Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Carless By Choice - Owning Up To Our Privilege

We all know that great things happen in Oklahoma City when the citizens rally together for a cause; let's make that magic happen for public transit!

Whenever John and I tell someone that we don't have a car, we're always quick to add that we're carless by choice. While this distinction doesn't feel very important to us, there is a palpable expectation for us to explain ourselves, that simply not having a car is not enough. 

It bothers me a lot. It bothers me that we are expected to explain why we don't own a car. It bothers me that we feel the need to tell people that it's a choice - don't worry, we're not poor, it seems to say. Why does it matter? If we couldn't afford a car, how would that change the way that our message is received?

Not long after we started this blog, we appeared in a segment on a local news channel. The cameraman came to meet us and took footage of us in our apartment, doing things like fake-making-dinner and fake-setting-the-table, then we went outside to the bus terminal to get some footage there: us waiting on a bench, us stepping onto the bus. We were pretty conspicuous since we were being followed by a cameraman, and one of the people waiting at the transit center finally asked why we were being filmed. 

"They don't own a car!" the cameraman answered. "And they write a blog about it!" He used the same tone of voice he would have used if he was saying that we came up with a really novel and useful invention.

Everyone around us suddenly looked like "Are you shitting me?" I have never felt so awkward in my life. We were surrounded by people who didn't own a car, and yet here we were, being put on the news for it. The only difference between us and most of the other people at the transit center that day was that we choose not to own a car. 

This graph from a recent Embark survey illustrates the prevalence of carlessness among bus riders. (Click for full size)

If we were carless because we couldn't afford to own a car, would our blog have readers? Would we have as many Twitter followers? Would we get to be on the radio each week? Because there are plenty of people in our city who don't have a car and who rely on public transportation; we're not the only ones. We're not special or unique. It just happens to be a choice for us. 

While being carless by choice seems to make us more credible in many people's eyes, to me, it makes us less credible; we're not the ones who have to do this. We could always change our mind. Our voices are not the ones that need to be listened to. When we say we want the bus system to offer evening and Sunday service, it doesn't mean the difference between us being able to get to a job or not. If there's no bus that gets to where we need to go at night, we can take an Uber. Plenty of people in OKC don't have that choice, or maybe they do have that choice, but it presents an undue financial hardship. Not everyone can afford frequent taxi or Uber rides. 

Another graph from the recent Embark survey illustrates how the majority of riders can't afford a car or other expensive transportation. (Click for full size)

I guess I'm uncomfortable because we're the de facto voice for a group for which we shouldn't be the ones to speak. Why is it not enough that 7% of people in Oklahoma City - or over 15,000 households - live without a car? Almost 3/4 of bus riders do not have access to a car, and many of them live below the poverty line. Why is that not enough motivation for our city to expand our public transit system for those who need it? There are many people in our city who have no other viable way to get to their jobs or grocery stores or doctors or parks. That fact, in and of itself, should be reason enough to provide adequate public transit. It shouldn't take middle-class millenials like us who want to take the bus to and from a bar on Friday night to get people behind this idea. 

Don't get me wrong: I think that public transit is a good thing for everyone, not just the people for whom it is a necessity. It is a valuable service for cities to provide no matter what the reasons are that people use it. What I find unsettling is that many people don't find the fact that there are people who desperately need this service a compelling enough reason to provide it, or provide it enough. It is great that we have Embark here in Oklahoma City, and they've been making positive changes where possible. The new nighttime routes (23 and 11) are the most recent example of how Embark has expanded service based on demand. Embark, however, can only do so much on its own. The people of the city have to get behind public transit in order to urge the city to support it, too. We all know that great things happen in Oklahoma City when the citizens rally together for a cause; let's make that magic happen for public transit.

Make sure to catch our weekly segment on KOSU on Thursday mornings! Tune in tomorrow at 91.7 FM or listen online at Follow us on Twitter at @CarlessInOKC for reminders to tune in. Make sure to tweet and tell us what you think!


  1. 3rd year carless in OKC here :) its very much possible.

  2. Well it really goes to show you Morons like my self may not have a council woman in ward 6 ? I live down the street from country club apts everyone knows about that place do something some of have lived here for 30 years. drive by sometime it's a dare