In the summer of 2008, my car broke down. Just up and died on Peachtree during the post-lunch rush, without strength to even chug over to the shoulder. After getting it towed from one garage to another, after having circular conversations with mechanics about this-ometer and that-buretor, I learned that getting my car up and running again would cost upwards of $1200—money that I didn’t have.
So I had a couple of options:
OPTION 1: I could put the $1200+ on credit and grit my teeth as I paid it off over the next half-year or longer, adding it to the monthly transportation payout that already included gas, insurance, maintenance and the car payments I was still making. All on the very likely odds that it would break down again.
OPTION 2: I could upgrade to a newer vehicle, saving myself the repair expenses but instead gaining a new car loan to add to my pile of debt.
I wasn’t particularly excited about either of those, but what choice did I have? I needed a car. This is Atlanta, not New York. You can’t just hop on the subway at the next corner and get where you want to go. Atlanta is a driving city and a car is necessary to survival.
Except…well, is it? I began to wonder just how much truth was in the idea that having a car was an absolute imperative in a city like Atlanta. It’s true, our public transit system might not cover quite as much ground as those of the northern cities. But we do have one. True, it’s a pain to stand outside waiting for a bus. But does pain = impossible?
I started forming a plan as I considered a possible new option:
OPTION 3: Ditch the junk heap and don’t replace it. At all. Rely exclusively on public transit and the occasional ride from a friend. See if it works—and if so, for how long.
That was nearly five years ago. And here I am, still in Atlanta and still car-less.
I have braved every kind of weather and have trudged through many a diverse terrain—sometimes in heels. I’ve learned to edge heels out of my everyday wardrobe. I’ve learned that buses tend to run a little behind, that trains could use more handles/poles for the standing people to hold onto, and that the umbrella that fits in your bag is really only going to keep the top of your head dry. I’ve learned how to predict whether a man’s going to give up his seat to a lady based on how nicely he’s dressed (clue: the more expensive the shoes, the less likely he is to stand in them for your sake).
I’ve also learned just how much the convenience of owning a car was costing me every month—in both money and stress. Getting from Point A to Point B was siphoning away nearly 50% of my income (see Option 1 above). And the stress cost was just as considerable. Car ownership racks up a huge tab in anxiety. Fender benders, flat tires, the Check Engine light, the Downtown Connector at 4 p.m., the dozen daily close calls with NASCAR wannabes on the freeway—it’s making us all go prematurely grey.
But have I learned that a car is a necessity? I have not.
Because I’ve learned that when it comes down to it, people often say “necessary” when what they really mean is “convenient.” And I’ll give them that; it’s incredibly convenient to own a car. In a driving city, the car-less life is a complicated one. But it’s not a necessarily deprived one.
The buses may be slow, but they come eventually. The trains may be crowded, but at least they don’t get stuck in traffic jams. You may not travel in comfort, but comfort is waiting at home. It’s enough.
(An earlier version of this story appeared in the book More or Less by Jeff Shinabarger. Publisher: David C. Cook, 2013.)
“I wish I could do what you do,” people frequently say when they learn how often I ride a bicycle. They say they would ride their bikes more if only their circumstances were more favorable to it or if they didn’t feel so vulnerable on two wheels rather than four.
I bicycle every day and my four mile commute to Downtown Atlanta has me contending with foul weather and busy roads, not to mention the practical matters of maintaining personal hygiene and business attire at the office. The funny thing is that I probably get around more as a cyclist than I would if I were driving or taking the bus.
Why? I ride simply for the delight it provides--the more, the better!
Each morning while gearing up for my commute, I think about enjoying the outdoors, moving at a speed that fends off boredom but gives me time to consider interesting sights, and working my body just hard enough to release those pleasure-inducing endorphins.
Many people don't ride their bicycles, because they feel vulnerable, especially out of the fear of getting struck by a motor vehicle, but by taking proper safety measures, you can be knowledgeable on how to prevent getting hit.
Anyone’s safety while using the road, whether in a car or on a bike, is only one part of their overall health and well-being. Bicycling provides therapy for my heart, back, joints and waistline. Meanwhile researchers in the cognitive sciences are getting closer to explaining why my ride acts as my Ritalin and my Prozac.
If I were driving my car alone, I would be spending around 59 cents per mile when you calculate gas, maintenance and other car expenses. For one’s overall health and well-being, bicycling is a bargain!
Each time I ride I am creating the world I dream of--one that is more humane, sane and in balance with my surroundings. Recently while riding home I stopped to shoo away a confused and imperiled wild turkey that was wandering among the cars at the busy intersection of Boulevard and Freedom Parkway. Having the opportunity to help that poor bird more than compensated for any inconveniences I faced that day.
I ride, because it makes me happy. No prescription needed.
As the candy coated serenades and whimsical notes of February linger into the month of March, the transition leaves some of us wondering, “How come Cupid missed his mark again?” If the current pursuit of happiness isn’t bringing you much luck, why not change how you reach your destination?
Albert Einstein said it best when he described insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” With increasing gas prices and the average round-trip commute time topping more than 60 minutes, now is the perfect time to take Einstein’s advice and use technology to find a better way to get to work -- no bow and arrows required!
- Determine the cost of your commute into work
- Register to find a list of matching carpool and/or vanpool partners
- Interested in cycling, taking transit or walking to work? Plan your commute with the help of A-Train
- Log your 'clean commute trips' to and from work. Use this tool to not only measure impact, but also earn cash and win prizes through Georgia Commute Options incentive programs
One more token of insight into the pursuit of happiness: In less than 2 minutes, I used technology to find the perfect complement to Einstein’s words of wisdom. “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination,” as stated by Mark Twain. Now, would Twain and Einstein be successful carpool partners? I’ll leave that up to them to decide.
One of the most difficult aspects of starting a new job is figuring out the best new commute. My last commute was a 15 minute drive from my house with little traffic. However, I started working with the Perimeter Transportation and Sustainability Coalition this February and the distance is almost twice as far. Even though the gas money alone was enough to convince me to find an alternative, there was one other major problem: traffic. I immediately got to work to find my best alternative--brainstorming between biking, walking and MARTA became a game! At the end of each route I tried, I would mentally calculate a score which factored time and ease of commute.
Over the weekend, I tried biking different roads leading to MARTA rail stations. While the bike ride to Inman Park was easy, there was a train transfer that I wanted to avoid. I also attempted biking through Midtown to get on at the Midtown Station. This was definitely doable, but the cold weather was harsh. I eventually settled on the best solution: a heated MARTA bus. Although I expect the route to alter slightly with the warmer weather, I think I have discovered the best winter commute.
Here's my bus!
If you need help figuring out your new commute, you can find it here. You have your own team that will make choosing a commute alternative easier. Relocating can be stressful, but don’t let your commute be a factor.
Emily Estes is an Outreach Specialist for Perimeter Transportation and Sustainability Coalition, one of several organizations in the Atlanta region that deliver Georgia Commute Options programs and services in partnership with the Georgia Department of Transportation. Emily commutes by MARTA bus and rail and spends her time listening to Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” on audiotape.