Living Without a Car: My New American Responsibility

New America Media, Commentary, Andrew Lam Posted: Jul 23, 2008

Editor's note: Giving up the car is not easy for Americans, even amidst the gas crisis. But NAM editor Andrew Lam says that it is our new American responsibility to go green. Lam is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora".

SAN FRANCISCO - For the first time in nearly two decades, I am no longer a driver. A few months ago, facing spiking gas prices and much-needed repairs, I donated my car to an organization that takes care of foster kids.

Its an odd feeling to be on this side of being green. Without a car, my sense of time and space have been immediately altered. What was once a matter of expediency is now an effortful navigation.

"I'll be there in 15 minutes!" I used to tell a good friend who once lived nearby but who now resides, without a car, at an inconvenient distance. Going to my favorite Asian food market suddenly has turned into another arduous chore: Once a 30 minute event, it has become a two-hour ordeal, with bags in hands, and bus transfers.

Owning a car has always been a luxury in the Third World, something beyond the pale of the middle class. In countries like Vietnam, Peru and Bangladesh, just to name a few, only the very rich owned cars. When I came here from Vietnam with my family at the end of the war, I remember such delight when my older brother bought his first car. We were still sharing an apartment with my aunt and her children, but as we cruised the streets at night, it felt as if we were becoming Americans.

The automobile, after all, is intrinsically American, and owning one largely determines how we arrange our daily lives it is as essential to us as the train and metro are to Japanese or Europeans. Indeed, a car is the first thing a teenager of driving age desires; to drive away from home is an established American rite of passage. Even the working poor are drivers here.

For immigrants, the car is the first thing we buy before the house. Vietnamese in Vietnam marvel at the BMWs and Mercedez Benzes that their relatives drive in America, and no doubt the sleek photos sent home cause many to dream of a life of luxury in the United States.

green car
Green Car exhibition in Stockton sponsored by - photo credit: Pete Micek.

It seems a natural progression that the housing crisis should quickly lend itself to a car crisis. Both were readily available at one time, with easy loans and cheap gas. But now, with skyrocketing gas prices and faltering mortgages, many have had to give up one in order to keep the other.

Not surprisingly, the car is often the last thing that downtrodden Americans let go. "I can see losing my house, but I can't imagine losing my van," one unemployed friend told me. "I can live in my van. But not being able to get where I need to go would be worst than not having a house."

Mobility defines us far more than sedentary life, thus the car is arguably more important than the house. Americans, despite accepting global warming as de facto, are still very much in love with the automobile. On average, we own 2.28 vehicles per household.

Our addiction to the automobile is as much a symptom of our nomadic culture as it is a matter of necessity: Urban sprawl, combined with little public transportation, makes the car essential. A job seems almost always to require it. The distance between here and there is daunting without a vehicle at one's command.

The car, culturally speaking, is mobility and individualism combined. It is sex, freedom and danger. Thelma and Louise escaped from urban ennui by hitting the freeway with the wind in their hair, the horizon shimmering chimerically ahead. They found romance on the road. Indeed, their final moment approaches the mythic, as the blue Thunderbird Convertible flies across the Grand Canyon, taking the notion of freedom beyond any open road.

Our civilization, too, is driving toward an abyss. The covetous American way of life in the age of climate change and dwindling energy resources has become unsustainable.

On TV recently, former Vice President turned eco-activist Al Gore called for a radical change in our collective behavior. He wants us to completely replace fossil fuel-generated electricity with carbon-free energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal by 2018. "The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk," he said. "The future of human civilization is at stake." We are now being called upon, the Nobel Prize winner told us, "to move quickly and boldly to shake off complacency, throw aside old habits and rise, clear-eyed and alert, to the necessity of big changes."

Going greenI wish he were exaggerating, but my gut tells me that the green guru is pointing us in the right direction. How and if we'll ever get there, how we'll find a collective will to act, I have no idea. But I do know this: Humanity has arrived at a historic juncture and it now seems that a drastic shift in the collective behavior is called for. If this means finding the will to be frugal and give up certain luxuries, then so be it.

