Tuesday, April 10, 2012

To Drive...or Not to Drive

By Stephanie Allen, Project Assistant.

I was all ready to write a blog post on this interesting article from the Atlantic last month drawing parallels between US employment and US consumer spending, when I saw a link to this article by Richard Florida posted this morning on the Atlantic’s “Cities: Place Matters” blog about the decline of car ownership among young Americans. It caught my eye. Why? Personal reasons. After years of being carless (and loving it), I’m seriously considering buying a car.

For years after college I owned a car (the 1987 Volvo I bought when I was 17), but never drove it. In fact, it lived in my parents’ garage in suburban Atlanta, while I was in graduate school a thousand miles away in Milwaukee. I never missed it. I lived about 15 blocks from campus, a nice 30-45 minute walk. There were numerous restaurants, bars, yoga studios, coffee shops, three grocers, a hospital, plenty of doctors, and two drug stores within a 15-minute walk from my place. Two bus lines stopped on my corner and another was 2 blocks away. Walking was easy. And, apart from the time commitment, walking is cheap and hassle free.

It’s not that I couldn’t afford a car (I already owned one, granted I wasn’t buying gas and my maintenance fees were low since I never drove it). I sold the car a few years ago because I really prefer life without it. Sure it saves me money (a few grand a year I figure), but the money is just part of it for me. And, according to Florida, it’s the same for many other young people:

"The shift away from the car is part and parcel of a new way of life being embraced by young Americans, which places less emphasis on big cars or big houses as status symbols or life's essentials. In my book The Great Reset, I called it the New Normal. “Whether it’s because they don’t want them, can’t afford them, or see them as a symbol of waste and environmental abuse,” I wrote, “more and more people are ditching their cars and taking public transit or moving to more walkable neighborhoods where they can get by without them or by occasionally using a rental car or Zipcar

At 16, growing up in suburban Atlanta, my car was my ticket to freedom. When I went to a tiny liberal arts college in rural New York State, it was my connection to the outside world. But, I’ve found little need for a car living in an urban area and I certainly don’t miss sitting in traffic or hunting for a parking spot.

So, why am I thinking about buying a car? I’ve been living in LA for three months. I meant it to be a temporary stay, but I’m considering moving here more permanently. Since I telecommute, I can pretty much live anywhere as long as I’ve got a good airport nearby.

The car thing is a big consideration. It’s not the money I’m concerned about, it’s the lifestyle. The need to own a car is a huge con for me. Somehow, these days, I feel more free if I can get everywhere I need to go without a car. I like walking around the neighborhood, pausing to talk to neighbors when I see them, ducking in for a beer on the way home from the farmer’s market, taking a detour through the bookstore to check out the new crop of used books, stopping to smell the roses or lilacs or confederate jasmine…living life at my own pace. That’s something you can’t do in a car (or you can’t do without getting honked at or ticketed). It’s something that those of us in "children of upper-middle class, car loving baby boomers" cohort have the luxury of valuing. We can put quality of life first and in choosing a place to live many of us will do just that.