by Jim Ridley
In 2004, when his long-time girlfriend Whitney Boon decided to go to Harvard to complete pre-med credits, she left her 1995 Mercury Sable in O'Connell's care. After a mechanical misdiagnosis of a transmission problem eventually left it smoking by the side of I-65 just outside of Bowling Green, Freddie decided to call it quits on cars for a while. "I took a look at my budget, and I had just paid off all my student loans. I was debt-free. And the only way to stay that way was to be car-free, too." On top of that, at the same time as gas prices were rising dramatically, every environmental indicator seemed to be pointing to reduction of carbon emissions as a good thing. "I had an opportunity to reduce my environmental footprint as dramatically as my financial footprint, and I took it." At the time, he was living in an apartment just off West End near Vanderbilt. He walked across the street to Cumberland Transit, invested just over $300 in a bike, got an MTA system map, and was soon exploring the challenges of car-free living in Nashville, a city not renowned for its mass transit system or bike-friendly urban commutes. A few years into his adventure, O'Connell was invited to join the board of directors of Walk/Bike Nashville, an organization dedicated to ensuring that Nashville sidewalks and streets are fully useable by its pedestrians and cyclists. O'Connell lived near Vanderbilt on a main bus route and worked half a block from his home, so bike commuting was never a big deal. But, he points out: "I learned a lot about my rights and responsibilities through my participation in Walk/Bike Nashville. I'm proud that our advocacy has led Nashville from 0 miles of bike lanes and greenways 10 years ago to more than 80 now. The goal is livability through safety" Before his adventure had begun and after an unsuccessful bid for state house, O'Connell had been invited by James Manning, a local public transportation advocate, to attend a meeting of Partners in Transit, a group intended to bridge the gap between MTA executives and staff and their ridership. The group has met monthly for the last several years and proved an excellent way for O'Connell to learn more about what MTA had to offer. Fluency came quickly, although improvements to the system did not. "In 2002, I participated in a public meeting process that fed input into what would become a 5-year service improvement plan for MTA. Here we are in 2008, and that plan is still sitting on the shelf as a result of insufficient funds. We were below average in service provision then, so we're way below average now." His frustration led him to start collecting signatures from friends and colleagues during this year's budget hearings for a personal letter he had drafted to Mayor Karl Dean. "I was hoping to collect maybe 25 signatures from an email appeal I had sent to a few dozen folks. Well, all of a sudden, I'm getting emails from people I don't know sharing stories that were a combination of frustration and hope about our local transportation system saying 'Sign me up!' I collected signatures from people in just about every zip code in Davidson County, as well as a few from beyond our borders interested in improving our regional transportation." Ultimately, though, Whitney returned and matriculated at Meharry Medical College. Wanting to be a part of the community around the school, the couple began looking at homes in North Nashville. They found the perfect house in Salemtown, which is just north of Germantown. "I love my house, and I love my neighbors," says O'Connell. "But a market two blocks from where I live just had a violent gun crime occur outside, and when there's not gun crime, there's loitering and harassment. And Jefferson Street might be one of the least bike-friendly streets in the city." Eventually, safety concerns overrode economic and environmental concerns. "I looked at my budget, and found a few things in my price range, which doesn't mean within my budget. I wanted something newer, so I could keep the environmental impact down." O'Connell was on the verge of deciding among a first-generation Prius, which have finally eased in price; a new Yaris, which despite not being a hybrid, is still one of the most fuel efficient cars on the road--a sad statement; or a Smart car, which is now being sold in the U.S. "But in the back of my mind, I had always wanted an El Camino." O'Connell began researching El Caminos online. He discovered that a short run of diesel El Caminos had been manufactured in the mid-1980s. Having been an environmentalist for many years, he had been tracking the alternative fuels industry with the help of Dave Pelton of Clean Cities of Middle Tennessee. O'Connell was fairly certain that any diesel engine could safely run biodiesel. While he was attempting to confirm this, he discovered that actress Daryl Hannah had been driving a biodiesel El Camino for 6 years. "All she had to do was upgrade the fuel lines. Otherwise, it's a standard diesel engine." What happened next, though, was serendipity. Within two weeks of his discovery of Ms. Hannah's badass ride, a number of the sources referencing it began screaming about its impending sale. Daryl Hannah was putting her badass biodiesel El Camino up for sale. "I really couldn't believe it. In my head, I was just kind of daydreaming about how funny it would be if I could ever afford a car like that." A few weeks after her announcement, Hannah created an eBay auction that would last a little more than a week. "On the final day of the auction, I was shocked. The reserve hadn't been met! And the price was just under $10,000! So I entered a bid that roughly corresponded to what I had priced out for a car for this year, and all of a sudden I had the top bid, and now the reserve had been met. By the end of the auction, I had the winning bid, and it was in my price range. The phone calls that followed were hilarious. Until I started talking to banks, who weren't sure how to finance it." Is O'Connell, who, along with Mary Mancini, is also the co-host of the popular local political talk show Liberadio(!), worried about being too closely associated with Hollywood liberalism? "I don't care about labels. I care about ideas. Conservatives call me liberal, and a number of liberals in the area have called me too conservative. My favorite conversations to have are the ones where I talk to thoughtful people who disagree with me because I might find a better idea somewhere in the dialogue." Now, O'Connell is as content as possible for someone who wondered whether he would ever own a car. "A car is not something I ever really wanted. But I figured, if I'm going to get one, I might as well go all out." Now he'll be buying B20 from Todd Burr at the Hillsboro Village Shell while it's still chilly out and figuring out where to get B99 when the weather warms up. And he'll be increasing demand for a diversified fuel supply while he revs his V8. "Daryl requested visitation rights, too, so I'll be happy to show her around Music City, USA, when the time comes."