Can an Environmental Attorney in Lowell, Massachusetts, Live and Work without a Car in the New Economy?
By Matthew C. Donahue
In early August of this year, the Donahue household was beset with a series of car crises. It was our own doing or undoing I should say.
My office is less than a mile from my house, in fact, there is a Lowell Regional Transit Authority bus that stops less than fifty yards from my back door and drops me at the front door of my office building for $1.00—or I could walk.
So the question came up as I rode the bus past the gas station where our old Suburban sat destined for the graveyard: Could I get along without a car at all?
With the bus and good weather, public transportation and walking would cover me until I needed to go to court or meet a client.
I could have a company car that is left at the office and used for daily business, and I could get a small Yaris or Prius…something just for inner city travel.
The grocery store, the cleaners—how do I deal with all the kids and those last minute changes and games and crazy things that just happen when raising a family today? It happened when my son, who had had his wisdom teeth taken out, had an emergency appointment that I had to cover. I could use the family car for those things, but what if that car is being used?
“Peace of mind” requires us to have something in our driveway so that you will never “feel stuck,” I guess. Just in case there is an emergency. So, the price tag for peace of mind? Cost of car + cost of insurance for car + maintenance + gas.
Why is any of this important anyway?
It’s the Environment, Stupid.
As an environmental lawyer living and practicing law in Lowell, Massachusetts, as well as in New Hampshire, I was always quite frankly ashamed at my reliance upon our Suburban. But I rationalized that I live in a city and had bought an old house that I have incrementally made more energy efficient. I didn’t invade a suburban farm and buy a new house, forcing me to drive extra miles and eating up farm land that we will inevitably need some day.
But I had four sons, and they were very active in schools and sports, so we needed to follow in line with the standard societal norm of an expectation and the desire to hit the open road. We caved and drove like crazy for 16 years.
We averaged 20,000 miles per year in each of two cars! Road trips to AAU games, college tours, vacations, ski trips in Vermont, transportation to schools in Danvers and Lexington.
As a lawyer I travel to courts. My wife is a nurse for the VNA and relies on a car for visiting patients.
As the boys grew up, we added a car. More insurance, more gas, more miles….
More pollution! Yes we are polluters, all of us, so can I reduce my pollution tendencies also known as “carbon footprint,” and reduce the number of miles I drive unnecessarily by introducing myself to public transportation?
Anti-Public Transportation Sentiment
I went to a neighbor’s house this week and several people talked to be me about the fact that I was riding a bus; a high school-aged girl thought it was a horror, another peer professional did ride the bus and walk for over a year when he did not have a car and decided he didn’t need one for the same reason. He lived a mile and a half from work, could walk, but he had something I didn’t—access to a company car at work. Several neighbors ride the bus, and we talked about why people do not.
Scheduling, Convenience, Independence
The car is tough competition for public transportation, but it is an expensive peace-of-mind to keep parked in your drive way or parking garage while you work. If I did not buy a pass and used the local bus for $2 per day, five days a week, my cost would be $10 per week.
My insurance bill alone, for my “emergency” car, is $2,500.00 per year. If we divide that by 52 weeks, is costs me $48 per week. And it is usually parked in the driveway doing nothing. So if we eliminated the car entirely, and relied upon the public transportation, it would be a dramatic savings in insurance, gas, maintenance, and back pain for driving around and being stuck in traffic.
The aforementioned professional is back with a car although he admits the busses were always clean and generally on time. But he is still smitten with the convenience of a car to go where he wants and when he wants.
Cheaper and Cleaner
Let’s face it—you can’t beat the cost of alternatives to cars. They are too expensive. Convenience costs us all money in air pollution, traffic issues, road maintenance, and accidental injury and death. If you do the math, it is simple: insurance, car payment, operation: # of miles driven /mpg cost per gallon, tolls, maintenance and repair—all this adds up to a significant total, but we accept it because, well, it’s easy. I guess generally people have the money for it and need it for work and to live their busy lives. That is fine. I am one of you.
Walking and biking is the best. Exercise is always good. Plug in the iPod and go. The heat of the summer and cold of the summer and the volatility of weather in between in the global-climate changing world of ours would require some effort on my part. It would require me to have a change of clothes at my office, ideally a shower.
Another roadblock (no pun intended)? But I then realized that there is a health club across the street offering a yearly membership for $99! I could have access to a locker and shower and I would be all set. So I am joining next week.
Someone once told me that our wives exist to prepare their husbands for how an idea will be accepted—or scoffed at—in the real world. I thought that was true but difficult to listen to at times. So my wife played that role with this idea.
However great an idea, she said, there are other considerations. I will need a car, she said. So while it would be environmentally responsible to eliminate a car entirely, the fact is I am going to need one occasionally. The goal here has to be to significantly reduce the number of driving days in my life.
So I bought an emergency car. But will I succumb to convenience and use it on days when I do not plan properly?
For the sake of this blog though, I am being stubborn. I am trying to eliminate the emergency car for one simple reason: I hate paying money for cars. So how do I fill in the gaps from days I can walk or take the bus to those days when I will need a car for business and personal appointments that require further travel?
Enter the Zip Car! A Zip Car franchise that rents cars by the hour is located in Cambridge. The cars cost $7 per hour or $69 per day—and that includes insurance and gas!
I have put a call in…I will keep you posted on my daily travel…stay tuned.
—Matthew C. Donahue © 2010