Guerrilla driver appreciation

Yesterday, a local public radio station aired a story about the Seattle roots of Bus Driver Appreciation Day (now known to everyone except me as Transit Driver Appreciation Day). Eight years after Hans Gerwitz first proposed the idea, the day is celebrated across the US and even in a few other countries. Honoring the work of bus drivers is not a tough sell.

But the thing is, pronouncing one’s appreciation for bus drivers is not the same as showing appreciation. And it’s actually pretty hard to figure out how to do something nice for a bus driver. Every March, there’s a flurry of social media action and lots of official acknowledgement; a number of municipalities have even issued proclamations. But very little of that professed appreciation actually trickles down to drivers. Most of the time, we riders come in contact with them while they’re doing they’re difficult, demanding jobs, so there isn’t time for much more than an enthusiastic, “Thanks for the ride!”

This year, I was determined to do something a bit more meaningful. So, I found an energetic and enthusiastic partner — my friend Myesha, who also happens to be a licensed massage therapist — and the two of us spent a decent chunk of this rainy holiday parked (under a borrowed pop-up tent) at Mount Baker Transit Center, offering drivers on layover free chair massages.* We figured, given the nature of their work, they probably have their share of aches and pains.

I’m not sure how many massages Myesha did today, but I’m guessing it was fewer than a dozen. Most of the massages were shorter than we would have liked, because the drivers had only a few minutes of free time. Still, I hope we brought some joy (and relief) to the drivers who took us up on our offer. We certainly enjoyed the time we spent with them.

Now that I’ve gotten my feet wet, I’m ready to build on the momentum. Fellow bus chicks, let’s make BDAD/TDAD 2018 the best, most creative, most love-filled, most driver-pleasing holiday ever. Let’s work with agencies and with other riders to come up with delightful surprises that do more than pay lip service to our appreciation. Next year, let’s really do this.

Who’s with me?

***

* Since I wasn’t giving the massages, I was the official Bus Driver Thanker. I also kept track of the time, so that everyone made it back to their vehicle on schedule.

A February adventure, Bus Fam style

On Saturday, my crew took a transit trip to the Tacoma Musical Playhouse. We rode three routes on three different systems: the 14 (King County Metro) from our neighborhood to downtown Seattle, the 594 (Sound Transit) from downtown Seattle to downtown Tacoma, and the 1 (Pierce Transit) from downtown Tacoma to the theater. It was a two-hour trip, including walks and waits. Good thing we had our books, cubes, and snacks packed and our adventure hats on.

Even though we ride the 14 regularly, there is something about traveling during “off” hours that makes it more fun. When buses are less crowded, drivers are more relaxed, and there is a solidarity and camaraderie among passengers that leads to conversations — and frequent bus-wide discussions. Our early Saturday morning 14 was one of those special rides, and it put us in just the right frame of mind to enjoy the rest of the day.

The 594 was exciting for Chicklet and Busling, who are used to city buses and did not know what to make of a Sound Transit commuter vehicle. When I showed them that their seats could recline, they just about fell out.

The 1 ride to the theater was a 30-minute trip down Tacoma’s busy 6th Avenue. Who needs expensive vacations when you can take the bus through a neighboring city? It was fun to notice the differences : the velvety bus seats (which are easier to ride on because they are not slippery but which kind of freak me out because I once read that they’re teeming with scary bacteria), the location-specific bus ads, and the shops and other sights.

It was also pretty amusing to experience all the things that were the same. There was the bus breakdown. Two stops into our first 1 ride, our driver had to “switch coaches” because of an unexplained mechanical problem. There was the Inappropriate Questioner — this time, a middle-aged white woman who yelled across the aisle to a young, light-skinned black man that he looked just like Gregory Hines (he didn’t) and then proceeded to interrogate him about his knowledge of the famous dancer. There was the Manspreader (in his defense, the bus was half empty, so he wasn’t actually encroaching on anyone), who spent the better part of the ride scratching his back with a butter knife. And, at the stop where we got off, which is a half block off of one of Tacoma’s busiest streets, there was this.

Different city, same bus problems. Exhibit D: junk blocking the sidewalk.

Despite the minor setbacks, we arrived at the theater with plenty of time for a stop at the restroom (which had a chaise!) and a little exploring before the show started.

