A Car-Free Life

No, that is not a misspelling, although there is a strong correlation between carefree (without worries and cares) and car-free (without owning a car). In this article, I reflect on one of the greatest benefits of being an expat in China: If you live in a large city, you don’t need a car or any other form of private transportation.

In an article several years ago, the futurist – the term for a person whose job is to predict the future – Aagam Shah wrote:

Autonomous cars: In 2018 the first self-driving cars will appear for the public. Around 2020, the complete industry will start to be disrupted. You won’t own a car anymore. You will call a car with your phone, it will show up at your location and drive you to your destination. You will not need to park it, you only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. Our kids will never get a driver’s license and will never own a car. It will change the cities because we will need 90-95% fewer cars for that. We can transform former parking space into parks. 1.2 million people die each year in car accidents worldwide. We now have one accident for every 100,000km; with autonomous driving that will drop to one accident in 10 million km. That will save a million lives each year.

Today, in this article, I reflect on the immediate benefits we can all enjoy today by not owning a car. Granted, this implies that you have inexpensive, convenient public transportation available but, for a large (and growing) part of the world’s population, that is already true. Even today, with the advent of apps on your smartphone, it is quite convenient to summon a car to carry you wherever you want to go. You pay only for the ride, not the dubious privilege of owning and driving a private automobile.

Let me insert a rather lengthy excerpt from my book, China Bound, in which I consider the changes in my life when I first arrived in China as a foreign teacher:

As the days passed, I walked everywhere.  The exercise was good for me after a lifetime of driving.  In the States, I had joked that, if any destination was further away than the mailbox at the curb in front of my house, I drove there.  Driving is such an entrenched way of life – my old life anyway – that living without a car was a major change.  It took a long time to become completely conscious of this change however.  Perhaps it was because I subconsciously felt as if I was on vacation in a foreign city and, as such, I didn’t expect to drive.  Gradually, though, I sorted out my thoughts as it became clear that driving, a major element in my past life, had not transferred to my new life in China.

The actual inconvenience of not having a car was minimal.  The real challenge was to change my way of thinking, to understand that I would be walking if I wanted to go somewhere.  Looking back at my old life in the States, I thought about how many times I had impulsively jumped in my car merely for a quick dash to a convenience store, a fast food restaurant, or for some other unnecessary or minor purchase.  Now, since I had to walk everywhere, it felt differently.  I would have to consider the coldness of winter weather or the heat of the summer afternoon sun, rain or wind, darkness of night, the physical effort of walking any significant distance, and, especially, the amount of time involved in going and returning.  All these became more important considerations when I began walking everywhere.  Not surprisingly, lots of little trips never got made if they meant that I had to walk for a minimum of ten or fifteen minutes to get to a shop that sold some little, unnecessary item, then walk ten or fifteen minutes to get home again.  With this as my criterion, I frequently decided to wait until there was a more pressing need and, thus, consolidated two or more trips.  

I began to realize how central cars had been in my old life.  It wasn’t that I disliked my cars.  I had loved them, enjoyed the convenience and independence of driving, and relished the pride of ownership and the pleasure of taking care of them.  However, in looking back, I now saw that they were one of the central fixtures in my daily life.  That prominence raises a question.  Why should a mechanical object, supposedly a convenience, assume such an important role in everything we do?  And… when did we begin to think “You are what you drive”?

Now, in exchange for giving up my cars, I found that I had more freedom and a great deal less stress.  Having no car meant no gas to purchase, no periodic cleaning out and washing, no repairs or routine maintenance, no worrying about that mysterious new noise under the hood, and no irritation when a knob or switch didn’t work properly.  (How many knobs, switches, accessories, lights, and controls are there on the modern car?  And, what are the odds that, at any given time, every single one of them is working properly?)  It also meant that I had no concerns about theft, vandalism, fender benders, plus no parking problems, no parking fees, no parking tickets, no depreciation, no monthly payments, no insurance claims, no time spent researching and test driving my next car, and no time devoted to maintaining appearances, comparing my car with my neighbors’ cars, or worrying about images.  

Don’t forget the biggest issue: unhealthy levels of stress from the driving itself.  In my old life, I had sometimes felt like a combat pilot, returning from a dangerous mission.  I could remember getting home in the evening without mishap; I would turn off the engine, lean back from the steering wheel, breathe a sigh of relief, and think to myself, “Made it again… safely.”  Truly, our greatest conveniences can sometimes become the very things that cause the greatest complications in our life.  Now, I was discovering that living without a car actually freed up a tremendous amount of time as well as money.  

Giving up cars was one of the biggest personal adjustments.  Now, I walked everywhere and, if necessary, Tony and I could always take the public buses or taxis.  Zhengzhou had a very extensive public transportation system.  There were bus stops every couple of blocks.  Tony was already an old hand at this and I learned that, for one yuan (a little more than one dime) I could ride the bus all the way downtown.  

