What I Learned By Not Getting into a Car for a Year

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Adam Greenfield, a 29-year-old filmmaker born in England and now residing in San Francisco, decided that for an entire year, he would not get into any sort of automobile. No SUVs, taxis, or motorcycles. Not even a ride in a hybrid or electric car. His bicycle took him nearly everywhere he needed to go.

What was the point? For one thing, to prove that he could do it—and that others might be able to follow his lead, in ways big and small.

Soon after his car-free year ended, Greenfield answered my questions regarding his adventure, which he blogged about (of course) and called The Gubbins Experiment.

Who or what is a Gubbins?
Adam Greenfield: Gubbins, according to some dictionaries, is defined as “a very silly person” or “many small things”. Gubbins was my nickname many years before The Gubbins Experiment, and was used in the silly person context. I’m glad many of my antics occurred in the pre-Facebook era.

But I think the name fitted this challenge. It did seem like a silly idea at first and many people still think it is. But, although I’m just one “small thing”, I’ve been able to get the word out to many folks that a life without cars is not such a ludicrous idea.

Do you have any idea about how much money you would have spent if you had lived that year and done all your getting around town with a car?

AG: Hey, you’re talking to the man who shops around for the best prices on toothbrushes, so saving money is my bag, baby. Using figures from the 2004 Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey, I calculate I’d have spent at least $7,400 in 2009 on owning a car. Of course, those figures would be higher if that survey had been conducted in 2010. Around $10,000 seems a reasonable estimate of what I’d saved.

Any sense of how much money a person could save by doing errands via bike or foot just a few times a week?

Gas and oil is about $1,600 a year for the average family (although that number is a 2004 figure and will start to fluctuate wildly in the months and years to come as global oil production peaks). So if you halved your journeys, that would be $800 a year. Not so much money, but enjoying fresh air, the sheer joy of walking and bicycling, the ability to do something for yourself? Priceless.

(Read about the Worst Cars of All Time.)
Were there moments during the year when you thought, “Damn, it sure would be easier to hop in a car right now?”

AG: Yeah, it would have gotten the naysayers off my back!

Actually, in short: I wasn’t tempted at all. I’m lucky that I live in San Francisco, a compact city with good public transportation. I also live close to my workplace and can easily get there by bicycle. I’ve used bikes as transportation since I was young and am very used to getting around that way. So there were not so many journeys that would have needed a car anyway. And people have generally been very supportive – they get what it’s about. That said, there were times that someone in a car was going to the same dive bar as I was and it seemed pointless to go separately — but that’s what the Gubbins Experiment compelled me to do to keep the overall challenge “pure”.

When were you most tempted to break the experiment?

AG: I made sure I told as many people as possible about the Experiment so that I’d be punished with humiliation if I failed. There were, however, times when I indirectly “used” cars, showing the limitations of this experiment. On one occasion, my housemate and I left our house by car and bike respectively, met at a lumber yard in Oakland, filled the car up with redwood, and headed home separately. I didn’t use a car but someone else drove because of me. In a society so dependent on cars and where our expectations (even mine) about the “reasonable” way to live is shaped by cars, it is extremely hard to fully withdraw from the car world, even if you yourself go car-free.

What sorts of things do you think cities and towns (in the U.S. in particular) should be doing to entice people out of their cars?

AG: There are several key ways:

1. Make alternatives more appealing: Make the roads safer for bicyclists and pedestrians with more separated bike lanes, bike racks, wider sidewalks, and so on. Improve public transport. Divert some infrastructure dollars from highways to rebuilding the passenger train network.

2. Make the public realm much more appealing to people: More places to gather, such as plazas and parks; more public art, greenery, and graffiti abatement; more public events to draw people out into the streets. Then people won’t need to drive to distant places to enjoy good company and pleasant places.

3. Elect more dignified public leaders: Encourage all political leaders to walk, bicycle, and take public transit. Get leaders to tell the public the truth about peak oil and that we must start transitioning to a simple, smaller-scaled way of life.

Where do we really come up short in terms of bike lanes or public transportation or residential/urban planning and so on?

AG: Fundamentally, our big challenge is psychological. As a society, we must come to terms with the fact that our current way of life will soon be over. There are not enough resources and too much environmental degradation to continue the lifestyle binge of the 20th century. The physical infrastructures around us are based on the assumption of an unlimited supply of cheap energy, a huge mistake. If we change our psychology, we can change our infrastructure. And, honestly, if we do that, the future could be much brighter than the present — stronger communities, more leisure time, and less exploitation of people and animals elsewhere.

If circumstances changed and you had to buy a car, what car would it be and why?

AG: The idea of owning or driving a car is so strange to me now. But if I absolutely had to, I’d be more likely to go for one of the car share programs like Zipcar, which are good for people who could use a car now and again, or I’d hire a vehicle. Maybe I’d borrow one from one of my many friends for whom owning a car in a space-limited city like San Francisco has now become a real millstone!

I must add that it would be very hard for many people, such as moms with a job 40 miles away and with three kids at different schools, to just give up cars like I did. I don’t consider myself above anybody. But if, inspired by my little experiment, people made a few changes to their lives or educated themselves about the inevitability of the almost-here energy-scarce future, it would all be worth it. And I can’t tell you how fun — and cheap! — it is to go car-free.

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