The 7 Highly Effective Habits of Not Driving All The Time

[I took this from the window of the 94 bus.]
There’s an old saying somewhere in America, something about how you don’t just own your stuff, but your stuff owns you. Technically, we all own our houses, cars, smart phones, and televisions; but at the same time, each of these technologies has a tremendous hold on us. Smart phones have an unnerving effect on our sense of time, for example. And each time we drive our cars, our cars drive us to look at the world a bit differently. Road rage, the price of gas, the increasing appeal of a drive thru window... we are what we own, and we become where we live.

You notice this a lot when you switch back and forth. For example, if the electricity or internet service goes out, if you go up to a cabin in the woods for a weekend, if you travel to another country, or if your phone dies while you’re out on the town. Or if you get rid of your car, as I did a few years ago… Gradually you find the habits of everyday life — the patterns of shopping, moving, perceiving — start to shift.

Recovering from the Holidaze this month, I've been thinking about this. Here are 7 somewhat surprising things that happen when you stop driving all the time:

1. You pack all your things at once

When you leave your house for the day on a bike or the bus, you almost always plan your entire day out in advance. Because the trip to and from your house takes so long, stopping back in the middle of the day is usually prohibitive without a car. (Note that this makes it harder to have a dog.)

You have to think through all the meetings you might have in the morning, afternoon and evening, and make sure to plan in advance about all of that. Often this means packing a backpack or bike bag, and being sure that everything you’re going to need is in there as you leave the house.

2. There is down time in the middle of your day

This is a corollary to the first point.  Without a car, you won't end up going back and forth to your house all the time, which means you end up killing time through your day. For me, I often will have meetings spread throughout the day, and will often have to kill an hour or two at a library, coffee shop, or bar between them. In a way, this is a great time to explore the city. For example, spending and hour at a library in the middle of a day is a fine feeling, and feels like you’re connecting to the city around you. In a car, it’s more difficult to do this because of…

3. You never worry about parking any more

I’ve mentioned this before on this blog, but drivers worry a lot about parking. (E.g. where can I park? How long can I park? How much does it cost? Will I get a ticket?) All these worries vanish without a car. Instead, you think about things like “When is the next bus coming” or “How long will it take to get across town on my bicycle?”

It's surprising how never thinking about parking frees you up to wander around the city in ways that are almost impossible for people tethered to their parking space. This is a revolutionary liberation.

4. You can stop on a dime
, all the time

Connected to the above point, not having to park or focus on driving all the time allows you to notice many more of the things around you. (E.g. birds, smells, sounds, clouds, other people's faces.) While much of our city has become a boring featureless landscape, there are still plenty of little areas that reward a good stroll. And without a car, you can easily window shop, dwell, meander, or “pop in” to any places that catch your fancy.

And this is an excellent way to…  

5. You bump into people

Bumping into people while driving is a bad idea; your insurance agent will confirm this. But the random encounter is one of the best things about getting rid of the car. Long is the list of people I run into while biking or walking around town: old friends, new friends, people I might never see again without the light rail train or the impromptu stop at the bike shop.

These encounters are a constant surprise, and (unless you have creepy stalkers) provide a great sense of pleasure and openness that is one of the key things that makes cities worthwhile. The word is serendipity.

6. You never go to big box stores

With rare exceptions, big box stores are designed solely for car drivers. The entire premise of the store is designed around car parking and car trunks; shopping at one of these places on foot is borderline inhumane (which doesn’t stop people from doing it in places like Saint Paul Midway Wal-Mart). I probably shop at a big box store once a year, not really because of ideology (though that is part of it for me) but mostly because the convenience store on the corner is far more… convenient.

It’s basic physics: the carrying capacity of the human body dictates that you replace multiple bags of things every two weeks with small bags of two or three things, multiple times per week. Doing this, I pay more attention to the individual items, and develop a more consistent relationship with shop keepers and local businesses. Almost always, these businesses are far more interesting than the robotic self-checkout line at Target. How could they not be?

7. You get more exercise

Finally, this is sort of obvious. As many others have pointed out, this happens as a seamless part of your life, as opposed to at the gym. Which is way easier, if you can get around all the other things.

That's it. To me, habit is the word we give to the relationship between our intentions and our technological environments. Bad habits and good habits can be greatly affected by the kinds of spaces we find ourselves in, the kinds of people we spend time with, or the kinds of technologies we grant ourselves access to. Like it or not, the car is a huge driver of our good and bad habits, and it's intriguing to see how much can change when you get out from behind the wheel.



Anonymous said...

Do you find it ironic that the store featured as your big box alternative is no longer in business?

Bill Lindeke said...

great store, run by the wonderful Wendy; they lost their lease but moved from St. Clair to downtown St. Paul

Bill Lindeke said...

plus that's not a "big box alternative." A hundred stores like that are a big-box alternative, working together. and bicycling shopping habits making patronizing all of these places as part of your daily routines much easier than if you had to drive and park a car at each one.