It is interesting to speculate on how the imminent arrival of the self-driving car will change our lives. (Hey, does that make me a futurist?) Yes, there will be many people whose first reaction is to vigorously tell me why they want and NEED a car. Their excuses, er, reasons, are sometimes valid and legitimate but the underlying basis is that their ego, self-concept, and public image are all based upon owning and driving a privately-owned car. (Proof: If people did not already have a car, would buying and driving a private automobile be presented as the best and most economical solution to their transportation needs? I don’t think so!) Often, these are the same people who refuse to consider the benefits of ebooks but extoll the virtues of cutting down trees to print words on paper so they can enjoy the tactile experience of reading while holding a book. (I also love the experience of reading from paper books but the most important feature is the words, not the medium on which they are displayed.) There are even some people who still insist on riding horses and reading their paper books by candlelight. Like owning and driving private automobiles, these archaic lifestyle choices are increasingly far from mainstream contemporary life – and increasingly expensive to maintain. It doesn’t matter. In the coming years, their children will smile at their eccentricity and their grandchildren will be embarrassed. Like the people who refuse to own a cell phone or a computer, their number is dwindling every year.

The car-free life is coming. You can be an early adopter and begin enjoying the benefits now or you can continue your present patterns and choices until such resistance becomes futile. Remember me the next time you are caught in heavy, slow-moving traffic – and my lovely city of Chongqing is apparently a world leader in traffic jams. I’ll be the guy sitting on a city bus or subway, reading an ebook or listening to a podcast, and smiling because I escaped the travail of my car-bound brethren.

You don’t have to be an expat to adopt this car-free lifestyle. Even before self-driving cars become common, the number of people for whom smartphone-summoned rides is available is growing daily. People who live in almost any large city can easily adapt to living without a private automobile. In addition to the savings in money and time, you can begin to forget that sensation of turn off the engine, lean back from the steering wheel, breathe a sigh of relief, and think to myself, “Made it again… safely.”  

What about you, dear readers? What do you think of my predictions for the future? Please feel free to send your thoughts in the comment fields below. Or, if you insist, you can go out and cut down a tree, make paper, write a letter to me, and send it by surface mail. Words are words, regardless of the medium; but some forms of transmitting those words are a lot easier.

2 thoughts on “A Car-Free Life”

  1. tegory says:

    Five hundred bucks a month to own a car (Payments, insurance, parking, etc.) 7 years in China and now 5 years in Turkey, that $72,000 not spent, has allowed us to have a champagne lifestyle on an SSA beer budget. Jane and I took a Mercedes bus 200 km ride for $16. It’s a $10 taxi trip to the airport and maybe $20/mth for taxis around town.

    In America, as it is called everywhere but the States, I went a year w/o car by living downtown and walking off 65 lbs. As a first born 1943 Boomer I’ll let the Millennial’s figure out how to live in the Divided Kingdom of America.

  2. bill says:

    Ain’t buying it. Freedom of the road is freedom. Granted, an alien concept in China. (Freedom.) And automated cars? Hah. Just wait till the hackers get to their keyboards. And of course most of them will be working for State Security. Besides, hasn’t automation killed enough jobs? From London cabbies to Uber, automated cars will swell the unemployment lines.
    (From Randy)
    Bill has raised some valid issues, especially about the hazards of cars that can be controlled by computer hackers. But, I think the era of the private automobile is about to end. Efficiency and safety – and no more parking problems – will carry the day. One hundred years ago, when the automobile replaced the horse as the primary means of transportation, it meant the end of blacksmiths and livery stables and most veterinarian large-animal work. However, the automobile also created many more jobs than it eliminated. The next few years should be very interesting.
    (Added by Randy on Sept 11)
    With pleasure, I make a short addition to the comments about a car-free life and Bill Burkett’s objections to my conclusion and prediction. Bill is the author – among many other titles – of The Duck Hunter Diaries in which he describes a lifestyle and outlook almost gone in our time. It is a rare and delightful time capsule in which the reader can travel back for decades to see the world as it was then… and without editing due to the benefits of hindsight. Year by year, the reader gets Bill’s experiences, observations, and thoughts which were appropriate for the times. Some of Bill’s observations are still very relevant; some conclusions miss the mark. But they are all interesting reading. Highly recommended.

    Back in 1970, in Volume I of The Duck Hunter Diaries, Bill wrote, “But cars were never about economics to me – they were about freedom.” And, nearly 50 years later, that same tone is evident in his rebuttal to my thoughts about self-driving cars taking private automobiles off the road in the coming years. At least, the man is persistent in his beliefs!

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