Driving and its discontents

Matrix in the snow
© K Martinko

As part of our ongoing TreeHugger Town and Country series, our writers talk about the trade-offs they take when it comes to transportation in the city or country.

Katherine: Life would be very hard without a car.

I live in southwestern Ontario, in Canada, where the distances between towns are vast, and even those towns are spread out over large areas. It’s not bike-friendly territory. From November till April, the highways are often snowy or icy. The shoulders disappear completely and the highways narrow as snow banks pile up. Pick-up trucks roar down the straight country roads at 65 miles per hour, and I fear getting smashed and sent flying into a ditch whenever I venture out on my bike. Many rural drivers are unsure of how to handle cyclists because they’re not a common sight, and their indecision as to how to get around me makes me nervous.

It may sound like I’m making excuses, but the fact is, if I got rid of my car, I would feel very house-bound. Small towns in Ontario have not prioritized the development of bike routes, nor have they done anything to make cyclists feel secure. There is no system for public transit; the nearest bus station is 25 miles away. There are some bike paths in the area, but they are scenic, circuitous routes that are not practical for everyday commuting and transportation. Even the new traffic lights that were installed last summer can only sense large vehicles at intersections, which means I must haul my bike and trailer with two kids up onto the sidewalk to hit the pedestrian crossing button.

I don't like that I’m so dependent on a car, which is why I try to offset that dependency in other ways. First, I drive as little as possible, opting to walk and bike whenever I can, which works in spring, summer, and fall. Second, I will always drive a small vehicle that uses less gas than a minivan, SUV, or truck. Right now, I have an older model Toyota Matrix that I fill up once, maybe twice a month.

Finally, I use my car to source almost all of my family’s food from local farmers. Vegetables, grains, eggs, dairy, and milk come from within a 15-mile radius of my home, but I drive to pick it up most of it. I realize I could buy locally grown food even if I lived in Toronto and could bike to whatever store or farmer’s market carried it, but the food would still have to be transported from farm country to the city. This way uses less fuel, while allowing me to develop relationships with local growers and producers.

I have read Zach’s posts for TreeHugger about car-free living and felt envious of his ability to make it work. But until Ontario steps up its commitment to cyclists and installs some decent public transit, owning a car is the price I have to pay for living in the country.

Margaret: Subway sublime

I was born in Detroit, and grew up its suburbs. Both my parents worked for the auto industry. Although my father had a management job that required a suit and tie, he spent nearly all of his free time in the garage under a hood, and has a deep love for European sports cars. I began learning to drive, on a manual transmission, in one of my dad’s project cars, which he buys crashed and fixes to near perfection.

Sadly, the car culture of Detroit meant that the city and its environs have a poor public transportation system. Growing up with little access to reliable public transportation gave me a deep appreciation for cities with light rail systems.

New Yorkers love to complain about the subway. Sure, they are not as clean as the metros in Paris or Athens. Nor are they the most punctual. However, they run 24 hours per day and carry people on 5.4 million trips per weekday.

I take the subway almost everywhere. I work from home and travel by subway or bus for reporting, but when I was a daily commuter I rode the subway everyday. The ride was a kind of comforting buffer between the workday and free time, a place to listen to music, read or zone out. There are a lot of subway lines I’d like to add, like more than one train to connect Brooklyn to Queens. It’s way less stressful than driving, especially driving in Manhattan.

Nonetheless, I still drive. I live in an outer borough where most of the subways are designed to get people into Manhattan. I use my car about twice a week, almost always to get to the ice rink where I coach on the weekends in a different part of Queens. Even as committed as I am to public transportation, I’m reluctant to take an hour’s subway trip instead of a 20 minute drive.

Like Katherine, I find writing this feels like making excuses. I wouldn’t even have a car if it weren’t a gift. After graduating from college, my father gave me one of his project cars, a 2006 Mini Cooper. It’s the perfect car for the city and a labor of love. The car was totaled in a front-end collision, and my dad bought it from an insurance auction. So, I like to think my rebuilt car kept a lot of material from being scrapped. I get about 35 mpg on the highway, so it seems I’ve at least minimized the carbon footprint that a car could represent. Maybe I’m just sentimental.

You may also be wondering why I don’t bike. Remember how I’m a Motor City girl? I didn’t learn as a kid, and as one of those very awkward people who learned as an adult, I definitely don’t feel safe going any major distance on a bike in New York. New York drivers are aggressive, something I’m reminded of every time I’m behind the wheel.

Although I still drive, I know I would be just fine without a car and I’m lucky to live in a city with a number of different transportation options. Happily for me and the environment, public transportation is by far the most convenient option and often the most efficient time wise.

Driving and its discontents
When it comes to transportation, Margaret and Katherine still find that having a car a good option.

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