So, we’re going to Germany for a year on July 21 (it takes a ton of work to get things in order for a family of four to do this; hence, the lack of posts to SolarChargedDriving.Com lately). And — get this — we’ll be living a full year without a car.
A lot of our friends and neighbors here in suburban Aurora, Colo. look at us like we have two heads when we tell them this. So, too, do many of our relatives, many of whom live in other surbubanized areas elsewhere in the United States.
You see, they can’t grasp life without a car, or, probably two cars — which is the American average.
And who can blame them? Large swaths of America, including pretty much all of Aurora, Colo., a suburb of Denver of well over 300,000 people, are built entirely around the automobile.
Grocery store 2.5 miles away
We’re 2.5 miles from the nearest grocery store, 10 miles away from my job at the University of Denver, and seven miles away from my wife’s job at the Tri-County Health Department. Our kids’ activities — soccer, choir, summer camps, and, yes, even the private language immersion school we send them to so they’ll grow up bilingual in German and English — are all a significant car trip away from our house.
Yes, I can, and often did, ride my bike 10 miles each way to work — before my kids started going to the language immersion school near the U. of Denver where I work (the three of us commute together by car).
Yes, we live two miles away from a Denver Light Rail station, and my wife — before she injured her foot and had to go through two foot surgeries in the past two years — often biked to the light rail station and took the light rail to work.
But our life here would be just plain ridiculous without a car (actually, it’s the suburban car life I’m finding increasingly ridiculous — but more on that in a bit).
Public transportation takes longer
A 25-minute car trip to the kids’ school would take three times that long with bus, light rail, walking and waiting. There’s no realistic way to buy food and get it to our home without a car.
Practically, we couldn’t get the kids to their activities without a car — actually we have two cars, both of which we’re selling in the next two weeks, including my 1992 Acura Integra which I bought new, yes, new, 21 years ago (interested? it’s got 168,000 miles and will go up on Craig’s List Denver tomorrow for $1,600).
Yeah, I know, the greenies (actually, I’m a greenie myself) talk endlessly about public transportation and biking.
But the fact of the matter is that, in too many, actually, in most cases, in the U.S. public transportation and biking just don’t work for most Americans. Unless you live within a two to five minute walk of a direct train/light rail line to work (buses sit in traffic, unfortunately), taking public transportation usually takes two, three, four times as long as getting there with a car.
Biking? It works in my case for my 10 mile commute because I’m lucky enough to live near bike paths that allow me to go 90 percent of the 10 miles away from cars and traffic, which, frankly, are extremely unpleasant, unhealthy, and just plain dangerous to bikers.
Paradigm shift needed
The final answer in America isn’t public transportation, or biking (though they’re PART of the answer): It’s a fundamental paradigm/cultural thinking shift, where Americans — take a deep breath here, I know this is way “radical” — actually live near where they work.
Yes, this can be a problem for too many of us due to the fact that housing costs near our workplaces can be too high — that is, we get paid too little to live within walking distance of our work (at least if you want to buy a place). So the paradigm shift needs to go beyond individual thinking to re-thinking how we construct neighborhoods and their relationship to workplaces.
Car commuting is a GIANT, COLOSSAL waste of time, money and energy, entirely inefficient, and, in my view, the bane of American existence (okay, the bane of “modern” industrial existence — they have some colossal and outrageous traffic jams in Germany, too).
Another HUGE problem — the American development model according to which shopping is miles away from where we live. This forces us into our cars to get groceries, etc. I pine for my grad school days when we lived in student housing in Boulder, Colo. — BTW, student housing is just about the only affordable housing in highly yuppified Boulder — when I could walk to the grocery store.
America’s fat kids
Schools are also too far away from too many kids in the U.S., most of whom are now driven to school by their parents and who, as a result, are getting increasingly fat.
In Hamburg, Germany, we’ll be living within 100 meters of a small grocery store and 350 meters of the kids’ school. There’s a bakery, fresh fish store and another grocery store, all within 400 meters, a big park within 250 meters, a fitness center 800 meters away, a swimming pool one kilometer away, and the S-Bahn (street car) will be about 800 meters away.
Of course, we’ll be living in an apartment building, not our own single-family home, will have only 800 square feet of space, instead of 2,000, and will be paying a pretty steep rent (the weak dollar sure isn’t helping things).
But we won’t have any car expenses either (to be fair, there will be public transportation expenses, and we’ll probably rent a car once or twice, maybe dabble a few times with car sharing). No gasoline, repairs, or insurance to pay for — actually, we haven’t had car payments for more than 10 years thanks to the fact that we have a 19-year-old and 21-year-old clunker 😉
And — Gott sei Dank! (Thank god!) — there will be no car commuting for me!
No more sitting in traffic jams on Denver area highways to get here to do this, that, or the other thing. Ich hasse Stau (I hate traffic jams!).
Car commuting colassal waste
In fact, I can’t think of anything I’ve come to dislike more than car commuting (I actually like driving some of the time, but definitely not commuting by car, if that makes sense). Car commuting is a GIANT, COLOSSAL waste of time, money and energy, entirely inefficient, and, in my view, the bane of American existence (okay, the bane of “modern” industrial existence — they have some colossal and outrageous traffic jams in Germany, too).
So, when we get back to the U.S. — as tough as it’s going to be saying goodbye to our 5.59 kW home solar system into which we have not yet plugged an EV (ironically, the people we’re renting our home to this year are probably going to lease a Ford C-Max plug-in and be the first to plug into the sun in our Aurora, Colo. home) — we may be looking into biting the cost bullet, sell this house, and its 7,000 extra solar-generated kWh (Xcel Energy will just swallow these kWh) and buy a more expensive, smaller home near U. of Denver (it has got to have a good-for-solar roof).
Unless, of course, we enjoy our car-less year in Hamburg, Germany so much we decide to not come back at all 😉
Tschüss Amerika, hallo Deutschland!
–Christof Demont-Heinrich Editor & Founder, SolarChargedDriving.Com (Founded in 2009)