Twenty-One Car-Free Years

Over the weekend, thanks to traveling up to Albany to meet an old friend, I was unable to make note of an especially important anniversary: March 30th marked twenty-one years of blessed freedom from car ownership.

On March 30th, 1993, I sold my Toyota pickup truck, purchased a mere eighteen months previously, at a drastically marked-down price. My reasons were simple and numerous: I was headed out of the US for an indefinite period; if I returned, it would be to New York City, where I did not expect to own a car; and lastly, most significantly, my insurance premium–in New Jersey–had climbed to an astronomical four thousand dollars a year.

Cars had always been an expensive headache for me. My first car, a Toyota Corolla with over hundred thousand miles on it, had flamed out spectacularly on a New Jersey highway; it had minimal resale value and I was only too happy to dispose of it in a junkyard. My second, a Volkswagen Jetta, had niggling problems with its fuel pump, and spent too much time in the repair shop. And while I owned it, my insurance climbed into the stratosphere.

My troubles began a few minutes after I had picked up the Jetta from the used-car dealer. As I drove down the Garden State Parkway, already late for work, I failed to notice I was speeding. A state trooper pulled me over, informed me I was driving at 78mph in a 55mph zone and gave me a ticket. That meant four points on my license and a thousand dollar increase in my annual  premium. A few months later, after I had skidded on a wet road and hit the kerbside, I filed a damage claim, which the insurance company honored. But in exchange for this thousand-dollar payment, they raised my premium by a thousand dollars a year. And then, finally, thanks to another wet road, I rear-ended a truck, filed a damage claim again and was treated to the same sequence of claim-payment-followed-by-premium-increase.

By late 1992, I could not afford to drive a car any more. But I still had to commute to work. So I persisted for a few months, all the while actively plotting my escape from New Jersey to New York City. When my move looked imminently possible, I put up my truck–purchased after my Jetta’s fuel-pump troubles had become intolerable–for sale.

Twenty-one years on, I remain relieved to be free of the hassles of parking, gas prices, speeding tickets, towing, worries about blood alcohol content, traffic, and all of the rest.  Public transportation, with all its frustrations, works well enough for me. New York City’s magnificently flawed subway system takes me where I need to go; on rare occasions, I rent or borrow a car. That limited and circumscribed ownership is all I can handle.

I do not know if I will ever move out of New York City. If I do, I know one of my most profound regrets will be the leaving behind of this blessedly car-free life.

Six Years of Walking To Work

This past weekend, I completed six years of walking to work. My daily commute is a thirty-minute walk, give or take a few minutes depending on whether I’m trying to get to class on time, or perhaps lugging a slightly heavier backpack than usual. Somehow, miraculously, my walking commute has ensured that while living in New York City, I can evoke for myself some of the sensations of a campus town; somehow, incredibly enough, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of a city of eight million souls, I have been able to find this mobile oasis of relative calm. My walk takes me through Ditmas Park into Midwood (home to Brooklyn College); I try not to take the same route every day so that I can sample more of the neighborhood’s beautiful Victorian homes (I don’t live in one unfortunately), but I’ve noticed certain routes show up more often than others (we are creatures of habit after all).

While walking to work is pleasant enough, it is when I walk back home in the evenings that the pleasure of the walking commute really manifests itself. For no matter how stressful the workday, a thirty-minute walk, away from the office, away from workday demands, through tree-lined streets and past magnificent testimonials to a time when beautiful homes were still being built, is often enough to bring me back to a far more quiescent mental state. While a walk does mean exposure to the misanthropic antics of car drivers, I’ve sheltered myself reasonably well from the indignities that they most commonly visit on pedestrians (refusing to yield when I have the Walk signal or at pedestrian crossings marked with a stop sign, or most irritatingly of all, blowing their horns loudly and persistently at a minor delay).

Rain,  snow, and extreme heat, all unfortunately features of the New York weather, often make me wish I had a more convenient way to get to campus, but their interruptions are not severe enough to make me do anything more than find a raincoat, bundle up a bit better or think about the air-conditioner waiting for me.  (If I had to pick my most implacable foe on these walks it would be rain, and especially in the early spring and late fall; there is nothing quite as miserable as a cold, grey, East Coast shower at these times of the year.) And of course, nothing quite puts my walk, and these minor discomforts, in perspective than the misery inflicted on those millions who brave traffic jams to drive to workplaces.

Perhaps more than anything else, this walk to work feels like a throwback, back to a perhaps imagined time, when ‘workzones’ were not so centralized, when city spaces were not clogged with fume-spewing monsters that killed thousands every year, when work schedules were not so tightly calibrated. This walk of mine functions then, like a little time-machine; I leave behind in my office (and home), my usual technological accompaniments, and head out the door to indulge in the most basic of human activities.

Note: Unbelievably enough, yesterday, after I posted this, and started my morning commute, this happened: I stopped at the corner of Argyle and Dorchester (I think), and stared; the streets and blossoms looked incredibly beautiful, the dappled shade making each street even more inviting. I hesitated: which route should I take? A lady in a car pulled up and asked, “Are you lost?” I said, “No, just checking out these beautiful streets!”. She smiled, waved, and took off. And I kept walking.