As I posted my ad on Craigslist I felt a combined anger and sadness. (“Excellent condition 2006 Honda Pilot with leather interior. Silver. Seats seven, or eight in a pinch. Clean title, impeccably maintained . . . “) And then, a breaking sort of goddamn it, we don’t need this car, this car doesn’t define me and it doesn’t define my family. That safety it represented was an illusion. Or rather, the safety it offered now was in what it could give us financially. Once I had accepted that this was the best (only) solution for our financial straits, I felt like a pressure had released and, in its place, was peaceful resignation. That didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid of changing my mind. But here it was: I could let go (all at once!) of the stresses of not making ends meet for the past year. I cried after I wrote the ad, not because I was grieving. Mostly I was regretting having waited so long. The tension release was like a balloon popping, not a slow realization of growing relief but an instant, dramatic one.
But selling the car meant no turning back. Our Honda SUV was only three years old, and it was the first new car I had ever owned. I traveled from city to city to earn money for my family when I worked at my sales job, and this was the capsule that carried me along to the accompaniment of satellite radio and my own self-important chatter on the Bluetooth. The leather seats smelled like I was slipping into the kind of purses I had started to carry as my commission checks swelled. I spent more time in that car than I spent anywhere other than home, and I made sure it reflected my success. Twice a year, I got it detailed to shining perfection. I remember once grabbing the worker’s red towel and buffing off a small spot of road grime I spied on an edge of the license plate, with an apologetic smile.
Because we didn’t yet own a house, this was our most visible claim to the comforts of our income level. Emerging from the frosty air conditioning of my stalwart Honda I would arrive at meetings in the morale-sapping endless Texas summers as pristine as when I had left home. Having a nice, new, big car made me feel like an adult. It made me feel like I deserved my job. Like putting on a power suit, it made me act differently. I felt more in-control, businesslike, and competent. Walking to my car with my keyless-entry fob in hand made me feel cared for. My car looked handsome in the parking lot. I liked that it was luxurious while also being (relatively) fuel-efficient for an SUV. I sometimes congratulated myself at having made a good choice. When I had to get it serviced, the sybaritic dealership had employees who called me ma’am, and brought me coffee in a china cup and a copy of the Wall Street Journal while I waited.
I identified with my car, as many of us do. I felt peaceful knowing my children saw it, dent-free and shining, when I pulled up to the curb to pick them up. When I was growing up, my mother drove a station wagon and when I waited to be picked up from somewhere—school, ballet class—I would feel comfort at the sight of the burgundy Pontiac with its blandly reassuring stare. It offered the sort of comfort I associated with my mother. Not affectionate, but consistent. And this handsome silver SUV was my parental visage. It soothed me, driving my children where they needed to go, safe from weather and unpredictability. It may not have been a luxury car, but it was a status symbol, in that it identified us as a middle-class family. Many of us don’t really feel like bona-fide adults until we achieve some touchstone that we associate with our parents. Here was an important one for me.
It was I who suggested that we ditch the idea of car ownership altogether, and instead spend a small percentage of the selling price to outfit everyone for serious bicycle travel. We pondered—briefly—the possibility of downgrading our car and buying something used and really cheap, but that introduced all sorts of variables like repair costs, and didn’t reduce our expenses as much as we needed to. There was something about taking the extreme step of becoming a car-free family that made this feel less like a loss and more like an adventure and a challenge. I was surprised when, after I suggested it offhandedly and with every expectation of being shot down, I instead got a cautiously optimistic thumbs-up from my husband. A lifestyle change that dramatic could not have happened without both of us fully on-board. Had I pressured him into grudgingly acquiescing (who, me?) I would have always had the burden of responsibility for every inconvenience or obstacle we encountered. And Larry is less rash than I am, and much more resistant to change. His affable willingness to go along with it fueled my own enthusiasm for the venture.
I expected certain changes to be immediate, and they were: once the car was really and truly gone, we were much more discriminating about what errands were necessary. I discovered both Larry and I had a tendency to use some quick car trip as an excuse to get away from the family for a few minutes, and find solace in the solitude. I mourned late night grocery shopping trips, NPR on the radio and the windshield wipers offering contrapuntal input, just being mercifully alone for a little while. The car could be a small sanity-saver for a parent of preschoolers. Now, we had to create other ways for parental respite. There wasn’t an easy escape anymore, and it made you reconsider whether escaping was really the right thing to do at a given moment.
Other changes were unexpected. Getting out of the driver’s seat and onto the sidewalk created a more surprising shift, as potent as it is hard to explain: it was like being put into a model railroad landscape, a diorama, something always seen from a distance. Suddenly, I felt like I was integrated into street-level life. Storefronts, parks, tables set up outside of cafes—I was right there with it, and in it. Everything looked different from this new perspective, without my high perch and tinted windows. It goes without saying that I noticed things I had missed before, like a strawberry patch growing close to the curb in a busy Goodwill parking lot. Sometimes it was good: it made me feel connected to my community to be able to wave into stores at the people we do business with. Other times, I resented having to put on a social face whenever I left home. The big silver chariot with the subtly-tinted windows gave me a barrier between myself and the town around me, and I didn’t have to smile if I didn’t want to.