And about that show…

And now, perhaps, you understand my motivation to travel all the way to Tacoma to watch a “family musical.” The show was absolutely wonderful and somehow managed to please all four of us. Not only was it historically accurate — it even included the story of Claudette Colvin and dispelled many myths about Parks’ life — but it was also entertaining and incredibly inspiring.

We tend to see history’s heroes (and sheroes) as Chosen Ones, special people who embrace their destiny as our saviors. The truth is, heroes are almost always regular folks with families and fears and bills to pay. This was certainly true of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, E.D. Nixon, Joanne Robinson, Virginia Durr, and the countless unrecognized people who risked and sacrificed for 381 days.

Their resistance was radical and dangerous. They faced violence from terrorists and from those who were sworn to protect them from terrorists. They had no reason to believe that their boycott would be successful, and they had every reason to believe that tremendous harm would come to their families if they continued. Yet day after day, setback after setback, they faced down their fear and doubt and chose to act with hope and courage. Their example is an enduring reminder that justice is not inevitable. It requires struggle. It requires us to persist in moments when it would be far easier not to.

I am grateful to Sue Greenberg and the Tacoma Musical Playhouse for bringing this beautiful struggle to life for my family.

And speaking of family…

My other motivation for a bus adventure to Tacoma was (and will remain) my hilarious, adorable three-year old niece, HD. After the show, HD and her mama met us for lunch at a fun burger joint near Wright Park — another 1 ride in the opposite direction. They also took us on a tour of Stadium High School (which is a short walk from the restaurant), so my Harry Potter-obsessed children could pretend they were visiting Hogwarts.

Coolest high school ever

Stadium’s stadium

After our rainy tour, we decided to continue our sightseeing on foot. We said goodbye to our guides and walked the mile to the nearest 594 stop. Then we headed back north, spending most of the ride napping contentedly in our reclining seats.

Sure, our excursion had its share of wet socks, waiting, and whining (mostly, in the form of begging for treats at the theater), but those irritations will be quickly forgotten. What we will remember about our February Tacoma adventure is that it stimulated our curiosity and imagination, fortified our courage, and connected us with our family and community. In my book, that’s as close to perfect as an adventure can get.

For LaDonna, Linda, and Lucia

Recently, my sweet Busling (who is seven!!!) has been transitioning from captain of Team Mommy to full-fledged Daddy’s boy. I’m mostly happy about this (and hoping some of it will rub off on his big sister), both because I want my kids to have a strong relationship with their awesome father and because I’d like their neediness to occasionally be directed at someone other than me.

But sometimes, I feel this very normal separation as a loss. Like Wednesday, when B brought home a card he’d made during his class Valentine party. Each kid had made one card, and his, he announced matter-of-factly, was for his dad. He was so proud when he showed it to me, insisting that I smell the rainbow heart he’d drawn with scented markers and read the lovely note inside. My good angels couldn’t wait for Bus Nerd to see it. My bad angels were feeling abandoned by my once cuddly, affectionate, mom-centric baby. The bad angels won.

After some cursory praise, I — a woman who has never expected (or even wanted) a valentine from her own spouse — asked, in a tone that might have come across as a wee bit jealous, why he hadn’t made a valentine for me. I managed to recover from my tantrum pretty quickly, but not before the guilt trip had done its damage. Busling immediately busted out a pad of post-its and started writing me love notes. There were lots of sweet messages: I love you, You are my valentine, You are awesome, You give the best snuggles, You rock

And then, just as I was running out of refrigerator space on which to stick the coerced kindnesses, he handed me this.

I have no idea what inspired him write those words. It could be the “courage” sticker that has been a fixture on my laptop since 2013. More likely, it’s that his beautiful, intuitive spirit knew it was just what I needed to be told right now, as I gather myself to resist the evil that is descending upon us.

Maybe you need to be told, too.

Small moments

Last Thursday, I met with a woman named Rachel about a bus-themed event she is planning. Not surprisingly, Rachel and I bonded over our love for buses. We talked about the connections that happen on transit, how they influence us, instruct us, and ground us in our communities. Rachel called these interactions “small moments,” which — leaving aside the association with elementary school writing curriculum* — is exactly the right way to describe them.

