Opinion

Hybrid cars get compliments – why not my bike?

Going carless may not be cool – but I know it's worth it.

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My wife and I do not own a car. Going carless seems like the right thing, based on what we know about global warming.

Granted, we don't much like cars, and we chose our house because we can walk or bike to most places we need to be. Still, once in a while, it would be nice to get a few kudos. The old pop hit celebrates "two less lonely people in the world." Why doesn't anyone celebrate two less polluting people in the world?

We recently exchanged houses with a couple that owns two Toyota Prius hybrids. While staying at their place, they let us use one of them. During the month that I drove it, three different people complimented me. And yet, during the seven years we have been carless, only one person has complimented me. (Thanks, Mom.)

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Strange how people think it cool to drive a "green" car, but if they meet someone who doesn't own a car, they seem to infer financial limitation, not ecological choice.

To decide not to have a car, unless you live in that rare city with good public transportation, seems a bit extreme and carries the vague threat of dependency. As if I'll mooch a ride home at any moment.

Let's turn this on its head for a moment: Imagine that someone you admire invites you to her house. You're filled with envy at how energy efficient it is, how free of clutter. The sleek bicycle inside the empty carport also arouses your admiration. The next day, driving to work, your friend cycles by and you slide down in your seat of your stylish gas-guzzler, mortified to be seen behind the wheel.

Why is this fantasy? Because, unlike the car industry, no one is going to spend billions of dollars to get you to think this way. They're not going to take out four-color multiple page ads that make you feel sexy on a bike. They're not going to produce Super Bowl spots that equate overconsumption with overeating and leave millions of viewers stammering, "My carbon footprint is, like, really gross."

When it comes to breaking the cycle of wastefulness, you're pretty much on your own. And that's all right, because it's better to be motivated by a concern for the planet and a desire to "live simply so that others may simply live."

Still, whatever green thing you do, few take notice or care. Which makes me wonder how long-term environmental activists keep on. Have they grown accustomed to being lone voices of ecological sanity crying in the wilderness of affluenza?

I talked to Paul Glover, a Philadelphia-based community organizer whose carbon footprint could probably fit into the big toe of Al Gore's. He explained that though he has gotten around mostly by bicycle for decades, he resists the implication that his car-less lifestyle represents any kind of sacrifice.

"I'm pleased to be odd in this way, in a world where normal is destructive," he said. "It's so much more exciting and fun to pedal between home, work, and friends. Even in the rain, one feels immersed in the scene and terrain, rather than just buzzing past."

When I pressed him further, he confided, "I have been powerfully sustained by the beauty of children, whose futures depend on our courage to change. I guess I persevere in these directions because I believe that our children deserve a future as beautiful as they are."

With that, and a glance at my daughter, I felt a bit silly – and selfish – for caring whether or not anyone gives me kudos for going without a car.

Mark Klempner is the author of "The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage."

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