Too Busy to Go by Car
recently sent out a query to a wide range of people asking
for stories and recommendations to use in an article I’m writing
for an environmental newsletter about car-free erranding.
I was overwhelmed with enthusiastic and detailed responses.
But there’s always the contrarian.
wonder if you could be persuaded to consider the viewpoint
that bending over backwards not to use a car might not be
good for the environment,” wrote one fellow folkie. “If doing
without a car . . . means things take a lot more time and
hassle, that’s got to reduce your productivity, keeping you
from doing whatever it is that you do best. That ultimately
will reduce the amount of wealth and time available for solving
environmental problems in other ways.”
Dutifully, I considered.
On one hand, this argument hits close to the heart of a major
critique of the environmental movement that I am fond of making:
That it has become a lifestyle movement, in which individual
middle-class consumers take on the responsibility for trying
to “save the world” through their purchases and their habits,
while polluting corporations, sprawl-producing policies, and
poverty that forces people to chop down forests for fuel all
In that light, it’s true that erranding without the car should
not be put on a pedestal as the green behavior that will take
us to the promised land. Someone spending several hours miserably
trudging along the side of highway from her suburban development
to the mall to avoid a drive could be making a far bigger
difference by putting that time into fighting highway subsidies
or improving the engineering on a plug-in hybrid. Unhappy,
time-stressed people are not what the world needs more of.
Because after all, we’ve got plenty of them. And most of them
spend a lot of time in their cars.
Here’s the thing about “productivity”: It doesn’t bear a linear
relationship to time. Numerous studies around the turn of
the last century showed that when you pushed workers over
an eight-hour day/five-day week, total productivity declined.
Total, not per hour. And per-hour productivity actually
starts to drop off after 6 hours. One study found that if
construction workers were asked to work 60-hour weeks for
more than two months, the project they were working on ended
up being completed later than it would have been if
the same crew had been kept on 40-hour weeks. Joe Robinson,
author of Work to Live, tells the story on his Web
site of a Cincinnati firm that “extended its vacation benefits
to three weeks, and the total cost was seven cents. Productivity
and morale increased so much that the company was able to
eliminate overtime and cut its retention and recruiting costs.”
In other words, we’re just limited beings who need a change
of pace now and again. And right now, in this country, most
of us don’t get it. If we have a job, we spend insane numbers
of hours at work, don’t take vacations, and get ever-increasing
numbers of obesity-related diseases. According to Take Back
Your Time, an organization that advocates for policies that
support a better work-life balance, American business loses
$300 billion a year to job stress. For many of us, being more
productive at what we do best may not mean devoting more time
Now, if you’re stuck in a situation where you are seriously
overworked and have no control over it, trying to carve out
some wiggle time to push a cart of laundry to the Laundromat
is not actually going to feel like a stress reducer. I realize
this. Nor will it replace getting at least three weeks of
paid vacation per year.
But if you are able to make some choices about your priorities
(and more of us are able to do that more than we think), it’s
worth considering working on something that involves getting
away from the computer/phone/desk/cash register/ classroom,
getting some exercise, bumping into neighbors, spending some
time staring out a bus window, and having a chance to let
your thoughts ramble. In fact, I’d argue that having some
of this in our weekly schedules is exactly what many of us
could use to nurture the “a-ha” moments, or just recharge
the batteries, for doing the work of solving environmental
In the meantime, the fact that we’re getting something productive
done without a car adds a little feeling of empowerment (for
me at least, especially when I can refine the process to make
it work better). It can even cut out an additional item on
the ever present to-do list: “Get outside/Get exercise.” Multitasking!
Not to mention that by trying to live in a sustainable fashion,
we gain valuable information about what the real obstacles
are and why perfectly good existing solutions aren’t implemented.
Still, traveling, and even more so erranding, without a car
in a car-based society is not an easy thing, especially depending
on where you live. It’s no holy grail, but for many of us,
the benefits go beyond preventing our own personal pounds
of air pollution.