They always think I'm joking. There is that moment when I tell them my secret and they get that little half-smile and their eyebrow arches as they wait for the punch line.
"No," I tell them. "I'm serious. I don't own a car."
The response is almost always the same.
"But you live in Atlanta."
The next question is always some version of "Why?" It's inevitably followed by some version of "How?"
The first question is actually the more difficult of the two. Many things led to the decision, not the least of which is a cash crunch that echoed what many have gone through the past few years. But ultimately it was because I wanted to see if it was possible to do so when I moved to a new city. I was inspired by a young urban planner in Dallas who lived downtown (like I did) and who wrote about living in Dallas without a car.
Now, I tried this in Dallas and failed. And it wasn't because there aren't transit options in Dallas. In fact, my apartment downtown was located at a light rail station.
But what you find is that it's incredibly hard to retrofit your life to a carless lifestyle. You already have your favorite bar, and it's nowhere near metro transit stations or it's too far to bike. The same thing with your favorite restaurants or your office.
Moving to a new city allows you to reinvent yourself, however. People in Atlanta love to complain about MARTA, but it made my plan entirely possible. First, I had to live close enough to rail stations (a half mile) so that I can get to one in 10 minutes. (Midtown, near Piedmont Park — done.) Then you construct your life accordingly: You find grocery stores, restaurants, a dry cleaner, everything on your way home or nearby. When people want to meet, you don't leave the location up to them. You find that most evening and weekend events that are meaningful occur downtown, or in Midtown, Decatur, or at Philips Arena. Or certainly within an easy bike ride of a rail station. For those rare times when it's not an option — do you know how hard it is to get to Star Provisions on the Westside? I do — you cab it. (I probably average two to three cab rides a month.)
There are things you learn about yourself and your city when you always experience it on foot, bike, or rail line.
One, the weight-loss power of walking and/or riding a bike is greatly overstated. For one thing, you rarely want to sweat when you're headed to work, or a show, or out to eat. So it's not like you're getting much of a workout. As a health decision, being a pedestrian doesn't hurt, but it's vastly overrated.
Also, the importance of good walking shoes. I wear cowboy boots most of the time because I'm incredibly vain and they make me feel a half-inch taller. It also means my knees are just about shot. I don't see a solution on the horizon.
I've come to appreciate the utility of headphones. I'm not one to enable panhandlers and always having your headphones on makes it much easier to avoid having to get into conversations with folks who are skilled at playing on your sympathies. You just grab the wire like it has a phone mic and start talking loudly, as though you're in an intense phone call. "I don't care what you say, Brenda, I read the emails! We are THROUGH!"
I now also realize just how much I hate driving. How much it sucks the life out of you. And given the recent debate in Atlanta about it, so often framed as transit vs. roads, I just can't understand how people think the way to make the region better is to build more roads. The stress of a five-minute ride now gives me the shakes.
It also makes me wonder if transit opponents spend much time in the city, especially those who complain how few people use transit options. It's just not what I see. MARTA rides to the airport, or Decatur, or to work, or home, or the mall on weekends — they're always full of people of all sorts: professional, working class, visitors, students, etc. The shuttle I take to work from the Arts Center station is packed no matter what time of day I take it. The Georgia Tech trolley from Midtown is stuffed with students every day. The bike lanes on Fifth Street are lined with folks on weekday mornings. I haven't taken a bus ride anywhere yet (except Megabus to Charlotte and back, which was cheap and awesome), but it doesn't look like they're running empty.
So what I end up telling folks who ask is that I can live without a car because I made a commitment to do so, but also because Atlanta, despite its reputation, has enough "smart growth" options to make it possible. And I can't see ever living again in a city that didn't provide that.
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