Get Rid of Your Car – The Argument from Quality of Life

You should get rid of your car, because your life will be better.  Probably the best thing about not having a car is how much more I enjoy my life.  I’ve tried to describe that here.  This post will blend a bit into the “health” arguments – I think the dividing line will be between subjective and objective descriptions.  Quality of life is a subjective matter, but for now, I’ll describe why I think mine has improved since getting rid of my car.

On a work day, my old car-based life went something like this:  I got up at 6:00, showered, ate breakfast, etc. left around 6:50 and arrived at work by 7:30am.  My morning commute took 40 minutes about 98% of the time.  Probably twice each year, some sort of traffic-based delay presented itself early in the morning, but it was extremely rare.  I got out of my car in its parking space and walked around 200 yards to go from my car to my classroom.  When I was done with work, I left around 3:30, let’s say (assuming I didn’t have anything to do after school).  Again I walked the 200 yards back to my car.  What happened after that depended a lot on traffic.  In contrast with the regular morning commute, at night, sometimes (but very rarely) it would take 40 minutes.  It would sometimes take 90 minutes.  I don’t know what the average was – I think it was probably 60 minutes.  In Chicago anyway, the traffic levels in the afternoons vary a lot.  Generally it gets worse through the week, so Mondays were okay, and Fridays were terrible.  If it rained, it could actually take 2 hours.  Probably around once each year it would snow such that it took more than that.  I can remember once seeing a sign that said “2 hours and 3 minutes to circle” right as I merged from I-57 onto I-94 (about a third of the way through my commute).

That variable amount of time spent in the car was frustrating.  I think the reason there’s so much honking, car-weaving, shoulder-riding, swearing and gesturing on the part of so many drivers is the unpredictability of time and the frustration it creates.  Everyone gets on the highway expecting things to take the minimal amount of time, and then everyone gets frustrated almost every day that it’s taking more than that minimum.  This is true even though we can see objectively that that best-case scenario almost never plays out.  So we keep thinking weird things like “if I can just get past that semi/that exit/that stalled car/take that shortcut that never really works, then it will be smooth sailing.”  There’s always another semi/exit/failed shortcut/stalled car, and so commuting in traffic is continually frustrating.  At least it was for me – maybe others are able to reconcile themselves to their lots better than I was.  I just know I wasn’t the only angry one out there.

Beyond the variable amount of time though, there is also the frustration that comes from what you can and can’t do when in the car.  Research suggests that talking on a cell phone, even with a headset, is dangerous.  Most people “just feel like” this isn’t true (which is a ridiculous way to view scientific evidence), but even if you do talk on the phone, and even if you have a great conversation partner, that gets old.  Then there’s the radio, audiobooks, podcasts, and music.  You can’t even watch TV!  All of these things are reasonably diverting for a time, but ultimately grow boring, especially when combined with the above-mentioned frustration surrounding the amount of time you’re in the car.  I used to listen to NPR everyday, with some music thrown in, and the occasional podcast.

When you’re in your car for more than one hour, All Things Considered starts to repeat stories.  That’s a dreadful feeling.  You hear the reporter hesitate in the same mock-spontaneous way the second time and you want to strangle him, especially if “him” is Kai Rysdall.  Also – no matter how much you like the things you are listening to, you really can’t focus on them.  You’re always mildly (and sometimes completely) distracted by the act of driving, which requires more focus than we generally realize.

The variability of the time spent in the car, the relative lack of choice in what you can also do while driving, and the inability to focus completely on that thing conspire to make commuting time a terrible experience.

Here is now my non-car day goes: I get up by 5:30, shower etc. and leave the house by 6:20.  I then walk about 3.5 city blocks (so 7/16 of a mile) to the train station at Van Buren and Michigan.  I get there by 6:30.  The train comes at 6:37 and arrives at Flossmoor at 6:27.  I then walk about 7/8 of a mile and arrive at work at 7:42.  I then leave work at 3:50, walk to the Flossmoor train station by 4:03, board a train at 4:10 that arrives at Van Buren at 4:54, then enter by house at 5:07.

