Tag Archives: carfree

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

 

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.

Multimodal Monday: Greenway riders

Until recently, I’ve have a complicated relationship with neighborhood greenways. Though I have always been supportive of the concept of making streets safer (and more comfortable) for cyclists and pedestrians, I’ve also been skeptical that minor changes to neighborhood streets* would make much of a difference.

Then they added a greenway to our neighborhood. OK, I haven’t actually ridden on it yet, but I have walked behind my budding bicyclists on a number of excursions. Folks, I’m a believer.

Riding on the greenway

Safe, marked, crossings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PLUS…

Greenway (7)

speed control (with speed humps and traffic circles)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PLUS…

Stop signs at intersections

stop signs at intersections,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EQUALS…

Greenway (5)

happy riders!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our neighborhood greenway just happens to provide an almost door-to-door connection between our home and our church, so we will be using it fairly regularly.

The little people still ride on the sidewalk (and will for the foreseeable future), but the changes still made a huge difference in their safety and comfort. One example: At all the intersections where there are four-way stops, we allow them to ride across the street instead of getting off their bikes and walking, which increases the fun factor and decreases the tedium by a lot.

When they are old enough, I would absolutely feel comfortable letting them ride in the street. And if I ever make good on my promise to get a real** bike, I will use the greenway (no, really) for kid-free neighborhood trips. While walking will always be my preferred mode of transportation, sometimes you just need to get there already.

***
*As opposed to building more sidewalks and adding protected bike lanes to major streets

**The one I have now is a folding bike I won at a transportation fair in 2007. I have ridden it less than a dozen times.

Car-free “vacation”: Yakima

This summer, I was invited to a statewide public transportation conference in Yakima, hosted, oddly enough, by WSDOT. Since my participation was limited to one panel discussion, and since the Bus Fam almost never has an occasion to visit the south-central part of our state, I decided to bring the entire crew along for a mini vacation.

I learned from Ryan, the facilitator of my panel, that there is an airporter from Seattle to Yakima—incidentally, run by the same company that operates the bus we took to Anacortes in 2007. Upon further investigation, I learned that the Yakima airporter has a stop downtown–at the Washington State Convention Center–and one at the Yakima Convention Center/Red Lion, where the conference was being held.

So, early in the morning Sunday before last, we packed our bags and hopped the 27 downtown. We made it to the Convention Center in time for a pit stop, which is a good thing, because, as I learned when making our reservation, the Yakima airporter does not have restrooms on board.

The ride was quick and reasonably comfortable, other than a slightly overzealous air conditioner. The shuttle made four stops between convention centers–Seatac, North Bend, Ellensburg, and Cle Elum–and the trip took roughly four hours, including the wait at the airport for everyone’s baggage and a group pit stop in Cle Elum.

Our adventures in Yakima turned out not to be very adventurous. The Yakima Red Lion is pretty near the center of town, but there wasn’t much—other than hotels and fast food restaurants—in the immediate vicinity. The weather was a bit warm for wandering, and, since we were there on Sunday and Monday (and only a small part of Tuesday), there wasn’t a whole lot to wander to.

Yakima does have transit service: 11 routes, all of which stop running before 7 PM, and many of which offer hourly service for most of the day. But, it was hard to find the stops; there were exactly zero on the main drag through town. Also, the schedules and maps were confusing for us, since we don’t know the city, and they were definitely optimized for folks who know where they’re going. After several attempts, I did manage to ride the 6 to the visitor’s center, but that was the extent of my Yakima busing.

The stop where I caught the 6:
Waiting for the 6

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chicklet and Busling approved of the transfer color.
Pink transfer!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the drawbacks of traveling to a predominantly rural area without a car is that many of the places you’d want to visit are not accessible by transit. I would have loved to visit the Yakama Nation Cultural Heritage Center, but it was 20 miles away in Toppenish. Google claims that it is possible to get there using transit (if you’re willing to walk two miles), but the service is very limited—running only once (?) per day and taking over an hour each way—and was not feasible for a Monday afternoon, post panel.

