On cars and community

My love of the bus has always had its roots in a deep craving for community. I have written extensively (here and here and here and here and here, for starters) about how my family’s bus-based life has enriched our sense of community and our connection to our city and neighborhood.

And it’s not just about sharing the ride. Living without a car has forced us to participate in our neighborhood in a way we never would have if zipping* all over the region was as easy as jumping in the car. Out of necessity, we play at local parks, attend the local school, shop for groceries at the local store, and get our check-ups at the local clinic. (Our church is the outlier at exactly one mile from home.) We frequent the library, community center, and city pool. And, we regularly socialize with our neighbors. Instead of spending our energy searching for something “perfect,” we focus on enjoying — and occasionally, improving — what is available. This way of living has added a richness and sense of belonging to our lives that is nothing less than magical.

But for all its community-building benefits, our carfree life also has a disconnecting influence. We have a network of family and close friends that spans the entire region, and we don’t see them nearly as much as we’d like to. Traveling long distances by bus is fine for adventures, but it’s not something you “fit in” to your day; it is the day. Almost as soon as you arrive at your destination, you’re figuring out how you’re going to get back.

So, we rarely eat Sunday dinner with my youngest brother and his family in Tacoma, or spend a spontaneous afternoon with close friends in Renton or Kirkland. We skip most birthday parties that are held at transit-inaccessible venues — in other words, most birthday parties**. We leave evening gatherings earlier than everyone else, because waiting for a transfer with two small people after dark is not my idea of a good time.

It is very important to us  to be connected to the Black community– both for our own social well-being and to foster a strong sense of identity in our children. While we are definitely connected to Black folks through family, church, and neighborhood friendships, we don’t participate in some of the organizations and institutions — specifically, those aimed at connecting Black families — we would otherwise be a part of. With Seattle’s small Black community now so dispersed — “automobility” is essentially a requirement.

Of course we know about (and occasionally use) carsharing, but, with car seats to schlep and no cars nearby, it’s not especially convenient or desirable for us. More than anything, the need to use a car regularly to feel connected reinforces how integral cars are to the way we practice community in the United States in 2015.

I don’t see a path to changing the way of life in this country so radically that cars (or for that matter, airplanes) are no longer necessary for maintaining relationships. Our culture is too mobile and often more focused on opportunity than community. But certainly, we can all work to build connections with the people we share our neighborhoods with. We can think of the places we choose to live as more than just access points to all the other places we want to go. Rather, we can think of them as the places where we build our lives.

As the late activist (and Bus Chick shero) Grace Lee Boggs said, one of “the most radical things [we can do] is stay put.”

* I should note that traveling around this region by car involves very little zipping—hello traffic!—but you get the point.
** Having a few friends over for cake (ahem) apparently does not cut it anymore.