While volunteering at a museum a few months ago, my boss asked me to run down to Office Depot and buy a few folders. To me, “run down to the store” meant it was within walking distance, across the street or a few blocks away from the heart of Houston’s Museum District.
I readily agreed, thinking a short stroll in the spring air would be refreshing. “You know how to get there, right?” she asked. “Richmond and Kirby?”
After a quick bit of mental recalibration to figure out how to travel the two miles, I said, “Of course. I live close by. I’ll take the train to Wheeler Station and then get on to bus number 25.”
Her eyes widened in horror. “You don’t drive? How do you get to work?”
She retracted the request, and I strangely found myself apologizing.
My carlessness typically evokes a similar reaction of disbelief. Of course, plenty of Houstonians have no car, due to financial limitations or other factors beyond their control. For us, when we moved here from another country nine months ago, it meant having to prioritize our various needs based on immediacy, primary among them, finding an apartment. Having a car didn’t tug at us for being an urgent need, simply because it has never been a part of our lifestyle. Regardless, that we actively chose not to own a car, that my husband and I would willingly opt to forgo personal transportation, makes us an aberration in a city where owning a vehicle is not just de rigueur, but nearly required.
This mentality is as odd to me as my no-wheel-drive status is to others. In Mumbai, where I come from, owning a car is not a necessity. The roads back home throb with all kinds of transport. Take the bus if you are not in a hurry; hail a rickshaw or taxi if you are. The railway network is spread over 290 miles, and the trains carry an average of 7.5 million passengers daily—almost four times the population of Houston.
So when my husband, D—who is from France and spent years riding his bike and the metro—and I arrived in Houston, we hoped a city so big, so international, would have a public transit system to match. We made a conscious decision to live in a neighborhood close to Rice University, where D works. It takes him about 20 minutes to cycle there. Our home is in close proximity to restaurants, cinema halls, the Museum District, downtown—pretty much everything we hold important in life. On paper, the area seemed well connected. We didn’t need a car. Or so we thought.
Our initial optimism began to falter quickly, and it outright tumbled into despair during several shopping trips for kitchen appliances, furniture, and just about everything required to settle into our new apartment, goods we had to schlep back across multiple bus and train transfers. The difficulties of navigating the city were laid bare during our tedious and time-consuming bus trips to the supermarket, not because the bus wasn’t comfortable, but because it was unreliable. One memorable trip left us standing in the rain for more than an hour for a bus that eventually took us home in ten minutes.
We waited for buses that never came. We alternated for two hours between a train and two buses to reach a place that would have been only half an hour away by car. We abandoned plans of going somewhere simply because it was not convenient. We once resorted to borrowing a friend’s car and stuffing it with as much furniture as possible, because how often could we keep asking for favors? I cursed the city each time we had to go anywhere, and the thought of venturing out became a source of anxiety. Had a sprawl like Houston forgotten to join the dots?
After the early frustrations began to soften, we had to cast about for alternatives. Life got easier after we downloaded the Uber app. We familiarized ourselves with bus and train routes and started making plans around them. As anybody new to a city, I embraced it for what it was—public transportation warts and all.
I also began to appreciate that traveling on Houston’s Metro system gave me a glimpse into various realities and layers of American life. I started belonging to a community of commuters much like I did in Mumbai. I found myself asking, Where do they come from? What do they do? Some narratives were easy to construct, like how during peak hours, buses going to and from downtown carried office-goers who preferred to avoid having to drive in traffic or agonizing over parking. Or in the mid-afternoon, high-schoolers trekked home after classes let out. And certain bus routes were pipelines connecting working-class neighborhoods to industrial or commercial spaces across the city.
This shared space also breeds a certain kind of intimacy much of humanity truly craves—or at least I do. Familiar landscapes were made new again when I noticed the way a child’s eyes struggled to keep pace with trees and buildings flitting past. I had a backwards peek into the evanescence of youth by observing a young teenager with piercings and tattoos cooing with the boy beside her. A whiff of the smell of someone else’s sweat and grime alerted me to the struggles of everyday life.
I also experienced the daily rush of random encounters. I saw a driver let a passenger ride the bus when he didn’t have money but needed to get home. Two smiles were exchanged: one of gratefulness and the other of tacit understanding. Another time, a man stood in the bus to deliver a drunken speech about his lost phone and cursed the person who had stolen it. A little later, he got up again and announced grandly that it was in his bag and went from one seat to the next, apologizing to everyone, his sincerity prompting laughter to spread across the bus.
Familiar faces began to make appearances on my regular routes: an elderly couple always lugging multiple bags; two students always talking loud enough for everyone to hear; an old man always seen chatting with whoever sat next to him. It was through these occurrences that the city and its people gradually began to reveal slivers of their true character to me.
And part of that character is how ingrained car culture is to Houston. On a visit to the airport, our Super Shuttle was the only one on the High Occupancy Vehicle lane, a designated roadway for cars with multiple passengers. On the other side of the barrier, scores of cars whizzed by, and in each of them was a single occupant.
In this city, it seems car is religion. If you don’t follow it, you are looked upon as some sort of social oddity. A Houstonian once told me that it was only after she moved to Washington D.C. and lived there for five years that she got used to sharing the road with pedestrians—or even seeing them at all. My friend and her partner are often perplexed when they see a person walking in non-sports attire—people walking for the sake of walking—and wonder if something is wrong.
My friends’ admissions hit especially close to home for me. While riding our bikes—or worse putting one foot in front of the other, a.k.a., walking—D and I encounter two kinds of people. The first are a petrified lot, people who, at the sight of anything that is a set of two—feet or wheels—slow down and stare suspiciously. The second are so ferociously territorial that they glare at you for being in “their” space, as if to say, you have no business being here.
So far, a car-free life has been economical, saving us the worries of parking, insurance, and theft. Others, however, worry enough for both D and me. When planning to meet someone, we are often asked, are you mobile? Why wouldn’t we be? Our bodies are still functional. But I know they mean well when they invite us to some place far away—because everything is far away from everything else in this vast city—and wonder how we’ll make it. To assuage their fears, we say, “Don’t worry. We’ll manage.” Most offer to drive us back home.
Being a carless person in Houston is akin to being a childless woman. It invites incredulous looks and a barrage of questions. Why not? people ask. Is this an ideological decision? Will you never consider it in the future? Sure, we will. After all, it is not lost on us how acutely we do need a car.
And so, despite living the past nine months without a car, we are taking steps in that direction, to fit in with the Texan way of life, one it seems we can’t ignore any longer. My driving lessons have come to an end, and the days leading to my road test are spent studying and practicing (on friends’ cars, of course). They’re also spent contemplating on not only what I’ll gain but also what I’ll give up. Driving can be such an isolating experience. Enter a dark parking garage, locate your car in a swarm of many, marvel at finding yourself in an Andy Warhol painting, put in your keys, rev up the engine, and drive out into the light. Soon, you are settled in your little bubble, ensconced in your thoughts, rolled up windows a barrier to the outside world.
If—or is it a matter of when?—we buy a car, I hope we don’t let the vehicle enslave us. After all, buses and trains gave us the opportunity to have conversations with strangers on lonely days. Biking along leafy roads allowed us to feel the wind in our hair. And walking down unknown streets taught us to befriend our new city.
Sukhada Tatke is a freelance writer based in Houston. She has worked with The Times of India and The Hindu. Her work has appeared in Scroll.in and the Houston Chronicle. She tweets @ASuitableGirl.