Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Year Without a Car: Reflections of a Recovering Suburbanite

I’m a reformed country club princess who has gone granola.

It didn’t happen all at once… but it has happened. I turned off my TV and woke the fuck up.

I had been slowing evolving for a while, but things changed drastically for me when I met my husband last year. Anders lives in Norway so we talked on Skype every day for three months and really got to know each other before we met in person. When he came to Portland for a month and stayed with me.

We knew almost instantly we would marry. As with most travel and exposure to other cultures, it’s what I noticed about what we took for granted as “normal” here that opened my eyes the most.

I love that there are natural-looking women on the front of Norwegian magazines, complete with wrinkles and double chins. I love the way there’s a healthy medium on the weight issue—you rarely see someone who is either anorexic or obese. I love that it’s unusual to see a homeless person, while our streets are now overcrowded and overwhelmed with tragedy.
I didn’t realize how badly we denigrated those who don’t drive cars here in the U.S.

Not until I re-watched “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” with my husband. While I still find that movie hysterical, it’s interesting social commentary that the nerdy old virgin rides a bike. Anders noticed it immediately.  "Men without cars are really treated like losers aren’t they?”

I realized he was right. How many times are people completely identified with their cars? How many times has a woman turned down a nice guy because she didn’t like his car? And how do men complete the role of “Man” if they cannot pick up a woman for a date?

My ex said the same thing to me in the beginning. He laughed about Anders driving around in one of his velomobiles, careful like most of those in “polite” society not to say anything directly offensive. It amounted to this: how strange that a [real] man wouldn’t have a car!

Let’s be honest: it does seem strange. We take it for granted in this country that people own cars. And the richer they are, the nicer that car should be.

A car is the largest item that follows you wherever you go and announces your worth.

Women have diamond wedding rings and purses, but men really just have their cars. And the owning part of that usually means they have financed a car, or rather, they’re indebted to someone else for their sense of self.

I took my first trip to Norway last October. It was a wet and rainy every day. We traveled by foot, bus or train. Every excursion required that we walk at least 10 minutes up or down a steep hill. I saw many people of all ages walking up and down the hill all day long, many carrying heavy bags of groceries. When we shopped, we carried our own groceries back. If we had a lot, we would both carry the bags. But mostly Anders would carry the load for us, evening the load out between his two arms.

It wasn’t so bad. I got used to the rain and the exercise felt good throughout the day. The elderly were not isolated—in fact, there were some pretty old people who seemed a lot more fit than most of the teenagers I see here. And, I noticed, nearly no one was overweight.

I am someone who has always believed you had to have a car. My last husband was actually a car dealer for most of our marriage. I had driven a large Suburban around guiltily for years. When I bought it, I planned to have a bunch more kids. That obviously never happened. I still drove the car around anyway, saying it was nice to have when we had other kids in the car…which was practically never.

Seeing how people lived in Norway was the first time I actually stopped and thought about why having a car was necessary. But I had one excuse left: my kids. 

My identity was of that of their mother who drove them all over the place, including to and from school every morning.

I decided to move back to a flatter, more urban part of Portland where I could walk nearly everywhere. I sold more than half my belongings and moved into a smaller space we share with another family. I found our local public school to be more than acceptable.

We walk or bike to and from school every day. We often stop on the way home for groceries. I’ve learned how to manage my carry load for the most part so that it’s usually not too much of a strain. Obviously, the summer months were a little better weather-wise. It’s sunny and beautiful in the summer in Portland. The fall, winter and spring months are notoriously rainy and wet.
Americans spend an average of 75 minutes a day in their car.

I always hated driving. It made me tired and cranky to sit in traffic. I now spend an average of 75 minutes a day walking, which means I’m in fairly good shape without a gym membership.

Life has become extraordinarily simple. If I need something, I walk to get it. Oftentimes, I end up deciding I don’t really need what I thought I did, after I weigh in on how to get there. I finally know my neighbors and the people in my community.

If I need to go somewhere distant, I usually take a bus. Public transportation in Portland is great once you learn the schedules. On some occasions, I use a Zipcar, but that’s more and more uncommon. I usually only need to use a car once a month, due to a holiday or celebration. The last time I took a car was on Eid ul-Adha for a party far across town.

On the way home, I reflected on how cars separate people from each other. When you’re walking, you greet people face-to-face. When you’re in your car, you rarely look at the other drivers. You look at their cars. You feel isolated and oddly protected.

This got me thinking about the other big difference I noticed about driving in Norway. With nearly a zero tolerance policy for any alcohol in the system, I never once have seen someone drink and drive. Here, people tend to push the limits, saying, “I’ve only had one or two drinks.” I often see people leave parties clearly intoxicated, while their “friends” just wave them off like there’s nothing strange—or wrong—with that.

I think our cars make us think we’re safe. And they separate us from the people that we might hit or even kill. We become reckless, whether by using our cell phones while driving or taking a drink before we drive.

We have become an extremely disconnected society.

I realized on that last drive that I didn’t miss having a car.

I don’t have insurance, car payments or gas and maintenance expenses. I’m in a good mood from all the daily exercise I get. I don’t plan to ever own a car again. Why should I?

I know many people will find the thought of not owning a car abhorrent and unacceptable. But consider this next time you talk about child obesity or your own growing waistline. Driving a car is the most air polluting act an average citizen commits.

According to the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey, 25 percent of all trips are made within a mile of the home, 40 percent of all trips are within two miles of the home, and 50 percent of the working population commutes five miles or less to work. Yet more than 82 percent of trips five miles or less are made by personal motor vehicle.

60 percent of the pollution created by automobile emissions happens in the first few minutes of operation, before pollution control devices can work effectively. Since “cold starts” create high levels of emissions, shorter car trips are more polluting on a per-mile basis than longer trips. (source:

Why not consider walking or riding your bike for at least some of your trips?

Or consider not driving one day a week. There’s a great Facebook page devoted to this very thing—No Drive Sunday (pick one day a week) “What if just 1 percent of your street, town, city or state decided not to drive on Sundays?”

I’ve heard many mothers say that the best conversations they have with their children is when they’re in the car. I have one problem with that: you have your back turned to your child. What happened to talking face-to-face? There’s something magical about walking side-by-side with someone and really talking.

The other day, I stopped in at the store and bought more than usual. Walking back with 50 pounds of groceries in the pouring rain with my daughter caused me to reflect on something else. I realized that some people probably saw us walking in the rain and felt sorry for us. But we were laughing. We have at least a half hour a day to walk side-by-side, talking about what matters to us.

Of all the reasons I love not having a car, that daily experience tops the list.

-Trista Hendren

Updated from my article in Elephant Journal in 2012.  I am now happily approaching 3 years without a car. 


  1. I hear you on most things and would like to add one thing that might not fit into your narrative. when i was young, first arrived in the USA from Europe, i lived in NYC for 8 yrs. There, i experienced daily the groping on the street, subway etc by men. I started to wear sack like clothes, and it made no difference. I had many difficult painful experiences there and was so glad to have that protection of a car around me when i moved away. I do enjoy walking and now that i am older, i am invisible and no longer have to worry about sexual harrasment. I give rides to lots of people and help with transporting. just got back from Europe and car ownership seems to have increase a lot.

  2. I was just having a similar conversation with some younger feminists here in the downtown area of Portland. It seems that street harassment has become terrible almost everywhere. I don't often experience it in my community as I think we have a much different feel here but I did not factor that in at all when I wrote this and I think that's a very valid point.