Five years ago, fed up with all the problems and expense involved in coping with a car in the city, I sold my three-year-old Volkswagen and haven't owned a car since.
Many people ask me how I can manage in Washington without a car. I think I manage quite nicely and save money as well - walking, bicycling, riding the bus or taking a taxi occasionally.
Still, there was some adjusting to be done.
It hasn't always easy going without wheels. It is sometimes inconvenient, and when Washington's temperature drops to 15 degrees or lower and the wind whistles, a 25-minute hike to work is uncomfortably cold.
Sometimes I think of buying a car again, but I am easily dissuaded by all those unpleasant memories of owning one: stuck in traffic, narrow misses, hunting for a parking place, riding in a tow truck, waiting hours to have the car serviced, getting it washed, getting it repaired, lining up for an inspection tag, paying for parking ticket, paying for the car itself.
The subject of driving came up at the office the other day after Washington was surprised by an overnight snowfall. Several colleagues told their horror stories about driving to work over ice roads in clogged traffic; some didn't even make it that day.
I live in a Foggy Bottom highrise about a mile from my job, and I had walked, welcoming the snow and the chance to be out in it, bundled up warmly and enjoying myself. Hearing their stories, I felt smug, the way I usually feel when somebody complains about his or her driving hassles.
I got my comeuppance, though, a couple of days later when the city was hit by a freezing rain that put an icy glaze on the sidewalks. Waitin on foot at the stoplight, I slipped off an icy curb and stepped into an ankle-deep puddle. I had to stop at a clothing shop to buy a dry pair of socks to change into at work.
But the pleasures are many, too. There is a certain physical challenge many days in meeting the extremes of the weather - hot, cold or wet - that is refreshing. And there's the invigorating fun of long walks and also a sense that I'm doing my bit to help induce Washington's air pollution.
How does giving up a car change one's lifestyle?
For one thing, the savings in money more about that later) has made it easier for me to pay higher downtown apartment rents. I like living in the city and all the attractions this city has to offer.
Of course I don't have a backyard, but when I want to get out of doors, I have free use - all within walking distance - of East and West Potamac Parks, the C & O Canal towpath, Constitution Gardens, Rock Creek Park, Roosevelt Island, the Mall, with so much open space available, it is almost like living in the country.
I don't need a car to get to the Kennedy Center (you can still get a symphony ticket for $2) or to the Smithsonian (constantly changing exhibits and all free) or to many of the city's outer museums, restaurents or movie theaters (catch an early movie at a reduced price while everyone elst is driving home).
I own two bicycles, a 10-speed for recreation and a battered old 3-speeder I frequently pedal to work when I am working nights. The commuting bicycle is in such bad shape I feel safe leaving it chained up outside. Who would make the effort to steal it?"
I sometimes ride buses, generally to go to movies on upper Wisconsin or Connecticut Avenues, walk to shop at Woodies or Hecht's on F Street or in Georgetown, occasionally flag a taxi at night and rent or borrow a car when I want to get out of town for a weekend or go to dinner party in the suburbs.
Friends who would be lost without their cars offer rides, and I am happy to pay for the gas. Sandy, who shares a great deal of my life, doesn't even have a driver's license. She's the one who knows the bus schedules and routes.
"You've got to like long walks.
On weekends, Sandy and I often pick an afternoon film to see at the Outer Circle of the KB Cinema, and then leave the apartment an hour or two early to hike the four miles or so to get there, window shopping in Georgetown en route, maybe trying a pastry or an ice cream along the way. No hurry, no traffic congestion, no parking problems, good exercise, a refreshing day. We either walk or take the bus back.
But there are disadvantages besides the ice and the cold. Even though I check the weather forecast regularly each morning, I often leave the apartment without an umbrella and end up getting wet during a rainstorm darting from one building marquee to the next on my en route home. (A 25-minute walk in August's heat and humidity can be awful, wilting any freshly pressed dress shirt in minutes.)
You give up something in spontaneity when a destination is anywhere distant in the city.You can't just hop in your car; you've got to check bus schedules or have luck in catching a cab to make it to the movie in time. You don't go anyplace at night you can't easily get back from.
A few years ago, I began taking flute lessons at a studio at Tenley Circle. To get there, I slowly and laboriously struggled to pedal my three-speeder up Massachusetts Avenue's long Embassy Row. Though I had practices my lessions faithfully, when my teacher called upon me to play the ride had so winded me that I could scarcely squeak out a high note.
Neither Sandy nor I have been out to Bloomingdale's at Tyson Corner, though it has become something of a local attraction. Bargain hunting is limited when you must shop in nearby stores. We haven't yet been to any Maryland outlet to take a chance on the state lottery, and Wolf Trap's summer concerts for the most part are out of reach, too.
I learned early the difficulties in not having a car handy to haul large purchases. New to my apartment, I bought a stereo and speakers at the F Street branch of Hecht's. Wanting to listen to it immediately, I had the cleark wrap it up - three large, heavy bundles - to carry out, expecting to catch a cab.
On the street there wasn't a cab to be found and I wasn't familiar with the bus routes home. Block by block, for some 20 blocks, I hauled that stereo, hands, arms and shoulders aching, grateful if I could make half a block without resting. Now I am more patient and have large bundles delivered.
A major and beneficial impact in not owning a car had been financial. I figure during the five years I have saved the initial $4,000-to-$5,000 purchase price, annual insurance of about $280; annual D.C. license tag fee of $53 to $99 (depending on car size); a $35-a-month parking charge at my apartment building plus parking fees at the office; servicing, repair, new tire costs, and maybe $120 yearly in gasoline expenses (calculated at 60 cents a gallon, 200 gallons for 5,000 miles). In a preliminary figure, the American Automobile Association estimates it now costs about 20 cents a mile to operate a car, or $1,000 for 5,000 miles.
I haven't kept any record of what bus and taxi rides cost me, but it is less than $5 a week. On car rentals, at a weekend rate, one can get a new compact with unlimited mileage for 48 hours for about $40, taxed and gas included.
Overall, the savings has made it easier for me to afford overseas or cross-country trips. There has been no trapped-in-the-city feeling.
What a pleasure it is, on a Sunday morning, to step outside my apartment building, stroll up the street to a bakery to pick up fresh pastries, buy the Sunday papers and return home to enjoy them - without buckling on a seat belt.