Contemplating going car free in 2020

Meribeth Deen documents her family’s choice to ditch the car

Everything  in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.  –E.B. White

Back when I was dipping my toes into the waters of adulthood, I went to a job interview and by the end found myself in an intractable argument. 

Interviewer: Do you have a car?

Me: No.

Interviewer: Do you plan to get one?

Me: No.

Interviewer: Well what if we paid you enough to get a car?

Me: Still no.

Interviewer: I don’t understand.

I didn’t get the job, and that was totally ok with me. I was very young and there were other jobs (there actually were!) I knew very little about what I wanted from life, aside from the fact that I didn’t want a car. I didn’t want to grow old sitting in traffic, and I didn’t want a job that asked me to. I had a bike and working legs when those didn’t cut it there were subways and buses and taxis.

Life was good. 

Twenty years on, I still have working legs and a bike, but now I also have two small(ish) kids. I have a bus that drives by my home intermittently, but there is no actual bus stop anywhere to be found in along any of the local routes. I have no subway, but I do have a mini-mountain between my home and the nearest place of commerce. I believe there is a taxi in these parts, but it is one of those businesses whose operational status I struggle to keep track of.

My local government has hatched a plan of sorts, promising transformative transit services and a network of paths to make “active transportation” an actual thing here sometime around 2040. 

For now though, when we want to get somewhere, we drive.

Until the beginning of December, a 2001 burgundy minivan with one white door handle, a non-functioning air conditioning system (rats, I think), and a cd player hauled my family everywhere, all the time. I’m not too cool to admit that I actually kinda loved this vehicle. It symbolized the completion of my family and had the crumbs ground into the back passenger seats to prove it. Aside from kids and bikes and groceries, I lugged straw and soil and chicken coops in it. I never once stressed that the car might be scratched or dented, it was made to be scratched and dented. Then the engine “got dead,” as my four year old likes to tell people. 

My husband and I were left pondering how to tackle our transportation conundrum.

We debated the ways an EV would be compatible with our lifestyle, and the ways it would fall short. We got excited for a moment, to learn about a particular model of hybrid, until we saw the price tag and compared it with our financial reality. I think it might have just been fatigue that led us to decide on not replacing the van at all. 

We figured: we get groceries delivered to our doorstep, and our seven year-old gets picked up five mornings a week to get on a school bus that delivers him home again 7.5 hours later. If I can hussle my little one out of bed before 8am, I can hop on a bus that will deliver her to daycare. If that fails, we can potentially hitch a ride with one of the care-givers who drives by our house each morning at approximately 8:25. The bonus of both scenarios is that we can avoid the horrendously overcrowded parking lot at drop-off and pick-up times.

I brought the kids by bus to their off-island skating lessons twice. I not only deemed the ventures to be successful, but perhaps more enjoyable than driving. We met a few other families on the bus, and each kid acquired a friend for the journey. I managed to run errands along the bus route. The kids were as bouncy and crazy as ever, but I’m not sure which I consider more stressful: constantly urging them to stay out of traffic, sit properly and not climb so far up that tree or – being trapped in a metal box with them.

We can do this, I thought, and it doesn’t even have to be a sacrifice.

At some point mid-December, a friend texted to say that she was going away for a month and if I wanted to cover the cost of insurance, I could borrow her vehicle.

“Awesome!” I texted back. “Happy to cover the cost of insurance, but I am planning on not driving it too much anyways.”

Let me tell you, that first day with her little jeep I felt a deluge of relief wash over me. I could just hop in, go to the post office, pick up a package. Freedom.

Several weeks later I am as securely attached to this vehicle as a I am to any member of my family. I would rather not look at a calendar – less than 10 days and I have to give it back. In ten days it’s just me and my feet. I’ll be begging for rides and becoming besties with the local bus drivers. 

Will 2020 be the year of slowing down for me? Will I shift perspective, or lose my mind? Will I feel more connected to my community, or become that annoying person who can never drive the kids to playdates, to baseball and responds laggingly to calls from school saying my kid is sick?

Or will I just crack, and get a car?

My younger self will urge me to stay strong, to fight the man, to start a car co-op, buy an e-bike or maybe just skip the country. I’ll keep fanning the embers of her idealism while paying the mortgage and trying to figure it all out.

If anyone has thoughts or tips on car free living, get in touch with Meribeth at meribeth.deen@gmail.com.

This piece was originally published at meribethdeen.com.

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