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Curing your Clown-Like Car Habit

A lineup of Clowns waiting to drive their kids a few blocks home from school, on a beautiful Hawaiian afternoon this January.

A lineup of Clowns waiting to drive their kids a few blocks home from school, on a beautiful Hawaiian afternoon during my vacation (January 2013).

One of the weirdest things about this country is the way people use their cars.

I mean, it takes some serious effort to find a spot in our Three Million Square Mile land area, where you will not see endless lines of seated humans trundling meaninglessly back and forth in these giant and stupendously inefficient machines. Whether you’re on a rocky rural road in the desert, in a deep blizzard high atop the Continental Divide, walking up to the elementary school on a Friday afternoon to retrieve your son, or sitting with your feet in the sand on the Windward shores of Oahu, those fuckin’ cars are right there with you – roaring, stinking, crashing, and impoverishing their owners.

All this would be excusable if all these cars were providing an essential service. If every car trip delivered great rewards to its driver, and by extension to society as a whole, I’d gladly toss down this keyboard and stand up so I could cheer on the heroic drivers as they passed by. Just as I solemnly accept that digging up a 27 kilometre tunnel of solid rock beneath Switzerland to build the Large Hadron Collider was a worthwhile wound to inflict on our planet because of the expected advancements to science, I could accept that paving over most of our cities to accommodate cars is Good.

But unfortunately, that’s not the case. After years of careful study, observations, and interviews with real car drivers, I have come to the conclusion that about 90% of the car use that occurs in the United States is Pure Bullshit. But don’t get out your boxing gloves and start knocking out motorists just yet, because the ridiculousness is baked right into our culture. Our people are victims rather than perpetrators, even if their suffering is rather comical and clown-like.

Luckily, today I’ll present a cure for the problem.

My home town of Longmont, Colorado represents the ultimate laboratory for studying Car Clown disease, as it is sufficiently small and bike-friendly that car trips within town are completely unnecessary. Since groceries and kids are easily handled by a bike trailer, the only reason to drive would be physical impairment, transporting items too large for a trailer, or driving to another city.

Yet these intra-city trips are commonplace. When I see a car ease into a parking spot, I always run to assist the driver with getting out into their wheelchair, but I am stunned to find that they usually have working legs after all! People drive to the school to pick up and drop off kids. To the grocery store. To the restaurants. To the gym. To each other’s houses. Back and forth on Main Street to show off. Every road sees plenty of cars and personal trucks, some of them in dangerous numbers. And inside, every vehicle is equipped with a La-Z-boy recliner, upon which a tragic clown sits, pushing the soft-touch pedals, turning the power-assisted wheel, and talking on some sort of Clownophone.

The clowns have to wait in line when the traffic light turns red. They have to bumble though the parking lots and wait for each other to back out of parking spaces, because their machines are so bulky that two cannot pass each other in a space less than 20 feet wide. They line up at special events and fight for places to park on the streets. Then they line up at the gas station and the car wash and the oil change shop. And the machines make them fatter and poorer every time they use them.

And we haven’t even addressed the most clown-like invention of them all: the drive-through (or ‘drive-thru’ as it they spell it here, which is suitable because “thru” is not even a word, just as drive-through services should not exist). The clowns actually sit for several minutes in a self-imposed traffic jam, engines idling, just so somebody can hand them some shit through the window of their car!

Mustachians like you and I view an idling engine like a bleeding wound or an overflowing toilet. It’s something to be alarmed at, and to correct immediately. But Car Clowns actually idle deliberately, sometimes to get something as ridiculous as a cup of expensive coffee in a disposable paper cup. When I see these lines of Drive-Thru Clowns, I find the urge to get off my bike and walk down the lineup systematically PUNCHING EACH DRIVER IN THE FACE through their open window to be almost overwhelming.

It sounds like a terrible fate when I describe it like that, but yet for almost everyone in the country, this is reality. Most Car Clowns will acknowledge that their lives are pretty inconvenient, but then claim that a car is necessary to prevent the even greater inconveniences of public transit, walking, or not going anywhere at all.

