Yesterday’s Car-Free Times

Culture Change
Thanks to Sean Re

[This was read at Olive’s memorial. She was 96 when she died this spring. We reside in her old house, and she and her husband were ahead of their time in many ways. I think you’ll enjoy this article she wrote. ~SR]

I wonder whether people today can envision the sort of changes needed to reach an auto-free time. After reading Dennis Lueck’s My Car-Free Life, I began reminiscing about the car-free life I led in the 1920s and 1930s in Berkeley, Calif. In some ways life was more hassle-free, not only for those who rode bicycles but also for people like our family who owned no vehicles at all.

We lived in a residential district. Elementary schools were within easy walking distance. Two street-car lines were within Berkeley and Oakland, and ran past high schools, churches and parks. You could transfer to buses that led beyond the reach of the street-car lines. Two competing commuter-trains led to ferries that took you to San Francisco and its vast system of street-car lines and buses.

Small grocery stores were located within walking distance of homes everywhere. Some, like the one near us, made daily deliveries. You phoned in your order for the day and later a young fellow arrived at your back door with your groceries in a box, on his regular daily round. For us that meant no driving, no parking lots, no walking through endless aisles of supermarkets pushing carts, no lugging heavy bags of groceries home.

Dairy supplies were even easier. Very early every morning the milkman left your bottles of milk and cream on the porch. If you wanted to change your regular order, you put a note in one of the empty bottles that you put out for him every night. No need to keep a refrigerator running, as your vegetables, fruit, meat and milk did not have to be held for days between trips to the supermarket. If you wanted to keep something cold, you kept an eye out for the iceman on his daily rounds. Some people had standing orders.

Many doctors made house calls.

Buses, ferries and trains went everywhere on frequent, regular schedules, with excursion runs on weekends. The shortline trains returning from the Marin County hiking trail terminals were full of happy, singing, sunburned people every Sunday evening. Probably because we had no car I don’t remember any parking lots.

By the mid-1930s it seemed everybody had a car. But there must have been a lot of people who, like me, were still afoot. Most of the infrastructures that supported our carless lifestyles persisted. The corner stores still clung to existence; the street cars, commute trains and ferries still ran.

The iceman was gone, but milk was still delivered to private homes. The gracious and charming Delta Queen (a sternwheeler) still plied her stately way nightly from San Francisco to Sacramento, picking up cargoes of rice and wheat along the way from the dark and silent docks of farmers, while we passengers slept in cozy staterooms.

World War II, with its frantic activity and enormous population increase, changed all this. Freeways and high-speed movement seemed essential. I can’t imagine that until the earth’s supply of petroleum finally gives out will it be possible to get rid of the perceived need for all this pavement.