A Carless Manifesto for Urban America
If there’s anything I’ve learned living a carless life in a world full of drivers, it’s that “down the road” can be a spectacularly deceptive phrase. For urban non-drivers like me, the phrase usually points to somewhere walkably nearby within a few blocks. For my suburban friends, the same few minutes of “down the road” are usually measured in miles. It’s no wonder automotive Americans have such a hard time understanding folks like me.
Born in New York City next to a subway line and now living my life on the Chicago ‘L’, in 39 years (and counting) I’ve never learned how to drive. I’ve never had a license. I can tick off the number of times I’ve pumped gas (for others) on one hand. Every now and then a friend demands to give me a driving lesson. They usually end with screeching brakes and said friend screaming, “You don’t do 50 in a parking lot!” So really, it’s probably for the best.
Though I may be rare in my decision not to learn to drive in the first place, there are thousands of other carless Americans like me who choose to live and work in places where they don’t need to rely on an automobile to get around on a daily basis. They go carless for various reasons–to save money, to protect the environment, to reduce the stress of looking for parking every time they leave their houses. I agree with all of those reasons.
To them I add my biggest reason for remaining carless: I happen to enjoy life in the hoary heart of urban America. My interest is captivated by living cheek-by-jowl with fellow Americans of multicultural origins. My soul is uplifted by experiencing a place that’s easily able to cram an astounding cultural life into a compact space. When it comes right down to it, I don’t bother to learn to drive because the areas in which I find living life most fun simply don’t demand me to.
After having a few more conversations than usual lately with folks wondering why I don’t just buckle up and take adult driver’s ed, I decided to double down and figure out what, exactly, drives me not to drive. So in solidarity with my fellow non-drivers, I give you my Carless Manifesto. If you live life behind the wheel, maybe you’d like to come with a similar statement of principles for why you love your personal transportation lifestyle. I’d love to compare notes!
The most important thing to know about me is I’m a city mouse. And I’m absolutely carless. I was born and raised in New York, I live in downtown Chicago, and I’ve never driven a car in my life. I love the suburbs and have nothing against them, and I enjoy spending time out of the city with friends. But I think it’s important to understand what fundamentally makes us each tick in this life, and this is what does it for me.
I’m a former urban and public-transit planner, and I love nothing more than hopping on a bus or train in Chicago or another city and exploring neighborhoods I’ve never been to. I live in a high-rise. I shop for groceries on foot. And I enjoy the bustle, culture, and density of living life in the middle of an incredible world city like Chicago.
My dream will never be to move to the suburbs, have a backyard, or live more than a five-minute walk from an ‘L’ or bus line. If I had a million dollars–and they finally accepted cats–I’d be living in the Hancock instead of Marina City, and my apartment would be full of real mid-century modern furniture rather than cheap Ikea knockoffs.
One of my favorite luxuries is to make an early breakfast on a Sunday morning, fortify myself with hot tea or coffee, and take a walk through the towers of a quiet, barely awake Loop, or to set out on a Saturday afternoon and take an urban hike from downtown to Belmont up the lakefront.
And though I’ve gotten many offers throughout my life, no thank you, you can’t teach me how to drive. I’m not interested in learning. If spending his life in Chicago without a car was good enough for Studs Terkel, it’s good enough for me.
I do occasionally leave town for fun. Beaches are never involved. Other cities usually are. If it weren’t for Chicago, I might be living in San Francisco, Montreal or Lisbon, Portugal, instead. I learned Portuguese to spend time in the latter. All three are among my favorite places on earth. So is the original Disneyland.
But for me it’s mostly about the city in which I live, the windy one because I chose it for a reason. As a local blogger, I write an awful lot about life in Chicago and what it means to me be a part of this place as a repentant New Yorker. But they’re both spectacular places to live a transit-based life. In fact, the most amazing friendships and romantic connections I’ve ever had have been with others who are as in love with cities and urban America as I am.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ll befriend hard-core suburbanites, too. But the first time I have to hear them complain about how much it costs to park in my neighborhood, it’s over. God invented the CTA and Metra for a reason.
All of this may make me sound like an urban snob, but there’s really no difference between my perspective and the views of people who wax fondly about the joys of free parking and complain that it’s just not affordable to live in cities. (Actually, recent research proves it can be more expensive to buy a house in the suburbs and drive everywhere.) I’m actually a very warm, friendly, and modest guy in person. Really.
Just as long as you respect the fact that to get my hands around a steering wheel, you’ll have to pry it into my cold, dead fingers.