Well, here’s the good news: Car Clown Disease is not an unavoidable thing. It’s simply the product of bad habits. If you can reprogram the bad habits you’ve built around cars, you can slide into the cool camp of Conscious Car Users instead. It’s a land where traffic is sparse, the view out your window is breathtaking, and cost is negligible.

To cure the disease, you just need to change the way you feel about driving. Right now, you probably feel that it’s just something you do because it’s necessary. Maybe you even find it pleasant at times (hell, I sure do). You have the cozy seats, the climate control, the stereo, lights, knobs and buttons, and all that power. You can go anywhere with that thing.

But there’s more to it than that. When you use a 3500-pound car to transport your 150-pound self around, 96 percent of the weight of that clump of matter is the car. You’re moving 25 times more junk around than you need to, and thus using 25 times more energy to do it.

Imagine that you’re hungry for lunch, so you go to a restaurant. But you don’t just order yourself a blackened salmon salad for $15.00. You order twenty five salads for $375.00! Then, you eat one of them, and leave the other 24 blackened salmon salads, $360.00 worth of food, to get collected by the waiter and slopped unceremoniously into a big black garbage bag. All that fine wild-caught Alaskan Salmon, lovingly seasoned and grilled. All the fine crumbles of feta cheese, the mango salsa, diced green onion, shaved peppers, rich zingy dressing, and everything else the chef worked on for hours – plopped into the slimy garbage bag. This is exactly what you are doing, every time you drive!

And you’re not just wasting your own money, of course. You are wasting the gasoline that the rest of the world works so hard to produce, puncturing seabeds and spilling stadium-loads of oil into pristine wilderness areas as a necessary byproduct. Destroying coral reefs and flooding coastlines with your carbon emissions. Clogging roads and creating demand for roadway expansion, indirectly raising your own taxes. It’s a whole lot of badness we’re doing, every time we drive. It’s not just a matter of “Hey, it’ll only cost me ten bucks for the gas”. It’s a matter of choosing to be an asshole. I fully admit that I drive plenty of miles in cars too, and I too am being an asshole every time I do it. Other people think you’re being an asshole when you drive too, and you should be just a little bit embarrassed every time you are seen driving. I sure am.

The goal here is not to create negative stress in your life. Just acknowledge that whenever you turn the key, you need to say, “Here we go. I’m being an asshole again”. It’s a subtle change, but a powerful one once you embrace it. And of course, your assholism scales with the size and weight of the vehicle. If you’re considering driving a pickup truck or large SUV for personal transport, the asshole factor should be so overwhelming that you feel like running inside to cower in a closet every time you even look out at your driveway. Feel the pain. Embrace it. Over time, work to reduce it.

On top of that, every time you drive on a local trip that could be handled by bike, you are telling both the world and yourself, “I am already so physically fit and healthy, that I could not possibly benefit from an extra few miles of biking”. Occasionally this is true, like if you just returned from a mountain century ride and have raw butt cheeks, blistered hands, and absolutely no energy left to crank the pedals. In this situation, sure, go ahead and take the car out to get groceries. You deserve it. For the rest of us, what is your excuse? Unless you just rode 60 miles, you will probably benefit greatly by leaving the car at home.

So there you have it: 3 simple steps to automotive habit change. With every potential car trip, think of the 24 plates of wasted salmon. Ask yourself if it’s worth being a deliberate asshole, and ask yourself if you have any possible use for a bit more health and physical fitness. Do it every time, so it becomes a habit.

You may find your automobile travel being greatly reduced, which of course has massive financial benefits as well. And for those remaining trips that pass the Triple Anti-Car-Clown Gauntlet: well, those are probably some hella good car trips, so you will have such a good time that it will be worth the consequences.

 

Epilogue, 1 day later: As usual, this article has gathered its share of complaints from new readers. “Waah, Waah, don’t call me a clown”, “Biking is dangerous where I live”, etc.

