite active in making changes in my community to better the environment. The more I changed the outside world, the more I was compelled to change my internal world. I became increasingly uncomfortable with my driving. I always knew intellectually that it was a destructive decision, but I couldn't imagine that I could be the person I wanted to be and achieve the things I desired in San Diego without a car.

My good friend and confidante, Beth, nonchalantly suggested, why don't you just take the bus? At the time, that was like asking me, why don't you try pulling out all your teeth and then biting into a tough steak? The suggestion scared me, so I looked the other way and continued driving, although I was carpooling more and being more discriminating about how I used my car.

Giving it up

I stopped using my car to travel to Los Angeles, and instead used the train or bus. It was a pleasurable, relaxing experience. My weaning took a larger step in the beginning of 1996 when I started taking the bus every so often. I had never been on a bus in San Diego before then. The novelty felt like a ride at Disneyland: machines to put your money in; a high-tech contraption to help wheel-chaired people get on the bus; bike racks on the front of the bus.

I started taking the bus more and more, to see if I could live my life well without a vehicle. One day my friend asked me if I was selling my car, and I realized yes, I am ready, I am selling my car. Last June, I sold my vehicle for a good price. I went away for the summer and returned in August to a life of bus, bicycle, and carpooling.

Reaping rewards

I am now paying 8 percent of what I previously spent in transportation costs. No insurance, no car payments, no gas stations. A real but a different kind of freedom. I am the most effective I have ever been, partially because I am living that much closer to my ideals by not using a car. I believe we humans become increasingly powerful, the closer we get to ourselves, the closer we are who we really want to be, our un-cynical childlike ideal selves.

I have become much more efficient with my time, out of necessity. It has now been eight months since I sold my car, and it has been the most successful period for the projects I direct. I travel to an area, spend the day having meetings, then return to the office. On the bus, I read, write, or do work on my portable computer.

Four times a year I rent a car to deliver my newsletters all over town. And business meetings? I create my own schedule so that I will have three to seven meetings in La Jolla for the day, or pacific Beach, or wherever I am going.

Does it take longer? Almost always. But let's take a deeper look at this. Occasionally it takes exactly the same amount of time, but usually it takes an extra 5 minutes to an hour to arrive at my destination. When I was driving, I would listen to the radio, often be frustrated with traffic or the police or. On the bus, that's the driver's job. My job is to use my portable office well: thinking and practicing for the upcoming meeting, creating documents on my computer and meeting people.

On the bus

When I am not working on the bus, I am inevitably meeting amazing people. My experiences on the bus have greatly raised my perception of humanity. Not having a car instills a greater sense of community and outreach, versus the isolation of operating a car.

Who's on the bus? Gang members, tough people, dirty people? No, that's not my experience.

In November, I met two women in their 60's who were visiting friends from their home in Seattle. Originally Israeli, these women noticed that I had a Hebrew book open. We started talking and through our wonderful conversation, I discovered they were intending to search for their friend's home in the dark. Since we were getting off at the same stop, I walked with them to help them find their host's house. I was invited in; we chatted a bit while I played with their young kids and completed a fun, warm, life affirming adventure. These women, the host, her children and I all gained quite a bit that evening because I was on the bus at the right time.

I frequently see people giving up their seats for others. I have had people offer to pay my fair for me when I haven't had the correct change. Last week, I saw a young man humbly paying the fair for a woman who was apparently having a rough day. The woman had enough money but not the right change, and the young man simply paid her fair. I have been engaged in tens of deep conversations, sharing myself and learning about others.

Getting around

Another adventure in communal transportation already has changed one woman's life profoundly. In late December, I wanted to go to the Green Store's party. The most convenient bus route was not running that Saturday night. Due to the late hour, I didn't want to take the less convenient route. So I made some calls, trying to find someone who was traveling to the party from my direction. I called a friend, and with him called a couple of his friends. We finally reached someone who could conveniently swing by my place on the way to the gathering.

My rescuer and I enjoyed an interesting conversation. She had been involved in the Green Party for a year, and now was looking to get more actively involved with specific projects. I thought she was going to mention something like sewage issues, recycling or air quality. But instead she said "co-counseling." A bit surprised, I told her I had been doing co-counseling for 2 years and I suggested a class starting in January. Her eyes lit up. She later drove me home, and we enjoyed tea and conversation until 5am. Since then, she has reported that the class is "life-changing." All this happened because I don't have a car and had to reach out to the community. As a result, the air is cleaner, the community is tighter, a friend found something she had been searching for and I had a wonderful evening at the party and wonderful conversation.

Successful changes

To make this world better, we needn't all attempt to jump immediately into our ideal state. This can shock our systems, and ultimately cause us to reject those ideals. Instead, I believe we need to open the door and see how we can slowly and organically integrate our ideals into our present reality at a pace that feels right. Knowing two people who lived well without a car allowed me to contemplate that scary decision for myself. Now, I'm hoping that this will open the door to you.

Here's what works for me: I am a "weaner." I don't go "cold turkey" when I have an ideal which I haven't yet achieved. I slowly wean myself: from eating meat, from driving a car, etc. I become conscious of my ideal. I grapple with it and then I gravitate towards it slowly. This can take months and years. I wean myself from behavior that no longer seems appropriate.

Feel free to call; the more we all communicate about what's getting in the way of us living our ideals, the more we will become who we want to be in a fun way. Hope to see you on the bus!