Why Bikes are Superior to Cars, Catastrophic Failure Edition

Now, as you might have guessed from the theme of this blog, I don’t drive much. When I do drive, it’s the 2000 Saturn coupe that I received as a junior in high school, not long after I earned my license. This past weekend, driving my car to upstate New York to visit family, I had a hell of a drive. It started with bumper-to-bumper traffic from Washington D.C. almost all the way to Baltimore. A number of times, I thought, “I could bike faster than this!” Then, just before I got to the mid-way point, the unthinkable happened – my car literally stopped. Catastrophic failure.

I did have some warning signs. The week earlier, the dashboard flickered a few times and the car, which is an automatic, stalled randomly once. We brought it to the mechanic, who ran a comprehensive electrical check and declared that the car “ran beautifully.” I then drove it 150 miles to a stop-over at my aunt’s house in New Jersey. Just before I got off the highway, the entire dashboard froze. Everything – the speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge – stayed in place, no matter what I did. I don’t think I’ve ever stared so hard, with such a look of confusion, at a dashboard in my life. Nor do I hope to again. Struggling to stay calm, I pulled off the highway at the exit I needed to take. As I drove down a dark road, right after I thought, “I should find somewhere to pull over and restart the car,” the entire thing shut down. Completely and utterly dead. Thankfully, I was near a driveway, so I was able to steer it off the road safely.

Breathing deep, I called my aunt and uncle, who lived less than 10 miles away. They drove there and tried to restart the car to no avail. After attempting to jump the battery multiple times, we finally gave up and called a tow truck. (I’ll put in a pitch for Better World Club, a car club like AAA that advocates for bicycle infrastructure, high fuel economy standards, and other sustainable initiatives that AAA frequently lobbies against. They answered my call quickly and even offer bicycle service!) After leaving the car at a mechanic’s shop, I found out on Monday that the car had a fundamental computer flaw and needed more than $500 worth of work just to get started again. Luckily, my parents are visiting me this coming weekend, so they can pick it up and drive it back down to me now that it’s fixed.

This whole mess has provided me with yet another set of reasons why bicycles are so often superior to cars:
1) There is no such thing as bumper-to-bumper traffic on a bicycle. Even when the trail is crowded, there’s usually a way to go around the slowest moving people.
2) If your bike undergoes catastrophic failure, you will not get rear-ended by someone driving 85+ miles per hour. If my car had failed on the highway in New Jersey – which it came very close to doing – that was a shockingly high possibility.
3) If a key piece on your bicycle fails, any bike mechanic will be able to fix it. A Saturn dealer could have fixed the computer problem with my car, but they all disappeared two years ago when GM shut down the brand.
4) If your bike has a serious mechanical problem that makes it unusable, it’s not that hard to transport by public transit. If my parents weren’t coming down next weekend, I’d either have missed our entire weekend with family or have my car stuck in New Jersey for who knows how long.
5) Bicycle repairs very rarely cost $500. In fact, my bicycle cost less than $500 new.
6) Bikes can last for decades with minimal maintenance. The car is 12 years old and although we could continue to repair it, the repairs are getting to be more expensive than payments on a new car.

At this point, I’d prefer to go car-free for a while, supplemented by a car-sharing membership. However, Chris’s late hours at the restaurant make walking back and forth to the Metro unpleasant at best and dodgy at worst. In addition, he would like to start his own cooking business some day, and would need a vehicle to haul around equipment.

So I will soon be saying goodbye to my old car, which is named Sky. Thankfully, I still have my bicycle, which I trust more and more every day to get me around.

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