John D. McDonald sums up the whole car problem in the timeless language of the noir detective monologue:
“…People hate their cars. Daddy doesn’t come proudly home with the new one any more, and the family doesn’t come racing out, yelling WOW, and the neighbors don’t come over to admire it. They all look alike, for one thing. So you have to wedge a piece of bright trash atop the aerial to find your own. They may be named after predators, or primitive emotions, or astronomical objects, but in essence they are a big shiny sink down which the money swirls–in insurance, car payments, tags, tolls, tires, repairs. They give you a chance to sit in helpless rage, beating on the steering wheel in a blare of horns while, a mile away, your flight leaves the airport. They give you a good chance of dying quick, and a better chance of months of agony of torn flesh, smashed guts and splintered bones. Take it to your kindly dealer, and the service people look right through you until you grab one by the arm. and then he says: Come back a week from Thursday. Make an appointment. Their billions of tons of excreted pollutants wither the leaves on the trees and sicken the livestock. We hate cars, Detroit. Those of us who can possibly get along without them do so very happily. For those who can’t, if there were an alternate choice, they’d grab it in a minute. We buy them reluctantly and try to make them last, and they are not friendly machines anymore. They are expensive, murderous junk, and they manage to look glassily contemptuous of the people who own them. ”
In the past month, I have added one more transportation mode to my arsenal: a 150cc Taiwanese motor-scooter. I dragged my feet for some time before going motorized. During the past ten months of living with no car, though, I realized that I had a lot of trouble with trips of between 15 and 50 miles. They were too far to ride my bicycle (if i wanted to get there on time and/or carry any amount of cargo). They were too short to justify borrowing or renting a car. If the train went close, then no problem. A lot of trips around here are only served by bus, however. Here in Southern California, a thirty mile trip across town can cross the territories of three or more transit authorities. Just working out the transfers was a headache.
Even after realizing that I needed some sort of motorized transportation, I spent several months researching various forms of powered bicycles. Electric bikes are cheap to recharge and low maintenance. Unfortunately, the good ones are expensive. Also, the batteries wear out after a couple of years. During this period, I wrote a rather chilling research paper about the environmental problems of recycling batteries. Too, few e-bikes can much faster than 30 mph–fine for downtown, but too slow to keep up with traffic in OC and the South Bay.
Next, I looked at gas powered bicycle conversions. They are much cheaper than e-bikes. I could have gotten everything I needed to convert a beach cruiser for about $250. If I was willing to cheat a little on engine displacement, I could probably build a 50 mph motorized bicycle. The only problem was, I have already owned one. I remember it as a noisy vehicle with poor handling at speed, with inadequate brakes and tires that wore out as fast as I could change them.
From an environmental point of view, motorized bicycles have engines about the same size as motorscooters. Because they have no transmission, however, they are inherently less efficient. Thus, they tend to burn more gas to travel the same distance. They also have more lenient smog requirements, so they tend to pollute more.
I was already considering some kind of scooter when I went to Thailand on vacation. In Thailand nearly everyone rides scooters. They use them to carry passengers and cargo in all kinds of weather conditions, everywhere from the freeways of Bangkok to remote country roads. Needless to say, I resolved to buy an Asian-style scooter as soon as I got home.
The most popular scooter in Thailand is the Honda Dream, which has large wheels and uses Honda’s famous 125cc GY6 engine. Unfortunately, Honda no longer sells Dreams in the US. Luckily, Kymco (who used to build scooters for Honda) makes several GY6 based bikes which are quite similar. I settled on their People 150. I decided that, since I am a bit larger than the average Thai, it was reasonable to choose the next larger GY6.
So far, I have been fairly happy with the Kymco. It does a splendid job of the mission for which I purchased it. I can load it up with ten bags of groceries, and still keep up with traffic. It does not take up much more parking space than a bicycle. The only problems I have had so far have been mechanical. It stalls inexplicably when running. Vapor lock, perhaps? I have had it apart three times now, but I am sure I will find the problem soon.
