Saturday, May 24, 2008

Life as a Non-Driver

Anne Corwin, over at Existence is Wonderful, recently wrote a blog entry about her experiences in trying to learn to drive a car and being a non-driver in an autonomous-transportation-centric society.

I've never driven a real automobile. My driving experience is limited to a few go-karts and bumper cars at amusement parks as a teenager. A few people reading this are probably saying to themselves, "well, duh, you're blind, of course you don't drive." It's not that simple--I didn't become legally blind until I was 19 years old, well after the age when most American teenagers have at least some experience driving, if not a full driver's license. I don't think there's a single overwhelming reason why I've never driven, it's a combination of many factors. I don't think I would necessarily pursue driving if I had normal vision--and I'm not entirely convinced that I've ever had normal vision, due to congenital cataracts and autistic sensory processing differences, so I doubt that I would see normally even if my eyes were fixed. I don't want to get into the ethical and neurological can of worms that is Giving Sight to The Blind, as that's a complex issue that deserves its own entry or even series of entries.

I could get smug about the environmental consequences of personal automobiles, but the reality is that I do still make use of them when I take a taxi or get a ride from someone rather than walking or using public transit. True, I use these far less than someone who owns a vehicle (or who has the monetary resources to use taxis frequently), but I do use them, for utility purposes (groceries, dentist appointments), for mid-range purposes (like visiting relatives or going to political activism groups) and for frivolous/recreation purposes (going to a movie or non-essential shopping trips).

What this does make me do is consider things, and plan for things, more than the average car-owning adult. I try to make shopping lists because if I forget something chances are it'll be a few days (or even a whole week) before I can get to a far-away store again. I combine multiple errands into a single trip, which, while it is probably more fuel and time-efficient, is frequently taxing on my sensory processing and coping abilities. I am fortunate in that I have a close friend who is willing to drag my ass around town on boring errands a couple of times a week, and is also willing to help me navigate the obnoxious environments presented by most American retail establishments. I have been mock-threatening for the past couple of year to write the Grocery Store Hater's Manifesto, and I may yet do so.

Being a non-driver and non-car-owner has economic advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious advantages are not having to pay (directly, anyway) for fuel, for the vehicle itself, for maintenance/repairs, for insurance, and even for nickel-and-dime stuff like car washes or toll roads (my state, incidentally, does not have toll roads, and I was rather confused when I first encountered them on a marching band trip as a teenager). There are disadvantages, however. As I've said previously, I can't just go to grocery store as soon as I run out of something. There's a precarious balance between buying enough to last between grocery trips and not buying so much that it spoils and goes to waste--not so easy when one is the only human member of one's household. Food that has been processed in such a way as to make it last longer before spoiling is usually not as healthful as fresher, less processed foods. The true costs of various types of foods gets murky when one considers long-term health consequences of low-quality foods, as well as less immediately tangible things like the energy and environmental costs of agriculture, food transport, and food processing (I've been reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, in case you can't tell).

Bus transport, while not as expensive as operating a personal vehicle, is still not as cheap as non-bus-riders think it is. Actually, very little of regular bus travel matches up with the average non-bus-rider's impression of it. Buses operate on fixed routes and fixed schedules, and these routes and schedules often don't match up very well with each other. This results in long, roundabout routes and lots of waiting exposed to the elements (and frequently smokers who ignore the clearly posted rules forbidding smoking in bus shelters). In the metropolitan area in which I live, the local public transit authority issues transfer tickets that are good for 2 1/2 hours. A cursory glance might lead a person to the conclusion that if a particular trip is 30 minutes each way, and a person's errand at the destination lasts about 45 minutes, that would leave plenty of time to only have to pay that one fare for the round trip. If the schedule doesn't work out that way, you're out of luck. Also, on some routes, you pay the fare when you get on the bus, some when you get off, which changes how long a particular trip can last without going over the transfer time limit. Bus fares themselves are much more expensive than one might imagine, and add up quickly, even if one uses a pass or discounted stored value card. If I had to take a bus to work, I'd have to make at least $1 more per hour just to be able to afford to go to work. Relying on public transit (or carpooling) can also limit one's employment options to areas that are reachable in a reasonable amount of time (or at all) and at the times one needs to go to work or come home. And if the bus drivers go on strike (as they did here a couple of years ago) you could lose your job, too. The other details of bus travel probably deserve their own entry as well.

1 comment:

Adrian Preston said...

Pedantic note: We have at least one toll road. The divided carpool road is a toll road for single occupancy vehicles.