Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In Praise of Car-Light Families

Occasionally, we worry that people get the wrong idea about us. I know that some readers out there probably think that we are environmental extremists, going to absurd lengths for our carfree cause. But to be honest, we're fairly lazy people. Well, lazy might be taking things too far, but as parents of a three-and-a-half-year-old and an eight-month-old, we don't tend to take on a lot of extra tasks. It's all we can really do to keep our laundry moving along, keep the dishes washed, and keep food in the pantry. We don't do stuff that's hard. But for us at this point in our lives, being carfree is actually much easier than having a car. We never worry about parking, we don't have to dig the car out of the snow, and we don't have extra bills to pay each month. We don't spend time stuck in traffic or driving from home to daycare to work and back to daycare and home again. We see our lives as easy and the lives of car-owners as impossibly difficult.

However, we have set up our lives so that being carfree is the easiest choice and not everyone has the ability or the desire to live in the kind of compact, public-transportation-rich city that allows even families with young children to get by without a car. If we lived even slightly farther out of town, say in Arlington, or Newton, I know we would have at least one car because our lives as parents would be too difficult to manage without one. So for the moment, I'd really like to sing the praises of all of you car-light families out there.

There are many families living in suburbia and small towns that make do with just one car. For instance, Four on a Quarter has a set a goal of using just 4,000 car miles per year in Orlando, Florida, which is a much harder challenge than living carfree in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Still, they find that their efforts at biking add substantially to their lives. Lex and Lena of Totally Smitten Mama live car-light in western Massachusetts and decided to give up on their dream of farm-life in favor of being less dependent on a car. Suburban Bike Mama rediscovered her love of biking in Newton, MA.

What we have in common with many of these car-light families is a drive to take things just one step further. In our neighborhood, every family we can think of has just one car. Parking is at a premium and public transportation and biking are both good options, so it is easy and cost-efficient for families to live with just one car. We've taken that one step further.

But if you live in an area where you look around, and nearly every family has two cars, or possibly even more, ditching the car completely might be a real stretch unless you are willing to do more drastic things like moving, finding a job closer to home, or committing to hard core all-weather biking. But reducing to one car might well be quite do-able with some minor restructuring, and still permit you to reap many of the benefits that we extol here at Car Free With Kids: money in your pocket, better health, less time wasted behind the wheel, and a stronger sense of community.

So, if what we do here seems a little bit crazy or impossible, it might be where you live. But that doesn't mean you can't get some of the very same benefits in your own community. Look around you, see what "normal" is where you live, and try to drive less than that. You'll see the most benefits once you can reduce car use enough to truly offload a car. That's what gets you the most payoff both financially and in terms of life simplicity, but if that seems like too much, start with parking the second car all weekend, commuting by bus one day a week, or running errands by bike. Even these smaller steps will make your life nicer, and possibly even motivate you to take bigger steps.


inkandpen said...

Hear, hear. The choices that we made to live car-free are big life choices: what job to take, what city to live in, what neighborhood to move to... For folks who already have homes, jobs, etc, being car-free may be harder. And learning to live with less, whatever less looks like where you are, is the real reward.

Amy said...

I think I shared this with you both in person, but what helped me get over my irrational fear of downsizing to 1 car was a simple 1-month experiment in which we parked the second car in the driveway and didn't use it at all. I got to trial a bit of what inconvenience this might cause, and it was so minimal. We do live in a suburb that has terrific transportation options for my husband, and I have a really short commute myself. But still, the experiment helped because I tend to worry about things.

The BEST benefit of 1 car was actually that I got to spend so much more time with my husband (and together as a family with the kids)! This sold me 100%, and it's true. We may take a bit more time to go out of our way now to drive each other places in order to share our 1 car, but it keeps us connected in a way I wouldn't want to relinquish now.

MamaVee said...

thank you for the link! I totally agree. In fact I think that riding a bike in the suburbs can be easier than a big city. ( for the bike fearful) As I have so many quiet residential streets to ride on. and everything is spread out that yoga is 1.5 away and the store is a mile the other way. Too far to walk but perfect for the bike.

I won't give up my car mainly b/c it's paid for, but even letting the car sit in the driveway and trying not to need to fill the tank more than once a month in the winter and longer in nicer weather is my goal right now.

Cindy said...

And let's not forget the radical option of sharing a car with another household, which reduces car use even further! We are able to not own a car because our housemate who lives downstairs owns one and we borrow it when we need to. (Share a house, share a car!)

Even better would be several families buying a car together, or perhaps having one available for the whole block that could serve as everyone's "second" car.

A side benefit, of course, would be getting to know your neighbors!

CCB said...

When we went down to one car a couple of years ago it was fantastic! We wouldn't use a car at all if our office was in a safe neighborhood for biking/walking (it isn't) or had the train/bus close by (it doesn't without a lot of walking in an unsafe area). Luckily we are able to drive together everyday and arrange our schedules so that we only need the one car for now. Also we are so lucky to live close to the center of town so we are able to avoid using the car a lot on the weekends (unless visiting other people basically).

We are hoping to stay a one-car family even when Riley starts pre-school and our schedules need to change quite a bit, but it is doubtful. I am glad that is still a couple of years away. And maybe our office will move to a more public transport friendly area.

Angie said...

Thank you for the link!

Wonderful point! This is probably the biggest thing I focus on when I talk with my friends and family about reducing our car usage. It's so important to me that they understand I am not doing anything exceptional. The minute they think you are doing something extreme, you become other and then the whole car-lite thing becomes out of their reach.

Like you, with two kids, I don't have the time or mental energy to do something very difficult. I'm just an everyday person riding my bike. It's not nearly as extreme as people make it out to be.

P.S. A word of thanks for this blog - reading about other car-lite families was so critical in helping us take that initial leap of faith!

Heather said...

Stumbled upon your great blog! We are in the boston burbs with 4 kids trying to cut back on car usage. Like previously said, decisions made years ago make it harder. Preschool is 9 miles away. Grocery stores (I like)are 12. But the library is only 4 miles, the lake is only 6.
I loved your cost/environment/social justice post. The same things we struggle with daily. Thanks for the reads.