Sunday, February 12, 2023

Car Dependency

I like to have redundancy in my life. When my toothpaste tube is halfway done I buy the next one. I have an extra pair of glasses (which saved me after I broke my main pair in a bike crash, but that’s a story for another day). What I don’t have is a backup car. 

I drive a 2010 Camry. My mom got it new and gave it to me before my final year of college. I love this car. It’s comfortable, drives well, gets ok gas mileage, and most importantly, it’s never let me down. Until earlier this year.

I always go home for the holidays, spending 2 weeks in Florida. I’ve always flown home, driving to the airport and leaving my car there. And every time it’s started right back up when I get back.

One thing I don’t like about living in Harrisonburg is not having a big airport nearby. I grew up in Miami and got spoiled having easy access to Miami International. There’s no big international airport near Harrisonburg. There’s SHD, which is super convenient to get to, and they have free parking, but the flights are super inconvenient and super expensive unless you book way in advance. There’s Charlottesville. A bit of a drive to get to (an hour), and still a bit on the expensive side, and somewhat inconvenient flights (every flight will connect through Charlotte or Atlanta, depending on whether you’re flying American or Delta).

Dulles is a great airport. Plenty of direct flights to places I want to get to, parking isn’t too bad. The interior is well designed. Overall, it’s an A-tier airport. (Atlanta is an S-tier airport, but I digress). The problem with Dulles is that it’s almost 2 hours away.

I’ve flown a lot out of Dulles this year because there are so many flight options. I’ve kind of just accepted that I’ll have to drive 2 hours to get those flights. 

Ok I’ll stop. This post isn’t about my airport options. 

Dulles is important because there’s a bus that goes there from Harrisonburg. It’s called Virginia Breeze, run by Megabus. There are a few lines, all with Washington Union Station at one end, and spreading out throughout Virginia at the other end. In my case, there are two lines which run through Harrisonburg: one with an endpoint at Blacksburg and one with an endpoint at Bristol. I found out about this bus late last year and was able to use it for my flight home this holiday season. 

The bus is fairly cheap. The round trip ticket was $40, which is just a few dollars more than it would cost me in gas. And I saved around $140 in airport parking. So, a pretty good deal. And I could take a nap (or do anything else) on the ride. 

But this post is about car dependency you say. Why are you going on and on about airports and buses? Stick around. I’ll tell you. 

I’ll keep going about the bus for just a few more sentences: My only complaint about the bus is the schedule. The one starting in Blacksburg gets to Dulles airport at 1pm. The one starting in Bristol gets to Dulles airport at 5:45pm. In the other direction, one bus leaves Dulles at 10:40am and the other at 1:55pm. This means I need a late departure from Dulles and an early arrival into Dulles. I’ve flown a bit out of Dulles this year but this is the first time I was able to get flights that worked around the bus schedule. 

All this to say, I was able to take a bus to Dulles and back. 

I flew into Dulles on the 8th around 11am. I killed some time at the airport and then took the bus home at 2, arriving a bit before 4. Excellent. 

I was leaving for a work trip the very next day, flying out of Charlottesville. Around 9pm, I was loading my car with skis, since we were planning to ski upon getting back and the resort was on the way from the airport. I thought it would be a good idea to start up my car, maybe drive around the block, make sure I’m good to go, considering the car had been sitting for 2 weeks. I turn the key, it cranks, and doesn’t start. 

This car is almost 13 years old. It has nearly 150k miles. And it’s never let me down. Until now. I turned the key and it cranked, but the engine wouldn’t start. Uh oh.

I shudder to think what would have happened if I drove to the airport like I normally do, and gotten been stuck in the economy parking lot.

I called a buddy (who is also my neighbor) and asked if he could give me a jump. Bless him, he got off his couch and came over within 10 minutes. I had already tried my battery jump starter but it didn’t work. But since I had never tried it before I couldn’t be sure it was working properly. So we tried jumping it the traditional way, but no dice. Again, I was pretty sure the battery wasn’t the problem. I had left my car for 2 weeks plenty of times before with no issues. This battery was less than 2 years old. And the car would crank. The headlights were bright. But it would just keep cranking, without ignition.

What to do… I need to fly out of Charlottesville at 6am, meaning I need to leave Harrisonburg by 4am, at the latest. There is no bus from Harrisonburg to CHO (let alone one leaving at 4am). My coworker was willing to pick me up but that would add an hour to his travel time, which means an hour less of sleep for him.

