What do drugs, Christmas, and cars have in common? They're all subjects of that cultural phenomenon known as "the war on X." Growing interest in autonomy has popularized an imagined future in which car ownership dies and everyone travels around in driverless on-demand pods. We're betting that future never materializes, but some elements of it seem inevitable.
With that in mind, we devised a challenge: Go one week, Monday through Friday, in our quasi-urban college town without using personal vehicles. In so doing, we would see if the current alternatives to vehicle ownership could convincingly replace a car. In addition to biking and walking, we cobbled together a week's worth of transportation using Ann Arbor's limited bus system; ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft; General Motors' short-term car-rental/car-sharing service, Maven; and Spin, a Ford project that scatters rentable electric scooters on sidewalks around town.
Three staffers logged every mile traveled and dollar spent to determine if even the most assumed advantage of a car-free lifestyle—its cost effectiveness—could stand up to scrutiny. Each participant would attempt to achieve a cost-per-mile-traveled lower than that of a personal car (reported by AAA to be $0.59 for a midsize sedan averaging about 15,000 miles a year in 2018). Would five days be enough to convince us to adopt a flexitarian attitude toward commuting? Read on to find out.
Ah, we don't feel like waiting, either. The answer is no.
I've spent most of my adult life in cities, so I was confident I could adapt to the challenge of no-car commuting. I wasn't confident in the Ann Arbor transit network's ability to keep up with my schedule.
The week's biggest annoyance came on Thursday, when I had to get to a sailing class 20 miles away. That meant biking from the office to a nearby bus stop, taking the bus across town to a parking lot where I would pick up a rental car from Maven, then driving to the appointed lake.
There's a certain satisfaction when complicated schemes work out, but that almost never happens. In this case, my bus was canceled, so I biked most of the way to my rental and then used a Spin scooter to finish when I got impatient. The drive north was easy, but it was also pricey at $38 for 37 miles of driving.
Those logistical gymnastics made me think fondly of the time I boarded a train in Manhattan and got off at a platform with steps that led straight to the Appalachian Trail, no transfers necessary. But most places are more like Ann Arbor than New York City: If public transit exists at all, it makes car-free living technically possible but still hugely limiting.
Average cost per mile: $0.74
A week without getting behind the wheel made me appreciate that driving itself is a welcome distraction from daily life. My commute breaks up my day and exercises the parts of my brain that go unused during the long hours I spend at my desk—although, given the number of people whose eyes remain glued to their phones when they're driving, not everyone feels this way.
Riding on a bus or sitting in the back seat of a Lyft is far less engaging, so I found myself seeking more engrossing distractions when I was just a passenger. I listened to podcasts, browsed Twitter, and partook in frivolous conversations on Car and Driver's Slack channels. (My mobile data usage rose accordingly, and who knows what my coworkers were supposed to be doing?)
I never got bored while bicycling around town. Exposed to the elements and constantly aware of my vulnerability on the road, I was physically and mentally focused on getting where I needed to go. In that way, riding a bike is more exciting than driving a car, even if the speeds are lower and the only thumping V-8 soundtrack you hear makes you think of the Marauders from Mad Max. It's also a lot of work, which makes it difficult for me to imagine relying on a bike for daily travel—even though doing so would be better for both the environment and my health. Having access to a car allows me to be lazy, but I'd rather not give up the privilege of driving.
Average cost per mile: $0.42
The bicycle is easily my preferred mode of recreation. Efficient, silent, rapid, and enabling adventures on a grand scale while asking only for pedal pushing in return, it's hard to beat for the money. It also offers a glimpse into the world of movement unencumbered by glass or sound insulation. But when asked to be a commuting tool, and when used exclusively as one, the bicycle tells a slightly different story.
Use a bike in place of a car for daily transportation and it will force you to think about life in basic terms. And it will do so with the constant reminder that you should remain ever vigilant, especially around humans driving automobiles or in adverse weather conditions. Like when the guy in the white Toyota Sienna executes a right turn across your path without looking or signaling. Or when one of Michigan's high-energy thunderstorms unleashes its fury three miles from home.
At 15.7 miles one way, my commute was no small commitment and required an average of one hour and six seconds at 15.8 mph. Given that a one-way drive normally takes me only about 20 minutes, easily the biggest burden to bike commuting was the extra hour and 20 minutes it extracted daily from my life. Which, when you think about it, is a hell of a lot less than it could have asked of me.
Average cost per mile: $0.05
And the winner is . . .
In the end, we chose to bike most of the time because Ann Arbor is geographically small, the buses rarely run on schedule, and everything else is simply too expensive to make sense.
So it turns out that cars are here for a reason. We don't want to live without them, and we also can't, really. In cities with robust public-transit options like New York, it might be possible to go without. But in plenty of other places, including our town, the transit that exists turns cities into islands where car-free living works—but barely. Plus, despite whatever Jacquot says about the majesty of the bicycle, the zero-to-60 time is too slow to justify the increased chance of a grisly death.
From the September 2019 issue.
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