Why Consider Alternatives to the Automobile?

An Introduction

how does a person become car-free (and car-averse)?

Why did I, personally, finally get rid of my last car? I think it started when I read for the severalth time running that the Union of Concerned Scientists had ranked the private auto as second only to nuclear war among imminent threats to human (and other species') survival on Earth. I decided there had to be a saner way to get around, taking up less space, using less fossil fuel energy, emitting less pollution, etc.

I knew one or two car-free, bike-based people whom I admired. I figured if they could do it, I could do it. I had already made the choice to accept lower pay in order to live near a job that I enjoyed; I already used bus and/or feet and/or bike every working day to commute. The basic choice, that of valuing quality of life over strictly monetary or "efficiency" considerations, was one I had already made. At the time when I gave up my last car, I was putting less than 2000 miles a year on it, less than the mileage on my trusty bike. The transition was almost imperceptible. My life didn't change much. This was not some dramatic epiphany on the road to Damascus: just the logical conclusion of a long, slow process of disaffection from the automotive mainstream.

My focus in these pages is twofold. One is to participate in the on-going effort of challenging the supremacy of the automobile, whether on our roads or in our hearts. The other is to promote and encourage the use of bicycles. In my estimation, the bicycle is the single most cost-effective, powerful tool any individual can own or use to expand his or her personal freedom. In simplicity, frugality, practicality and sheer enjoyment it rates more highly than almost any other technological triumph of humanity's recent history.

public transit

My pages mostly aren't about public transit -- except insofar as I can take my bike with me :-) I take for granted that you don't need reminding that public transit is a great idea. Buses are OK, rail is even better. We need them. But we also need to be able to just walk out the door and go somewhere on a whim, without conforming to someone else's timetable -- to dinner, to the movies, to the cafe' to meet some friends -- to grab some fresh bread for dinner, to pick up some pizza, to the nearest hill to see the moon rise... whatever. Freedom means being able to Just Go, without waiting on a bus bench or consulting the schedule first.

So what I am interested in is independent, unscheduled, ad hoc mobility for individuals, but without the use of cars. The question I asked myself is: How much of the vaunted personal freedom offered by the auto can we preserve, without the environmental debauchery inflicted by the auto industry and its infrastructure? Can I get to the doctor, the dentist, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker -- the corner store, the beach, the library, the county building -- the post office, the supermarket, the vet, and the next county, without driving? The answer has turned out to be a resounding YES. It can be done!

electric and hybrid vehicles

In these pages I won't extol the virtues of converting traditional auto/truck bodies to electric power. I have been down this road. The "last car" which I sold some 18 months ago was actually a light pickup converted to electric propulsion. I had owned and used it for about 6 years. I built it myself. It was a fun project and a source of considerable satisfaction at the time, but I would never do this again.

While I recommend EV conversions to those who really can't give up the large auto habit, it's no longer convincing to me as a solution to the Car Problem. The tailpipe emissions from ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles are only part of the Car Problem. Their size, weight, and speed all contribute to the living hell that too many cars create in a dense urban area. I do include some links to EV information sites, but personally I don't consider building/driving traditional EVs to be more than a bandaid effort. To create or preserve livable cities and towns, we simply have to forget the traditional passenger auto as a primary transport method -- no matter how it's powered.

Digression: I'm sorry to say that both the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists are shamelessly promoting "hybrid electric" cars as "green" vehicles that will solve all our environmental problems. This has caused me to terminate my membership in UCS. Those who are Sierra Club members may want to re-evaluate their relationship with that organization, after considering the weakness of the claims made for hybrid EVs and endorsed by the Club.

the future of urban freedom

The bicycle and the ultralight multicyle (tris and quads) are suitable for human power (Human Powered Vehicles are abbreviated as HPV), or light electric assist (EAV). This, imho, is where the future of sustainable transportation lies. Inside city limits, we need to get people where they want to go in small, light, nimble, hyper-efficient vehicles. And preferably, vehicles that are more FUN than cars!


The UC Regents don't agree with me about much, particularly about the appropriate place of automobiles in our society :-) Nothing you read here reflects the official position of UC, and the Regents have no responsibility for the content, accuracy, or subversive potential of any text on these pages.

De Clarke
UCO/Lick Observatory
University of California
Santa Cruz, CA 95064
Tel: +1 408 459 2630
Fax: +1 408 454 9863
De Clarke