Most of my meaningful bus encounters aren’t stories with a beginning, middle, and end. They don’t result in epiphanies or lasting friendships but instead in a slight opening of my heart, a brief glimpse into another life, a kindness shared or received, a small surprise.

There was the time last Friday, when the kids and I were waiting at the Madrona Park 2 stop while the bus was laying over, and the driver, who could surely have used a few moments to himself to eat, use the phone, or just be blessedly alone, opened the bus doors and invited us inside 10 minutes before he was scheduled to leave. Because it was cold.

There were the four teenagers in the back of a Friday evening 106, talking smack and cursing up a storm, then — remembering my kids —  turning to me and saying, “Oops! Excuse our language.”

There was the time in mid-November, at the height of my post-election rage and panic, when I spotted this graffiti message in front of my seat on the 3.

There were the Thanksgiving rides to and from my brother’s house (three buses each way), populated with passengers (including us) carrying dishes to share and foil-covered plates of leftovers.

There was the time Chicklet and I boarded the 48 on the way to church, and the driver announced to everyone within earshot, “Look — twins!”

There was woman next to me on the 27 having a desperate phone conversation with DSHS, trying to figure out who to talk to and how to get credit for the services she was receiving, so that she could be reunited with her children.

There was the time we played musical chairs on a crowded 4 — an elderly man getting up for a woman with a walker, and then another person offering a seat to that man, and so on, until six people had made room for someone who needed a seat more than they did.

There was the man at the 14 stop showing his birth certificate to random strangers to prove he was born in 98122 – a zip code where he can no longer afford to live.

There was the Saturday when Bus Nerd and I took Busling on separate 8 rides and later figured out we’d had the same driver, because we each returned with a snack bag of chips he’d given to Busling upon boarding.

There was the woman on the 120 who reminded me of a younger version of myself: brownish, with a bus bag, reading a big book. After I snuck a peek at the title, we spent the next few minutes bonding — over books in general and Zadie Smith in particular — until we reached her stop.

There was the time we took my three-year old nephew to the Children’s Museum, and Chicklet left one of her beloved Harry Potter books on the 8. Thanks (obviously) to wizard magic, we rode the same bus on the way home, and Chicklet found her book right where she’d left it.

There was the Link ride back in June, where I saw a woman in a hijab with a Pride t-shirt and a man with a sign that said “LGBTQ solidarity with Muslims.”

There was the time I waited at Mount Baker Transit Center with two senior adults and their 12 preschool-aged charges, who chattered cheerfully — wearing matching backpacks and grins — as they waited for the 8 in a perfectly straight line.

There was the time my kids successfully chased down a 50 for the second morning in a row, and the driver told them they would grow up to be track stars.

There are so many more, every day — every ride. Most are quickly forgotten. They are part of the background of my life, perhaps in the same way as a driver’s daily maneuvers. But unlike drivers, I am reminded every time I travel of the humanity that surrounds me.

And it is beautiful.

***

* Chicklet and Busling have both written their fair share of “small moments” stories in their school careers. So far, none have been about the bus. ; )

What I know — what I owe

In the mid ’90s, back when I lived in Texas, I was a teacher. I came to the profession through a rather unconventional — though sadly, not particularly uncommon — path, and I didn’t last long.

I graduated from college with a BA in English, broke, with no clear idea of what I wanted to do for a living and exactly zero job prospects. Despite numerous visits to my university’s career services office, several half-hearted applications to “consulting” firms, and the moral low of applying for an entry-level communications role at Enron, I remained unemployed months after graduation. It was during this desperate time that I learned a school district at the northernmost reaches of the Houston city limits, comprised mostly of poor students of color, was hiring teachers.

It hadn’t occurred to me to apply for a teaching position, since I had no teaching certificate or teaching experience. (I had entertained — and dismissed — the idea of a teaching career early in college.) But this district was just as desperate as I was; it was experiencing an extreme teacher shortage and was therefore offering emergency certification. All that was required to apply was a bachelor’s degree, a mediocre GPA, and a background check.