The real question, of course, is weather it is morally acceptable to buy a combustion vehicle. I have wrestled with this one, and concluded that it is a necessary compromise. A small scooter still has far less environmental impact than a car. Having the scooter allows me to borrow cars less often. Sure, I would like to live in a city where it was practical to get everywhere by bicycle and train. Los Angeles, however, is a city that was designed for driving. As long as I am stuck here, I think I will need to keep the scooter.
Its been more than six months and I still do not own an automobile.
The other thing that has not changed, is that I am still horrible at posting regularly to this blog. The problem is not a lack of material. Believe me, I have not problem coming up with a rant about transportation. The problem is that they usually occur to me when I am in the middle of traffic on Sunset Boulevard at 5:30 on a Friday night–not the best writing conditions. By the time I get home, I am so tired and glad to be alive that I forget to blog.
Luckily, all of this should change soon. I just went back to school. Given that I will be in front of my laptop for over 20 hours a week, doing anything to avoid typing my assigned essays, I can confidently say that more blog posts will be forthcoming.
It has now been exactly one week since my Mazda Miata blew its head gasket–one week of being car free.
Ecology Auto Parts towed my Miata away on Thursday and all I felt was an all-consuming sense of relief. Cars are like a heavy weight on your soul. Get rid of yours and see how great your feel!
They gave me $100 cash and now I am going to save about $150/month in insurance and maintenance. At the end of the year, I save $100 in carbon offsets. I need to pay for public transportation for long trips, but I was doing that anyway. I no longer need to wash, fix, or park a car. My driveway looks huge. I was a little curious to find out how much the car actually cost me over the eleven months I owned it. A little time-value analysis on my trusty spreadsheet program yielded a fairly shocking result:
My $1500 compact car cost me nearly $400 per month, not counting gas! Of course if it had survived for a few more months I could have amortized the expenses over a longer period. Even so, the cost was really too high for what I was getting out of it. Also, I should point out that I did all of my own mechanical, paint, and body work. About the only thing I paid someone else to do was change the oil. If I had had to pay labor on all of my maintenance it would have cost much more.
Of course, the first week has not been without its hiccups. I forgot to look up the bus transfers the night before to get to a doctor’s appointment. I ended up borrowing a car for a couple hours so I could get there on time. Friday, I had run to downtown LA on business in the afternoon and there was no point in going back to the office, so I have been stuck with a pickup all weekend. Still, these things are minor and it is only the first week.
Things are going great for me since I lost the car. Please, think of following my example. Living auto-light is a start, but you really do not receive most of the benefits until you are totally auto-free.
One organization in my part of the world that helps people transition to an auto-free lifestyle is Auto-Free Orange County. Check them out.
I have a confession to make. I write about the evils of cars. I hate the automobile and try to have as little as possible to do with it. Despite these facts, I have owned a car for most of the last year.
I had plenty of justifications. The car, a 1990 Mazda Miata, is just about the most minimalist excuse for a car that I could get away with. It is small, fuel efficient, and used. I offset all of the emissions through Carbonfund. It seemed like I needed it for work. After all, I need to visit job sites in six counties.
Of course, all of these arguments are complete hogwash. Cars are dangerous and destructive. They consume space and money and make you lazy. Getting a car “for work only” like an alcoholic deciding it is OK to drink as long as it’s just beer. Naturally I soon began using it to get to night school. From there is was a short leap to driving on the weekends.
Lucky for me, some higher power decided to intervene. Yesterday the Mazda blew a head gasket. I am not going to fix it, even though I have the skills and tools. I am not going to replace it, either. Car ownership is a dangerous trap. The hypocrisy ends here and now.
I already ride the bus to school and use my bicycle for errands. I am training for a century ride right now anyway so I can use the miles. Now from now on at work I am going to use company trucks for company business or else I will not go at all. I am car free and I plan to stay that way.