Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ditch your car. It's good, I promise.

Our society functions largely on the role of cars - from our drive-thru coffee to our prairie-sized parking lots to the endless infrastructure that warrants our morning commute, we more or less get by only with the use of a car. It's one of our first big purchases out of school, one of the last things we let go when budgeting, and one thing we kinda think we can't do without.

I promise you, we can.
Not only that, it might even make our day to day lives better, not worse.

I stopped driving altogether about a year ago. When I tell people this (particuarly when I tell colleagues who also work on our corporate campus nestled deep in nowheresville, suburbia) they eye me with skepticism, humor, or pity. That's okay - I get it. I liked driving just as much as anyone - I have a lead foot and enjoy nothing more than seeing in how tight a window I can switch lanes, and at what speed. Summers meant rolling the windows down and slipping your flip flops off to drive barefoot; high school was defined by aimless cruising with the volume so loud it eventually blew my right speaker; nothing feels quite as liberating as having a car. So when people say to me; "I love driving. I could never do without," I smile at them and think: I know, I know... but, believe me, you could.

When you take all things into consideration - the costs, especially, but also the social aspects - things begin to take on a new light. The expenses associated with cars are all unique, but for my car, which that was paid off, with family-plan insurance and decent gas mileage, but demanded a parking spot in my downtown apartment garage, costs ran over $400 per month. (Add in a couple of flat tires or tow trucks, some oil changes and car washes, and it's quite a bit more.) You know what else $400 per month can buy? The answer is: a lot (of course) and, more specifically: it really depends on you. For me, it's buying a 3-week trip to Turkey and Greece. What bigger-ticket item have you hidden away in your heart? Bring it out! Dust it off! It's possible.

Then there's the social side - there have been a lot of studies done on the building blocks of happiness, especially in the last two decades. One thing most all research asserts? People are happier when with other people. Yep. This includes, of course, developing meaningful relationships with those around you - your significant other, your family members, your friends, your room-mate, your boss. It also, however, means surrounding yourself with people in general. One of the fastest way to send yourself into a psychological funk is to deal yourself a hand of social isolation. One way we've all done that is by choosing a solitary morning commute.

Now, I get it. Right now you might be thinking: I like my solitary morning commute! I listen to music full volume, I sing along, I yell things to the driver in front of me that I would never say in front of polite company, I pick my nose, I zone out. Whatever. Me too. And for a while, I would've agreed - that time alone was great.

But now I ride the bus, and get to talk to some really great people. People like James, one of the most upbeat personalities I've ever met. On an afternoon when I was feeling some serious blues (the "what am I doing with my life?" variety, no less), I overhead James ask a woman about her (seemingly serious) health issues that had dictated a strict new diet. His response? To beam and suggest, with enthusiasm you could only imagine, that ethiopian food could be just the ticket. "It's so healthy! You'll love it. Even your husband will love it! It's just beans and vegetables, but oh, yes, the flavors!" He was so convincing, in fact, that I interrupted to ask him to suggest a restaurant. (Queen of Sheba, on Colfax.)

People like that brighten my day on the bus in a way they never could in a car. I do not experience road rage on a bus, nor do I really experience the dreaded "weirdos" nearly as often as you might think. To be honest, it's predominately people just like you and me - good, friendly people just trying to make their way home in a better way.

A problem, too, is that we have "driving" all tied and tangled up in "status." It's hard, but I ignore that. Part of my transition was assuring people, for the first few months: "oh, I have a car. I just don't drive it." They seemed relieved by this. Whether it was really for me or them, I don't know, but it was something I did a lot in the beginning and now hardly ever.

Give it a shot. Do it for one day a week. Do it for any reason that makes sense to you - if it's not environmental, do it to save a few dollars. If not that, maybe to sneak a bike ride in as your exercise for the day. Or maybe just to shake up the routine of your commute. Any reason goes. But honestly, just try it. You might like it.

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