Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Suburban Friends and the Carfree Family

We got a really great question on the When you really need a car post. BusChick writes (somewhat edited here):
"The biggest driver (pun intended) of car use for us is visiting friends. My family lives in the city, and so do most of my old friends. I, do, however, have one or two close friends who live outside of bus range; my husband has several...

I like to reciprocate visits to friends and not always have them come to us, but renting a car just to go sit in a girlfriend’s living room is not something I’m going to go every week—or, for that matter, every month. Most of my husband’s friends have kids, and they are forever having baby showers and birthday parties and Super Bowl parties and et cetera. Sometimes we can take the bus to these events, but these are two-transfer rides with long wait times and infrequent service... Many times, we cannot take the bus to these events and so either have to rent a car or skip the trip...

So, after all that, my question is: Do any other car-free parents have this problem, and if so how do you handle it?"
I wrote a little bit about this a while back, but mostly in the context of new friends. But the existing friends and family are a tougher problem. Some strategies we have are to host events instead of transporting ourselves to other peoples' houses, especially if it's for an activity along the lines of "hanging out in a living room". It's easier for us to feed and host people than it is for us to get to them, and hey, then they don't have to cook, so it's a win for them. For friends with kids who live in the burbs, we sometimes arrange for transit accessible meet ups at kid friendly activities that they'd probably come into town for occasionally anyway (like a trip to the Boston Children's Museum).

But that doesn't really answer the question of the baby shower or the super bowl party, that really is happening at someone else's place, and that someone didn't really consider bus routes when they bought their lovely 4 bedroom in the burbs. One strategy is to increase the threshold for what you consider a true social obligation. If the baby shower is for someone you really care about, and particularly if it is for family, then maybe it is something you need to be there for since a baby is kind of a big deal. The super bowl party might be less of a true social obligation (but keep in mind, I'm not a football fan, so feel free to disagree for your own life). If you decide you really need to be there, one option is to divide and conquer. If only one grown-up goes, you might be able to beg a ride from a driving friend, and lord knows the toddler doesn't want to go anyway. If you can't rustle up a ride ahead of time, go ahead and take the 3 bus trip, knowing you'll probably be able to hitch a ride home since everyone there will be horrified that you didn't drive and will be falling all over themselves to offer you a ride home (just say at moderate volume "oh, I need to head out soon to catch the bus, I've had a great time!" and you'll have 10 offers of a ride...but all of those offers evaporate if a carseat is involved).

The social pressure to maintain tit-for-tat invitations is very strong, but is nearly impossible to maintain for a carfree person (especially a parent of small kids) in a social world that assumes you have a car. These social rules are largely unspoken. It might happen that you gradually come to fewer and fewer parties, and eventually you just aren't invited anymore. Honestly, for some friends, that may not be such an awful thing. I'm sure your old friends are wonderful, but is each and every relationship really one of those friendships meant to last a lifetime? Most friendships do eventually fade, especially once kids are in the picture, and you know, that can be OK (and isn't that kind of what facebook is for?) But some of those friendships are probably ones you really want to maintain and are willing to work for. For these friendships, a little communication is in order.

I'm reminded of a situation with some of our best friends (fortunately, they are the kind that live in walking distance!). We both have 3 y.o. kids, but theirs is a more finicky sleeper. When he was little, he couldn't sleep at our house. He still has a much more rigorous nap schedule. However, our kid was fine sleeping at their house and could be a little more flexible on timing at a younger age. As a result, we frequently ended up going to their place and having our kid nap or even sleep overnight there. We started feeling really bad for never having them over and for eating too much of their delicious food. So, at some point, we actually talked about it. We established that for them, it was easier to just host us than to mess up their kids sleep, so it was OK for all of us if we didn't host as often. Now, that conversation was probably a year and a half ago now, so we should probably have it again, especially since baby nap schedules trump 3-year-old nap schedules and baby R has been added to the mix. Maybe now we can return the favor and feed them (C & D -- let's discuss!). But the point remains, we felt bad for not meeting our social obligations, but there was a good reason for it, and it turned out that there was an arrangement that worked.

Perhaps it's similar for those really close friends who had the audacity to move to the burbs without checking with you, first. Go ahead and tell them, out loud, how truly difficult it is for you to get to them (even though you feel pressure to prove anything can be done by bus) but that you value the friendship and would hate to lose it due to logistical difficulties. Say that you'd really rather host them when you get together or meet at a restaurant or activity in bus range, but let them know that for the really big stuff (the baby shower, the wedding), you'll suck it up and rent a car. If you can actually communicate about the unspoken obligations, you can probably come up with a level of contact that maintains the friendship.

(And congratulations to BusChick and BusNerd on the impending arrival of BusBaby #2!)


MamaVee said...

I'm one of those friends who moved to the burbs. I feels tuck for my own self in that it's hard to go without a car out here ( and I'm not that far out too!!!)

I actually prefer to go into the city and so often go to visit friends there. I have a friend who is not car free- but doesn't drive very much - like me- we are scared of driving- and she has had to take the train bus to get here. It is hard- I don't see her often now that she has two kids.

