Rental Rhetoric: 'Can You Live Without Your Car?'

Greetings from Washington, DC.

I will be here all week doing what I normally do, but doing it from here. And what I normally do is marketing, for Bike Shop Hub.

I flew in through Roanoke, Virginia — 240 miles southwest of DC — because of complicated logistical considerations that can be summarized in two words: I’m cheap.

I rented a car from Enterprise. They told me they were giving me a Fiat. I immediately imagined a red sports car and a speeding ticket from a Virginia cop somewhere on Interstate 81.


Since I haven’t personally owned a car in about eight years, I’ve rented quite a few. And I know that sometimes when the rental fleet is running low, I’ve been “upgraded” from the cheapest, most emasculating car possible to something more gas guzzling and/or sexier (like this). I won’t deny that while I was thinking, Crap, I was also thinking, Cool… sports car.

So I towed my carry-on luggage out to the rental lot, and wandered until I found the designated parking spot and this car:


‘Can You Live Without Your Car?’

A stubby little Fiat 500. A disappointing relief.

The back of the rental contract was filled with marketing messages, including a box with the rhetorical question, “Can You Live Without Your Car?” Next to the question was a photo of a car with a smashed front end.

Do You Love Your Children
Manipulative marketing bastards and their rhetorical questions...

In marketing, rhetorical questions are often used to suggest that a particular answer is blatantly obvious. In this case, the blatantly obvious answer is, No! I can’t possibly live without my car!

Those six words – Can You Live Without Your Car – along with the don’t-let-this-happen-to-you photo are intended to motivate people to add rental coverage to their existing car insurance. Which, I guess, is handy tip for people who truly believe they can’t live without their car. And also, I suppose, it’s a handy tip for people who have made lifestyle choices that preclude serious consideration of anything but a car for personal transportation.

Enterprise is a successful company, so they probably know a thing or two about what motivates people.

But the average car commute in America is just under 13 miles, according to the Department of Transportation. That’s the average – meaning half of us have a commute of less than 13 miles. And zero to 13 miles is totally doable by bike — with the right route.

If Enterprise is right about the motivational power of this question, what a truly sad statement it is that so many people think that they can’t live without their car. In Parasitology, that would make the human the parasite, and the car the host. What are we, tapeworms?

Okay, I know that it’s just a figure of speech – and maybe it’s a pet peeve of mine too. It’s a lot easier to say “can’t live without…” than it is to say “would create an inconvenience to have to do without…”

But for anyone who has lived without a car for a few years, or even has lived on a low-car diet, this is not a rhetorical question. And there is an opposite blatantly obvious answer: Yes, I can and do live without my car, thank you very much. And doing so has been generally positive for my quality of life.

I mentioned that I’m in Washington DC. This is where I was living when I first tried a low-car diet, and ultimately gave up owning a car.

I was in the homestretch of my five-hour drive from Roanoke, and had entered the city as a motorist for the first time in quite a few years. Driving up Virginia Avenue, I encountered a parked car, in the middle of the right lane. I suddenly remembered 15 years ago, as a driver from a western state, there were a couple of adjustments I had to make learning to drive around DC:

  • Many right lanes are lanes until someone decides to park there.
  • Many left lanes are lanes until someone decides to make a left turn.
Car parked in the right lane
You're not Out West anymore, boy.

I remember time after time, I’d be driving my truck and then, Dammit! Not again! What’s the matter with this damn city!? I’d have to wait for the lane to clear so I could continue driving.

And after enough negative reinforcement, I started to drive more strategically. I started to look way ahead before I would choose the right lane. I started to watch for turn signals and brake lights on cars in front of me far ahead of what I was used to. Eventually I adjusted and my driving tantrums subsided.

Back then, I was a cyclist. I had a long history bike commuting, but it was never my norm and I was still car-dependent in my thinking. I probably thought that I couldn’t live without my car. It took about eight years for me to take the plunge and get rid of my ailing truck — and not replace it with another motor vehicle.

This trip has been a reminder that it takes time for people to adjust to new infrastructure. For many people, as we well know, bike lanes are novel, a nuisance, and perceived as an unnecessary indulgence at the expense of the “rightful” users of the roads. Eventually these drivers will get used to it, and their anti-cyclist tantrums will decrease.

And eventually most of them will see bikes and bikes lanes is part of ordinary life — even if they only see them as part of the ordinary lives of other people. But the rhetorical question, “Can You Live Without Your Car?” will lose it’s visceral power. Enterprise will have to think of something else.

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6 thoughts on “Rental Rhetoric: 'Can You Live Without Your Car?'”

