When we started our family experiment in car-lessness seven months ago, David Sucher at City Comforts blog commented
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.”
I hear you about the surprises of the weekend bus schedule. I once waited over an hour for the #8 because I didn’t realize it doesn’t follow its full route on the weekends (apparently if you live in the Central District, you never want to go to, say, Seattle Center on the weekend).So far as inclement weather goes: don’t beat yourself up, Alan. Growing up on a farm, I spent more than a few days working out in freezing, wet weather. Numb hands build character! (Or at least a deep appreciation for warm gloves.) Your post actually made me think about the ways cars insulate us from our environment—and how much more in tune we become once the weather matters.
Bravo to you and your family, Alan, for making it through 7 months of a car-free lifestyle, so far! It definitely gets easier as you learn the tricks of the trade.One trick I’ve learned is to carry a backpack with me everywhere I go, filled with the remedies and treasures of daily life and seasonal weather, such as: Bus and ferry schedules; umbrella and rain-jacket; dual-purpose baseball cap for shielding against sun and rain; gloves; bike-route maps; band-aids; wallet; interesting (and lightweight) book to read while waiting for Thaifood take-out; etc. Another trick I’ve learned is, if I always keep my lock with my bike, then I never forget my lock 😉
Kathryn Moogk Maly
Great post, Alan. About the taxi option…Enlighten us about your experience with cab fees and logistics in Seattle. I think about friends in New York who are carless and simply hail cabs when they are cold, wet, late or just don’t want to walk. Or when they realize that their normal neighborhood transit can’t help them out.I’ve often thought that if I gave up my car and inevitably experienced the kinds of frustrations you expressed, I’d rationalize spending money on cab fare. But I now realize that I don’t know, for example:–How long it takes for a cab to come once you call–If hailing a cab is possible and “legal” in Seattle, or if we have city rules that prevent cabs from cruising around waiting to be hailed–What the base and per minute fees are for a cab rideJust curious…
Kathryn,We use taxis once a month or less, so far. It’s legal to hail a cab in Seattle and in every other Northwest city that I’m familiar with. Because Northwest cities aren’t as taxi-centric as Chicago, New York, or Washington, DC, it’s sometimes a long wait until a cab cruises by. The surest place to find one is at a major downtown hotel.In Seattle, it’s typically a 20 minute wait for a taxi, if you call one. When I’ve phoned taxis in other Cascadian cities, the wait has also been about 20 minutes.I don’t recall the fee structures for Cascadian taxis off the top of my head, but they seem pricier than cabs in Eastern cities. And taxis in Victoria and Vancouver, BC, seem much less expensive than in Seattle or Portland. This may have less to do with the per-minute rate than with the shorter distances in those more-compact cities.One other observation: We’ve discovered that we don’t much like taking taxis in Seattle. It’s not that they don’t do the trick: they do. They’ve mostly got courteous drivers who know where they’re going, clean cars, and working seat belts. It’s just that taxis are an uncomfortable in-between kind of space. They’re neither public nor private space. On the bus or in a FlexCar, you know how to be. In a cab, it can be a little awkward. Do you speak freely with your traveling companions and ignore the driver or do you try to include him/her in the conversation, as if you’re his/her guest? Anyone know what I’m talking about?Others, please chime in about taxi fares and feelings!
This post makes it clear how much more complicated it is to be a carless family than to be a carless single person. Take all the logistics and multiply them by four.I’ve been carless a little over 10 years now and for the most part, I love it. And I love that I live in a city that allows for it, for the most part. I save money; I get lots of exercise; and I can feel good that I’m not contributing extra greenhouse gasses to the environment.The part of being carless that’s hardest for me is the difficulty of being a single *woman* without a car. My carlessness has kept me from doing a couple of activities that I might really enjoy because those activities get out at night (in one case, really late) and in a part of town that would require me to make at least one bus transfer and wait outside, alone, at at least one bus stop in order to get home. It doesn’t feel safe. And because these are regularly occurring events, paying a cab fare or FlexCar fee—every week—seems like too much money. And with respect to cabs, having to interpret an activity 20-minutes ahead of time to call a cab is, for some reason, prohibitive to me.The busses don’t feel safe and the other options feel too expensive. So, in essence, my ability to live my life independently is hampered because of being without a car. Granted, these are choices I’ve made. Four cab rides a week would come to less money than a monthly car payment + insurance. But for some reason, I’m still dissuaded. I’m simply bringing this up as an example of the particular challenges of being a carless single woman (a man, for example, might feel comfortable bussing home after a late night dancing…or am I wrong?)Your point about taxis is interesting, Alan. I never thought about it before, but there is a distinct discomfort riding in a cab. Sometimes I feel like I should make conversation, but don’t want to, so there’s this heavy silence in the cab all the ride home…
The trouble with weekend buses is that running them more frequently without additional riders would be a huge environmental loss—possibly making the bus less efficient than single-occupancy cars as a system—but as long as weekend and evening frequencies are low they provide a big incentive to people both to own cars and to drive to nights out (which also increases the amount of drunk driving that happens).Having said that, I find that the time taxis work best is when I leave scheduled events like concerts at the end – the taxi drivers radio around, and a group of empty cars often shows up, so there’s very little waiting on the street involved. For me personally this makes my own car a hindrance for going to a show, because it just stops me from drinking, while getting home without it is never that much hassle. It’s weekend trips out of town that make me reluctant to give the car up altogether (though the bus hike page would do a lot to cushion the blow if I did just ditch the car).