I'm happy where we live ( finally as it was a compromise as the spouse wanted lawn and space and I needed to be near a T which is 1 mile away) I wish the MBTA had a better transit system that was not based on inbound/outbound but cross bound. Us suburbanites wanna get places without our cars too!! ( ha- or maybe I'm just speaking for myself!)

Marmaduke said...

My comment kept getting longer, so I moved it to my blog.

I had two main points though.

First, if it's important to you to be able to be car-free, rather than just, for example, cut your car-miles by 90%, then you are going to alienate some people. That's the way it is right now. You've got to find the balance that fits you.

Second, and hopefully more helpful, one way to see suburban friends without a car is to get yourself close to them, if not to their doorstep. Your friend, living in the 'burbs, has a car and probably will think nothing of driving 15 minutes to meet you.

For example, Hopkington State Park is close to the Worcester/Framingham line and is accessible to most anywhere in "MetroWest" Boston. Many of the commuter rail stops are in nice town centers where it could be fun to meet for an extended lunch/dinner.

Dorea said...

Thanks MamaVee and Marmaduke. I have the utmost respect for folks (especially families) that minimize car dependence without the wealth of transit options that we have here in the city.

The suggestion of commuter rail meetups is a great one, so thank you Marmaduke! We didn't know about Hopkington park and that sounds like such a great option.

Also, while you're right (and this post illustrates) that there are real social costs to going completely car free, there are also social benefits. In fact, it is actually those social benefits that keep us committed to this lifestyle.

Jason said...

Most of the time, if you spend an hour on the commuter rail to get close to your friend, then wouldn't mind spending 15 minutes picking you up.

I once attended to a wedding by commuter rail. Most of my friends where surprised, but at least I didn't have to worry about drinking. However, I had to watch the time and not miss the last train for the day.

As for renting a car, I think your friends will be impressed that you spent the time and money to rent a car to visit them, although it'll make them feel bad too. The way I see it is if you rent a car once a week, the cost is still less than the overall cost of owning a car.

Many of my suburban friends don't like to visit because of the traffic and parking concerns, even though there is a $5-$10 lot across the street.

Cindy said...

I think what can be really helpful is to be more flexible and expansive about what it means to contribute equally to a friendship. Everyone doesn't actually have to contribute the exact same thing for everyone to feel good. I feel more that if everyone contributes what they reasonably can, then it feels fine.

In terms of hosting, we have often had friends come to our house and "host" a meal by bringing food. So we provide the location (and clean-up) and friends bring the food. Or, we could provide the food and others can help with cleaning up.

Mainly, though, I think human relationships don't work so well if we are always trying to keep track of what we "owe" each other. I like to think that over the course of a long friendship, it all evens out in the end. So right now, we might be able to host more meals but when the kids are teenagers, maybe they hang out at your place and annoy you with their adolescence. Fair trade, right? :-)

For me, it can be tough to maintain friendships with people in the suburbs because we end up not having as much in common. Entering the suburbs feels like entering a foreign country to me much of the time (even though that's where I grew up!). The culture of the community feels so different.

Bus Chick said...

Thanks, Dorea, for taking the time to address this. I have done the meetups, both close to my suburban friends (as one poster suggested) and close to me, and they’re definitely a good option. As you pointed out, the city has a lot of cool (kid-friendly) amenities that suburban folks tend to like to take advantage of.

I definitely understand that there are social costs to not owning a car. This, in my view is mostly a product of our car centric culture/value system. (I'll forego the rant about that for today.)
But the thing is, moving to a distant suburb also has social consequences. For one thing, suburban folks have made a choice to make a car a requirement for almost every social interaction they have. Either they have to drive someone/where, or someone has to drive to them.

But back to Dorea’s post: I think the soundest piece of advice was to talk to your friends about the issue. I definitely feel pressure to prove I’m not the person who always has to be accommodated, and that my life is “just like everyone else’s.” The truth is, it’s not. My life is active, fulfilling, fun, and (as far as I’m concerned) enriching for my child. But it’s not just like all my friends’. And that’s OK. I’ve made a choice to live a certain way, and the friends who live in distant suburbs have, too. Talking about how to manage that so that we can still remain important in each other’s lives is an excellent suggestion.

Dorea said...

Such great comments here. Thanks everyone! I'm sensing a post coming on about the social perks of being carfree (there are many, and they far outweigh the drawbacks). And yes, Cindy, we're happy to host the teenagers (I'm sure I'll regret saying that...)

sara said...

This is a very thoughtful post and I enjoyed reading the comments. Heck, there are real 'social costs' to choosing to have kids. I know-- I have three and yes, our social life changed tremendously. I guess I don't lament for friendships that didn't last once we became parents. They were wonderful/'right' for the time that they existed and it's OK for friendships not to last forever. So if by making a very thoughtful decision as an individual or family to go carfree leads to some friendships waning well... Our current friends -- and no, they aren't all parents)-- respect our choices, may be amused by some of our decisions, and don't give us a hard time if we are limited in what we can do.

I know I write this as a family who does own a car so maybe I have limited perspective and have no right commenting. Personally, I celebrate our carfree friends.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly the kind of thing I use City CarShare for in the SF Bay Area. Being car free means I don't see my suburban friends quite as much, but I get a car for a few hours and make the trek for many social events.