Staying on the Road, or Moral Superiority

Here is something I’ve been struggling with as of late: our damned car.

I bought the car almost a year ago, and since then, there have been many, many times that I have been incredibly grateful for it. See: the time Daphne got suddenly sick and we had to rush her to the hospital, or the time my dad ended up in the hospital and we wanted to be able to visit him without having to reserve a car for certain hours. See also: all the times that we were able to spontaneously go up to Camp for a weekend or even just take Daph for an off-leash romp in the woods in the next town over (off-leash is illegal in my town).  Not to mention the fact that owning a car has made possible the majority of the petsitting that I do…

car for to has driving all the dogs around! ALL THE DOGS.

But I have major car-owning guilt.  We lived car-free for almost two years; Turtle has been car-free for 15 years.  I was always so proud to be the one bicycling everywhere, and was also a fan of the occasional feeling of superiority it gave me (“Yes, you are a good environmentalist, but you drive the 1.5 miles to work, and I bike.  VICTORY IS MINE.”).  I recognize that a feeling of superiority in this context is sort of ridiculous, but I’m trying to be honest here.

Now, though, it’s January in Boston, and it is cold.  It’s cold and my car is warm.  My car can hep me run lots of errands at the same time without having to put on eighteen layers.  And I think it’s reasonable to drive five miles to do something… but that doesn’t really help my guilt.  Because, you guys, it’s also reasonable to bicycle five miles to do something, and afterwards, you feel good, you haven’t spent any money on gas, and, most importantly, you are morally superior to everyone else.

I was sort of joking about that last part.

I just keep considering whether I should be bicycling everywhere, and articles about awesome winter bicyclists do nothing to appease my driver guilt.  Even when I’m not afraid of the cold, though, I am nervous about the ice and the narrower roads and the fact that drivers just don’t expect to see bicyclists out in this weather.  Where is the line between personal comfort and environmental responsibility?  I sometimes wish we had never bought the car so that I wouldn’t have the option of doing anything other than walking, bicycling, or taking public transportation, but we did, and I do.  Where do you draw your lines?

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28 responses to “Staying on the Road, or Moral Superiority

  1. Jen

    I can definitely understand the struggle. I’m in Brooklyn with a car and a bike as well, and deciding what form of transportation (especially in the winter!) is really tough. The car is SO convenient for grocery shopping or trips that would take 2 to 3 transfers on the subway. But I try and remember that taking public transportation/bike more often than not is at least doing my part!

  2. I think New England winters are definitely harsh enough that the use of a car is acceptable, even if you’re a staunch environmentalist! I think it’s all about being conscious of your use and as long as you strive to use the car as little as possible, it’s alright bc it IS dangerous to bike in bad weather and when it’s dark out!

  3. Julie

    I know what you mean. I don’t live car-free, but I bike everywhere, pretending I don’t even have a car unless I need to go somewhere far away. But yeah, it’s definitely much easier to live this way in, say, May. Moral superiority over drivers is awesome, but it doesn’t keep your fingers warm!

    Your point about safety is an important one. On a road or hybrid bike, the tires aren’t designed to handle ice or snow. Despite your best effort to ride slowly and use caution in turns, there is a high likelihood that those skinny tires will go into a skid. This happened to me a couple of weeks ago: I was cautious during a turn, but my wheels slipped anyway, and I ended up wiping out in the middle of an icy road. Embarrassing, painful, and also terrifying when you consider that the cars on that same road are just as likely to skid out of control if they slam their brakes to avoid hitting the random cyclist that just ate pavement. So please don’t feel guilty if you use your car for errands during this weather. Your well-being is the most important thing, and your heart is in the right place!

    • I like the idea of pretending to be car-free – much easier in warmer weather than right now! I have to admit that when I’m already freezing in our house, it’s tough to imagine going where it’s COLDER voluntarily!

