Life Without a Car

Or I should say, Life in fly-over land without a car. It’s quite possible to live a decent, middle-class existence in Chicago without a car. Buses and trains are excellent, the elevated trains get you to the airport far faster than you can drive. Life in New York and probably Boston, fine without a car. New York has a subway system par excellence except when it’s flooded by Superstorm Sandy. Life without a car in Manhattan is almost imperative because car traffic is ridiculously slow–in my earlier life, my husband and I were stuck in Manhattan traffic three hours and went six blocks. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. We sat and fumed. Eventually we turned around, parked the car, and took a train to Baltimore.

     Maybe in Washington and Philadelphia, life can be fine without a car, as long as the suburbs are serviced by frequent buses or trains–as they are in Chicago and New York. On a flight recently into Philadelphia, I suggested to a smart young dame beside me that instead of taking a cab downtown to catch a train to Washington (our flight was late 90 minutes, and she’d already been bumped from the Washington flight of her dreams due to predicted heavy snow, which never materialized). “Take the train from the airport,” I urged. “You’ll save a lot of money.”
     “There’s a train?” she asked. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t aware of it since as I’ve often walked from the airport to rental car pick-up, I pass over freeway and train tracks, where often a train is passing. But maybe my seatmate had never before flown into Philly.

     Los Angeles without a car? IMPOSSIBLE. Maybe in San Fran. Maybe in Seattle because their ferry system brings in commuters in a timely fashion and buses ferry them throughout the city. But Minneapolis/Saint Paul without a car? RIDICULOUS. We have one of the most spread-out “Metro Areas” in the US.One hundred miles from western Minnetonka to eastern Stillwatr.

     My Minneapolis-based friend Pat Blakely has just published a handy, cheery green book called Carfree Living (CAREFREE Living is how I rad it at first). Order it on Amazon and have it printed off and sent to you. It’s more than handy–you don’t have to leave your house.

     Then enjoy her jaunty, personal style, but do not be surprised to learn that living without a car in Minneapolis (even near downtown) is NOT without care, not open to impulse or whim. PLANNING required. Memorization of bus schedules required. A box of “takeables” beside the door – necessary. Acceptance of missed possibilities CRUCIAL – making cookies rather than attending a tango dance class, reading a good book or even a bad book rather than braving sub-zero weather.

     In fact, winter wind, cold, snow, ice are the context of her experiment. They make her attempt at a carless life much more difficult than it would be, say in Baltimore, Maryland, or Chattanooga, Tenn. We often have six months of real winter, or four with a month on either side of crud, slush, and freezing rain. YET, she settles into acceptance and comes to appreciate what she learns about herself when she rides the bus.

     I like the bus-riding life she describes. Slower, more meditative, giving time to muse about other riders, about scenes at 20 mph. Beautiful glances at city and lakes. And now I’m remembering a bus tide in Honolulu from maybe four years ago, up, up curving ever upward from the harbor and tall buildings into little communities crouched on hillsides, families with chidlren getting on, school kids getting off. An old one helped up by the soft-bodied, pony-tailed driver, with his gentle Island speech, and expert turning around the curves.

     Then he told me, it was my stop. The National Cemetery of the Pacific was maybe five blocks up a road edging a cliff, lined with pink and orange azaleas. The blue Pacific spread below disappearing into distant haze. I walked alone, breathing moist, redolent air. So happy to be alive, and paying homage to the men and women buried here who originated far away.

     Pat Blakely is also engaged in a war, less damazing potenially, more internal, yet fighting against cultural norms and her own long habit of a car. She fights with herself and a transit system not particularly bad, nor particularly good. And she wins through to make a difference. Entertaining us along the way with her pluck and candor.

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