Bike and bus riders discover there is life after the death of your car

July 31, 1993|By James A. Fussell | James A. Fussell,Kansas City Star

Car payments are crushing you. Repair bills are bleeding you. Gas, oil, tickets, traffic. . . .

And now an increase in the federal gasoline tax may become part of the federal deficit-reduction package.

It's enough to make some people want to ditch their wheels.

But could you really do that in a car-crazy city?

How would you get to work? Get groceries? Make your hair appointment or get books at the library?

Let's face it: Like most other car-dependent adults, you'd be in trouble.

Or would you?

Jon Rutherford, a 53-year-old clerk, goes everywhere on his bike.

"I'm in my second year of commuting by bike to work, 5 miles each way almost daily," he says. "It is often fun, and it has improved my health."

It is also, he thinks, good for the health of the Earth.

"I feel strongly that people ought to cut down on their use of private cars," he says. "Eventually everybody is going to be carless unless we develop alternative fuels more rapidly than we are doing."

Mr. Rutherford is not alone in his concern. An estimated 2 million people now commute to work by bicycle in the United States, according to Bicycling magazine.

The carless lifestyle began for Mr. Rutherford when his Volkswagen Beetle died after years of neglect. He quickly learned that, for him, surviving without a car is easy.

"I live close to a grocery store," he says. "I either go on foot, or I can carry a certain amount of grocery bags on the bike. The library is no problem. You can carry books on a bicycle just as well as [in] a car. I do my own laundry where I live."

He rides the bus for other errands.

But he knows that being carless would be much more difficult for some.

"My lifestyle doesn't usually include being out late," he says. "For those who need to work at night or haul their family places, it may be that the car is still the only answer. But I don't think it's the answer for everybody. There are people who can cut down on their car use or totally supplant it and benefit from it."

Lucy Avera, 32, expected to be devastated when her Hyundai Excel began to put down roots in a repair shop more than a month ago. She couldn't afford another car.

While her car still isn't fixed, Ms. Avera has learned something about being carless: It is not the disaster she feared it might be. In fact, it may yet prove to be an economic windfall.

Instead of driving the 30-mile round-trip to work, Ms. Avera now catches a ride with a co-worker. She rides the bus or walks for almost everything else.

The adjustments have not been easy.

"I caught the bus to the grocery store and got a sack full of groceries," she says. "It was real weird. I felt like a bag lady!"

Other than that, it hasn't been too bad. Ms. Avera actually has gotten good at studying bus schedules and combining errands. She's getting so good at it, she says, she's "considering doing without a car forever."

Considering car payments, repairs, gasoline, maintenance, insurance, property taxes and other car-related costs, Ms. Avera figures her car costs her $4,000 to $5,000 a year. And that's just for an "economy car."

Ritz Rivera, a 33-year-old clerk at the YMCA, rides the bus for another reason. She never learned how to drive.

Ms. Rivera was born and raised in the Bronx. Learning to drive never came up.

"Those who have cars and always have had cars can't function without one," she says. "It's as if their feet and arms have been cut off. They don't know what to do. It's like, 'Ohh! I'm stuck in the house.' And that's not true at all."

Elaine Hines-Carver, a 28-year-old secretary, got rid of her car 10 years ago and started riding the bus.

"I just prefer not being dependent on a car," she says. "And I like having the extra money that you have when you don't have the insurance payments, the repair payments, the taxes and the gas expense."

She is amused at the reactions she gets when she tells people she doesn't have a car.

"They're like, 'You what?' " she says. "As if it's a vestigial appendage you just have to have. They say: 'Oh, my gosh! How do you get around?' I say, 'Well, I have legs. And I've got a brain.'"

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