Monday, September 29, 2008

Hospitals, Birth & Carseats

Angela and I were just remembering coming home from H's birth, over two years ago.

We were at a hospital about four blocks from our house. They wouldn't let us leave with the baby unless we put her into one of those infant carseats (or "baby buckets" as we call them around here). We hadn't even brought a seat to the hospital and had to send a friend to get one.

We gathered up our things, strapped in the kid (our buckling job was carefully checked by one of the nurses), and hobbled slowly outside.

I grabbed a cab, put an exhausted Angela, who had just finished a long and grueling labor, inside with a friend who had come to help us home. I briefly considered strapping the seat into the non-LATCH equipped cab, and then thought better of it, took the kid out, and chucked the empty carseat in the cab. I carefully held our brand new daughter, swaddled in my arms, and walked the four blocks home.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Friendship, Cars, and Carfree Families

Josh Hart has done research in the UK on the impact of traffic on community life. His research shows that on streets with heavy traffic, residents have dramatically fewer friends in their neighborhood and their sense of what neighborhood space belongs to them is greatly decreased. It would be great to see similar research focused on children. It is much more difficult for children to leave their neighborhood (since they often require adult supervision and can't get into a car and drive away), so I wonder how heavy traffic flow impacts a child's quality of life and friendship networks.

Last week this piece in the Boston Globe focused on Cambridge's own Janie Katz-Christy and other local families who are living car free. My favorite quote from the piece is from Melissa Glenn Haber in answer to how you live without a car:
"The same way you live without a jet pack," she says. "It's just a matter of getting used to things, a slight shift in expectations. I can't cram as much into a day as someone with a car. I have low blood pressure."
I couldn't have said it better myself. (Thanks to Marc for the tip!)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Last Year's Carfree Camping Trip

Our friend, the swadfather, suggested that we do more blogging about car free trips. That’s when we realized that, aside from Dorea’s Woods Hole trip, we really haven’t done many. That’s mostly because we’re homebodies. After all, if we went away for the weekend, we’d miss socializing at our favorite park.

We have done one big car-free trip, however, to Provincetown last August, when H was a little over a year old. We went out for Family Week, and decided to camp, because we're cheap (have you seen hotel prices in P-town???) and like a challenge (suspiciously similar to our motivations for being car-free in general...). From the beginning, there were problems to solve:
  • Should we take our bikes? We decided not to last year, but I think for future camping trips we will take at least the xtracycle, now that H has a seat (she didn't last year).
  • How would we get all of our gear down to the ferry and then from the ferry to the campground? We weren’t sure we’d be able to easily access a grocery store, so we decided to bring food with us (if we bring a bike future years, we won't have to bring food). We filled an old-lady style shopping cart with groceries and cooking supplies. We also took two camping backpacks with our gear, and toted H in her stroller, with her very compact booster seat strapped to the back (it turned out to be a lifesaver to have a place she could be "strapped in" with some cheerios while we set up camp). We took the T to the ferry, And then walked to our campsite from the boat. It was a lot to carry from the ferry to the campsite (about a mile walk), especially since we got lost on the way, which made it more like a two mile walk, but we made it.
  • How would we sleep? Of course this is the biggest question that any parent of a young child has. We opted to take a roomy two-person tent (since that's what was generously loaned to us) and have H sleep on a mat with us. That, um, didn’t really go as well as we hoped. H is used to sleeping in a darkened room and we were trying to put her down in a stuffy tent while it was still light outside, which she used as a good opportunity to perfect her newfound tent-zipper-opening skills. We ended up having to hold her until she fell asleep in our arms around dark and then we were all up with the sun. She took naps in the stroller while we walked around town. Next time we camp, we’re going to bring a bigger tent, the kind that has rooms, and designate a separate space for H to sleep. Fortunately all of us stayed cheerful, though we all could have used a bit more sleep.
  • What would H eat? At home, she was basically nursing and eating whatever we ate and we assumed she’d do the same on the trip. We hadn't anticipated the challenge of getting our own food cooked on a toddlers schedule without available refrigeration, so we ended blasting through the few jars of babyfood we'd brought as a backup plan. Fortunately a nice well-prepared couple with twins gave us a few more packs of food on our last day when we ran out. In retrospect we would have put in more backup babyfood as well as more food specifically for H.
  • What would we do if it rained? We had a minimal rain backup plan including a tarp rigged up sufficient to shelter us while eating and our stuff while we were sleeping in the tent. If it had been rainy, we probably would have spent much more time indoors in town, and probably would have had a few more restaurant meals. Next time we camp we’re going to bring a bigger tent, which would help out with the rain issue.
A few more points:
  • Our campsite was unfortunately located across a busy highway from town, which necessitated a bit of a walk beside the highway. This was fine when H was in a carrier, but not possible with the stroller since the shoulder of the road was quite sandy. If we go again, we'll probably stay at the less shady campsite that's on the town side of route 6.
  • We planned our trip so late that the only reason we were even able to get a campsite at all was that we didn't have a car. They were completely booked for sites that had room for a vehicle, but since we only had ourselves, we got in!
  • Many many thanks to our friend and neighbors R & E who loaned us a backpacks, a tent, and other gear! Now that we know more what we need, we need to start rustling up some of our own gear.
Overall, the trip was a great success, despite the fact that nobody was getting enough sleep. H absolutely loved being outside (dirt! No baths! What could be better??), and we met lots of other GLBT-headed families. The scheduling didn't work out for a trip this summer, but we hope to make it in 2009. We'd love to know of other places accessible to car-free camping, without extensive bike trips to get there (i.e. places within a mile or two of ferry or commuter rail. We're planning to try camping on the Harbor Islands, but I'm sure there must be other good spots as well.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Some Links for You Carfree Activists Out There