It’s around 10pm at this point and I also need to get to bed, considering I need to wake up in less than 5 hours and we need to be productive tomorrow. I decided to reserve an Uber, a little early, so in case it doesn’t show my coworker still has time to pick me up and get us to the airport in time. I went to sleep. 

The Uber was excellent, no complaints there. It was quite expensive but I was going to expense it, so not my problem. But this post is not about Uber. 

This post is about car dependency. As I said in the beginning of this post, I like redundancy in my life. I live alone, so I don’t have someone else’s car to borrow. If my car stops working, I’m in trouble. 

I’ve had car trouble once before. The problem was entirely my fault (a botched oil change, which is also a story for another time). But it still grounded (parked?) my car for a few days while I got it fixed. It wasn’t until then that I realized how much I depended on my car. I think it is true of most people that almost every time they leave their house, it is to use the car to go somewhere. Furthermore, we use our cars for two critical needs: earn an income, and feed ourselves.

That first time I had car trouble, I needed the car for literally everything. I lived at the edge of town. The closest source of anything was a Sheetz, which was over a mile away. A divided highway was the connection and it didn’t even have a sidewalk so it wasn’t safe to walk on it. This was a few years pre-covid, so grocery delivery wasn’t really a thing. I literally couldn’t feed myself without a car, unless I wanted to spend exorbitant amounts of money on delivery. 

In this situation, I was able to get the car repaired within a day or two, so I didn’t starve. But this event illustrated to me how much I depended on the car and how repairing the car instantly became my #1 priority. And I’m lucky. My job is flexible, I could take time off to get it fixed without losing income. I can also work from home if my car had to be in the shop for a few days. So many people don’t have these luxuries. Car trouble means income loss, which is exacerbated because repairing the car will often be very expensive!

In the second car trouble event, from earlier this year, the situation was much different (ignoring the part where I had to get to the airport early the next morning). I now lived downtown. A grocery store was a 10 minute walk. Beer was downstairs. Car trouble? Meh. I’ll get it fixed when I get to it. What a difference this made! Yes, I had to get the car fixed because I couldn’t work from home forever. But I could survive without it. I could feed myself. Repairing it was a priority, but it wasn’t an emergency. And this is liberating. 

For most of us, a car is easily the most complicated piece of machinery we own. Thousands of moving parts. Driving over potholes, bumps, and gravel. They spend their lives outside, enduring temperatures from 0 to 100 F. They are contaminated by all the stuff on the road, from nails to pieces of wood, to oil, and salt. And they keep going for thousands of miles with minimal maintenance. The fact that cars are so reliable today is a testament to 100+ years of engineering advancement that has gotten us to this point. Yes, cars are very reliable. But every machine breaks down and cars are no exception. Just take a look at how many auto repair shops are within a 5 mile radius of you. It’s good business (until electric cars become more prolific, with a fraction of the moving parts of an internal combustion car, but I digress). 

Why is it that the most complicated piece of machinery we own is also the tool we are most dependent on for literally every aspect of our lives? Does it have to be this way? 

And don’t tell me electric cars will solve this problem because they are more reliable.You can guess how I feel about electric cars (see this post). 

I often hear people say that cars are freedom. But if you take away the car, you lose that freedom. That doesn’t sound like true freedom to me. From my experience with these two car trouble events, I believe that true freedom is losing the car and still being able to live my life (for the most part, but we’re taking baby steps here). Knowing that my life would mostly be unchanged while my car was inoperational is liberating. And that’s only possible because I live in a place in which I could fulfill my needs without the car. 

You have two feet. You have the ability to cover greater distances with one of the most efficient machines ever invented (hint: it has two wheels and two pedals). But wait, you say. I don’t live downtown! The nearest grocery store is 5 miles away! You expect me to walk there?

Ah, well now you see the problem. Because of car dependency, our cities have been designed with the assumption that everyone has a car. So everything is far away, separated by long roads, high speed limits, and massive parking lots. And now you need a car even more. It’s a vicious cycle. Everybody has a car, so why invest in public transportation? Then because the public transportation sucks, only the people with no other options use it. And since these people tend to not be in positions to make their voice heard, the public transportation keeps sucking. How can we change this?

Now we’re cooking with gas. Now we’re pedaling in high gear.


If you were wondering what was wrong with the car, I don’t know. After I got back from the work trip, I tried cranking it for longer than I had tried before. After ~15 seconds, it started right up. It was a very painful start, with lots of grumbling, but it started. The second start was normal. And I’ve had no problems since then. My guess is the combination of sitting for 2 weeks and the extremely cold temperature right before Christmas led to condensation in the fuel lines, and it took some effort to clear that out.


This post is not the one I alluded to in my previous post.

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