The small differences between neighborhoods and terrain became something I noticed. When we crossed a certain thoroughfare and the houses got shabbier, the sidewalks did, too, with tree roots pushing fissured chunks of concrete into jagged peaks. I learned what areas were old enough that they didn’t have proper curb-cuts at the corners. We stopped going to stores that didn’t have bicycle parking racks, and frequented the places we could get to through our network of city hike-and-bike trails. Suddenly we viewed areas, thoroughfares, and shopping centers as “bike-friendly” or not. We paid attention to news reports involving cyclists hit by cars, and schooled the children about where the risks were highest.
I had been worried about the kids’ response to the huge change. I figured Zeke, at the very least, would miss the car because, well, it’s a car, and motorized vehicles are pretty much his favorite thing on earth. But even still, he rarely brings it up. When he does, though, it’s impressively specific for a preschooler: “Remember when we had the silver Honda Pilot?” he’ll ask. Molly, true to her nature, didn’t seem to notice or care. What was most surprising was Rainer’s response to the change, as a preteen with all the accompanying social sensitivities: she was proud. She focused on the cool surprise of it, how dropping the information rippled impressively. She became a bellwether of eco-family living, and chose to emphasize that to others—and seemingly herself. She wore the poverty stigma lightly, like a boa around her shoulders she could easily shed. She told me, “I’m glad about of our life. I love the way we’re doing things.”
Other changes should have been predicted, but when they came, I was surprised: selling our car radicalized and marginalized us. We were out of the closet as having Blown It Big Time. It was the one thing that we could say that would give everyone pause. We knew many who had let go of cable television, but we didn’t yet know anyone who had become a no-car family. It automatically cast us in a role I didn’t know if I was ready to occupy. People started to rationalize their car ownership to us, saying they lived too far from work, or had to car pool too many kids to too many functions. I got used to saying things to make them more comfortable. I didn’t want us to alienate people by seeming holier-than-thou. When we made a new acquaintance, I prepared myself for the chirpy, polite response people gave when we told them we don’t have a car. It’s like telling people you live in a trailer on the side of the road. They bite back their surprise, try to seem like they’re unfazed, and then when a few minutes pass and the conversation stalls, they furrow their brow: “Really?”
The other day, I spotted a car in the parking lot that was exactly the same as the one we sold. They aren’t rare; I see them passing by on the street all the time. But this time, I was alone and walking past one in the parking lot, close enough to see the flecks of silver glittering in the paint job, and remembered with sudden vividness the feeling of having that heavy key in my hand the first time. I had felt like I was finally driving my life, and that the future would happen at a certain speed and with a strong straight trajectory. I had started the motor and it sounded reassuringly steady. There wouldn’t be a deviation down a narrow dirt trail with unexpected sadness or big muddy places that I’d have to struggle through. This, my first new car, was a big, handsome, authoritative one, and it symbolized responsibility and security. Youth meant drunken bike rides back to my dorm room, early adulthood held years of subway commuting from one mediocre job to another worse one, and then coming home to my apartment in a seedy part of the city. In the years of early parenthood, when I was just beginning to build a career, I had driven dented minivans with six-digit odometers. I hadn’t missed our shining Honda as much as I thought I would, but I sometimes missed what it said about my life: that the road was solid beneath my wheels, that there were air bags at every side and in front of me, and that I was moving forward, driving my family down a clear and certain path.
And now we had become a ramshackle caravan of bikes and trailers decorated with silk flowers. Being carless has made our world smaller, and I think that’s part of what scares people about giving theirs up. It was certainly part of what scared me: the feeling of being trapped. But while our world has shrunk somewhat, our neighborhood has grown larger . . . and infused with more meaning. We’ve branched out farther than I initially thought we would, and distances are getting less daunting with the passing of time. We have gotten a lot better at preparing for bad weather, being efficient, packing and hauling awkward or heavy cargo, and arriving where we need to be when we need to be there. We’ve also gotten more accepting and gracious at being identifiable as That Crazy Biking Family, and we’re more adept at putting people at ease with our decision without making them feel ashamed of their own. The unpredictability our days hold doesn’t scare me anymore, and now I can brush the inconveniences aside with a wave of my hand. I don’t flinch when I need to go to an appointment six miles away, for example. I come home when it’s over and I have to remind myself, “I just rode my bike twelve miles like it was nothing.” My children see the stability that comes from weathering hard times, and adapting to new ways of doing things. My teenager thinks the way we’re living is cool. And I’m okay with being a little bit proud of that.