In general, being in a place that essentially requires a car for mobility reminded me of how marginalizing it can be to try to get around without one. When I was in college (and for a few years after), I lived in Houston. For most of that time, I could not afford a car. Bus service in Houston was terrible, and a significant part of the city had no sidewalks at all. I regularly found myself walking in ditches, stranded for long periods, and generally unable to carry out my life. Being back in Seattle, in a neighborhood with sidewalks and passable transit, I had forgotten what it feels like to experience that level of vulnerability and stress just trying to get around. This trip was a good reminder of what life is like for so many people who don’t have the means or ability to drive a car. It was also a depressing foretaste of what life will be like in my own world in just a few months.

I digress.

We did manage to have some fun on our short trip. For one thing, the scenery was beautiful. (You’ll have to trust me, since my phone photos don’t do it justice.) And exploring the city on foot, even in the heat, was fascinating.

Proof that there’s one in every city:
MLK Blvd in Yakima

 

 

 

 

 

At the restaurant where we had dinner on Monday, I spotted a woman I recognized from the 27. (!) She was with a large group, so I was too shy to say hello. But Bus Nerd, ever the extrovert, marched over and introduced himself. Turns out, she’s also a hardcore bus chick and was also in town for the conference. So, now I have a new friend in my neighborhood. (He-ey Theresa!)

The best part of Yakima, by Chicklet and Busling’s standards, was the hotel pool. Let them tell it, the best part of every trip we’ve taken–ever–has been the pool. This, despite the fact that they’re not big on actual swimming.

Again, I digress.

We headed back to Seattle Tuesday morning, shortly after breakfast.

Bye, Yakima!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Father/son bus bonding:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The return trip was slightly shorter than the trip there, since the airport passengers were being dropped off, and we didn’t have to for wait anyone’s luggage. It’s a good thing. Thanks to a barely missed 27 and an excruciatingly slow 3 ride, the trip from the Convention Center to our house took an hour, door to door.

Yes, our two-mile trip within Seattle took more than a quarter the amount of time of our 150-mile journey back from Yakima.

Welcome to my future.

Fully embracing the role

After 11 years without a car, I have made a purchase that will enhance my bus cred by an order of magnitude–at least. For bus chicks of a certain generation (OGs—OB’s?—like my grandma), it is the most basic tool for shopping, one you wouldn’t think of living without.

I, on the other hand, have made do with backpacks, stroller compartments, biweekly produce delivery, and a lot of schlepping. I have carried so many heavy bags over the years that I am certain to develop some kind of condition in the future.

I digress.

I passed this beauty on my walk home from work every day for weeks. Eventually, its call was too strong for me to resist. Fellow bus chicks, behold.

new shopping cart

I have a new cart!

new shopping cart

And it transforms!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course what got me was the seat. (A built-in bus bench? Yes, please!). But, as it turns out, the seat is actually the part I don’t like about it. It’s rare that I use the bus to shop for groceries (I stick to the store within walking distance), so I don’t get to use it much. And, when I tilt the cart to pull it, the seat comes loose and drags on the sidewalk. (Looks like I’ll be “securing” it with duct tape until I can find a suitable Velcro strap.)

On the other hand…

new shopping cart

Transporting Father’s Day pie to Paw Paw

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The world is new.

10 years in

This month marks the 10-year anniversary of my full-time relationship with Metro. The milestone snuck up on me, which is actually a good thing, since I’m not in the mood for a retrospective, and I don’t have any wise words about what I’ve learned in a decade of living, working, and parenting without a car. Honestly (in case the five full months without a post didn’t clue you in) I haven’t felt much like writing about the bus at all.

What’s on my mind most of the time is how our family is going to continue to make this bus life work. We’ve lost a lot that we counted on: two of our nearest bus stops, frequency and hours of operation on two of our most-used routes. If the legislature decides–for the fifth year in a row–not to let local communities decide how to fund their own transit service, we stand to lose much, much more.

And we’re not the only ones. All over the state, people are losing transit service they rely on, while we profess a desire to care for our most vulnerable citizens and wring our hands over global warming, air pollution, and ocean acidification. The fact that transit advocates have to scrap and hustle (and beg) just to get enough money to preserve basic bus service leaves little hope that we will ever find the will to make the long overdue, revolutionary changes our transportation system desperately needs.

So the thing is, I’ve been tired–of trying to make things work with diminished access and diminished service, and of fighting an uphill battle to fund transit statewide. I allowed myself to feel discouraged. And really, really angry.