Instead of continuing my usual bossy insensitive life coach routine, I’ll take a rare moment to remind those people what I’m really trying to accomplish with this article: It’s not to make you feel bad or to try to make myself feel good. It is just to raise awareness about how there really is an alternative to a nothing-but-cars lifestyle if you think about it when making future decisions.

Sure, you might have trapped yourself into a car-dependent lifestyle for now. But remember, you created that trap yourself. If you get in the habit of lightheartedly calling yourself a clown every time you drive, and imagining those 24 plates of wasted food, you’ll start thinking, “hey, maybe there’s another way”.

Then, you might try walking or biking (or hell, even taking the train) on a fair-weather basis. Just do it when it’s easy. Then, it will get easier, which means that soon enough, it will be easy most of the time.

Next time you move to a new house or a new job, suddenly the consideration of “I’d rather not be a car clown” will be in your mind. You will make more balanced decisions. The reason I took the job in Boulder instead of Petaluma way back in 1999 was because I could afford a house within biking distance of work here, but I couldn’t out there. Even if you live in the center of a NASCAR oval right now, and work 67 miles away, you don’t have to do that forever. You, too, have a choice of where you live and work in the future. I’m just planting a seed in your mind.

Only once this seed grows into the fruit of independence, can you wean yourself from the Poisonous Teat of the Automobile.

  • Nopers April 20, 2017, 10:16 pm

    Hey, MMM!

    It took a few years, but we’ve finally made the change to becoming Conscious Car Users! Reading this article way back when caused the gears to start turning, and slowly but surely we’ve changed our lifestyle to one in which car travel is an occasional, instead of daily, event.

    Cheers, from Victoria, Australia.

    Reply
  • Joshua Crouch June 8, 2017, 8:38 am

    I’ve just got a little bit of money mustache stubble right now, but I have been minimizing my car usage, before I caught on to this blog, by doing most my driving on small motorcycle. I’m not sure what the mustache view on this is but I would be interested in hearing opinions on it. I figure it is more expensive than biking but cheaper and less “clownish” using my car all the time.

    Reply
  • Bryan Agnello June 20, 2017, 12:38 pm

    I do have a car however I barely drive it. Recently I have moved to Downtown Rochester, NY and just so happened to get a job downtown as well. Walking everyday or biking to work has bettered my mood and my personal health. We have an extensive trail system that connects the suburban areas directly to downtown. I am baffled by the miserable toilet clog of cars that I see on our interstate bottle neck system every day. I used to be part of this daily torture. I was sick and tired of this daily headache and decided to change. If I ever choose to move out to the suburbs for some reason I will most likely find a house close to a trail. This will mostly not happen for a very long time or at all. Moving out to the suburbs and buying a house and commuting just sounds like a very poor financial decision. I save thousands every year not having to dump money into my gas tank. Downtown living is really a game changer. I have lost a considerable amount of weight and feel great. I have purchased a bike utility trailer and can do 99% of everything with my bike! If I have to I will use my car to transport heavy items or items that are just to big to fit in the trailer. If you find yourself tired and miserable on a daily basis you can make the change.

    Reply
  • Nate Harold October 10, 2017, 3:47 pm

    Thanks in general for the biking rants. 1yr ago I was checking out a $900 electric scooter to get 2miles to work. I declined. A friend sent me here. I read. I thought. Then I started riding my bike. 300mi and 4mo later and I’m a dedicated daily bike commuter including weekends and errands. At first it felt like a “lifestyle” change and now it just feels like getting around… plus a little exercise… plus getting to know my neighborhood better. Right on

    Reply
  • Michael R November 18, 2017, 12:29 pm

    You insult clowns. Clowns take car pooling to great heights. A practice list on these just-me-and-my-kid folks.

    Reply
  • The Freak November 20, 2017, 9:49 am

    Great rant! We need to meet up for a beer sometime. I’m the tall freak going fast all over Longmont on fixed gear bikes…well, sometimes on a tallbike and in the Winter on a fatbike.

