Wednesday, November 5, 2014

(Almost) carless in a car-centric city

We have one car. Two adults, two kids, one car. Statistically speaking, the car-people ratio in our family is not normal for a family living in America. Per capita vehicle ownership in the US is 809 cars per 1000 people; that number drops slightly in Florida with 710 cars per 1000 people.

It's easy to live without a car in big, densely populated cities with great public transportation. It's nearly impossible out in the rural hinterland. And all those medium-sized cities? The ease of being car-less falls somewhere in between easy and impossible. Choosing to be car-less in the US definitely requires some lifestyle compromises and intentional thought about where to live.

I  call my life "car-minimal." We're not car-less, but since Hans takes the car to work every day, and he works between 60-80 hours a week, I'm arguably more car-less than not. On his days off we have the luxury of jumping in the car and going to the beach or to the main library or Trader Joe's. So I'm straddling both worlds: car-less and speeding down Route 66. So, how do I get around with two little kids in tow on my car-less days? What are the important factors in living a car-minimal life?

Location, location, location
Choose your neighborhood and choose wisely. Decide your walking or biking or public transit distance and draw a radius around your house or apartment. What can you reach without a car?

Our marina is within spitting distance of the grocery store, a marine supply store, a Starbucks, a bagel shop, a couple banks, hair salons, a fantastic park, a pizza restaurant, and a sushi restaurant. We're a little further afield, but still bike-able or public transit-able to a library, some friends, other parks, cafes, etc.

Learn your local public transportation system
It may not be frequent, it may not go exactly where you want to go, but, in general, public transportation works. It's not scary, the people on it are not scary, it's usually clean, it's safe, and it's cheap.

I am a big fan of city buses. I love taking the bus. I know my closest bus route and I also know that it is generally on time (never early but sometimes late) and the buses are not frequent. So I have to know the schedule and I can't miss a bus if I have somewhere to be. Yes, it does take longer to get somewhere on the bus. Yes, on days when I have the car, I always choose to drive over going on the bus, but public transit is invaluable to me on my car-less days.

Find other ways to get around besides walking
If you want to live a car-minimal life, you've got to think outside of the box. I tow my girls around in a bike trailer. I take the bus. I like to walk. I compromise on what I want to do and when I can do it.

$$$. The number one reason we only have one car isn't aligned with higher morals or strident environmentalism. We only have one car because we only have one car. We moved from a big city in the northeast to a medium-sized city in the southeast. Having one car in the northeast was a luxury; having a car here isn't a necessity, per se, but it definitely makes life easier. A second car would be great, but we just don't have the cash to buy one and we're not willing to budget any money for a monthly car payment.

I also like the challenge of living outside of the car culture. I wish our cities were designed to be more bike and pedestrian friendly. I wish more people biked and walked and took public transit. I like getting to know my neighborhood because I spend a lot of time here, rather than trekking all over the city and suburbs to go to a new playground. By not having a second car, I actively support my ideals of community, environmentalism, and health.

The pitfalls
Of course there are many, many times when I wish we had a second car. The city is geographically big and I have friends that I can't visit because they live just too far away to bike or bus to. The main library has great kid programming, but it's a little beyond our biking radius. I don't mind a longer bike ride but it's hard to convince two sisters to sit happily together in a bike trailer for more than 15 minutes without fighting. And of course if it's raining out then we're stuck at home.

So, yes, if someone were to give me a car, I'd happily take it. But I know that I'd still limit my usage and I would still travel via bike or foot if I was going less than three miles. Just because we live in a car-centric culture, doesn't mean we need to travel via car every single time we leave home.

Yesterday, as we were getting off the boat to head to the park, my pre-schooler asked me if we were taking the car or bike or walking. I responded, bike and she groaned. Apparently she really wanted to go in the car. I explained, in 3-year-old speak that cars drink gas, but they don't drink all the gas. Some of the extra gas gets blown out into the air and makes the air dirty. Our bike doesn't drink gas, so if we travel by bike instead of in the car, we won't make the air dirty.

Simple, irrefutable pre-school level logic.


  1. Dang, my first post got eaten (I think). The gist was, this is great!! We are a one-car family too, though Eric is the one that walks to work (and I'm so envious of his daily walks. I wish the streets were a bit safer here to bike but sadly no. We do take public transportation (city bus and trolley; the girls LOVE the trolley!) And babywearing is instrumental when the littlest gets tired and can't keep up.

    I hope we are in the same city one day!

  2. So my solution to safe biking is to remind myself that biking with two kids in tow isn't as fast as biking by myself. Not for the weight, but because I have to stay on the sidewalks and sometimes I just have to walk b/c the sidewalks have roots growing out of them or curbs or whatever. Thankfully, no one cares that I bike on the sidewalk. I miss Philly which has a growing # of bike lanes and me and Freja used to zoom all over the city.