I hope I made something obvious – where before I had to estimate driving times and traffic levels, now, I can tell you, to the minute, how long it takes me to get to and from work.  The first problem I had before – the frustration brought on by the variability of commuting by car – is completely done away with.  It always takes me 10 minutes to walk from my apartment to the train station, and always takes 15 minutes to walk from the Flossmoor station to my school.  Every single time. I was once meeting a painter at my condo after work, and Brooke told him I’d be there at 5:10.  He told Brooke I should call him when I got home.  What he didn’t understand was – I really, really would be home at 5:10.  There was no question about it; no need for me to do something that most Chicagoans always think is necessary – call later after your initial estimate fails because of traffic.

[Okay – that mildly overstates the case.  THREE TIMES (out of 185 work days) a train has been more than 2 minutes late.  THREE times.  My commutes have taken me about a total of 20 minutes (spread out over a whole work year) longer than I expected.  That’s one day’s worth of delays in the old system.]

Yesterday when walking home, I saw the following relatively common scenario unfold:  westbound on Congress, which is pretty clogged at 5:00 or so, I saw a driver slow down and stop, to pick someone up by the side of the road.  The driver behind him screeched to a halt and must have held down his horn for a solid minute (of course, after the person got into the car and the car sped up, he continued to honk).  A few seconds later I walked past both of them while they were stopped at the red light at State and Congress.  The second driver’s window was open, and it took me a lot of self-restraint not to stick my head in the window and say “why did you just do that?  You’re still stopped at the same light you would have been stopped at anyway.”  But had I done that, I would have been the one that transgressed the accepted social boundary.  His making a needless, multi-decibel, sustained noise for no good reason seems normal to us.

There is no equivalent behavior while walking.  Sometimes I imagine what that would be, just to amuse myself.  To wit: suppose I were walking down the street, and someone in front of me unexpected stopped (this happens a lot with zombie-walking cellphone users).  Now, instead of moving out of the way and continuing on my journey, suppose what I had done instead was STAND IMMEDIATELY BEHIND THAT PERSON AND YELL FOR A FULL MINUTE!  How mad would I have to be to justify this behavior?  I think the person in front of me would need to have killed someone.  But in a car, it starts to feel normal to act like a 2-year-old (with the help of a horn) when someone near you does something you don’t like.

Indeed, there is no equivalent form of “traffic” I encounter when walking.  Those walks are totally stress-free.  I don’t walk up behind a queue of other walkers and start yelling for them to move out of the way.  I don’t stare at a person who has fallen and is blocking the sidewalk, or swerve around them angrily.  I don’t have irrational fits of pseudo-creativity that move me to walk blocks out of the way on the grounds that it will be faster if I do that.

Of course, I am trading a predictable and unstreeful commute for a longer one, and one that forces me to get up earlier.  Before, in the morning anyway, I could get to work 30 minutes (at my new home, which is closer) after I left my door.  Now, it takes me 82 minutes.  It used to take me 40 minutes on average to drive home – now it takes me 82.  That’s more than twice the time!  I must be crazy!

I submit to you that predictable but longer commute times are far less irritating than potentially shorter, but sometimes (in fact, most-of-the-time) longer ones.  And that would be true even if there were no other benefits of riding the train instead of driving.  In fact, there are other benefits, mostly which come from overcoming the other two driving irritants – when I’m on the train I can both DO MULTIPLE OTHER THINGS, and also USE MY WHOLE BRAIN TO DO THEM.  That means the extra time on the train is actually used for stuff I might not have gotten to do at all otherwise.

While walking, sometime I listen to music, but most days, when walking, I just look around at my surroundings.  In a way Thoreau waxes poetic about in “Walking” my mind is far freer at those times.  Plus, I’m getting some exercise (see later post on health).  But besides the health benefit, I feel far more alert most of the day now, since there are at least 4 10-15 minute chunks of walking built into my daily routine.  It’s often more, if we go out at night.

