After living in China without a personal car for almost two years, I decided to give what I call the “vehiculess” life in Vermont a whirl. So far, it’s gone really well.
The biggest surprise to me has been the shock of friends and colleagues who can’t believe that it’s possible to live in rural Vermont without a car. But due to the central location of my Middlebury apartment, the rapidly expanding and improving Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR) bus lines, and my love for biking, I haven’t needed a car outside of work.
But before we get into how it’s going, let’s talk about why. I have many reasons for making this decision, but three stand taller than the rest: Personal cars are draining the nation’s finances and purchasing one would surely deplete mine, our current transportation model is restricting U.S. development and it’s terribly energy inefficient and environmentally hazardous.
Cars are expensive. Their upfront cost is high; upkeep costs add up; you have to pay insurance, tax and registration fees; and the price of oil keeps on skyrocketing. According to the 2011 VTrans report “Transportation and Energy,” transportation is the second-highest expenditure for Vermont households, and this phenomenon is due in large part to the fact that 94 percent of residents drive a personal car to work.
Furthermore, cars don’t hold their value. Even the car-buying service CarsDirect concedes that “the standard depreciation rate for a car is between 15 and 20 percent each year.”
For a fairly recent college graduate with substantial student loan debt, buying a car would be fiscal suicide.
On a national level, the paradigm of the personal car is also eating away at our economic vitality. We’ve known for decades that our heavy reliance on oil is a drain on our financial security as currency has flowed one way out of our economy and into countries like Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
As we begin to slam into the environmental and economic parameters of a finite supply of oil, it’s importantto consider revamping our transportation network to help avoid a financial meltdown when oil demand outstrips supply.
The single most impressive element of China’s development, to me, is its transportation system, which leaves the U.S. system swirling in a sea of dust, like an ancient relic.
The average Chinese person is incredibly mobile without owning a personal car. An extensive, well-maintained rail network links the entire country together and every city, town and rural prefecture that I’ve visited has excellent public transportation. The increased mobility that a well-connected, affordable public transportation network provides is one of the chief factors contributing to China’s economic success.
I believe that an equally well-connected and affordable transportation network set up in this country would free up personal funds and increase civilian mobility to give the U.S. economy a much-needed boost. But, this progress will only occur if there is strong demand and action from the people.
ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT
Our present transportation system uses excessive amounts of the world’s most dynamic resource — our roads are paved with oil, our cars are lubricated with oil and of course the internal combustion engine burns oil.
According to VTrans, transportation accounts for 33 percent of Vermont’s total energy use and contributes 44 percent of the state’s greenhouse gases.
It should be no surprise that the 2009 University of Vermont study “The Vermont Transportation Energy Report” found that transportation consumes more petroleum than any other facet of the state’s economy — including industrial manufacturing, residential energy use and commercial energy use — devouring 417.8 million gallons of gas and diesel in 2007 and 400.6 million gallons in 2008.
Luckily, there is plenty of room for improvement.
While the UVM study showed that a personal vehicle with only one person gets less than 30 miles to the gallon, it also found that — based on the actual number of passengers reported — a motor coach gets over 180 miles per person from a gallon of fuel and a train gets just under 160 miles per person from that same gallon.
According to these numbers, a passenger on a motor coach gets six times the mileage of a person driving solo in his or her car.
DEALING WITHOUT ONE
Returning from Asia, it was jarring to run headfirst into a society that practically demands private car ownership.
Fortunately for me, I came across a progressively minded boss — espousing social justice in his weekly editorials — who empathizes with my position.
Admittedly, the only time that I do sometimes require a car is for my job as a reporter. To report on various news events often demands that I arrive at an event or appointment at the drop of a hat. There are also other times, such as evening selectboard and planning commission meetings, when ACTR buses don’t run and I don’t want to pedal my bike through the dark with cars whizzing by.
Thankfully, my boss and colleagues have been a huge support to me, providing me with wheels in those tight situations.
Half of the stories that I have reported on, however, haven’t employed the use of a car. I rode my bike to the grand opening of the Common Ground Center’s Eco-Lodge in Starksboro last weekend, and I pedaled over to Aurora School for the story about founder Susan Vigne in last Thursday’s paper.
I walk to work every day. The bank, grocery store, farmers’ market, hardware store and lumber yard aren’t more than a five-minute stroll from my front door.
Even if I could afford a car, I really wouldn’t need one.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected] and you can follow his vehiculess adventures on the blog www.vehiculess.com.