    Reply
  • Susan January 22, 2018, 6:06 pm

    I personally put 500,000 miles on my 1983 Mercedes diesel during 22 of my 25 years as an Engineer. What an asshole I was! I thought it was smart at the time, because I live in a much less expensive city and commuted to the Silicon Valley. It helped my pocketbook, but destroyed my sanity and added more hours to my already very long work day. I loved that car though! Now that I have reached FI, I am definitely a walk or bike person and the replacement car will most likely last me the rest of my life.

    I wish you were around when I made that decision back in 1988. You could have PUNCHED ME IN THE FACE and I’d be so appreciative now!

    Reply
  • Steve P. May 24, 2018, 2:10 pm

    Thanks for the perspective, great mental picture using the 24/25 washed salad approach.I’m currently starting to ride to work.

    Thank you,

    A recovering car clown.

    Reply
  • Jay McConnell October 25, 2018, 2:25 pm

    Well, you got me to reconsider and walk the 200 yards to lunch. After that, I wanted to go to the grocery store. That was of course out of the question on foot. But, then I heard Mr. Money Mustache ridiculing me, “Oh. Of course, you can’t carry a small bag of groceries on foot. That would be impossible.” I promptly got my ass in the grocery store. Haha!

    Reply
  • Reade November 4, 2018, 9:19 pm

    Checkout this story below. This guy in Whitehorse hasn’t owned a car and walks everywhere he goes. Whitehorse is about as far north as you can go in Canada so this guy is a bad ass. If he can do it, not sure what the rest of us are using as an excuse.

    https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/car-free-walker-yukoner-whitehorse-health-environment-1.4890425

    Reply
  • Timbo December 26, 2018, 5:50 pm

    This is a fantastic article. It caused me to stop and think about my own habits regarding driving. Thanks, MMM. If you find that you are offended by this article, please follow these easy steps.
    1) Close your web browser.
    2) Lie down on the couch. Make yourself comfortable.
    3) Take 5 deep breaths and know that you will be okay.

    Reply
  • EVDriver March 7, 2019, 1:41 pm

    Funny article. It may not be as applicable for those who drive EVs, however. To be fair, you only ever mentioned dino-juice-mobiles.

    I’ve been driving EVs since 2013. My 16 mi commute is probably doable on a bike if I were super-fit. Google Maps says 1.33 h. I could afford to live closer to work, as close as 9 mi, which would only be 45 min by bike.

    My EV gets 4 mi/KWh, which costs $0.11 here. So 9 mi only consumes 2.25 KWh, which is $0.25. 45 min of biking, however, would cause a 155 lb super-fit version of me to burn 443 cal. Based on your grocery budget post, you spend $1.33 for a 667 cal meal. That’s $0.88 for 443 cal. So it costs you 3.5x more to fuel yourself than it costs me to fuel my EV, and that’s when we’re not getting “free” charging at my wife’s job. Depending on the electricity source (e.g. renewables), and your type of diet (meat vs vegetarian) or source of food (Costco vs. what you grow), it’s debatable as to which has the higher environmental impact once you get past initial manufacture of the car; which, as you admit, most Americans still need at least at times. That also ignores the health benefit of riding the bike. But given the high mortality rates for cyclists, it might be a time/health/$ benefit to buy an EV and work out on a cycle trainer at home.

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache March 8, 2019, 2:17 pm

      You’re on the right track, fellow EV driver. Just a few updates – don’t forget the cost of the CAR itself in your driving figures, not just the electricity. So in total it’s probably more like 30-40 cents per mile for the car.

      For a faster bike ride (and less calorie burn) try an electric bike – it’s easy to average 20MPH which is one mile every three minutes.

      But outdoor cycling is REALLY healthy, and crash risk is negligible on a statistical basis. Plus, then your commute time doubles as exercise time. So, ride safely but do it!