      Skidding = my biggest fear! I did go out today and saw lots of bicycles riding along safely and happily… sometimes I need to just do it, but I’m feeling a little better about driving in this weather…

  4. Oh god, I know the “environmentalist guilt.” I did 2 degrees in environmental studies, with a focus on living locally and minimal consumption, so I have a minor crise de couer every time I buy something not handmade by a local medicine woman, and even sometimes then I end up attacking myself for being so shallow as to want tea when kids in Africa are going hungry, etc. I routinely burst into tears in shopping malls.

    I don’t have a car, but there’s no way in hell you’ll see me on a bike in the winter – my sense of balance is too delicate, and Ottawa is too cold and snowy. I’m trying to put off owning a car for as long as possible, though, because I know that it would be far too difficult to ever go back to car-free life afterwards. We just joined a car-share program to occasionally use for the dog-park and out of town trips, so hopefully that will hold off actual ownership for another few years.

    • “I end up attacking myself for being so shallow as to want tea when kids in Africa are going hungry, etc. I routinely burst into tears in shopping malls.” YESSSS. Ah, so glad it’s not just me! Thanks 🙂

      We used to have Zipcar and that was awesome for awhile, but stopped making sense when I started doing so many petsitting jobs. I loved the access to a car, though, without all the insurance and responsibility.

  5. Anne

    I feel guilty for taking the T to work sometimes when I “should” be biking, like when it’s rainy or cold. I see these crazy people biking down Mass Ave and wish that I had that kind of hardiness. But I have to wear nice clothes and even the bike ride to Alewife would be too much on some days. I actually really wish I had a car because I work so far away from where I live, (13 miles) and my commute takes so much time (3 hours a day.) But of course then I’d feel guilty for driving every day too. It’s a tossup.

    • I used to feel that way too! Where does that even *come* from? We’d rather sweat than be warm and safe on the T?

      I used to ride my bicycle 1.75 hours a day because the commute on the T would have been 3 hours and it was sometimes the best of two evils. Other times I just hunkered down on the bus with a good podcast. So glad those days are over.

  6. An Atypical Traditionalist

    Oy. Drawing the line for car vs non-car trips. Toughie! I say, take a good look at what you do daily & weekly, and if you need it for your well-being, then that’s “the line”. If you need the car to get to your pet-sitting jobs, you can try to offset-it the guilt if it creeps up, perhaps treating driving like a budget where you’ll have to make non-driving trips elsewhere (like, biking/walking to the grocery store later). I would use that “car budget” method when I inherited a huge gas-guzzling beast, and it felt awesome to at the end of the week think, “Yes! Only drove twice! I win!”. Another example is when you have enough pet-sitting jobs or are feeling otherwise financially stable, you could make a point to accept jobs only within biking/transit distance to your place. Safety and comfort are both relative to your mode. Biking in ice scares the crap of me, but I know how to dress and give myself time to walk/transit to where I need to go instead. I find it helpful to re-think certain attitudes – so instead of thinking “ZOMG but my car will get me there SO MUCH faster!” to “Ahh this bus ride is so warm and I get to finish my really good library book”.
    For what its worth, I am car-free, take mostly transit in the winter and mostly bike in the late spring-fall. I wish I could say the decision to be car-free was all morals, but there was a lot of financial reality in that decision too. I do wonder if I had more income if I’d buy a car to use much like you use yours. I find myself yelling out loud, “If only I had a car!” more and more frequently (like now that I have to figure out how to get to cats to a vet for vaccines. Oy.)

    • Ooh I love the idea of a “car budget”! That’s really smart. Thanks for the tip! Also, re: cats to the vet – do you have Zipcar near you? It was a lifesaver when we were car-free.

