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 Campfire Cycling.

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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