Ithaca Blog

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Car Owning: A Compromise

In four previous pieces here on Ithaca Blog, we've looked at TCAT, Tompkins County's bus system, and analyzed its operations, and seen that TCAT has much to offer Ithacans looking for alternatives to polluting, expensive, wasteful automobile ownership.

A couple of drawbacks to being without a car: car ownership is convenient, and a car is helpful to one's social standing, or at least social life. These drawbacks have already been acknowledged and accepted.

But of course, they can't be dismissed.

As a healthy fellow, living downtown, single, I can take care of a lot of my needs without a car. But it's a lot harder for someone with a family, or poor health, or living in a remote area.

The status issue, I do feel. Earlier in this series we mentioned the "loser" aspect of being without a car. A good self-image can help that. But what is hard to help, is becoming a ride mooch on your friends.

You don't want to. You try not to. But say you're making plans with someone, and they're driving, and you're not. You will end up riding with them. Once, twice, a few times. It's no big deal . Yet.

You will try to make it up to them. You'll buy gas. You'll pay for the movie. But guess what? They will still end up getting annoyed. At least a little. Maybe not soon. But eventually.

Let's give them full credit. No friend wants to be valued for their resources, or their convenience. That's how it can feel.

So it is really a matter of autonomy. Pardon the pun. Your driving friend is autonomous, and wants you to be, too.

It's a large issue. Because, ironically, autonomy is a big part of getting away from cars in the first place. How autonomous do you feel at the gas pump, paying three dollars a gallon to burn into the sky, because you have somewhere to go, and you don't have a choice? Paying what they tell you, when they tell you? I'm from Brooklyn and I know that relationship. That's the relationship between addict and dealer.

The oil companies, of course, make profits drug dealers only dream of.

The solution, maybe, in fighting one dependence without adopting another, is to replace car owning with car sharing. And to use shared cars along with public transportation, biking, and walking.

The movement for car sharing is flourishing in Europe and now, with the awareness of global warming and the rise in gas prices here, finally in the U.S. Recently, in Ithaca, there have been meetings among some groups interested in bringing the idea here. The next turn in this Ithaca Blog series on carlessness will be to chart this movement, see what it's about, what the options are, and see how the effort can be hastened.

Stephen Burke
for Ithaca Blog


Monica Rolfsen said...

Hi, nice to read your stories on living without a car in Ithaca. We are a Norwegian familiy of four, with two children (11 and 8). We came to Ithaca two weeks ago, and are going to stay here for a year, both adults connected to Cornell. We live downtown, and have decided not to buy a car. We will find out if we make it. We will rent cars for some days a months to buy big/heavy stuff. The rest of the time we will use bikes, feet and buses. It is cheaper and more healthy. We have lived both with and without car in Norway.

I do understand your arguments about the practical issues. It is sort of strange going to the mall on bike, but so far, I think it is a question of planning. I have to choose which heavy items to buy each time to be able to transport it home. There are some problems in the American infrastructure, for instance when we wanted to go to the movies, we discovered that the cinema was far away!

What I don't understand, it is more of a cultural factor, is the feeling of being a looser without a car. In our culture, it is more of a status symbol to be able to live without one.

I will keep on reading on the blogg, and look forward to experience a carless life in Ithaca the next year!


onlymike said...

That's an interesting contrast there Monica, where you say Europeans value living without a car much more.

Even here in liberal Ithaca, I hear regularly about biker friends being verbally abused by carfolk passing by. Kinda strange.

Stephen Burke said...


thank you for your message. It is nice to have information from far away (by the way, welcome to your new, although temporary, home in Ithaca!).

I think I understand how this "loser" attitude about not owning a car seems foreign to your culture. It is also a foreign idea in Manhattan, where owning a car is unnecessary, due to a great mass transit system, and impractical. In Manhattan, mass transit is smart.

Car ownership is largely wasteful no matter where you are, but in most places, only in the big picture. People don't feel the real costs because they don't directly pay for the roads, and the glaciers haven't started melting around their ankles yet. In the short run, then, to the extent the costs can be hidden, car dependency seems normal.

Probably the thing that will change people's minds the fastest is the price at the pump. The situation is certainly tough on working class and middle class people right now. But when isn't it? The time to start acting is now. Thank you for reading and writing. Communicating in our communities is an important step right now.


Jarle Wanvik said...


Perhaps you need an "Uphill helper"?

Please visit

Makes life easier for the cyclists.
Something for Ithaca?