Car Troubles

Picture this: it’s nearly eight o’clock in the evening and your wife calls to say she’s having car trouble. The problem is, she’s in Austin and you’re 80 miles down the road in San Antonio. What do you do?

During regular business hours, the protocol is fairly straight forward. Call roadside assistance to have them send a tow truck. Call a rental car company that will pick you up where your car left off. Assuming you have the emergency funds to cover these things, the system works moderately well. But after repair shops and rental companies close for the evening, that’s where things quickly fall apart.

Tow companies start discussing storing your car overnight at some unknown location. The only rental cars available are at the airport, and those guys aren’t coming to get you. Suddenly you’re on the side of the road with almost no options. And, for a woman to take a cab alone at night is not exactly ideal.

Ultimately, I drove from San Antonio to pick up my stranded wife when this happened to her. It took more than two-and-a-half hours to address a problem that ultimately lies with the broader transportation system. We’ve built our environment such that we rely so exclusively on the private automobile, we are quite handicapped when the car quits. In fact, even if distance were not an issue, my wife couldn’t have walked home because our apartment is only accessible from the freeway.

Yet, communities fight against comprehensive transit systems and against organized ridesharing. They fight against development at densities that reduce our total dependency on vehicle ownership. People fail to fight for the utility that a broad car sharing network ultimately brings, even insisting that the driverless car will be the thing that saves us (I hate to burst your bubble, but it won’t).

Often I see arguments against shared transportation shrouded in the term freedom. I’m told time and again that having your own car gives you the freedom to go where you want, when you want. But is spending a third to half of your income on transportation really freedom? Is it really freedom to spend your hard-earned money to insure something that won’t always ensure a reliable means of getting around? Is it really freedom to be tied down to annual inspections, vehicle registrations, standing at gas pumps, sitting in dingy repair shops, or sitting in traffic? Is it really freedom when you’re bound to months of physical therapy after getting rear-ended? Is it really freedom when you lose a loved one to a car wreck?

My wife was not feeling free last night as she waited for a tow truck to pick up our trusty Honda. She didn’t feel free standing in the dark waiting for me to drive in from out of town to give her a ride. And we certainly won’t feel free when the repair shop swipes our card to pay for whatever is wrong with the car.

Sure, my wife and I learned from this experience that it’s important to have a clear contingency plan for situations like this. But, to a greater degree I hope we all learn the value in building lives—and places—that don’t fail us when our vehicles do. Knowing we might one day be able to get around any way we’d like to: now that is freedom.

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