ASHLAND — It's really happening.
People are breaking their long love affair with the automobile and — mainly because of heartbreak at the pump — are finding it's not so painful to start a new life with bicycling, walking, scooters and buses.
It takes courage, they say, after decades of the convenience of private, high-speed transportation. But, as Becky Brown of Ashland says, one day it just got too expensive.
"A year ago, I decided I didn't want to spend the couple thousand dollars it would take to fix my VW Vanagon. I didn't want to be dependent on it, even with three children. I parked it and fixed up the bikes," says Brown. "I got rain gear. I walk if possible. If I have to go to Medford, I borrow a car a couple times a month."
And how does it feel? How is it to walk away from your own enclosed, powered chariot that takes you exactly where you want to go, when you want to go — and fast?
"The vehicle was part of my identity. Getting rid of it, you realize the impact of a car on your life. You see how reliant we are on cars, so much so that we won't even think about getting rid of them," says Brown.
But Brown went much further than that. She became dedicated to making life easier for other carless people by setting up Ashland Car Share, a nonprofit organization that is securing grants to purchase its first shared car — a new Toyota Prius hybrid.
Members will pay a monthly fee based on how much they use the car. Best of all, they will experience driving a dependable car that's good for the planet, she says, with only a small share of the expense for payments, repairs, insurance and gas.
"It takes courage to get rid of your car, especially when you have kids," says Tracy Harding, who parked her 1980 Mercedes biodiesel. "I don't like to be in a car, consuming fuel. I like to be outside, going slow, with more opportunity to interact with people and observe the world."
Harding, a farm educator, sometimes takes the bus to Medford, but finds it time consuming — 40 to 60 minutes one way — so every few weeks she drives or carpools to get there.
"I wanted to get out of debt," says Alison Hope, who sold her Jeep Cherokee. "It got 20 miles a gallon. I was walking on air when I sold it. When we changed the title at the DMV and they offered me a ride home, I refused."
Hope bought a Yamaha Vino scooter for $2,400. It gets 90 miles a gallon and goes up to 50 mph and can drive anywhere but the freeway. Expenses on her car a year ago ran over $200 a month, and she figures that with reduced costs, she paid for her scooter in the first year.
"I want to pollute less. I go on back roads, like North Phoenix Road between Medford and Ashland. I just took it to Diamond Lake and back. It's nice to be able to see and smell the countryside as I ride," says Hope. "But it is more dangerous and you have to avoid fast traffic."
Seeking a simpler lifestyle so he could make a living as a professional artist, Bruce Bayard of Ashland sold his vehicle, a camper van, 17 years ago.
"It's been very easy," he says. "We've saved a lot of money. There's no gas, insurance and upkeep. We walk, ride and bike. It's good for our health — and I enjoy not giving money to the oil companies."
Like many who eschew cars, Bayard and his wife have an old vehicle that's parked most of the time — and gets pressed into service a couple of times a month for the trip to Medford. Others have arrangements with friends to borrow a motor vehicle every week or two to pick up supplies in Medford.
The car-free crowd always mentions the lower cost and easier lifestyle first, then gets around to the health of the planet and the dangers of dependency on foreign fossil fuels.
"I strongly favor finding alternative fuels, like electric cars, solar and wind collectors, and if we put as much energy into that as into the oil industry," says Bayard, "we won't have to drill and ruin the environment and our coastlines trying to get energy that's always depleting."
Waiting for the bus, Carolyn Tucker says she sold her car so she could afford to study art at Southern Oregon University. She walks, catches rides with friends and uses the bus. The main problem, she says, is that the bus doesn't run on weekends.
"I'm strapped. I can't afford gas, insurance and car maintenance," says Tucker. "I kind of like it. I drove a truck for years and I'm ready to ride. It's liberating, but puts me in a bind when I need to carry something, like shelves. Then I have someone else drive me."
Ashland City Recorder Barbara Christensen dropped the car habit five years ago and gets around, rain or sun, on her Yamaha Zuma, a 49cc scooter that costs a couple of dollars to fill and has a basket to carry the city's important papers.
Like other scooter pilots, she says safety is a big issue and she has to be on the lookout for careless drivers. The machine cost her $2,000 and will go 40 mph.
"The motive was about fun and also doing something alternative to help the planet," says Christensen.
Tai chi teacher Gene Burnett gave up cars in 1976, not so much because of pollution, but because "I like to get where I'm going under my own power, at a rate where I can take everything in and be connected with the environment. I'm like Thoreau, who was amazed anyone would want to go 35 mph on a train."
It's much easier to live with the low cost of bicycling, Burnett says, "and I wouldn't get a car even if they had zero pollution."
Encouraging the trend is car-less Steve Ryan, organizer of this year's Car Free Day on Sept. 22, with its accompanying Commuter Challenge, where employers encourage and acknowledge workers who carpool, bike, ride the bus, walk, skateboard, rollerblade or use any alternative to single-passenger vehicles.
Backers of the event will block off Oak Street from Main to Lithia Way from 4 to 7 p.m. for celebrations, live music and information displays on "multi-modal transportation."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.