‘One Less Car’ finally goes behind the wheel

Here’s hoping you were right. Over the course of a semester-long tutorial on automobiles and American civilization, my professor used to always say that it would make for a great story when I finally decided to get my driver’s license. And I always bristled at that word “finally” and the assumption behind it. The centerpiece of my environmentalism – my interest in alternative transportation, particularly bicycle transportation – represented too much to me to consider abandoning it.

For four years, “One Less Car” was my identity. That catchy (if grammatically incorrect; thank you former Record features editor Chrissy Fletcher) slogan of bicycle coalitions nationwide appeared in my email handle, on my favorite tee-shirt, and even my college application essay. Make no mistake, it was my greatest gimmick. But now it’s gone. That’s right. This summer, I learned how to drive. I expected to return to school triumphant, having spent the summer talking Silicon Valley out of its cars and onto recumbent bikes, or at least public buses. Instead, I found that three months of work could make hardly a dent in the American auto culture.

Please understand that this license had nothing to do with the pursuit of coolness. Nor was I simply “tired of the whole nonsense,” as my friends suggested. In fact, I’m sure I could have kept going, I was just thinking ahead.

One day, when I’m 35 and coaching water polo, I’m not going to be able to hitch rides to games with my players. I don’t have a problem saying, “Hey Jimmy, can you check with your mom to see if she has extra room in her car for the tournament tomorrow?” But I don’t imagine it would fly too well with anybody else.

Don’t get me wrong; I much prefer to ride my bike, or even take a bus. But in sprawling Silicon Valley, transportation does not work like that. It can’t. I have commuted five miles to work on my bike each of the last two summers, and others regularly ride longer distances. But the region was designed for highway travel, making bicycle commuters indignant radicals and bus-riders resentful of their long waits. My family and friends surrendered to that reality long before I did. In the meantime, they had certainly been looking forward to the moment they all knew would come.

My father proudly told his tennis buddies that that I was maturing and had learned the value of compromise (although we both are still voting for Ralph Nader). My neighbor approvingly told me that I was now “more of the world.”

My little brother asked for a ride to Anika’s party. I gave it to him, of course, as part of my two-week orgy of internal combustion between getting my license and the start of school. To dinner, to the movies, to the party, to the next town, to Lake Tahoe. If we were going there, I was driving.

It was a far cry from last May, when I rejoiced at a lecture by Dr. Warren Leon, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who confirmed my long-held beliefs. “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that personal use of cars and light trucks is the single most [environmentally] damaging consumer behavior,”wrote Dr. Leon in his book, The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices.

I actually haven’t changed that much. Despite the suggestion of a few JAs, I am not about to change my handle to “One More Car” (thank you Brian Michener ’02 and Alix Partnow ’02). I am not, as I continually have to remind my parents, a driver.

If anything productive may come of this whole experience, it is that lesson. A driver’s license does not automatically force anyone to drive. The private automobile is simply a choice. Frequently, such as when going to the airport or on a family vacation, it is the best choice. But there are many other transportation choices people can make, and many other situations when driving becomes an almost unthinkable choice in light of the alternatives.

Leon’s book lists the three leading reasons people cite for driving as much as they do–driving is affordable, suburban sprawl sometimes make it necessary, and driving is often convenient and satisfying. Those statements are fair ones, and many people have other reasons as well. But unless we actually consider what those reasons are, we can never make logically choose whether or not to drive.

The next trip you make, consider the reasons to get there without driving. Dr. Leon categorizes the litany of environmental concerns that might stop you from driving. Right off the top of my head, I can think of 47,000 other reasons, or the number of people that die on the road each year. Consider the space annihilated each year to make room for parking spaces, the exercise that you could be missing, the tribal Nigerians who hang for protesting Shell’s influence in their homeland.

These are just some of the concerns that kept me from getting a driver’s license for four years. They can, and should, frequently keep others from driving.

Weigh these consequences of taking a car and, more often than, you will find that you, too, can be one less car on the road. So next time you need to go somewhere—whether it’s the field, Spring Street, the Science Quad or the supermarket—think long and hard about how you want to get there. And, if you decide that the best way is in a car, call me. Maybe I’ll give you a ride.