The War on Automobiles

If you live in the Washington metropolitan area, owning an automobile is a practical adventure well worth experiencing. And it does not have to be an environmental train wreck.
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Five years ago, when word leaked to friends and neighbors that we had sold our family car, some folks tried to recruit us into the war on automobiles.

I was having none of that.

There are people who will tell you that freeing yourself from car ownership is a life altering, uplifting, altruistic, socially conscious revolution. That may be true for some people, but not me.

If you live in the Washington metropolitan area, owning an automobile is a practical adventure well worth experiencing. And it does not have to be an environmental train wreck.

But beware. There are powerful, multiplying forces aligned who seek to make driving as difficult as possible. They oppose spending money to build roads and want to occupy your parking space with a bike rack.

Don't get me wrong; I love public transportation, bicycling and walking. I am a multi-modal commuter and my wife is avid user of public transportation. She has ridden busses further than I prefer to fly.

I arrived to the region in 1991 by train. The first place I resided was in Chevy Chase, Maryland. My work commute was to Bethesda, a mere two miles. I walked or occasionally got a ride from a roommate. Six months into the job I bought a 1979 Chevrolet Suburban, almost exclusively for recreational purposes. My primary transport to and from the office remained by foot. I explored my new environs by Metro, and only used my truck when the destination was not accessible by rail.

From Chevy Chase I floated around for a year until finally landing in McLean, Virginia where an automobile is essential. I purchased a 1969 BMW and gave my Suburban to a co-worker, a felon on parole. He had hit his former boss in the head with a shovel.

After McClean I located to Rockville, where I commuted via Metro on the red line to Farragut North in the District. I sold my BMW to an ex-convict who had just completed a murder sentence. He actually demanded that I let him purchase the car, which at the time was not for sale. How could I refuse? I used the proceeds to buy a 1985 Subaru station wagon.

A few years later I moved back to Virgina, this time Fair Oaks. My daily commute was on the orange line from Vienna to Farragut West. The Subaru went to and from the grocery store. It also took a beating doing donuts in the field behind our house. In 2001, I sold it for one hundred dollars. That money and another six hundred dollars paid for a 1979 Plymouth Volare found on eBay.

In 2002, we moved to Mt. Pleasant in the District. Rugged and unlikely to attract the attention of auto thieves who at the time were having a lot of success near our apartment, the Volare was perfect for the neighborhood.

Four years later, with summer approaching and an infant in the backseat, we decided driving a car without air-conditioning and questionable safety features was no longer an option. We sold the Volare for one dollar to a Rasta man from Philadelphia who was recovering from hip replacement surgery.

Then we joined ZipCar, which lasted for five years. It worked well.

A month ago my son started school across town. It is a public school, but the cost of commuting is pricey. A roundtrip taxi is more than twenty dollars in the morning and slightly less in the afternoon. ZipCar rental is risky at one hour; in order to avoid late fees that means a 90-minute reservation twice daily. And commuting by bus is an untenable time suck for self-employed parents: two separate routes, 45-minutes each way, two times every day.

So, last week we rejoined the community of car owners.

Now we are back in the crosshairs of those who prosecute the war on automobiles. I have already heard it several times: "You don't need a car," "You could do that with a bike," and so on.

Every day hundreds of thousands of vehicles hit the roads in our region. Some are delivering refrigerators; some transport salespeople, technicians and consultants who would lose valuable time waiting for a bus or whose customers are nowhere near a Metro; some are heading to the doctor; some are police or emergency vehicles; some are bringing materials to a building project; and, many are simply passing through.

In the 1950s transportation experts saw the future. They designed an outer beltway with Potomac River bridges connecting Virginia and Maryland. Roads like the Inter-County Connector, Rt. 301 and the Fairfax County Parkway are vestiges of this unrealized dream. Other highways, like I-95, were re-routed in deference to politics, not planning. If you look at a map of major roads in the region, it is plain to see what the designers had in mind. It is also possible to imagine those dreams reaching fruition.

The metropolitan area is growing. People are moving here and businesses are hiring. This trend is expected to continue for two more decades with more than 1.5 million new jobs coming to the region. Not all of those employers will be walking distance from a Metro. Every new home will not be built on a block with a bus stop. People with jobs will buy cars and drive them to places to spend money. That is reality.

I love walking, bikes and riding our much-maligned Metro. I do not like sitting unnecessarily in traffic. If the war on automobiles succeeds we will all be caught in a jam and the long-term prosperity of our region will be at risk.

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