Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Yesterday, I Drove

Ok, I cheated. After 14 days of no driving locally, I drove to a salon for a haircut. The combination of 97-degree heat and a desire to be socially acceptable (i.e., not arrive drenched in sweat) won out over my resolution to go 30 days without using the car to run errands. The good news is that I now have a hair stylist I like 3 miles from my home in Chapel Hill, rather than 12 miles away in Durham.

Although I ended my car-free experiment early, I am more committed than ever to working to reduce my use of the car. And I learned a few things that I’d like to share.

Biking for transportation is a great workout. When I ride to work, I arrive more awake and less in need of coffee. My energy level improves, too, every time I get on the bike. Although it’s been hot, I find I am more acclimated to the heat the more time I spend outdoors. One extra incentive: My husband said yesterday, “Do you realize how great you look since you started biking?”

Going without a car in suburban Chapel Hill is feasible, but not easy. I live between 2 and 3 miles from shopping centers and 3.5 miles from downtown Chapel Hill. These are fairly short distances via bike, but riding in this area is made more difficult by hills and more dangerous by fast traffic and lack of consistent bike lanes on major roads. I consider Estes Dr. to be too dangerous to ride on, and while I will ride on MLK Blvd. and Franklin St., I don’t particularly enjoy it because of the traffic. I appreciate the free bus system and often take the bus to work at UNC Hospitals. However, because I would need to change buses unless I’m going to campus or downtown, I don’t see the bus system as a great alternative for running errands.

Before starting this experiment, I had no idea how much I drove. Basically, I gave no thought to my use of the car. (I suspect that is true for most of us who can still afford gas despite recent price increases.) I took it for granted that when I wanted to drive somewhere, I could hop in the car and go. Usually I did not even bother to combine errands-- planning and organizing activities is not my strong point. I have taken quizzes online to calculate my carbon footprint and would inevitably be stumped by the question on how many miles I drive annually. 5,000? 10,000? 12,000? I had no clue. Finally, I looked up my mileage at the last time I recorded an oil change and was able to deduce that I drive approximately 8,000 miles per year.

Driving less requires making the decision to support local businesses. I already supported this view philosophically, because I believe that local businesses give a community its identity and help keep town centers strong. Going without a car for awhile narrowed the range to which I ventured from my home to about four miles. During that time, I realized that pretty much everything I need is available in Chapel Hill or Carrboro--coffee shops, a variety of restaurants, libraries, book stores, several grocery stores, farmer’s market, hardware store, garden centers. I am much less likely now to drive to a chain store outside of town to save a few bucks, because I am so much more conscious of the hidden costs in carbon emissions and to the viability of local stores.

Although I failed to meet my goal of 30 days car-free, I think I gained what I was looking for—a step back that forced me to think hard about my use of the car. I will definitely continue to bike for transportation as much as possible to help me meet a new goal: 30 percent annual reduction in miles driven.