Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cost of Living in Cambridge vs. the Cost of a Car

One interesting tradeoff that we've used to make our lives car-free is to trade housing costs for automobile costs. The only reason that we can afford to live in a condo in Cambridge, MA, is that we don't have to make any car payments or pay the high costs of maintenance and gasoline. Now, that is not to say that we don't have any transportations costs at all. We pay to ride the subway and the bus, we pay occasionally for the use of a zipcar, and we spend a significant amount of money on our bicycles. But those costs pale in comparison to the cost of car ownership.

Lowering our transportation costs allows us to tolerate an increase in housing costs, hence we can afford to live in an expensive city. We've kept our housing costs as low as possible by living in a 2-bedroom , 660 square foot condominium. We don't have a yard, but we do have many parks nearby (and we live on a private way which sort of functions as a paved yard for kids in the neighborhood). Personally, I like to think of our closest park as a yard that's maintained by the nice people at the Department of Public Works. We're willing to live in a small place in order to be able to live without our car, and we see it as a choice we are making, rather than as a constraint that we are forced to live with.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Trains and Buses and Toddlers

We have family in town right now who are staying in the south end, and this means more rides on buses and subways for our little family than usual. Yesterday we took a bus to the science museum, a train to "vacation house" (as H. calls it), and then a pair of trains back home. Since we were riding at rush hour, we took H. out of her stroller and let her ride either sitting on my lap or sitting on her own seat. She hasn't yet done much riding outside of her stroller, so we were curious to see how she would do.

The results were mixed. She was happy to be sitting in her own seat, but was a bit more vigorous that most of the other riders probably would have enjoyed. She liked looking out of the window, but sometimes had to be reminded to be quieter in her enthusiasm. She needed frequent reminders to continue sitting and was squirmy enough that the trips made me tired. During the last ride, we had to get off of the train because H. got a little hysterical when the nice man she was flirting with moved a few seats down (either to get away from her, or to give us room to sit down next to her -- I'm not sure which). We put her back into her stroller and told her if she didn't calm down we would get off the train. She didn't, so we did, and we got back on the next train with a calmer child who stayed in her stroller.

So we still have some things to work on. We want her to be safe on the train, to listen to us, and to sit in a seat (although I think we're deciding that kneeling in order to be able to look out the window is OK). We've been thinking of taking some "practice" stroller-free train trips with her for short distances so that we can work on the rules of riding in situations with less pressure.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Surprising Benefits from Being Car Free

One surprising benefit of being car free has been the reduction of choice in our lives. This might seem counter intuitive in a world in which more choices are assumed to make us happier. But making choices takes a lot of time and energy. If we hadn't been restricted geographically, we would have felt obliged to research 15 possible daycare centers; instead, we considered just the three that were walking distance from our home. That was a significant savings of time and effort, and it was a surprising relief not to feel obligated to provide our child with the absolute "best" of everything. We can easily provide her with "very good" using only resources that are close by.

But of course giving up choice is not always easy and it doesn't automatically make you happier. We have given up some things that were important to us in order to live without a car. For us, the most important thing we gave up was membership in a great religious community, which was located in Newton and not very accessible by public transportation. Before we had a child, we were able to manage membership, both due to the generosity of other members who lived in our neighborhood and offered us rides, and by using our Zipcar. However, once we added our daughter to the mix, it became prohibitive to carpool while getting a car seat in and out, and difficult to fit a 45 minute drive on both sides of an activity without messing up hard-won nap schedules. Any trip to our synagogue left us exhausted.

Though we were sad to leave our old synagogue, committing ourselves to being car free forced us to find the Jewish community in Cambridge and Somerville, which has many offerings that we hadn't even known about. We found and became members of Havurat Shalom, which is within walking distance of our home. Joining this community has come a host of unexpected benefits: we no longer drive on Shabbat, we have good friends within walking distance of our house, and we have convenient playmates for our daughter whose parents share our values.