After a short interview at the district office, I was hired to teach English at one of its four high schools. I started work at the beginning of the semester, without one single minute of training, without even a substantial meeting with the principal or the other teachers in my department. I was told what subject matter I was expected to cover, issued a couple of teacher’s manuals and a rolling cart, and sent off to do a job I had no idea how to do.

The cart, I should explain, was needed because I did not have a classroom. The school was overcrowded, and because I was a newbie and therefore low on the teaching totem pole, I was expected to “float”: teach each class in a different room, using the classrooms of more fortunate teachers during their planning periods. I had no desk of my own, no way to prepare lessons on the board in advance of class, and no place to meet with students or parents outside of class time. I didn’t even have access to a closet to store my coat and purse.

My classes were huge. Some had close to 40 students. On days when everyone showed up, there weren’t enough desks, and I would scramble at the beginning of the period in search of rare extras from other classrooms. A couple of times a month, a new student would show up. At least as often, a student on my roster would disappear.

The school had recently moved to “block” scheduling and for some reason could not figure out how to implement more than one lunch period with this new schedule. So, all 3,000 students ate lunch at the same time. There was not enough room for 3,000 people to eat in the cafeteria, so students ate throughout the school building. The staff was expected to supervise the students during lunch, to ensure that they followed school rules. This exercise in futility was called “lunch duty.”

Back in the mid 90s, state tests were just starting to become a thing. Texas’s test, then called the TAAS, was a big deal for districts and was an especially big deal for our district, since our scores were quite low. In my second year at the school, I was required to teach a daily, semester-long class on this test. (In block scheduling, a semester is the equivalent of a full school year.) I repeat: I was required to teach a daily class about how to take a test. This was in addition to the math test prep that I, an English teacher, was required to do with all of my classes for the first 10 minutes of every period.

These were the conditions under which I began my short-lived teaching career. It is clear to me now (even more than it was then) that I was not set up for success. Given the circumstances, I could not have given my students what they needed and deserved no matter how hard I tried. But the thing is, I didn’t really try.

I had no idea how to be a good teacher, and I didn’t ask for help. I didn’t find a mentor, or attend trainings, or read books about best practices for classroom management or lesson preparation. Instead, I prepared lessons at the last minute and “winged” my way through almost every class. I looked forward to my students completing required readings so that I could show the movie version of the story and avoid teaching for an entire class period. Any (rare) moments that I wasn’t required to spend with students I spent in a locked classroom with a few other young teachers, talking about how much we hated our jobs.

Once, I shared a lunch duty post with a PE teacher, a man in his 50s with many years of experience. In the course of our conversation, I complained about the chaos at the school. He agreed with me about the craziness but seemed resigned and wholly unconcerned. “These kids are trash,” he told me matter-of-factly. He only worked at our school, he explained, because the district paid more than districts with more “desirable,” students. He was looking forward to retirement, but in the intervening years, he would earn his paycheck honorably, by “giv[ing] them a basketball.”

What did I say in response to this man’s disgusting comments? Absolutely nothing.

At the beginning of every semester, I received individual education plans (IEPs) for all of my students with special needs. As their teacher, I was required to adjust my teaching style to suit these students’ learning styles. I know for sure that I did not do that. I did not even know how.

I rarely called parents, in part because many of my students were from non-English-speaking families, and I lacked the necessary communication skills, but mostly because I wasn’t organized or proactive enough.

Despite these (and many other) deficiencies, both of my formal reviews were solid: in the B+ range. This fact alone tells you all you need to know about the level of expectation and the amount of oversight in that school.

It wasn’t all awful. I showed up every day, despite the terrible conditions and the depressing, prison-like atmosphere. I tried to help my students understand how their schoolwork applied to their lives and their futures. I managed a few creative and inspired lessons. And I am certain that some of my students learned something of value from me.

With my 9th graders — in someone else’s classroom (ahem). Hard to tell which of us is the teacher.

Two of my students — eating their lunches on top of a trash can

With a student on the last day of school. Loved that kid but was singing, “Hallelujah!” in my head.

After two years, I accepted that I was not cut out to be a teacher and moved on to a profession I was better suited for. (A decade later, I moved on again, but that’s a story for another time.)

Now I have children in school, and I am dependent upon teachers to care about them, to see their humanity, and to create safe and stimulating learning environments. Now I understand better than ever what my students deserved, and just how much I failed them.

