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When Cars Are Like Condoms (Or, Why I Love Transit)

September 16th, 2012 by Alison · 2 Comments · entertainment, money, transportation, urban-rural divide

Bright, sunny skies today in Montreal, Canada, where I’m enjoying a car-free* vacation with my husband Thor. We Streetcar i Montreal, Canadachose Montreal partly because it has the luxury of a good transit system. In rural areas and small towns, which I also love to visit, cars are often necessities. But why are we choosing to navigate Montreal by transit, which is to say: when is a car like a condom?

 It’s not just that transit is saving us a few hundred dollars in car rental, gas and parking costs, though that could be a fine reason by itself. My prime reason is that using transit, when it’s frequent and reliable as it is here, lets me join the cardio-pulmonary system of the city, flowing and coursing in its arteries and through its life-giving organs. Transit is inclusive, connective, letting me be close to the pulse of a place. A car in a big city, in contrast, is like a condom, creating a sterile blood-barrier between me and the vibrant city. In this context, the  closed-off personal car is about caution and containment and protection from things I wasn’t worried about in the first place. Using a car in Montreal would mean loss of contact and loss of fun (though I firmly support condoms in the context of safe sex. There’s a time and place for everything. :))

 I find a good transit system liberating, beyond its sustainability aspects. Let me explain. When I’m on transit I can flirt with adorable little children, stand up and stretch like a cat, or take notes while local folks give me the low-down on their favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants. A rental car encloses me, isolates me from all that juicy stuff, and dares to charge me lots of money in the process. No wonder I’m passing on a car for this vacation, and buying a transit pass instead.

Choosing transit over a car was made much easier by the fact that Thor and I are traveling with just two smallish bags apiece. If we were lugging around the gargantuan suitcases stacked on rolling carts that you see some travelers with in airline terminals, we’d be car-dependent by default. Addiction to great mounds of possessions can in effect cripple you for the purpose of using transit. I diligently practice-packed last weekend for this feat, new to me, of taking no checked bags on a week-long vacation. I also canvassed my Facebook friends for inspiration and encouragement, and was humbled to learn that six of my girlfriends routinely vacation with only carry-ons. (Conversely, two male friends told me they’re incapable of limiting their stuff that tightly. Their stereotype-busting confessions make me smile.)

My point is that one thrifty, chiseled-down, diamond-cut choice leads to another, i.e., traveling with just four compact bags, which saved us $50 or more in checked baggage fees, in turn enabled us to be transit-dependent instead of car-dependent, which saved us a few hundred additional dollars. Good consumption choices create ripple effects, just as smiles and generousity do.

Another benefit is that in avoiding a car, Thor and I are also avoiding arguments.  I have a loving, rewarding marriage, a diamond-cut marriage. Even so, we fight at times, and some of Thor’s and my worst arguments ever have taken place in cars, with directions and driving-styles being the perennial topics on which we, um, differ vigorously. Transit transports us wonderfully away from such conflicts. A third party, a professional yet, is driving, so we relax and gawk appreciatively out the window, point interesting things out to each other, hold hands and occasionally kiss (fight? Not us!).

With transit, we also do much more walking than we’d do if we had a car. Walking and moving around makes me feel dynamic, sensual, sexy, in contrast to the cramped, confined, clammy feeling I get from sitting in a city’s maddening stop-and-go traffic. I admit that a car feels like a freedom-machine when I’m driving it down the Oregon coast, or the Rogue Valley, or between my beloved small towns. But it feels like the opposite in a big city. In a dense urban area, like the Montreal context and I’d say the San Francisco, New York City, etc., as well, I suggest a personal car takes on the worst characteristics of a condom. Transit, when it’s frequent and reliable, can be like a healthy cardio-pulmonary system that embraces and includes you, connecting you to the life-pulse of the city. That’s why I love transit.   

* The exception to our car-free vacation was taking a taxi to the airport at 5:30 a.m. yesterday morning.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Colleen

    I agree with this post — transit-takers get closer to the pulse of a place, for sure, than those driving cars. My comment, though, is about your ” * ” that reveals your airport taxi-ride. I think this could be its own post: the merits of taxi-taking! If you think about it, most taxi trips are naturally efficient, keeping multiple people in the car almost all the time while employing the driver. When the taxi driver drops you off, he/she likely picks up someone else in the area soon after. It’s also one of the key ‘entry jobs’ for new immigrants and refugees that have resettled in the United States. When I take a taxi (usually to/from the airport) I love to talk to the driver — usually someone from a different country with a unique background. In this way, taxi-taking can be not only socially and culturally engaging, but efficient and often cheaper than parking at the airport (which takes extra time, too).

  • Alison

    Colleen, I like this insight, especially about entry-level jobs for immigrants and refugees. I’ve had some great conversations with taxi drivers from other countries, too. And I’ve happily never paid for overnight parking at an airport.

    I’ve always heard, though, that drivers can’t or don’t ever turn their cars off, even if they go hours between fares during the graveyard shift, for example. That makes me sad, because cars pollute at higher levels when they’re idling.

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