      Reply
  • Sergei March 9, 2019, 3:09 pm

    Hello MMM. There is a great if albeit depressing paper by a law professor about the car supremacy in US, and how it’s all mandated by law. It’s a great read after which any sane person would begin thinking about their clown car in a negative way. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3345366

    Reply
  • Duke March 22, 2019, 5:01 am

    imagine….
    if bikes were as well marketed (and differentiated as well as) cars… a product range might look like this…..
    SUV = 3 or 4 wheel, multiple pedals, large cargo capacity, spare skateboard standing position for guest pushers, etc.
    Mid Size = 3 wheel light cargo carrying capacity, room for kids and shopping. Not too wide. Stands up as cargo is loaded. Room for extra hangers-on (friends) who can push on skateboard type appendages
    Compact/ Sports = cool, fast, some cargo capacity. Room for “significant other” contributor/peddler .
    Imagine many, many manufacturers, (Ford, Tesla, GM, etc?) imagine big volumes, therefore mass production prices, (light weight frames cheap!) glossy ad campaigns … imagine DESIRABILITY … imagine a city adapted around bikes, then imagine one day, a city designed around bikes,
    imagine… a big building block in the quest for a future URBAN paradise !

    Reply
  • Dominic July 19, 2019, 7:43 am

    Thanks for this!
    I am moving into Baltimore City from out in the country in a few months to ditch an insane 30 mile, sometimes over an hour, car commute. Now my commute will be a 1.5 mile run, half of which is through a park, complete with steep hills which will result in killer quads. Also this new house is a brick rowhouse in the middle of a block, so it has much more thermal mass than my current house. I will also take advantage of sleeping in the basement in the summer and upstairs in the winter (current house is 1 story, not well insulated, low thermal mass). Even with my current obnoxious commute I still manage to save 50% of my income, hoping to bump this up to near 70-80%

    Reply
  • Owen Boyd September 12, 2019, 9:52 am

    I’ve been cycling since I was 9, back in 1961. I drive too, now and then, but I cycle to work 9 miles total every day, and to shop, see friends, everything pretty much…. At 67 I feel, well about 20 really. I weigh 65Kg (143 pounds). Never wear a helmet, always have headphones, and I’m possibly the slowest cyclist in Kent… Works for me. When I do drive it’s for some special trip, usually with my wife, and that’s great too – horses for courses. We could cut health care spending in half, if the majority cycled the majority of trips. Probably.

    Reply
  • Kirill November 19, 2019, 5:43 pm

    Is it true that there are movie theatres for cars in USA?
    I saw this in a movie but not sure if it was a joke or not.

    Reply
  • BobJ November 28, 2019, 5:22 am

    ” I find the urge to get off my bike and walk down the lineup systematically PUNCHING EACH DRIVER IN THE FACE through their open window to be almost overwhelming.”
    Love your articles..love the advice.. but you may need some therapy. As someone who was the victim of physical violence this is distrubing.

    Reply
  • Bennet Vella January 15, 2020, 7:44 am

    Here we are with a two ton Defender 90, sounds like it’s coughing out dying insects and guitily loving every moment of it. Not American though, not even close – my primary vehicle is a motorcycle, and I’d love to ride a bicycle (which I do own) but with small streets, continuous construction, reckless driving and no law enforcement, compounded along with the continuous elevation changes makes it pretty damn impossible to get anywhere with a bicycle.

    My motorcycle is the more economical approach. To be fair I bought the bike brand new because I wanted it as a hobby, very wasteful choice, true, but I’m thinking of sticking with it at this point. I won’t be getting rid of that Defender 90 anytime soon though, it’s hers not mine and she’d get proper sad without it, just like I would with a bike. 60k income a year combined with a 300k mortgage about to start at 28 years of age for me… I’m feeling like a loser reading this blog, but at least I’m gonna improve in some other areas if not this.

