All I ask is that they [us Durnings, that is] don’t pull punches. Don’t make their recounting of the experience a political tract about how much happier they are and how the world is so much better because they don’t have a car. In other words, tell the truth. Tell us the good and the bad. . . . Tell us when they miss the car, too.
When I read that, I thought, “Exactly, David!”
Yet it’s been hard to write a post about the lows of car-lessness. I’ve been keeping a diary specifically on the drags and dregs of this experiment since the beginning. I’ve been trying without success to write on the subject almost as long.
My writer’s block, I believe, originates in my belief that interesting writing depends on new information, on unexpected lessons. And there’s little surprising about the downsides of car-lessness.
The lows of car-lessness are what you’d expect: episodes of bad weather, bad transit connections, bad health, bad karma. These lows are relatively rare, because we live in a compact community with fairly good transit and plenty of FlexCars on call. And lows strike the car-ful, too: traffic jams, car trouble, crashes, wrong turns, fuel bills.
Whether the lows of car-lessness are worse or more numerous than the lows of car-fulness is the subject for another day. Today, I just want to go on record to declare that car-lessness is definitely sometimes the pits. To answer David’s plea for naked honesty, I’ll recount a few anecdotes.
Being car-less has stunk . . .
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- When it started to rain while I was half way home from a soccer game with two kids on bikes, and we hadn’t brought rain coats, and their hands got so cold they could hardly work the brakes and I thought, “what kind of a father am I?”
- When Amy and I missed the bus home after I took her to a concert for her birthday and her feet were hurting from a long day, and it was late and we were across the street from a strip club where the dancers kept coming outside in their bathrobes to smoke, and we just didn’t want to think about the lives of exotic dancers right then, and I thought, “what kind of a husband am I?”
- When three of us found ourselves far from home, at dinner time, and unable to get home quickly to eat, and there were no restaurants with kid-friendly food nearby, and the wind was blowing and we ended up paying much to much for dinner and arguing.
- When one or another of us has been sick, and we needed to go home or to the doctor, and getting there involved extra planning, and it felt like, “If we just had a car, it would be one less thing I had to deal with right now.”
- When, on different occasions, we opted out of a hike, a party, and a dinner invitation because arranging transportation was more than we could face up to just then.
- When it was Friday evening and Amy and I were exhausted, and all we wanted to do was grab some take-out and watch a family video but instead we had to plan the logistics for the whole weekend. Especially because it was a hyperkinetic family weekend: five performances of Peter’s play in three days; Kathryn’s softball game, overnight, and Girl Scout training; Gary’s SATs in a distant suburb at 7:45 Saturday morning; Amy’s self-defense class to teach all Saturday afternoon across town; my duties to help set up a block-wide yard sale with neighbors.
- When it was Sunday, and we forgot that one of our local bus lines only runs once an hour on Sundays, and what would’ve been a 20 minute drive became a 2 hour saga.
- When our departure from a clan Independence Day gathering was dictated by the cut-off time of our FlexCar reservation, rather than the end of the fireworks display, and I thought, “What kind of a father, brother, and uncle am I?”
- When the FlexCar I reserved wasn’t returned on time by the previous driver and Peter was about to be waiting outside his theater rehearsal in the dark, three miles from home, without his cell phone, and a taxi was going to take 20 minutes to get to me, and I was running the four blocks from the place where the missing FlexCar was supposed to be parked to my own street praying that a neighbor was home to loan me a car, and the black-panic-that-you-have -to-be-a-parent-to-understand was rising up my chest, and it was all because we don’t have our own car.
Some of these lows came early in our year and taught us valuable lessons: bring your raincoat, check the bus schedule, take taxis after concerts. Other lows are, above all, reminders of the ways in which our communities and markets continue to have automobiles as their organizating principles. Private transportation decisions can’t change the shape of our cities or the (il)logic of our price signals; only systemic solutions can do that—which makes this entire car-less experiment nothing but a curiosity and a sideshow to the main event of building healthy, lasting prosperity.
Finally, of course, lows are just a fact of life, no matter what choices you make. Just the other night, I had another: Feeling slightly ill, biking to pick up dinner from a neighborhood Thai restaurant, forgetting my bike lock, waiting outside, near the roar of traffic while the restaurant cooked our order, jealous of other customers who were sitting comfortably in their warm cars, listening to music.
Car-lessness is an interesting experiment, and before the end of our year, we’ll have to sum the pluses and minuses and decide whether to stick to it or revert to the carful norm. For now, though, I just wanted to acknowledge—in case anyone thinks we’re airbrushing the experience–“Sometimes, not having a car is a pain.”