About a month ago, my beloved 1989 Chevy Celebrity gasped its last breath while I was driving on a rural road in central Texas. Devastated, I rushed it to the nearest mechanic, only to hear the phrase every owner of an ancient car dreads.
“You need a new engine.”
“I see,” I responded. “But is it driveable?”
“Maybe your husband should come in so I can describe the problem to someone with more experience.”
I told him I was unmarried and asked if the engine could be rebuilt, hopefully for less than $1,000, or possibly for free. I took his hysterical laughter as a sign that he was considering it, but alas, he was not. So I sold it for scrap metal, which netted me a quick $300 that I used to buy a nice bike. If you are in the market for a beater car, definitely look for one with a metal body. It is slightly less efficient on gas, but if you plan to drive it until it dies, you’ll get more money out of it for parts than a plastic-based vehicle. I once sold a 2003 Saturn and got about $60, which was just the last in a series of regrets related to said car.
Unfortunately this (likely foreseeable) car crisis coincided with my plans to move back to Los Angeles, to escape another Texas summer. I considered postponing my move until I could get the car situation handled, but I had already paid for classes at my hometown community college because I am a perpetual student and I didn’t want to figure out a new apartment. So I decided to go for it, sans vehicle. I am a person who is prone to expensive and time-consuming car problems as it is. Taking on a car payment on my already-stretched budget seemed like a mistake that would lead directly to me eating Ramen and drinking jug wine while crying about money problems. Plus, I had been hearing great things about the expanding public transportation system in Southern California, and I always wanted to be a person who rode a bike for the inflated sense of moral superiority…I mean, to save the environment. Plus, in a pinch, I could always use Uber. Which is now banned in much of Texas.
And so, with almost no forethought, I decided to go for it. I was going to join the ranks of cyclists and become a better me.
I have now been living without a car for over a month, and I have to say: I’m undecided. I really enjoy my expanded lung capacity, but the world seems much bigger now, and I am not sure if I like it. Here is what I’ve learned so far:
1. It is definitely cost-effective. This was my major reason for trying this out, and it has turned out pretty much as I expected. The upfront costs to getting a bike in road-worthy condition were more than I anticipated (about $200, plus the cost of the bike) but that is because I am an overly-optimistic judge of finances. I know I am not blowing your mind when I tell you cars cost money. If you are me, they cost lots of money. Between gas, insurance, routine maintenance, emergency maintenance, and parking tickets, they can easily get into the $1,000-range every month. Even with my current tendency to take Uber when I feel lazy, I am definitely doing myself a financial service.
2. Every part of my stupid body hurts. True story, I am the least in-shape skinny girl you will ever meet. I had a brief dalliance with biking as my main mode of transportation during a semester abroad in college, and I managed to get heat stroke on three separate occasions. In Sweden. (It was sort of impressive). When I started biking again last month, I would get to my class (2.7 miles away, according to my phone’s pedometer app) and immediately cry about having to go back home in three hours. Now, I am up to five miles at a stretch without dying, but I would be lying if I said I enjoyed it.
3. Google can’t help you. The biking directions have been in beta mode for as long as I can remember, and that probably won’t change anytime soon. I now use it as more of a general guideline than hard-and-fast directions. There is something so uniquely frustrating about a company saving every weird search you ever make for all eternity and still not discerning that you probably don’t want to take the most direct route if it includes a mile of uphill climbing. You should know me better than this, Google. You know everything else about me.
4. The moral superiority. I’m saving the planet, you guys. Seriously. Let me tell you about it…over the phone, because I sure as hell am not leaving my house if I don’t absolutely have to. Still, it makes for a better excuse for my biking lifestyle than “I cannot be trusted to notice a check engine light until my vehicle is literally emitting smoke.”
5. It forces you to be smart with your resources. I have a tendency to treat my car as an extension of my closet, and left to my own devices, everything I own will slowly migrate to it. Now I feel every extra pound I’m carrying, and it’s forced me to be judicious about what I need for the day. I have also gotten smart about my route. If work is a mile from school and three miles from my house, you better believe I will stick around the library for awhile to save myself the added seven miles. As someone who tends to procrastinate, this is probably useful. Even with the added travel time, I suddenly have way more hours in the day.
6. My body is my temple. You know what I love more than anything? Pizza. And pasta. And wiping out my weekly food budget at Taco Bell. However, riding a bike with a stomach full of empty calories does not feel good. This experience has taught me that food really is fuel and not just a method of putting yourself in a grease-coma, so I have been making an effort to eat better. Luckily, I quit smoking over a year ago; I do think my smoking contributed to the previous heat stroke experiences, and I won’t be starting up again anytime soon. Alcohol terrifies me now, not just for reasons I mentioned in a previous article, but because riding while drunk could seriously kill you. I know the same could be said for drinking and driving, but the fear is just more immediate when you can feel every gust of wind on your face. And as much as it causes me physical pain, I realized that coffee was making me nauseous on my morning ride, so I stopped that for awhile. I started buying it at school, though, because I am not a fucking cyborg and I really do need caffeine to function. Plus, I am saving so much in car repairs that I can afford to relax my spending a bit.
7. My friends are seriously the best. I have one friend that lives around the block from me, and I love that this experience has made us both hang out more. I am insanely grateful for the people who will drive 40 minutes in rush hour traffic to take me to a movie with them. I try to buy them dinner (especially since being in a car means I get to stuff myself past the point of all reason rather than responsibly drinking a green smoothie), but I know it is frustrating for my friends who are accommodating my new life choice.
8. I am developing mechanical skills. A few days ago, I hit a curb that I thought was flat. It wasn’t, and my bike chain fell off. Despite this being literally the easiest fix of all time, it took me about half an hour to fix it by the side of the road. And I was so proud I high-fived myself and texted like three people to brag about my genius. My male friend said he was proud that I was developing dude skills. He was wrong: I am developing life skills. I have ovaries of steel.
9. You feel more connected to your city. I can get my eyebrows threaded for $4, right around the corner from me. I never would have seen that from a car. I also discovered an all-you-can-eat sushi special that looks either delicious or terrifying; I’m not sure which one. I live in such a culturally interesting place, and I didn’t notice that as a car-driver. Sure, I miss Texas BBQ and air conditioning, but I am really enjoying being out in the world more.
10. We do not live in a bike-friendly world. Yes, I live in a place with amazing weather and adequate pubic transportation, but “better than some places” is still not good enough. I would really like America to transition away from being such a commuting economy. It’s not mentally healthy, and it contributes to obesity. Finding jobs that I can get to without spending two hours in transit has been an awkward experience, and any form of construction tends to make bike lanes impossible-to-use. Plus, cars straight up do not know how to deal with you, and their displeased honking can be a jarring wake-up call.
Ultimately, I am glad I made this decision, although I am not sure how sustainable it is in the long-term. The mental health benefits from the exercise alone have done wonders for me, and I see now that I was unnecessarily miserable sitting in traffic all day. I will still need a car for certain errands and day trips, but I am finding myself more focused and present in my daily life. And my thighs could probably crush someone. So that’s pretty cool. If anyone has any tips, please send them my way. I am still learning about this and can use all the help I can get!
Caly is an Austin cliché who is working on her Paralegal Certificate. She has read more biographies of trashy celebrities than any feminist should, and if you have a good one, send it her way.
Image via Flickr