Chiming in again!Hmm. About the awkwardness of being a passenger in a taxi . . . I guess, as a taxi rider in Cascadia and worldwide for the past 17 years, I’d have to say that I do feel like a “guest” in a taxi. So, out of a combination of politeness and just plain old curiosity, I’ll engage the driver with an ice-breaking question such as, how is his/her day going—unless as my “host,” they beat me to it. Their response often helps me gauge their receptivity to any further conversation. And since the average taxi ride only takes about 10 minutes, to the driver I’m usually “just another rider” anyway.Several years ago, however, there was a point where I was taking taxis frequently, and I became good friends with a driver who owned his own taxi company. When I first met him, he was picking up my friend and me from the Eugene airport. He was at the end of his 15-hour shift, though, so he was very tired and didn’t feel like much conversation. But because the little conversation that the 3 of us shared was so interesting during that 20 minute ride, I ended up asking him for his business card so that I could specifically request him to take me and my friend back to the airport for our flight, several days later. My “customer loyalty” over the next few years strengthened both our business relationship and our friendship. He’s since moved back to Nigeria to be with his family there; but I’ll always remember him.So, I guess the best advice I’d give for overcoming any passenger awkwardness would be … to just remember that it’s a taxi—not an elevator 🙂
From the viewpoint of a man who, by choice, doesn’t drive during the week, and who often takes a bus late to home, with at least one transfer: I frequent the same relatively busy stops (safety in crowds); I know which coffee shops are open late near my bus stops so I hang out there until 5 minutes before bus time; there’s comfort in seeing the same late night riders week after week; I statistically have a much lower chance of being mugged or worse than a number of other ills, including car accidents (rationality doesn’t win over emotion but it helps). But I definitely acknowledge the edge of worry about being out and alone at night, especially if it’s in a neighborhood I’m not familiar with. I encourage you, and generally women, to start a blog on discussing improvements Metro could do to make this safer, like lighting shelters or putting closed circuit cameras in them, and promote these ideas.From the point of view of an introvert (really): I treat a taxi ride like a bus ride. I don’t make chitchat. I read or even occasionally pop out my laptop. Perhaps this is rude, but I’m paying for transportation, not conversation. I know opinions vary!
Further on taxis:I tend to converse with the driver when I’m traveling alone. Who else is there to talk with? The awkwardness is more common when I’m with someone else.
Yeah, Alan, I can totally relate to that.And in fact, I often find myself “editing” my conversation with my taxi companions so that not too much personal information is disclosed or discussed in the taxi, since if we don’t include the driver in our conversation, then the driver becomes an “unintentional eaves-dropper.”That’s why I tend to try and choose “generic” topics that all of us, including the driver, can participate in, such as the weather, or the latest football/basketball/baseball/soccer game, or an interesting movie we’ve seen… Then either these will lead to more interesting topics that we can all discuss; or, the driver will be distracted by his cab-radio and will cease his conversation with us, thereby leaving us to talk amongst ourselves (which brings us back to “editing” our conversation again); or, we will have arrived at our destination and need simply pay for the ride and bid each other fare well.
Two months ago a friend decided to lend us his car to use for 8 months while he went off to Spain. We thought it would be useful to us, being a family of three, but honestly we don’t think its worth it. We live in Vancouver, so we have density on our side. Both my partner and I take transit or ride bikes to work and our daughter walks a total of 5 kilometres to and from school, because get this – she likes to walk. We’ve all grown up without cars and are able to manage jobs, recreation, activities just fine without. If I knew we would have to spend $200 on insurance every month plus gas, I would have told my friend keep the car – we’ll just be decadent when it comes to cabs.