Like any American male, I’m genetically obligated to love driving. I grew up building race tracks for my Hot Wheels and drawing pictures of Porsches and Lamborghinis. My best friend had a gas-powered go-cart that we used to race around the neighborhood, pretending we were in the Indy 500. To a kid, a car is freedom–to go where you want, when you want, without parental supervision. To drive is to be an adult. Unfortunately that is only too true.
The first day I had my license, I caused an accident. I changed lanes on the freeway without double-checking my blind-spot and ran a guy off the road. The worst was that I didn’t even realize I’d done it, and continued on my merry way. After a while I noticed that some jerk was following me, and when I got to my destination he stopped right next to me and stared the whole time I was getting out of the car. I gave him a dirty look and walked away. That night, we got a call from the state patrol informing us of the accident, which the guy who followed us had apparently reported. Needless to say I felt like an idiot, and never again forgot to check my blind-spot.
Luckily the damage was minor, but the affair still cost us $300. Another accident a couple of years later seemed even less significant (I backed into a parked car) but ended up costing a lot more because it just so happened to catch the driver-side door at the wrong angle. A $1000 deductible and 3 years of higher insurance premiums for what looked like a little ding. I haven’t been in an accident since high school, but owning a car never gotten any cheaper. Loan payments, insurance, regular oil and filter changes, maintenance and repairs and gas, gas and more gas add up to an incredibly costly investment.
I’ve owned four cars, which were purchased for $6000, $1000 (from a family member), $11,000 (plus $3000 interest) and $5500 (plus $800 interest). I ran the first one into the ground, prematurely, as I did not realize the problem was fixable until it no longer was. The second was traded 6 years later for $800. The third I sold for $2000 (that was some serious depreciation!), and the fourth I also sold for $2000. That’s over $20,000 in sunk costs, not to mention hundreds of dollars a year for insurance, thousands of dollars a year in gas, and who knows how much more for repairs, major and minor.
Today I own no cars, three adult bikes, three children’s bikes, a bike-trailer and a Laufrad. All-told they cost somewhat less than 500€, require no gas or insurance beyond my normal personal liability insurance (pretty much necessary in Germany), and I can repair almost anything that goes wrong with them myself. If the worst came to the very worst, I could replace any one of them for under 200€. If I had to do that every other month all year, it would cost me less than I was paying in insurance for my cars in the US.
Last night I spent two hours fixing a flat tire on my bike, re-aligning my daughter’s chain, and adding a new coupling for the bike-trailer to my wife’s bike. It was the most effort I’ve had to spend on the bikes at one time all year, and it cost me 11€ for the coupling and a 10-cent patch. Later this week I might replace my rear brake-pads. That will set me back another 5€ and about 20 minutes. I don’t even want to think about what a blown tire, a drive-shaft problem, a new trailer hitch and new brakes would have cost on a car, even if I could fix them myself, but I’m fairly certain it would be just a bit more than 16€.
Living in Göttingen, I go almost everywhere by bike. I have a basket that suffices for a small bag or a few items, and if I need to move something bigger, I can use the bike trailer. If we need to go somewhere too far for the kids to bike themselves, they also can ride in the trailer (which is what it is actually designed for). We even have a kid’s seat on my wife’s bike that can be used in good weather. Two or three times a month we might take a bus instead, especially if our destination is up a steep hill or the weather is really nasty, and a couple times a year we may have reason to rent a car for a longer trip, though we usually just take the train. That goes everywhere, is comfortable and convenient, and isn’t necessarily expensive if you buy your tickets in advance or take the slower trains.
When I think of all the years I insisted on climbing into my car to drive 2 minutes down the road in the states, it seems absurd. Who on earth decided that it was a good idea to power 2000 lbs. of metal, glass and plastic by burning an expensive and highly explosive liquid, when a 20 pound bicycle powered by your own two legs could get you there just as quickly?
To state the obvious: A bike requires virtually no natural resources to use, produces no pollution, gives great exercise, and costs pennies on the dollar to maintain. On a sunny day it is better than a convertible, and far more peaceful. It is fully customizable and just about anyone can learn to repair one. When was the last time you tried to replace anything more complicated than a lightbulb on your car? I don’t even know what half the things under the hood do, much less how to fix them, while even my five year old can understand how a bike works. Yet despite all these advantages, few Americans even consider using a bike as a regular means of transportation, much less an exclusive one. For most of us (myself included before this year), biking is a form of recreation, nothing more.
To be sure, shopping and other errands require better planning on a bike, but that’s a small sacrifice. There are also risks involved–if a car hits a bike, the bike loses, every time–but I’m not convinced that biking is any less safe than driving in general, particularly in a city with good bike paths. A more common problem is weather, though with proper clothing that is not as big of an issue as one might expect. Heavy snow can sometimes make biking impossible, but personally I’d rather bike in the snow than in the rain, especially when the temperature is in the mid-30s–like today. Often the best you can do then is wait it out, as even wet days are rarely consistently rainy.
A bigger headache is broken glass. Bike tires are a lot more fragile than steel-belted radials, and people around here seem to have a bad habit of breaking beer bottles right in the middle of the bike lanes. It happens so often, I’ve begun to suspect it’s intentional. It’s rare if I can go a week before finding a new patch of broken shards somewhere along my usual route to work, and it is not always easy to see them quick enough to avoid them. Even so, the city has enough street-sweepers to do a reasonably good job of clearing such things up, and my flat tire this week was surprisingly the first I’ve had on this bike, and only the fourth I’ve had to fix all year.
Of course, if you’d rather not face the weather and the beer-bottle mine-fields, you can always ride the bus. It would take a lot of 2€ bus fare to add up to the cheapest used car, and even a monthly pass will be a fraction of the typical car payment. Sure, buses are less convenient than your own sedan, but they certainly beat sitting in traffic. That I once to looked down on people who took the bus just seems silly now. Why drive when I can sit and read while someone else takes me where I need to go? And if I do want to get there faster, even a car is no quicker than a bike over short trips, since a biker doesn’t have to stick to the roads or find a parking place. All told, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually wished I had a car in the last year.
Granted, there are probably few better places in the world to live without a vehicle than in Göttingen. It is a medium-sized city in a mostly flat valley, with moderate weather and a compact city-center. Besides the excellent transit system, there are bike paths on almost every street and most other places as well. Many stores have more bike-stands than parking spots, and drivers are well-accustomed to watching out for riders. Much of the downtown area is closed to traffic entirely, and it is amazing how that one rule can make a city of 100,000 feel more like a small town, without eliminating the conveniences of living in a city. It is almost impossible to go downtown without running into someone you know, simply because everyone is walking rather than racing past each other in their cars. Seeing a friend means you can actually have a conversation, not just a honk and a wave.
Unfortunately, it simply would not be possible to live without a car in most places in America. Urban sprawl, lack of decent bike lanes and unwary drivers would make biking impractical if not dangerous, especially with kids. Before we moved to Germany, my wife worked 30 miles from home and I went to school 60 miles away, and the only way we could have moved closer would have been to quit my job. Even going into town meant driving a couple of miles along a stretch of highway with a 55 mph speed limit and no sidewalks. Bus service was spotty at best, and train service a joke. To live without a car there would have been virtually impossible. But maybe if more people were willing to try it, more places would devote the resources necessary to make it feasible.
Sometimes I wonder how long it will take me to fall back into the habit of driving everywhere again, if and when we move back to the US. As it stands, I’d be happy to live the rest of my life in a place where I don’t need to own a car. But at the end of the day I can’t deny that a part of me would still love to drive one now and then. After all, I am living in the land of the Autobahn.