But then, I had coffee with Christine.

Like me, Christine is a bus chick. Unlike me (knock wood), Christine is expecting. Earlier this year, she contacted me over the internets to pick my brain about busing with babies, and I was more than happy to share what I know. I suggested meeting for coffee, because I knew she’d never read the 300 pages I would have typed if I had shared my thoughts over email. I don’t like to brag, but if there was such a thing as a PhD in riding transit with kids, folks would be addressing me as Dr. Bus Chick.

But I digress.

At some point during our conversation, Christine remarked on the relative dearth of negative posts on my seven-year old blog and noted that I almost never write about the challenges of bus parenting. I do intentionally try to keep my blog positive, but until my chat with her, I hadn’t really considered why.

It’s not that there aren’t challenges (are there ever!). It’s not that I am trying to paint an unrealistic picture of what it is like to parent without a car. It’s not even that I have an optimistic nature (see above). I tend to write about the positive side of carfree parenting because the challenges of living this way are already known—or at least, they are imagined.

There is a reason why so many people think I’m crazy. Why I’ve been interviewed for TV and radio for doing something that thousands of parents in this county do every single day. Why, after a decade of watching us live this way, friends and family still regularly offer us rides. It is because most people who have a choice would choose differently. This means they have already considered, imagined, and just plain made up all of the reasons why it would be stressful and inconvenient to try to get around with two kids and no car.

What most people haven’t considered is just how exhilarating, bond-enhancing, and three-dimensional it is to ride the bus with your children. How your kids get to experience their city from ground level. How they come to know each season intimately. How they run into church members, neighbors, school mates, family friends, and medical assistants from their pediatrician’s office. How so many of the regular drivers recognize them and give them suckers and transfers and high fives. How they learn every sidewalk crack, every overgrown bush, and every window display in your neighborhood. How they love the silly games you make up to pass the long waits. How you have time to read them so many books that soon they are reading books to you. How you can hold them close and talk in their ears and smell their hair while all of you zoom past the Space Needle, or across a bridge, or through a tunnel.

That is what I write about because that is what I know. It is why I ride. And it’s why I never stay tired for long.

 

Trade ya!

Remember that bus scroll Bus Nerd and I bought last fall? Well, it was pretty big, In fact, it was close to as tall as me and possibly as heavy (OK, not quite), and the place we wanted to hang it was kind of tricky to reach. Plus, we’re lazy and busy working and parenting two small people and have just barely, after over a year and a half, gotten around to hanging the pictures we moved to this place with. So, the cool bus scroll sat on the floor of our bedroom for months upon months, forcing us to expose visitors to the chaos of our personal space in order to show it off.

Fortunately, our neighbor, Mark, happens to be down with some cool, museum worker types who actually hang pictures for a living. He hooked us up, and the lovely lady and gentleman came over and helped us put it up. The scroll looks great, but, despite all evidence to the contrary, that’s not what this post is about.

This post is about a man named Josh, one of the cool people who helped us hang our picture. Josh is a self-described “transit and history buff,” and he really liked our scroll. Josh doesn’t own a car, and the story of how he came to be without one is one of the best I have ever heard.

In addition to being a picture-hanging expert, Josh is also an artist and therefore tends to spend time in the company of other artists. One of these other artists is a very talented portraitist. Josh really wanted this person to paint a portrait of his elderly grandfather, but (being an artist) he didn’t have the money to pay for it. What Josh did have was a car that he rarely used; living on First Hill, he rarely needed it. So, he offered an exchange. The talented portraitist got some (not-so) new wheels, and our history buff got an enduring reminder of a man who has had an immeasurable impact on his life.

I think we know who got the better end of that deal.

Gen Y and PT

From MSNBC, via my neighbor, Casey (and Bus Nerd):

Meet Natalie McVeigh, the auto industry’s latest headache.

At 25 years old, McVeigh lives in Denver and has two good jobs, as a research analyst and an adjunct professor of philosophy. What she doesn’t have — or want — is a car.

A confluence of events — environmental worries, a preference for gadgets over wheels and the yearslong economic doldrums — is pushing some teens and twentysomethings to opt out of what has traditionally been considered an American rite of passage: Owning a car.

Read the rest…

Guess that mad man wasn’t so mad after all.