In this city where we live in Ecuador, there is no need to own or drive a car. Within a 5-minute walk, I can reach a park, a veterinarian, a deli, a coffee shop, an ATM, a doctor and a hospital, a large farmer’s market, a beauty shop, ten grocery stores, a stationery store, and a pharmacy. Within thirty minutes, I can reach stadiums, theatres, supermarkets, dozens of banks, movie theatres, hardware stores, clothing stores, furniture stores, and pretty much anything needed day-to-day in a modern life. If I need to get across town in a hurry, a taxi costs $2 and a city bus costs a quarter. If I want to venture out into the mountains which are visible from my windows, I can hire a driver for the day for less than the cost of a tank of gas in the US.
We could afford a car if we really wanted one; our apartment includes two parking places. But we have no desire to drive here. Most major intersections are governed by roundabouts, or have no signals at all. Drivers approach them at what seems to us incautious speeds. In the taxis, we grab hold and hang on. However, I have seen only one accident in the six months I’ve lived here, a small fender-bender where a taxi pulled in too tightly in front of another vehicle.
My city experience is not typical, though: Statistics show that traffic fatalities in Ecuador occur at a rate of 27/100,000 population, versus 12/100,000 in the USA. So few people own cars here that the numbers are even worse if you look at the rate per vehicle: 376/100,000 for Ecuador and 14/100,000 vehicles for the USA. 30% of traffic deaths in Ecuador and 14% in the USA are pedestrians. While Ecuador requires seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, and child car seats, only 60% of drivers wear belts. I would estimate 80% of the children I see in cars are riding unrestrained. And it is not uncommon to see a family of three or even four riding a motorcycle together, infants, toddlers, and adults helmet-free (71% of motorcyclists reportedly wear them). And of course, the omnipresent buses do not have seatbelts.
The decision not to drive and not to own a car has been liberating. We only take with us what we know we will use where we are going. We only buy what we know we can carry home (though it is not hard or expensive to hire a pickup truck if you fall in love with a furnishing or a giant vase). Failing to exercise every day is simply not an option. We interact with our neighbors and practice our Spanish. We notice the weeds in the sidewalk, the dogs in the median, the graffiti in the alley, the baby in the sling.
Oh, I know that developers and city planners in the US strive to create “walkable neighborhoods,” but everyone knows what they are like. Besides being homogeneous enclaves of privilege, they are still miles by car from most resources. The city I am in has been in use for over 500 years, and some of the people who make it thrive are the descendants of the local indigenes and the Spanish invaders. I know that US urban planners talk about “mixed-use development,” but my luxury high-rise is just up the street from a river bank where people sometimes bring a cow or two to graze; the neighbors we overlook slaughtered and roasted a pig in their yard on Christmas Day.
We are what we are. We live and let live. Our lives are all of a piece, and those pieces—somehow—fit together.