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Against the Car-Free Challenge

It seems like a lot of people have been taking the "car free challenge" lately. You know, the one where they park the car in the garage, bury the keys in the backyard and see if they can survive everyday life for a whole three months or something... I know, their intentions are good, and it's something substantial to point out to skeptics; but something about these challenges rubs me the wrong way. I don't think they do a great job of demonstrating what car-free is all about.

(from Flickr user Phinzup)

Honestly, the car-free challenge reminds me of something like this... some really overweight, out of shape guy who hasn't exercised in years decides he wants to do fifty push-ups in a row - a daunting task, given the circumstances. So he starts working out a little, doing some training, and at the end of a few months, he succeeds in his goal, and thus proves that there is hope for any of us who want to be able to do fifty push-ups.

What this scenario ignores is that there are plenty of people who can already do fifty push-ups and more without any trouble at all. Similarly, the "car free challenge" makes the baseline assumption that it's impossible to live without owning a car; but it ignores all of the people who do it everyday without the need to document every minor hardship.

The car-free challenge is entertaining. Documenting real-life car-free people would be downright boring.

Plus, these challenges fail to demonstrate the biggest benefit to car-free: the financial savings. Yeah yeah, the person taking part in the challenge doesn't buy gasoline for a little while and reaps some savings. But most are still paying for insurance, they paid to license the vehicle, and even a car sitting in a garage (with a few rare exceptions) is depreciating, albeit at a slower pace than one being driven all over.

Perhaps most importantly, these challenges are misleading. The rules of the game typically stipulate that the participant can't drive at all during the challenge period. The whole spirit behind car-free isn't that you never drive anywhere, it's that you don't own a car. There's nothing wrong with renting, borrowing or sharing a car and plenty of car-free people do just that.


Matt' said…
Excellent point!

It reminds me of an experience I once had on an express (commuter) bus.

At the time, I was living without a car (by choice) in what is perhaps best described as the poster-child of sprawl, Metro Atlanta. Now, I lived in the city-proper, about 1 mile from a subway station.

I had to use my feet, my bike, or transit to get wherever I needed to go.

And the recent creation of an express bus service between my parents' hometown (50 miles distant) allowed me to take the occasional overnight trip home without forcing my parents to drive 100 miles roundtrip.

The bus route in question makes several stops in Downtown and Midtown Atlanta and then hits the freeway, making only two stops at suburban park and ride lots. At the first stop, 70 or 80% of the riders disembarked, leaving 4 or 5 riders, myself included.

The guy sitting across the aisle from me leaned over and said, "we're the hardcore commuters, eh? Going all the way to the end of the line."

I just smiled and nodded, but inside I was fuming. Hardcore? I lived in the city without a car! This jerk uses transit 10 times a week - and a car for everything else - and thinks he's the hardcore transit user? Just because he lives 50 miles from work? I can walk 3 miles to work (and do occasionally)!

Of course, that's not to disparage suburban transit riders. Riding transit is still superior to commuting by car. But the statement did upset me at the time.
rg said…
I think the car-free challenge idea is fine in terms of educating people. But as someone who lives a very rich and full life without a car, I have to smile at the "challenge" part of it. Granted, I live in a walkable, mixed-use city with a good transit system (by US standards anyway), but I hardly view the transportation aspects of my day-to-day life as particularly challenging. Also, the car-free challenge in the link takes place in Arlington County VA -- hardly a place where it is particularly challenging to live car-free. Indeed, in many ways, owning a car in in many parts of Arlington would present more challenges than not owning one. It is an expensive place to live and not owning a car would make life easier for a lot of people.
Jeff said…
This post seems unnecessarily judgmental to me. Would you scoff at someone who overcomes an addiction to cigarettes just because there are lots of people who live healthy lives, never tempted to light up? If you don't see value in documenting the effort required to overcome an ingrained lifestyle choice (driving, overeating, etc) then you're not going to be persuasive when trying to convince people to break out of their routines and give car free living a try.

You're right that there are poor people all over the world and in this country who live car free, and not by choice. I say so what? I think it's fine to applaud people who have a choice and CHOOSE to live car free rather than compare them to people who have no other option and say that you should have been doing it all along. If those poor people got rich tomorrow, you can bet your life that 99.9% of them would buy a car.

I really don't mean to be rude in my comment, but this whole post just seems holier-than-thou. I'd also point out that you link to a blog where the guy sold his car, and in the next sentence talk about how people are just parking the car in the garage.
John Morris said…
Yeesh really, I've spent hours once in while with friends looking for spaces to park in NYC. Having a car in most of those places is truely an ordeal.
Rob Pitingolo said…
You're right that there are poor people all over the world and in this country who live car free, and not by choice. I say so what? I think it's fine to applaud people who have a choice and CHOOSE to live car free rather than compare them to people who have no other option and say that you should have been doing it all along. If those poor people got rich tomorrow, you can bet your life that 99.9% of them would buy a car.

To clarify: I never specifically wrote about poor people who live car free and not by choice. This was inferred. My apologies if my point was not clear. The people I am trying to reference to in my post are people like commenter Matt' (see above) who lives car free and seems to do so more easily than most people perceive as being possible.

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