I was at the playground talking with some moms.
"I could never ride the bus!" said one. "They're so dirty and crowded."
"Taking the bus with a baby?" sniffed another. "That's just child abuse!"
I hate to think what they would have said about my family, had they known our terrible secret: On the second day of my son's life, we took him on a bus to see his doctor.
We had no choice. You see, we don't own a car. In fact, neither my wife nor I have drivers' licenses. We deliberately gave them up in our twenties, and ever since we've walked, rode bikes, carpooled, and taken planes, trains, and buses. And now, so does our son.
When I mention this fact to people who don't live in San Francisco, New York City, or certain parts of Boston, they look at me as though I am insane. They can't imagine life without cars; they imagine our carless life as being small and helpless.
But when their cars break down, I notice that it is these folks whose lives become small and helpless. They seem paralyzed, horrified at the thought of walking a mile or even (gasp) taking the bus. Not to be snarky about it, but I can't help but notice that many of the car-dependent spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about their health and weight.
I confess that in the first years of my son's life, I did wonder if we should get a car–and recently, I have been thinking about getting my driver's license. It's fairly easy to be both carless and childless; it becomes fantastically difficult once we become parents. But today I have no intention of buying a private vehicle; instead, I'll join a carsharing service.
Our reasons for being a carfree family are straightforward: Cars are very bad for the planet, and I believe that they are also bad for our health and our society.
“We see cars as freedom, flexibility, convenience," says University of Toronto engineer Eric Miller. "But the promise of the car, beyond a certain point, becomes nullified by the congestion and pollution it generates.”
You can buy eco-products from here to the end of time; you can recycle and reuse everything you can; you can even buy a hybrid.
But most scientists and engineers agree: The single best thing you can do for the Earth, the greatest positive change you can make, is to give up owning a private vehicle altogether.
Many people will see this as a terrible sacrifice — and in some places, it is almost impossible. But after fifteen years without a car — five of them as a parent — I don't think we've sacrificed a thing. And in fact, our carfree family has gained a lot:
- Quality time: When people ride in cars, the child sits in back, restrained in a car seat — quite often whining for attention. That doesn't happen on buses and trains. We're right there with my son, talking to him and reading to him and looking out the window at buildings and construction machines and people, and talking about the things we see.
- Social connection: We don't just read to him alone on buses and trains. It's commonplace for other children on board to get drawn into the story I'm reading–and quite often, these are children of other races and cultures. In this and similar ways, we've gotten to know a very diverse group of families who travel the same public transit routes we do, and I think that makes our city a better place to live.
- Community: This is also true for carpooling. I've heard at least one person refer to my wife and I as "mooches" because we go to friends for rides when we absolutely need them, but I've asked those friends about this and they don't mind. My family contributes to our community in many, many ways — from babysitting other people's kids to organizing gatherings to helping out at home when they need it — and sharing rides is just part of that continuum of community. Many of our friends are very well aware that cars hurt the environment; they're happy to share their rides, knowing that they're helping take a car off the road.
- Health, resilience, and patience: Of all the items on this list, I suspect that "health" is the one I don't need to explain. Most people know that driving everywhere weakens their muscles and adds to their waistline; it's obvious. If I drove, I'd be pear-shaped. But I've found that the benefits to my son go beyond health; he's also just more resilient and more patient. He doesn't expect to be carted around everywhere; he's not spoiled that way (he is spoiled about candy and ice cream, but that's another issue). He expects that travel will be an adventure involving many steps and negotiations, and I think he's tougher and more patient as a result.
- Love of place. Nothing fosters love for a landscape more than walking and riding over it. I see and experience things on a bike or on foot that I never would in a car, and so does my son. If I drove him to the playground, Liko would never have learned to play the drums from those dudes in Golden Gate Park; we'd never have met our neighbors Claudia and Zoe; we'd never have discovered that comic book store in the Sunset or those fascinating ant columns on the Castro sidewalk. Sure, it might takes us longer to get around the city, but carlessness has allowed us to discover more of it.
Want to know how to live without a car? Check out "How to be a Carfree Family," just posted to Shareable today, or Jill Suttie's "How to Share a Car."
This was revised from a post to my Mothering magazine blog.