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Car-free life can make life carefree

This is the story of a woman who did something wild. Not as a favor to society. Not to be a role model. No, she did it because -- OK, let's tell the truth: Nancy Vargo got rid of her car because she wanted more money for travel and clothes.

Call it shallow. She'll agree, laughing her loud, appreciative laugh. Sure, she has heard the arguments that using public transportation is good for society, reducing pollution and wear and tear on the roads. But that's not what gave her the idea.

Vargo got the idea in Dortmund, Germany, Buffalo's sister city. She went there three years ago to visit her daughter, who was studying there. And she couldn't get over how Dortmunders hopped on and off buses and streetcars.

"I thought, 'Why can't we do that here?' " she recalls.

Back home in the Town of Tonawanda, her family's household -- three people, three cars -- suddenly didn't make sense. Vargo realized she was spending $425 a month on gas, insurance and car payments.

"It's a luxury," she says. "I thought, I'd rather have more money for trips and clothes." And so she sold her car.

Her husband, Steven, said she'd never be able to do without it. You can't blame him. This is Buffalo. A town where pedestrian malls fail for lack of pedestrians. Where people pride themselves in never having set foot on a bus. Heck, just last weekend, a Clarence church advertised a "Drive-Through Nativity."

But a dreamer, instead of asking, "Why?" asks, "Why not?" Vargo, a sturdy, pretty 53-year-old woman with unruly blond curls, may have been motivated by frivolities. But she's an inspiration. She proved the impossible is possible.

Car-free, she began by walking three blocks every morning to catch the bus at Sheridan Drive and Niagara Falls Boulevard. Then she would ride to University Station, where she would board a train downtown to her job at the Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Soon, she was taking trains and buses to meetings, restaurants and church. "It's like a game," she confides. "It's like a puzzle. How can I get somewhere? What's the most efficient way?"

She even got to know the NFTA's automated route-planning system. "I have the number in my cell, and I use it constantly," she says. "If I'm enjoying a cup of tea on Elmwood and I need to know how fast I have to run up Cleveland to get the next bus, I can call."

Vargo admits that she makes family members cringe. Once, she mortified them by waving at a friend from a bus window.

And recently, when Vargo and her family moved to North Buffalo, everyone giggled at her. "The bus stop was one of the first things I looked at," she says. "I said, 'Oh, look at the bus stop on the corner.' "

Let them laugh. She enjoys her new life.

She does food shopping in smaller increments, as Europeans do. The Washington Street Market comes in handy. The other day, she hopped off the bus to pick up Chinese takeout. "I felt as if I lived in Manhattan," she says.

Vargo even considers herself spoiled. "Just the thought of getting on the expressway at 5 o'clock, you've got to be kidding," she exclaims. "I'm home by then."

Her proudest achievement? It seems to be a toss-up between taking the bus to a meeting in Niagara Falls and planning a trip next year with her husband to Germany and Hungary. "I could never go if I was paying for a car," she says.

Over and over, we find we don't have a choice. We couldn't keep a casino away from our historic Cobblestone District. We can't stop our taxes from rising.

But when it comes to cars, we can say no. Remember that when you're scraping your windshield. Remember that when the price of gas soars. Remember Vargo's victory.

"It's all about choices," she says.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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