America was built on the premise of progress and expansion. Yet our vision of a future of unimpeded opportunities and comfort is now in conflict with the health of the planet. The consumer culture requires continuous acquisition, and it is built on the concept of disposable goods. Our way of life which is copied the world over has created an unprecedented crisis on a planetary scale.

I can tell you from experience, however, that being on the right side of the green divide is not easy. As I trudged to work this morning, a 40-minute trek, I dearly missed my car. As I budget my time and memorize bus routes and timetables, it seems as if I am returning to my humble immigrant beginnings, repudiating some notion of being an American. But Im not. Giving up the car is my new American responsibility.

Korean Translation-차 없이 살기:나의 뉴 아메리칸 소명

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green streetGreen Street Car Show in San Jose-Saturday July 26 2008
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User Comments

Jason g. on Aug 22, 2008 at 10:28:04 said:

Dear Andrew,

I enjoyed your article about giving up your car. I've managed to live my entire life without ơwning a car and I would say that it just demands different sorts of time expectations. I would say that the only major problem is traveling to places outside of San Francisco - I just rarely do it.

Getting to and from work may take longer, but it is relatively stress-free and I can get some reading done. When running errands I try to combine multiple errands that are in contiguous locations. For the bus, I always try to go stops where there are multiple options even if that means walking more to get there.

It never made sense to me that people would proclaim their environmentalism and opposition to wars about oil and keep tooling around in their cars. When people cast a vote to the other side as you have it helps create a greater mass of people in support of improved transit and public transportation.

Dzung on Aug 15, 2008 at 14:47:58 said:

Andrew, I also live in San Francisco and have gotten around very well on my scooter (a Yamaha 125cc Vino). I get about 80mpg, and my transport is reliable, much more economical, and also almost always faster than a car when traveling within the city.

Granted, this is not a practical option in every city, but it is something people should consider in locations where it is practical, the Bay Area being a prime example.

In fact, I first fell in love with scooters driving my relative's motorbikes in Viet Nam.

I applaud you for giving up your car, but this does not mean that you have to resign yourself to public transportation. This is a case where Americans can learn something from our brothers and sisters in the so-called "Third World."

chu wa on Aug 14, 2008 at 19:01:54 said:

Thanks for sharing. After 10 years of being a driver, I gave up driving in 2003. Mainly due to concern of the negative impact of my sedentary lifestyle.
With the money saved (car is expensive here in Singapore), I brought myself bicycles, eventually many many folding bicycles. Now cycling to work help me to keep fit everyday. The many folding bikes turn into a small but healthy business too.
All the best.

Unkonwn Man on Jul 27, 2008 at 16:15:39 said:

To be American is to live the dream of self-sustainability. To take care of one's self demands external things that afford time and space. Without these factors, we are just people roaming the earth waiting for itself to kill its own.

pronto on Jul 26, 2008 at 14:22:48 said:

Good going. My husband gave up his car several years ago. We now share a vehicle that runs on biodiesel made from recycled restaurant cooking oil (no cropland needed). Sharing a vehicle and reducing trips was an easy transition, something that many people could consider.

cristi s. on Jul 24, 2008 at 13:02:30 said:

Great article.

I am moving to Parkmerced this weekend, primarily because they have a 20
year sustainability plan - electric busses, grey water systems, organic
gardening, etc. ( We all have to do
something to make sure that The Great Turning keeps its momentum.

I was recently talking with a friend about the necessity for tweaking
the beliefs around one generation doing better than the last - in our
case, doing better has to mean consuming less. I'm glad to see that the
media is putting that message out there!


Bramantyo Prijosusilo on Jul 24, 2008 at 00:01:12 said:

This article really touched me. Thank you.

April on Jul 23, 2008 at 06:43:44 said:

Definitely something to think about. When everyone else had cars -my grandmother, who worked full-time, relied on buses and never drove a day in her life - and I never heard a complaint. It can be done.




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