While on the train, I’ve got a bunch of options.  Most often, I read a book.  I now have almost 90 minutes of time during my day during which I can read.  Even were I listening to audiobooks before, that 90 minutes of reading time is far better now.  Since the start of this academic year, I have read at least 20 books more than I had at this time last year.  That’s pretty cool.

Sometimes on the train I listen to music (often while reading).  Sometimes I just listen to music and look out the window.  I enjoy that music much more than I used to enjoy it while driving.  I can actually listen to it, since there’s nothing else my mind needs to do.  Sometimes, someone gets on the train whom I know, and we have a conversation until one or the other of us gets off.  That’s something that never happens in the car.  I might call someone in the car, but it’s not the random socializing that comes from a chance meeting.  Sometimes I just look out the window: no music, no books, no conversation (this is something my grade school teachers told my mom I did frequently).  Every once in a long while, I take a nap.

Something I almost never do (though a lot of the other commuters seem to do) is stare at my phone the whole time and compulsively check facebook, twitter or instagram, and text multiple people for 30 minutes.  I don’t understand this behavior.  It looks about as fun as driving.

The point is, whatever I do, I do it because I want to, and I get to do it in a sustained, focused manner.  Having 90 minutes each day to use like that is a blessing to my introverted soul.  It’s also something more and more people complain about not having in their lives.  But it’s most likely right there for the taking, if you just reorganize your life and get rid of your car.

Weekends are another matter.  When we want to go out, of course, we need to go places that are relatively conveniently reached by train.  But that’s pretty easy in Chicago, especially once you’re willing to use the buses too, and not just the trains. You can get almost everywhere in Chicago, within 2 blocks (so 1/4 of a mile) if you are willing to use buses and trains.  Yes – it takes a little longer – but again, you’re not stuck in traffic, or when you are you’re not driving, and once you get the hang of it, those problems vanish.  They turn out to be more apparent than real.  Plus, sometimes it’s part of the adventure: you wanted to go one place, it is taking too long, so you go somewhere else you never noticed before because in your car, you don’t really look around.

There are a lot of people, even Chicagoans but especially suburbanites, who are irrationally afraid of buses.  They say things like “I just don’t know where they go.”  NEWS FLASH: they say where they go, right on the front.  It takes you about 1 minute to use your phone and look at their routes.  Plus, with the new mass transit tracker apps, you get much more predictability in when they’re going to get there, so you don’t have to wait too long.  Many people over-estimate wait times.  I read once that once someone has waited about 3 minutes, they generally will report later that they waited “about 15 minutes.”  But most of the time, the bus isn’t that far off.  If you check your app before leaving, you can time your departure – either from home, or from the restaurant at which you are eating dinner, or the park in which you are lounging, and then that annoyance is gone too.

I don’t want to sound naive – sometimes the CTA has total breakdowns.  But it’s really not as often as you might think.  Maybe once a month there is a 20 minute wait for a train or bus.  That sucks and sometimes there’s no workaround.  But how much more often than once a month do you get stuck in car-based traffic when you’re trying to do something fun?

Something else that becomes a factor is weather.  A handful of times this winter, it was really f’ing cold.  My morning walk left me so red in the face that our department secretary thought something was wrong.  I’ve gotten stuck having to walk through heavy rain 2-3 times.  But – to repeat – think how much more annoying and time-consuming those things are when you’re in a car.  It snowed more than a foot once, and the train came right on time.  Once I had trudged through the snow (which took maybe 1 minute longer to walk through) it was fine.  No more “2 hours and 3 minutes to circle.”

The main thing I’m giving up without a car is the ability to get to an arbitrary place in a relatively short amount of time.  But in a major urban area, that’s as much fantasy as reality most of the time anyway.  When I walk, and ride the train or bus, I get real, open time that I can use how I want.  And I don’t honk at people, flip them off or scream.  Ever.

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