There is no way to fix the mistakes I made. All I can do now is ask myself what I owe.

Certainly, I owe a commitment to the children who are enrolled in public school now. I owe support and encouragement to those teachers who take seriously their responsibility to educate our children. (This support must also manifest in the public arena, by demanding that our leaders fund reasonable working conditions and decent salaries.)

Also, I owe the truth.

The truth is, we don’t value all children equally. The truth is, we are willing to accept substandard education for poor students and students of color.

The truth is, we are throwing away human beings.

What are we going to do about it?

Brain building while busing

Transit riders enjoy the precious gift of regular time to use as we choose. The great among us write nobel prize winning novels on the way to work. We mortals use our travel time in more ordinary ways: reading, chatting, knitting, gaming, texting, primping, prepping, macking. Also, solving puzzles.

Fellow bus chicks, behold.

Cubes

No, they aren’t mine. I am  still perfectly content to spend my rides reading, thinking, and people-watching. Plus, I’m not much of a puzzle person. The beauties pictured above belong to my beloved Bus Nerd, who, as you can see, has developed a bit of an obsession.

It started innocently enough. A couple of years ago, he picked up an old-school, 3 x 3 Rubik’s cube (same one he had as a kid) and figured out how to solve it. He practiced until he could do it in under a minute, then moved on to a 4 x 4 to increase the challenge. After he mastered that, things started getting out of hand (see photo). And yes, he can solve them all.

Bus Nerd doesn’t limit his cubing to bus rides, but they have definitely become his bus pastime of choice. He uses the cubes to entertain himself on the rides, and he uses the rides to gauge his progress on the cubes. (He knows he’s making progress if he can solve it earlier in the route.) His cubes also supplement his stop sense, since his progress on the puzzle correlates to the progress of the route.

Here is Bus Nerd, explaining his bus cubing better than I can. I apologize in advance for the sound quality.

Onward

Every Wednesday, I volunteer at my kids’ school. I spend most of my time there in the cafeteria, because — thanks to our state’s chronic (and criminal) funding challenges — our food service manager doesn’t have the resources she needs to do her job well.

I never look forward to my volunteer days — there are always 100 other things I should (or would rather) be doing — but I usually enjoy them. This is because my kids’ school is awesome. The student body is extremely diverse, and each classroom reflects that diversity* (a rarity in this proudly progressive city). The staff is also diverse, and is one of the most committed and conscientious groups of people I have ever had the privilege to know. Despite innumerable challenges — inadequate funding, oppressive (and often incompetent) district bureaucracy, too many tests — they do everything in their power to build a supportive community and provide a well-rounded, enriching education to all of our kids.

But back to Wednesdays.

On Wednesday, November 9th, the first day of the New Reality, I really did not feel up for volunteering. I forced myself — and my kids — through the motions of getting ready for the day, but as the three of us walked to school, I was overwhelmed with despair. It was a heaviness I had never felt before, even in my worst moments of grief.

When we arrived, the blacktop was filled with kids laughing and running and playing. Some were huddled in small groups, discussing the results of the election, but most were simply enjoying their last moments of morning recess, as they do every morning. The bell rang, and they lined up by classroom. Teachers walked out of the building to greet them, many wearing our school’s Black Lives Matter t-shirts. Then everyone headed inside for another day of learning.

I made my way to the kitchen, where our wonderful cafeteria manager was hard at work unloading the “keeper” with the next day’s meals. I washed my hands, donned an apron, and began rinsing and chopping the daily fresh produce snack.** When I finished, it was time for first lunch.

I spent the next few hours serving meals to hundreds of precious children of all colors, faiths, backgrounds, and abilities; hugging teachers who give so much to help those children learn; and watching our beautiful, imperfect community make it through the challenge of another delightful, chaotic, too-short lunch period.

The heaviness started to lift.

After lunch, while I wiped tables and listened to the music class practice songs on the cafeteria stage,*** I realized that we are all still here, doing the work we have always done. We can still connect, and serve, and build. We can still take care of each other. We can still love.

This is not some cop-out platitude post to suggest that we can fix the problems in our country by “being nice” — or to encourage folks to forget about politics in favor of more pleasant subjects. On the contrary, “politics” will have a tremendous impact on the children I serve every Wednesday; indeed, it already has.