  7. my partner and i have in the past been pretty determinedly car-free (getting hit by cars on our bikes within a month of each other really solidified our animosity towards cars for a good long while) but my partner has been dropping hints lately that he’s thinking about buying a car. we really like going hiking, and it’s difficult to go to fun new hiking spots without a car (yeah, we COULD bike to some spots, but then where would we lock our bikes while we hiked? trailheads don’t usually have secure bike racks! and how much energy would we have left for the hike?). this summer we’re going to be living 30 miles apart, with almost nonexistent and very inconvenient public transportation between us. and of course it doesn’t help that we’ve rented a car together a time or two and had lots of fun on the open road…

    but i am still resistant because, having borrowed a friend’s car for a week and a half while they were out of town last month–boy oh boy is it sooo easy to get into the habit of using it to go everywhere! because it’s just so easy! especially when you live at the top of a hill. and i am certainly not in a position to badger you about biking in massachusetts winters, when i live in the more mild (but really, really wet) northwest.

    that said, one of the above commenters talked about safety issues w/r/t skinny tires, and i WILL point out that studded snow tires are available for bikes (they are not even too expensive, and you only really need one, for your front wheel), or if you have disc brakes, you can make your own by tying zip ties around your tire and rim. if you have a super-skinny front fork, the studded snow tires probably won’t work (they are usually in the 700×38 or 26×1.75+ range), though. some folks build up a beater “winter bike” with wide tires and an old frame that they don’t care about much (in case it gets rusty from salt). and to combat the darkness, you can get a whole collection of super-bright lights, for visibility from the front, the back, the side, upside-down, whatever. a reflective strip on your jacket makes a big difference too.

    and lastly–the other argument for bikes that you sorta missed in this post, and what maybe even beats out environmentalism and moral superiority in keeping me from wholeheartedly supporting my partner in buying a car (or considering one myself), is that riding them FEELS GREAT. riding my bike to work is better than caffeine as far as waking me up and invigorating me for my day. getting my blood flowing keeps me warm. and i am a more sane and happy person when i’m getting regular exercise. endorphins for the win!

    • “boy oh boy is it sooo easy to get into the habit of using it to go everywhere! because it’s just so easy! especially when you live at the top of a hill.”

      Exactly! So easy, and that’s where it gets dangerous.

      And you’re right that it feels so good. It feels good while you’re doing it, it feels good after you’ve done it. There’s a lot to be said for that. But after some thought and reading a lot of these comments, I think I’ll keep most of my bicycling to non-ice weather or weather when it’s over 30 degrees. I mean, I have fenders, so a little water doesn’t hurt. It’s the fear of death that hurts. My wife would be PISSED if I got killed on my bicycle.

  8. Steve

    Here’s what you do:

    Put a panda in a Prius. Put a few bags of organic, locally grown food in the back. Fill the trunk with your recycling for the month. Accomplish the whole thing with a minimal carbon footprint.

    Then set it on fire.

    You’ll feel so horrifically guilty about that, that driving a few miles in the bitter, horrible, snowy, icy cold feels like nothing at all. Ta-da!

    (I have such good ideas!)

  9. I completely agree with Jen. I am in Brooklyn with a car. I take the subway everywhere during the week and drive pretty much everywhere during the weekend (weekend subway schedules are brutal and unreliable). My feeling is that making a consious effort and cutting my car use in half is doing my part. There needs to be a balance otherwise you would end up living without electricity as well!

    • Heh, funny you should mention that… I am trying to live without electricity as much as possible! I’m at home all day since I’m unemployed now, and I try to take advantage of the daylight and not turn lights on. And not turn the heat on. Moral superiority for the win! (also I’m cold all the time)

  10. Kristine

    I do not own a car. But it’s not because I am trying to save the planet, that’s just a side benefit I tell people because I am embarrassed about the real reason. Cars are expensive and I am cheap. Also I am very, very afraid. But that’s a subject for another time. For the most part I use public transit and when I can’t do that, I walk.

    However, now that I am involved in all sorts of dog stuff I am realizing more and more the necessity of a vehicle. My husband has a truck that he drives for work purposes but he is not always available. What if my dog is really sick and I am alone? How will I get her to the vet? While it is close enough to walk, I can’t carry her all the way. There are many things, many reasons, I should think about getting over this very huge fear.

    And many reasons, many things, you do not have to feel guilty about. The fact that you care so much means that you obviously aren’t being wasteful, like driving to the store one block away. So you’re already better than the majority of the car-owning public!