I just watched this great film about activists taking over parking spaces in San Francisco and temporarily turning them into small parks, pedestrian walkways, and other spaces for humans to enjoy. On a larger scale, check out this film about why Melbourne is a walker's paradise.

Also, Carbusters #35 is out, featuring the world naked bike ride! Momentum #35 is out as well, featuring fashion (which I couldn't care less about) and what women want in a bike (which is a little more interesting to me). Oh, and if you dig into the archives, you'll find a piece on bike rage which I found interesting after my post last month on car complaints.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Unforseen perks, and a small logistical problem

Last night a close friend of ours was celebrating his birthday. Now, this might not seem like a big deal, except for that this group of friends contains several families with very young kids, and the birthday boy really wanted an adults-only party, so there were many logistics involved.

We managed to rustle up a sitter even though we are out of practice (Angela's mom, our wonderful usual stand-in for such things, was out of town for work...The Horror...). We thought we had it all sealed up, but then the day before the event Angela found out that this particular sitter usually gets a ride home when our neighbors hire her. Hmmm. We feared the whole plan was in the toilet since we couldn't really trolley her home on one of our handlebars, and the bus from our neighborhood to her neighborhood doesn't run very often after rush. But it all turned out OK, because she is also a biker, and we were getting home early enough that she still felt comfortable riding home. Whew. I had never thought to worry about that one before, but now we know to make sure our sitters have their own whatever form. (Also, to be clear, we did convincingly offer to have one of us bike with her for safety, but she declined --also convincingly.)

The party itself was delightful in a way particular to parents who rarely get out in a group of grown-ups. You could sense the combination of slight confusion and excitement as we all bowled and ate delicious chocolate, at the lovely Sacco's Bowl Haven in Davis Square, without having to interrupt our games to shout "No! Don't run down the alley!" or "No! Don't drop the ball on your friend's head!"

As Angela and I walked home, I realized that, in a way, this lovely event was an unforeseen perk of our decision to live car-free. These are friends through our synagogue (OK, actually our chavurah, but think very small synagogue full of hippies with no rabbi and you'll get it), that we never would have joined had we not made the hard decision to leave our beloved old (suburban) synagogue in order to form a sustainable car-free life. Many members of our new(-ish) community walk to services on Shabbat, which means that we now have a wonderful crop of friends who live walking distance from us, by virtue of living walking distance from shul. For me, having such a lovely party right in our own neighborhood, with friends who live right in our own neighborhood made the evening even better.