Now, more than ever, we have an obligation to vocally and actively and with all the resources at our disposal, advocate for a just and sustainable country and world. But to do that, we must start where we are. And we must remember who we are. I am honored to be part of a community that does both.

Every member of the staff signed this.

Every member of the staff signed this letter.

school sign

***

* This is a relatively recent development. A couple of years ago, the school community made the decision to move from two programs to one. It was a bold and courageous move (one that I will probably talk about in a future post). We still have plenty of challenges, but it has made all the difference.
** This exists at our school only because a parent who is very passionate about nutrition identified the program and raised the money to pay for it.
*** Our (part-time) music teacher does not have a classroom.

I’m too damn tired to think of a title for this

Yesterday morning, I had to look my children in the face and explain to them that a man who was supported by the KKK is our new president.

A. Man. Who. Was. Supported. By. The. K! K! K! Is. Our. New. President.

We are no longer in the realm of politics or policy. This is about denying others’ humanity. This is about inciting violence. This is about evil.

I have never, at least not in my adult life, felt connected to any symbols associated with the “United” States — not the flag, not the anthem, not the Declaration of Independence — none of it. I see behind and beneath all of that, to the oppression and empire building. To the individual suffering of people who are considered afterthoughts or unfortunate casualties of this great American Experiment. And I just can’t drink the Kool Aid.

What I do feel connected to, however, is this city where I was born. Not the symbols or the culture, but the place. This landscape — the mountains, the water, the trees, the rain, even the way it smells — is deeply embedded in me.

Tahoma

I am a descendent of people from three continents. Nearly all of my ancestors – West African, Cherokee, Choctaw, Irish – share a history of displacement. This place, where my grandparents migrated over 80 years ago, is the closest I have to homeland. My father was born here. My children were born here. My people are here: dad, brothers, nieces, nephew, lifelong friends. My doctor, my dentist. My library. My neighborhood. My beautiful neighbors. The trees I planted. My church. My kids’ school. My mother’s ashes. My grandparents’ graves. My community. My memories. My history. I am as rooted as I can ever hope to be.

But on Tuesday, that was taken from me.

I am not safe here. This is not my home.

On heartbreak and clean teeth

Two years ago Saturday, I met my foster son, known on this blog as HBE. That first night was difficult, in ways that are hard to fully appreciate unless you’ve instantly become the mother of a traumatized stranger, shortly after swimming lessons and right before dinner. The most difficult moment for me happened after all three kids were asleep, as I sat on the floor unpacking the large shopping bag of HBE’s belongings.

Until that point, I hadn’t thought much about HBE’s history. His relatives and relationships had been reduced to a handful of sentences on a DSHS form, which I had read only 24 hours earlier. But here was proof that he had real connections to other people: a stuffed dog, a box of favorite snacks, pajamas. At the bottom of the bag I found a tiny toothbrush, carefully wrapped in a paper towel.

Earlier that evening — when we learned for sure that a 16-month old would be joining our family — Bus Nerd had gone to the store to buy supplies, including a toothbrush. We had used that toothbrush to clean HBE’s teeth at bedtime, before I was faced with this evidence that someone else cared for him, someone who had likely brushed his teeth mere hours earlier, at the beginning of a day that turned his world upside down.

I set the toothbrush down and wept, for all of us.

On July 20th, 2015, HBE was reunified with his relatives. Nine months after unpacking his things, I was the one doing the packing. To keep focused on something other than my sadness, I took my time, making sure to include everything he might want or need: a photo book of our family, clothes for now and later, bath toys, favorite stories, the stuffed pig he slept with every night. The final item I packed was his toothbrush. As I slid the plastic baggie into the front of his suitcase, the tears began to fall. They haven’t stopped.

HBE’s other toothbrush is still in the kids’ toothbrush cup in our bathroom. That one I saved, in case he ever returned for a visit. We haven’t laid eyes on him or heard his voice since he left our care 460 days ago. But the toothbrush is still here. It is the evidence that we care.

toothbrush

 

 

Moving beyond the margins, part II

Recently, a dear friend of mine moved from Seattle to a small city in the desert southwest. It wasn’t exactly a voluntary exit (a casualty of the rising cost of living in our shared hometown), but the destination, selected precisely for its “different-ness” from the sparkling, blue and green beauty she was leaving behind, was a welcome new adventure.