    • I have to say (and probably already did say) that having a car makes dog care SO much easier. In a town where we’re not allowed to let Daph off leash, the car makes it possible to go to the woods in the next town over on a daily basis, which just wouldn’t be a feasible walk. On the other hand, this also means we do almost no on-leash walks. Is this a bad thing? Not sure.

      Turtle doesn’t drive at ALL, and that makes me a little nervous for the same reasons you mentioned: what if she gets hurt and I’m not around to drive her? I guess there are always cabs and friends to help in emergencies.

  11. We live in a tiny little village and really necessary to have a vehicle but I am learning that I can do the daily things like get the mail on foot. We are a spoiled society and it is a large part of our own health issues and our global run-down, in my opinion anyways. For sure we need vehicles for work and errands, but we can still walk or bike, don’t have to always fire up that vehicle. Don’t feel bad it is what it is, but make sure you still get on that bike once in awhile.

  12. I support you using your car in moderation and being conscious how how often you use it. Being mindful of errands that can be run at the same time and planning before you leave the apartment cuts down on the number of times you need to take the car out, and not driving the car unnecessarily are responsible ways to do your part.

    Laur and I have one car, and we use it on the weekends when we go grocery shopping or when we have to leave the city completely. Other than that, we don’t log many hours in the car. Another huge deterrent to excessive car use is finding street parking in the middle of the city. That alone would make ANYONE use public transportation or walk/bike.

    • “Another huge deterrent to excessive car use is finding street parking in the middle of the city.” Oh yes! So glad we have a driveway. I admit that it was hard to find an apartment that allowed both pets and parking at no additional cost. We do only have one car, which appeases my guilt a little bit… thanks for your comment!

  13. Ha, this is such a timely post. My wife and I just had a big debate over car ownership today when we took the car in for some repairs and the repair turned out to be several hundred dollars more than we were expecting! We walk or take public transportation almost everywhere we go–the car is pretty much just for the occasional Target stock-up trip and weekend trips to out-of-town family. We pretty much figure that the fact that we only use the car once a week at most hopefully offsets the evils of having one at all.

    Anyway, given the type of work that you do and the climate that you live in, I don’t think you should feel guilty at all about using a car the way you describe. Biking in winter on dry roads is one thing (thought still one cold thing requiring a lot of layers) but biking on ice/slush/snow is a whole different story. And as someone else pointed out, my biggest fear about biking in icy conditions would be not only the possibility of wiping out, but the possibility that the car behind me couldn’t stop in time. Keep safe, use your car as little as possible, hug a manatee, and adopt an acre of rainforest or something. 😛

  14. lyn

    I live in a town with pretty spectacular biking weather all year round — sometimes it rains hard, but that’s pretty much it. And yet I still use my car.

    Let me explain a little. First, I don’t own a bike, which is kind of outrageous. Second, the public transportation in this town is really crappy. I live about 12 miles from work, a straight shot down the freeway that takes only 15 minutes by car. By bus, however, I would have to change three times and it would take me an hour. And then it would be another hour back. This sounds selfish, but two hours on the bus every day as opposed to half an hour in my car is a highly inefficient use of my time.

    So yeah, I’m a blatant car-user. But I think it’s about being sensible about your needs. I am fortunate enough to live downtown, so I can walk almost everywhere. The post office, stores, bars/restaurants, movies, even the grocery store, provided I don’t purchase more than I can carry (oops). I’m happy to take the extra time required to walk, because it’s good for me, it’s good for the environment, and I don’t have to worry about finding parking.

    I try to do other things, too. For instance, this weekend, instead of driving, I’m taking Amtrak four and a half hours south. I can even walk to the train station from my house! It’s a total win.

    I totally admire your commitment to biking, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to drive occasionally. Sometimes it’s good to be warm and safe(r) from drivers on slick roads!

    • The other car vs. public transportation option is that it’s $2 to take the T somewhere, and it’s less than $2 in gas to drive the same distance and park. So financially, if we already own a car, driving wins! I wish there were some way to fix this balance, but if it’s down to dollars and cents, the car is victorious.

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