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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Wheels when I want 'em

Kaid Benfield

Posted November 5, 2007 in Living Sustainably

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It’s OK to drive, and OK to enjoy it.  Really.  I hate the kind of preachy environmentalism that tells people what they should do, especially if it makes life less fun, fulfilling or convenient.

my car, in front of our houseIn fact, growing up in North Carolina, the most exciting day of my youth was the one when I got my driver’s license, and nothing else was close.  And I still really like nice cars, thank you very much.  Fortunately, my NRDC colleagues tend to be pretty pragmatic on this issue, some of us working to make cars more efficient and less polluting, and others of us (like myself) working on building communities so that we drive when we want to, not all the time because we have to.  That way we win on lifestyle as well as on environmental protection and conservation.

The opposite approach just doesn’t work.  I remember being at a large meeting of transportation planners several years ago.  One of the dinner speakers was this guy from a west coast environmental organization whom I really wanted to hit a home run, so to speak, because he was speaking on behalf of my team.  But he blew it, badly.  The only thing I remember hearing from him that night, because he said it more than once, was “I choose not to drive.”  The people at my table just rolled their eyes.  Well, OK, more power and honor to you, but you just completely lost an audience of influential people that immediately pegged you as a 30-year-old from San Francisco with no clue about trying to get through days of driving kids around, buying groceries for four, getting to work and back while having a decent house and yard, and trying to help the other people who have to do the same and don’t need being lectured to. 

So, me, I like to drive sometimes, I love my car, and I still manage to live somewhere that allows me to drive only about a third as much as the national average.  I want more of that option for others. 

But I digress. 

a Mini Cooper, in Zipcar's fleetHere’s something that does work, and it’s the greatest thing since the rabbit corkscrew:  Zipcar and Flexcar.  These two rental companies, which are about to merge into one, place their cars in neighborhoods, and rent by the hour.  As a result, a household with modest vehicle needs can have a car pretty much whenever they want, and get by without the hassle and expense of owning a car, or by owning and maintaining only one car rather than two, and so on.  You pay a nominal fee to join, and then pay about $9-11 per hour to use the vehicle.  You save a lot of money compared to what it would cost to own a vehicle, unless you drive a lot.   

The logistics couldn’t be easier:  You arrange everything online, and then use a smart card to get into the vehicle, where the keys are.  And you drive away, doing what you need to do.  Gas and insurance are taken care of.  You return it to the dedicated parking spot where you found it.  And you can choose from a range of vehicle types, too, from cool Mini Coopers and Priuses to sporty Volvo S40s to utilitarian Honda Elements.   

I’ve used an Element each time so far, because I only need another vehicle when I need to haul stuff that’s bigger than what fits into my own car.  Zipcar’s tag line is “Wheels When You Want Them,” and that’s exactly what they provide in the communities where they operate.  I reserve the car online, walk down to the Zipcar parking space at the scheduled time, drive away, return it, and walk home. 

For a while, they even came equipped with XM Radio, which I have in my own car and absolutely love.  (Tune in on Wednesdays to the best radio show I’ve ever heard, Bob Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour.”  Channel 2.)  They discontinued XM pending the merger but there are hints that they may bring it back.  It certainly makes hauling stuff more pleasant. 

my favorite wheels of all, in our back yardFinally, there’s a whole ‘nother set of wheels that I love – my bikes.  Around the time my tennis playing had passed its peak, I discovered and took up cycling as exercise and sport.  (I’m pretty good at it for an (ahem) old guy, and can keep up with my racing buddies such as NRDC’s Geoff Fettus and Rich Kassel, unless they are actively trying to drop me, in which case I’m toast.)  We’ve been having great fall weather in DC, and I got some good riding in this past weekend.   I actually personified the great French champion Laurent Jalabert, back in the day, winning Paris-Nice over Lance Armstrong, I think.  You should have been there.  Yeah, right.  But we all have our dreams, yes? 

One thing that some of my friends find curious is that, even though I advocate community transportation choices for a living, I never touch bicycle advocacy.  I prefer to leave that issue to others.  My reason goes back to when I first came to NRDC as someone who loved to take meditative hikes on mountain trails.  At the time, I was litigating national forest issues.  And I got where I couldn’t take a walk in the woods without obsessing about forest policy.  I literally couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  I’m not going to go down that road again. 

So my recommendations for the week are these:  get out hiking on the trails, or riding on your bikes, and enjoy the weather of nature’s best season.  Run an errand in a Zipcar if you need to.  And see if you can catch Dylan’s radio show.  Life isn’t about sacrifice but enjoyment, whether it be purposeful or serendipitous.  The environment won’t mind, if you do it right.

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Car Sharing for not such silly people on November 6, 2007 2:37 AM
MPO, congestion, zipcar, flexcar, phillycarshare, bicycling, walking, PRT, Car Share, Greg Good ...

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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