(Also, anyone familiar with such things should pause for a moment to appreciate the deep irony that before we joined this congregation, the only day of the week that we ever drove was on Shabbat.)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Biking to spy pond

Our neighbors (the same ones who kindly share their bike trailer for grocery shopping, and who are serious about their family biking...their 4 year old is pretty solid on a 2-wheeler which I find rather impressive) were slightly horrified that we had never gone biking on the Minuteman Bikeway, which they insist is one of the best features of our neighborhood. It got to the point where Angela feared they might disown us if we didn't actually get out on this path, so on Labor day, at the last minute, we decided to try an actual recreational bike ride. We tend to see our bikes as utilitarian, and almost never go on recreational bike rides, so this was a big step!

We didn't go too far, just a quick couple miles to Spy Pond in Arlington. Unfortunately the playground was closed due to a sand wasp infestation, but we got a lot of mileage out of counting geese, ducks and swans, and running on the lawn. H was plenty happy riding along, and probably could have gone much farther once we got going. It was nice to feel like we got "out of the city" in just a few miles. For other folks who might like to try a ride on the Minuteman, it starts by Alewife station on the Red Line, and bikes are permitted on the red-line during non-rush hour on weekdays and all day on weekends. We'd love to hear about other car-free recreation options in the area, either by rail or bike or both, if anyone has some to suggest.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Costs of Car Ownership, Part II

In addition to the costs in time and money, there are other, less quantifiable costs of car ownership. These may be personal costs or costs to society at large.

Mental and Emotional Costs

  • The car is one more thing you have to worry about, and it’s a fairly big one. You have to worry that your car is operating properly, that it isn’t being towed away or ticketed right now, that you are going to have enough money for the rising costs of gas, and that the place where some paint got scraped off your car isn’t going to rust. You have to worry about whether or not you need to get a new car, when you are going to get the new car, and whether you can afford the car payments.
  • The car is something that you have to feel guilty about. Especially when you become a parent and you upgrade to a larger car, you have to feel guilty about your carbon footprint. You have to feel guilty when you hop into the car to take a trip that you know you could get to on foot, but the weather is bad or the kids don’t want to walk or you are just plain tired and need a break.
  • You have the mental stress of being cooped up with your kids while you take them to daycare, on errands, or on a road trip. Babies scream in the car seat, older kids pester you incessantly about how much longer they’ll have to be in the car, and siblings fight since they can’t get away from each other.
Social and Environmental Costs
  • The obvious cost to all of us is the carbon emissions of a car. An average car emits 77 pounds of hydrocarbons per year. There are roughly 135 million passenger vehicles in the US. If we got rid of one out of every fifty of those, we’d reduce carbon emissions by 208 million pounds per year.
  • There is also the cost of sprawl. Easy access to a car has enabled us to live far away from where we work and to shop far away from where we live and work. This has helped to create sprawling communities which are not walk-able or bike-able and which require us to drive even further.
  • Automobile dependency and inadequate public transportation negatively impact the working poor who may have trouble affording car ownership or accessing reliable alternative transportation.
  • Car use certainly has the potential of distancing us from our local communities. We don’t get to know our neighbors because our real friends live across town. We don’t shop at the neighborhood market because we can get better, cheaper food when we drive to a supermarket.

The good news is that going car-free will free you from these costs. The bad news is that there’s no free ride. Giving up a car means giving up the many benefits of car ownership (and a car-free lifestyle comes with it’s own costs as well). If you are considering going car free, you are going to have to determine whether the benefits you get from freeing yourself from your car outweigh the costs.

What do you see as being the biggest costs of car ownership and car driving? What are the benefits to car ownership that you can’t imagine giving up? If you own a car, how do you minimize the costs?