    Reply
  • Tobias April 22, 2020, 11:08 am

    Just for your interest: a recent study that reveals what all MM already know. “Running a car costs much more than people think”.
    https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01118-w

    Reply
  • Roger OConnor July 13, 2020, 2:12 pm

    saw this in the NY Times and made me think of this old MMM posting.
    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/09/opinion/sunday/ban-cars-manhattan-cities.html

    Reply
  • Kathy O August 2, 2020, 2:23 pm

    Reply
  • Cole August 27, 2020, 9:26 am

    Hello,

    I am relatively new to FIRE, but I’ve been unwittingly living a bit of a FIRE live for quite some time. This is the first time I’ve attempted responding to any articles and I know this one is pretty old, so I don’t really expect to get much of a response. That said, this article aligned with something I did & shared on facebook back in 2010 so I felt the need to share! In 2008/2009 I began realizing that my car was a dead weight on my life so I started forcing myself to walk everywhere. I would purposefully park my car 3-4 blocks from my house so it was inconvenient which resulted in a decision of walking 3 blocks to get the car or walking 4-5 blocks to get to the ultimate destination. In early 2010 I had accepted that I could easily live my personal life without a car, but my office was 4-5 miles away through the middle of downtown Seattle & gridlock traffic. The 3-4 block hurdle wasn’t enough to get me to commit to the bus for 45 minutes so against massive protests from every friend & family member in my life I sold my car. The first 3-6 months took some adjustments, but about 6 months into the experience I was enjoying my morning coffee on the bus and wrote the below. On a side note, I updated the post every year on the anniversary for about the first 5 years at which point I think my facebook group started getting annoyed so now I just live happily with the knowledge of my car free existence.

    My no car journey 2010:

    Money saved (net savings reduced for cost of bus pass & includes all reasonable vehicle expenses)
    $550/month
    $6,600/year

    Net increased commute time (approx 30min/day)
    2.5 hrs/week
    10 hrs/month
    120 hrs/year

    $6,600/120 hrs = $55/hour to save 30min/day (NOT WORTH IT)

    Added health benefit (my house is .75 miles from my bus stop)
    1.5 miles/day
    7.5 miles/week
    30 miles/month
    360 miles/year

    US Department of Health suggests a minimum of 2.5 hrs/week of moderate exercise and they consider brisk walking to be a moderate exercise. The CDC defines a brisk walk as 3 miles/hr or under a 20min mile.

    20 min X 7.5 miles/week = 2.5 hrs/week

    Thanks to not owning a car I meet the DOH minimum health requirement without even trying!!

    Basic environmental impact
    450 gallons of fuel saved per year @ $4/gal (note: I honestly have no idea what gas costs now )

    Lastly, I can do all of this calculating on my bus drinking my morning coffee and I don’t get angry at commuter traffic anymore!

    Most of my friends & coworkers that have known me since 2010 always comment on how I look soo good in my 40’s. How do you stay so skinny, what do you eat, blah blah blah. I wont lie and say it is 100% not owning a car because I do try to eat well and take care of myself, but getting rid of my car over 10 years ago was a step that kept me moving down a different path than most everyone I know.

    Anyhow, since discovering the FIRE community about 6 months ago I’ve made a few small tweaks to my plans and should be at my FI number in 2023 at the age of 44. One of the biggest things keeping me going that long is related to some restricted private stock, but as I mentioned at the beginning I enjoy my job so I’m not to stressed about the wait.

    All the best!

    Cole

    Reply
  • Sydney September 20, 2020, 5:52 pm

    I happened upon this post and was intrigued, maybe I just miss driving to work! Yikes did I EVER think I would say that? Anyway, before the pandemic of 2020, I decided to really take on the driving issue and gave up my freedom wheels and joined a vanpool. The first couple of months proved difficult to get used too, but stick with it and you will wonder why you didn’t do it earlier, at least I did.

    Reply
  • getsnoopy November 18, 2020, 10:39 pm

    I like this post for so many reasons:

    +1 for spelling kilometre correctly
    +1 for talking about the sheer inefficiency of cars à la Amory Lovins
    +1 for tying the environmental aspect of car use with the money aspect
    +1 for coining a new word: assholism, or as the rest of the world would spell it, arseholism
    +1 for associating the image of clowns with driving cars
    +1 for calling out that “thru” is not a word, and should not be used

    Reply

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