11 May 2011

Money, Health & Environment: The Automobile

If there is one area of environmental activism which makes me feel guilty and indignant all at once, it is car ownership. Switching from cars to bicycles is the classic example of the Green Triangle (which I cited in my inaugural post). By making the switch, you save money (gas, insurance, maintenance, registration, etc. are eliminated), you improve your health (cardiovascular exercise which can also be therapeutic for knee joints), and you improve the environment (reduce emissions, reduce smog, reduce noise pollution, etc.).

This is about where my indignant side kicks in. The conversation in my head is likely to start with, "There is no way my little compact car creates as much pollution as industry and manufacturing! Deciding to ride a bike instead is just a drop in the bucket which makes little to no difference at all!" Especially when I add in all the other pro-environment actions I take (ride my bike for errands around town, grow my own food, collect gray-water for the garden, recycle, bring my own bags, embrace zero-population growth ideals, try to eat vegetarian, buy only cruelty-free cosmetics and toiletries, line-dry laundry, have a no-tech day once a week, etc.), I feel downright justified in having and enjoying a car.

However, The Urban Country bicycle blog recently wrote about how the average American spends approximately two hours of their workday, every day, paying for their automobile. In other words, we spend about 12 weeks (an entire summer vacation!) or $11,000 each year to own and operate a motor vehicle. Given that time is more important to me than money, those are figures that give me pause.

The truth is, I love cars (and motorcycles)! I take great pleasure in driving - it is something I truly enjoy. My family only took road-trip vacations; I didn't board my first airplane until age 21. I didn't make it to Disney Mickey Rat Land until the ripe old age of 14 (yes, we drove to Anaheim).  Some hot summer nights, we would just go out and cruise - talking, listening to music and perhaps stop for an icy treat at Merlino's.

I also enjoy working on cars - so much so, I hope to turn it into a career in the future. I like racing cars and everything about being at a racetrack makes me feel electrified, happy and alive. I like looking at cars, talking about cars, learning about cars - let's just call it a lifetime passion and leave it at that.

I must have been about ten years old when my father gave me my first bicycle. After spending my childhood as a country kid, I was fascinated and a little frightened by the busy, neat, Euclidian city streets I then found myself. When I first learned to ride that bicycle, and I learned to navigate those numbered and lettered streets, I was so excited by the prospect of being able to ride almost anywhere I would need to go. Gemco, the little store where I bought salted, dried plums, my friends' homes, school, girl scout meetings, my orthodontist. Sure, I could walk there before, and I did; but now I could get there so much faster. I could escape.

When I got my first driver's license at 16 years old, suddenly my world - and range - grew exponentially. I didn't dare do it, but I was often tempted to jump on I-80 and not stop until I saw the ocean. When I finally had my own car, I took advantage of that freedom as often as I could.

The ease of purchasing my first airline ticket surprised me; once again, my range expanded to include nearly the entire globe. However, as much as I love to fly and as much as I adore the ease and speed of flying to a destination, it is too much like public transportation for me to love it as much as driving.

On the road, I can take detours and stop to get a closer look at things which catch my attention. In my car, I can listen to music, even during takeoff. I don't have to worry about fellow passengers elbowing me (except for exciting rounds of Slug Bug) and I have ultimate control over what snacks are on the menu.

So dear reader, in the end, I won't be giving up my car. Though the equivalent of three months' vacation is tempting (as is the cash savings), I enjoy my direct access to independent transportation too much. I will continue to save money, my health and the environment in a bunch of other ways, but you'll only pry the steering wheel out of my hands when I'm either dead, or the DMV revokes my license - whichever comes first.

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