  1. Rob E. says:

    It is sad but accurate that surviving without a car is pretty much unthinkable to a large portion of the population. I’ve been at my current job for 10+ years and most of the time I’ve been able to get there without using my car. Eventually that car sat accumulating mold and only getting used for the occasional out-of-town trip. Finally I hit a repair-or-ditch situation, and rather than sink hundreds into my seldom-used car, I got rid of it. It seemed like a natural decision, but every now and then you mention it and someone reacts like you just told them you now live on the moon. Last month a friend I hadn’t talked to in a while interrupted me when my car-less state came up. “Wait. Stop. Go back. What do you mean, ‘You don’t have a car?'” We actually returned to the topic a couple of other times over the course of the weekend, “Okay, explain to me again about this no-car thing.”
    And truthfully, while I managed to remain car-free or at least not car-dependent for long periods of time, even I never really thought it was sustainable until I started to acknowledge that my car wasn’t moving for weeks at a time. It is a tough mindset to break out of, and while I’d like to think that Enterprise’s strategy won’t work forever, it may remain convincing for a lot of people for the foreseeable future.

  2. Some smart transportation wonk out there has no doubt calculated the relative cost to the taxpayer of catering to the notion that we can’t live without a car. Or just that a family of 4the can’t live w/the only one car. When I was first confronted with possibility that I might have to live w/out a car in the face of post-Katrina gas spiking I asked myself how those “other” people do it. Well, they take the bus. So, I went from being an occasional bus rider to being a most of time rider, learning new routes and how to transfer buses. When we decided the economics of Flagstaff required us to sell a car I cringed w/the fear about riding a bicycle to work. Again, how did other people do it? I investigated the blogs on how it’s done and found my inspiration.

    One thing that has facilitated my ability to live car-lite has been my and Bob’s decision to live in high-density areas as much as possible. We targeted our Phoenix home search specifically to neighborhood in Central Phx, close to public transit. We wanted to live relatively close to his job and my school, close to services and places we wanted to go. If we couldn’t get there on foot, bike, or public transit, the location was ruled out.

  3. josephdldad says:

    I was driving a company provided vehicle for over ten years. They pay for all expenses to include tolls and gas. In return, I am expected to respond to business emergencies. Specifically, there is one week of the month in which I am expected to respond to business emergencies immediately.

    As the price of operating the vehicles increased last summer (2011), my fellow workers and I brainstormed to find ways to reduce business costs without harming service to our customers. The end result was only using twenty percent of the response vehicles for immediate after hour responses.

    All of us had personal cars available but we decided to use public transportation as much as possible to prevent the need for additional parking in a large city (saving more money).

    The car that I would be using is now primarily for my daughter’s college commute of five miles. She also does online courses which reduce fuel consumption. Eventually, I expect her to approach me about bicycle commuting to the college. I am careful not to push as a few articles have already been written on this site about turning children off by being too enthusiastic or preaching too much.

    My car is now a “ZIP” car for my family. For all effective purposes, a three car family has been reduced to two. My daughter does use public transportation whenever possible and plans to live in a city where it is available.
    I have no plans to go back to driving my car for my commute. One week per month I am forced to commute and I hate it now. I end up taking my bicycle for a one hour ride or working-out for one hour on my Nordic Track on those days. My workout time added to my direct car commuting time is exactly the same amount of time it takes to bicycle to the bus station and commute by bus. That is what I find so amazing. I work my gym time into my bicycle/bus commute and use exactly the same amount of time driving my car and working-out.

    $0.55/mile times 12 miles/day times 15 days/month times 12 months comes very close to $1,200/year.

    Gym membership: $30.00/month (bare bones minimum) times 12 months: $360.00

    Fresh air, seeing deer, and watching the sunrise on my bicycle: Priceless.

  4. listenermark says:

    A week after I had (consciously) moved closer to my job my ancient Toyota decided to die. No problem, I could walk or ride my mountain bike to work until I found another car. That was four years ago and I still haven’t found that next car. I now have more money, enjoy better health, and an extra beer or yummy cookie is never a problem.

  5. I can relate to the parts. Life is nothing without vehicle.

  6. snowkitty says:

    What car?! I’ve commuted to/from work, etc. for over 25 years on bike and still going! No car-dependency for me (not even a driver’s license)! My current commute is about 5 miles roundtrip. Previous one was over 10 miles. Oh, and I live in snowy central NY where the snow piles are often taller than a child and the temperatures can rival a freezer!

    My health, wallet, and the environment all benefit from this mode of transport. In general, I also have more patience, pay attention to more detail (I literally CAN stop and smell the roses!), and am more relaxed than my car driving co-workers. Those might be unseen added perks to riding a bike.

    And yes, I’ve heard the constant “How do you get by without a car?” Answer: Easy–think outside the box (aka:car) and adapt to the situation.

    Though seriously, you’d think I was an alien with the reactions I get. Hasn’t anyone ever seen an adult female ride a bicycle on a regular basis before?!

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