Back in May, I wrote a post about the downsides of a car-free lifestyle. I only touched on the social aspect, and lately I’ve been thinking about it (especially now that I’m back to longer solo bike rides.) So, it depends who you ask. My roommate is sort of car-free, in that he commutes to work, but he shares a car with his wife. For him, it’s not an impediment. Some people in big cities have never known otherwise, so they have nothing to compare it to. So these things are hard to measure objectively. Subjectively, let’s explore.
I last had my own car in January of 2005, when it was smashed into by a guy in a truck. At first I was sad, but then I adjusted. But life looks a lot different now. There are scooters, rideshare, and possibly better public transit. (Austin has one rail line. One.) There’s the internet, cell phones, and all the various communication tools that make it easy to stay in touch with people. Before that crash during another car-less period, my girlfriend at the time was more than happy to drive; she thought my not having a car was actually pretty cool.
Many people in Austin, Texas feel the same. In a number of ways, not having a car here is not that big a deal. I can say that recently having had to borrow cars for work that all they were good for was going to and from the job and doing the work. Afterword, I was too tired to go anywhere — even with a car at my disposal. Previously, I always thought if I really needed to, I could just rent a car. But I never did and still don’t. If I need to, I can sometimes borrow one. Usually I’m just fine without one of those pollution-belching contraptions with the infernal-combustion engines. Or a Prius.
The cool thing about biking takes you places literally and figuratively that a car simply can’t. Like the Southern Walnut Creek Trail; cars are not allowed, and it’s a beautiful ride. As for the social aspect, sure, I’ve met some nice folks while biking there, but it’s not like we have become best chums. I admit it is helpful to have a car ride to get to group rides, but I’m simply not getting up at the butt crack of dawn to go on those. Sometimes I will bike to evening rides. Even when I did the morning ones, we’d chat while we rode, maybe hang out at a coffee shop afterwards, then head our separate ways for the week. Maybe it’s me and I sweat too much.
The bicycle advocacy crowd of course wouldn’t mind me showing up at a happy hour or meeting a bit ripe-smelling; that would be expected. In fact, I passed one of those folks today. We chatted at a couple of lights but made no plans to meet. Sadly, that effort I’ve been involved with for several years now seems to be if not defunct, or at least very inactive. I’ve also met some people through the blog, which is cool, but not a ton, and everyone’s busy. A few of my friends do bike, but rarely. One quit and another is doing his own thing. Others are too fast for me, or they’re too scared to bike on the road. This blog has led to some nice cyber friends, but digital riding is a snooze.
As for other social outlets, few friends who live across town either come visit me, or I see them when I have a car to borrow, but we don’t see each other much. Occasionally there’s an event I might go to but don’t because it’s too hot or raining or I’m tired of biking. Not having a car makes you choose your social outings carefully. In those cases, I do miss out. However, I usually forget I can take the bus and bike home if weather allows. Maybe I could break down and use rideshare, but I’d rather bike, plus it’s expensive.
So yes, not having a car can be limiting in some ways, but a lot of it is perspective. For me, it opens things up in other ways. For example, I can easily walk to the bus station and take it to visit relatives out of town. I walk a few blocks to a train and then get picked up. I don’t have to worry about driving, can take a nap, watch a movie, stare out the window, or talk to my seat mate. Back at home, most of my bike rides are by myself, but lots of people are sitting at home, also flying solo, streaming videos or lost in the not real world of social media. By the way, for me, having plenty of me time is not a problem but a good thing, since I’m more of an introvert than extrovert. Here’s a shot of me on a group ride where we were all having fun.
The area I live in is maybe smaller than that of someone who has a car, but I know it well. We are not best mates, but the librarians give me a friendly smile. Store clerks, bike shop staff, even some homeless folks are familiar to me. These bona fides aren’t to be dismissed cavalierly. They are part of the fabric of life. I also have some long-time friends who live very nearby, but I almost never hear from them, as we’ve gone our separate ways. Meanwhile, some people who live across town or in another county do make the effort to visit. I’ll try to make it up to them with some gas money or a meal on occasion if they’re driving us somewhere. Your true friends will stick with you even if there’s a distance between you.
So am I really missing out, and giving anything up by not having a car? Sure, the occasional get together with a friend or an event. But I’m also sitting out contributing to greenhouse gases and pollution, highway traffic nightmares, the isolation of driving in a car and sucking on air conditioning. Those are all not good things, and the occasional inconvenience.
But I gain a lot. The opportunity to say hi to neighbors walking their dogs, to be in and see nature, to interact with and sometimes ride with fellow bicyclists, and to get some exercise when I go virtually everywhere I need to go. Had I still had a car, I would not have ridden over 21,000 miles since 2015. Or raised over $12,000 for charity in six different rides. So for now, I’m still physically able to bike, and I’m still grateful for that car crash almost 15 years ago. So for me, the answer to the question of this post is “Sometimes, but it’s worth it.”
What about you, if you’re car-free? How social were you before you gave up your car if you had one? Have you had to sacrifice your social life? Have you met a lot of people through bicycling, walking, busing, etc. that you wouldn’t have met while driving a car? Does your bicycling habit take time away from socializing? How do you handle the above? Let me know in the comments.
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