Friday, July 18, 2008

About Us

Who are we, you ask? We're Angela and Dorea Vierling-Claassen, two carfree mathematicians who have a daughter H (born 6/06) and a son R (born 5/09). We've been happily carfree since our truck died in 2004. Oh, and in case the names aren't a complete tip-off, we're also lesbians.

Dorea works on mathematical modeling in neuroscience at MIT and MGH. Angela teaches mathematics at Lesley University and works on using game theory to model the division of labor in parenting.

Our other passions include talking a lot about almost everything, knitting (Dorea), reading (Angela), pretending to give people raisins (H) and laughing at his big sister (R). We live in North Cambridge, are members of Havurat Shalom, get veggies from Parker Farm, get our groceries at the Market Basket and lug them home in our Xtracycle.

Becoming Car-Free with a Kid

Before our daughter was born in Summer 2006, we were already avid bike commuters and users of public transit. We chose our Somerville (Massachusetts) neighborhood because it was an easy walking distance from groceries and work for Angela, and a manageable bike ride for Dorea. When we started planning for a child we decided that we were committed to staying in an urban setting (for the time being in our 400 square foot 1 bedroom apartment) and that we would remain car-free.

There were many naysayers. I'm pretty sure our friends were taking bets on how long we'd last without a car now that we had a kid. People would kindly, but hesitantly, inquire about our living and transport situation and when we would insist that we were staying in town and weren't planning to get a car. They would exchange knowing looks with one another and say, "oh...really...," and then change the subject. But as our daughter grew, our enjoyment of and commitment to being car-free grew as well. Eventually we couldn't stand the one-bedroom apartment anymore, but all of that money we saved by not supporting a car permitted us to buy a condo, which we were careful to choose in close proximity to work and public transit. When it came time for our daughter to attend daycare 3 days a week, we chose a center an easy 10 minute walk from home. Our biggest concern in moving was that we were no longer walking distance from our favorite grocery store (the cheapest), but our neighbors (car-lite avid family bikers) offered to share their bicycle trailer and I was able to haul more groceries by bike than I ever managed previously on foot.

We've gained so many benefits from car-free family living. The most obvious is financial. We would never have been able to afford our home at this point in our lives had we also had to financially support a car. But some of the more important benefits were unexpected. By living car-free we've become very integrated into our immediate geographic area. If we had a car, we would be free to associate with friends spread all around the city and suburbs, probably selecting friends just like us. But we don’t have a car to visit far-flung friends, so we make friends and find community with the wonderful variety of people in our own neighborhood. We live in what we think is the best neighborhood in the world for kids, and we love how close we have grown to our neighbors and neighborhood in the year we have been in North Cambridge. Living this way is not without inconveniences, but by far the good outweighs the bad, and by a margin much larger than we ever could have anticipated.

How we gave up our car

When Angela and I were first married, we had a car. It was an adorable little 1987 Mazda pickup truck, at the time about 15 years old. It had been my father’s truck, and then my sister’s, and then mine. My little Mazda had moved me and all my belongings to my new life in Boston when I moved here from Nebraska in 2002. I loved that truck. It had beautiful highwalls that I made with my father and painted with bright red and orange flames with my sister. What a fabulous truck. Angela and I logged at least 10,000 miles in road trips in that truck during our first 2 years together.

But as time wore on, the repair bills mounted, parking tickets kept coming despite our best efforts, and frustration grew alongside the love. One day when we were house-sitting, the truck wouldn't shift anymore and breathed it’s last gasp in the driveway of our temporary suburban home. We decided not to attempt resuscitation. We were almost happy to see it go. At the time we were stranded in a Boston suburb, house-sitting for a colleague. We were each about 7 miles from work, with limited non-car access to groceries and other necessities. The bus and train routes from the suburb into town were extremely inconvenient. But we managed. We figured out the few buses, biked extensively, and found that we were happy not to have the car. If we could be car-free in Newton, we figured we would be even happier to be car-free in town, where work commutes were reasonable and there was ample convenient public transit. We never looked back.