Shortly after my friend and her husband settled into their new home, a series of unexpected circumstances conspired to leave them without a car. Their lives almost completely fell apart. Bus service in their new city is hourly on most routes—and essentially nonexistent after 7 PM. Sidewalks are limited. Crossings are inconvenient, dangerous, or both.

My friend and her hubby both have jobs. (Hubby works shifts outside of business hours, so no bus commuting for him. ) They also have many pets and so must haul giant bags of food and litter on the regular. And, of course, they must manage all of life’s other errands, obligations, and appointments. Without a car, their lives became consumed with figuring out how they were going to get where they needed to go. It was difficult and stressful and time consuming and not at all workable for the long term. So, they did what they had to do to return to the ranks of vehicle-owning Americans.

Talking to my friend about her struggles getting around reminded me of some similar struggles in my own past. As I’ve mentioned, I couldn’t afford a car for most of the time I lived in Houston. Back then, I wasn’t proudly “car-free”; I was broke and desperate for reliable transportation.

Sidewalks are not a given in our nation’s fourth largest city, and walking is often isolating and risky. Almost every time I left my apartment, I was forced to walk through parking lots and in drainage ditches and an on the edges of roads. (As a bonus, I also regularly experienced street harassment.*)

Houston is huge – 628 square miles, to be exact – with no real center of commerce, so traveling by bus would have been difficult even on the best-run transit system. And back then (ahem), Houston did not have the best-run transit system.** Poor frequency, awful transfers, and some drivers’ tendency to blow past stops to avoid missing green lights (OK, maybe it was just that one driver) made it very hard to arrive anywhere on time. I was fired from one of my many college jobs for chronic lateness.

When I started teaching and could finally afford it, I bought a reliable used car. A few years later, I bought a reliable new car. I was so happy and proud and excited and empowered on the day I drove that car off the lot, I could not have imagined that, only a few years later, I would hand over my keys and never look back.

I have not owned a car in almost 14 years. To this day, I think of my decision to live carfree as one of the best I have ever made. It has changed my life in innumerable positive and beautiful ways. This does not mean that my choice has been painless or without challenges, but most of the time, and certainly on balance, it’s pretty darn good. I would argue, however, that a significant percentage – dare I say a majority? — of people who don’t own cars do not feel enriched by their circumstances. Instead they feel helpless, disconnected, and vulnerable.

So what makes the difference between being happily carfree and desperately carless? Certainly, a lot depends on where you live. In Manhattan, living without a car is easy. In Yakima, not so much. But in Seattle, or Pittsburgh, or Houston, or St, Louis, it can go either way. The most important determining factors are a person’s neighborhood and life circumstances. Shift work, kids and errands, sprawling communities, poor transit, mobility struggles, and high crime rates increase the challenges to living without a car.

It is in these “in-between” places where we have the greatest opportunity to improve people’s lives  — the most low-hanging fruit, as it were. In these places, we need to design our transportation systems to accommodate the shift workers, the errand runners, the physically challenged, and the vulnerable. This means frequent, reliable, affordable (preferably free) public transit, all day, every day. It means safe, comfortable transit stops and convenient transfer points. It means sidewalks in every neighborhood. It means protected bike infrastructure. It means accessible everything.

Of course, these improvements will benefit everyone, as they should. Living without a car, whether voluntary or not, should be as painless as possible, for as many people as possible. It is the only way we will build more equitable communities, or reduce car ownership, or lower the cost of living in increasingly expensive cities.

All we are missing is the will.

Mother and son walking to preschool in Kent, WA (Photo credit: KUOW)

Mother and son walking to preschool in Kent, WA (Photo credit: KUOW)

***

* To be clear, this happens on pedestrian-friendly streets, too. In fact, the more dudes there are walking on a street, the more likely one is to experience harassment.

** Since I moved back to Seattle in 1998, they’ve added light rail and completely revamped the bus system, so I really can’t speak to what it’s like now. Hey, if it’s good enough for Janis Scott