Archive for February 18th, 2009

Can I Lose My Car Without Losing My Home?

Sharon February 18th, 2009

I grew up without a car – or partly.  My parents had joint custody, and except for one brief foray into a scary police auction car that barely made it home and then sat in the driveway, my father never owned a car.  We lived in various small cities and suburbs of Boston, my father worked in inner-city Boston for a while, and then an outer suburb, and my father, being essentially an urban person, took us to the city (or anywhere anything interesting was going on) nearly every weekend for museums, puppet shows, cultural events.  The fact that we lived in the ‘burbs and had no car not only didn’t matter – it gave us a sense of confidence.

By the time I was 12, I was taking the trains and buses into Boston and Cambridge to meet my Dad.  By 14, while my peers were still begging their parents to go to the mall, I was spending much of my time roaming the city.  I never understood why most of my friends had such a parochial view of our town – of course, there was nothing to do here, but a couple of bucks and hop on a bus and you could be somewhere else.  But, of course, the buses and trains were mysterious to them.

At 16, I could technically have learned to drive, but my mother’s clearly expressed disinclination to share her car with any of her children and the fact that I could already get where I wanted to go meant that, well, I never did.  I could travel my whole world – even when my friends moved out to the suburbs, I could navigate just about anywhere on a combination of commuter rail, buses, subways and the occasional negotiated ride from a friend.  Why bother with a car?

And so, when, at nearly 29, I moved out to the countryside, I found myself laboriously, painfully learning to drive.  I hated it.  I still hate to drive.  I did not learn when I was young and secure in my own immunity to death, and so the idea of large metal boxes hurtling at each other at high speeds just seems like a bad idea to me.  Fortunately, my husband is a good and willing driver, and I don’t have to drive too often.  But I have always viewed the car as the price I have to pay to live in the country – and at times, I’ve wondered if it was too high a price.

We’ve done everything we can to minimize our use of the internal combustion engine.  First, there’s the Riot for Austerity, that limits our gas consumption inherently.  We have to weigh “is it worth it to take this trip, to do this activity” each time we do it.  We’ve also tried hard to resist two car status – for a while, when a neighbor was also an at-home, our two families shared three cars – we bartered for use of their car one day a week.  Our kids carpooled with theirs for many activities.  And for the last year or so, we’ve had one small car for the household – challenging with three kids in booster or car seats, but doable.  The sheer unpleasantness of being crammed into the middle bench seat, my knees against the radio, mean that we’re not much tempted to take the car on long extraneous journeys.  Given that I find travel in cars inherently unpleasant, slightly upping the ante is no great hardship.

It isn’t always easy – we barter for the use of a truck occasionally with a friend to haul hay. Stock ups at the grocery store are limited by what we can cram in around our feet as well as in the trunk, and when it was time to take the chickens to the butcher, unpapering the back seat was a less than totally pleasant task.  Everyone says “you need a truck.”  But we don’t want one.

And it has its pleasures – cuddling in together in winter, and we amuse ourselves with the site of the stunned gas station attendant who glanced into the car window and saw three vigorously waving little boys in car seats, my husband, pretending to be blase, and a goat curled up on the front seat and looking at him curiously.

Still, the holy grail lurks in front of us.  Could we ever give up the car entirely?  The thing about the party game of “how low can you go” is that you can’t stop wondering if there’s another step down.

So far the only plan I’ve come up with involves a whole lot of money that we don’t particularly have.  Because our oldest son is autistic and not bike-safe, and the others are not yet good enough to ride distances on our very steep and hilly roads, Eric and I would probably need bicycle rickshaws or bakefiets bikes as primary transport. Two of these, or one double rickshaw falls solidly into the category of “not cheap.” And given the realities of our geography (we’re not called “The Hilltowns” for nothing) we’d probably want some kind of electric assist if we’re really going to haul our four kids plus groceries and garden supplies up from the valley.  And Eric’s commute to SUNY would require a moped or e-bike or something to cover the 17 miles each way in ways that wouldn’t cut too badly into our family time.  He can and has biked it, but it is a bit long for him to do consistently – mostly for reasons of time.  He can carpool some of the time – but not all of it.  There’s actually a rural bus that runs through town daily – but it is extremely expensive and leaves our area many hours before he has to leave – both of us would regret the lost family time, which is so precious to us anyway.  But maybe we could manage it.

For longer trips, we’d take trains, but how to get to the train station?  We can get to family in NYC and Boston easily enough that way, but there are literally no taxis out here – it is almost impossible to get to and from transportation hubs.  I’ve imposed occasionally on my neighbors, but few have vehicles big enough to transport the six of us, plus a driver.  We can and do barter for things like this, but how much imposition are we willing to make?

And then there’s religious life.  We could probably make the trip to synagogue on our bikes much of the year – although it does involve some busy roads.  But what about religious school?  That would involve, even in good weather, long trips back in the evenings, in dark on busy high traffic roads with exhausted kids and probably quite tired parents.  Somehow we quail at the thought.  We could homeschool for afternoon religious school – but that would take our kids out of their peers’ lives in one more way.  Or perhaps we should put our backs behind the efforts to open a rural shul in a town not much closer, but with back routes that involve almost no traffic. 

We could park the car *most* of the time.  The problem then is that we’re still paying upkeep and fees, money we couldn’t invest in bikes and equipment.  And then we’d still have it, and I know myself well enough to know that I’d be tempted to…just this once…

We could move, of course, to walkable areas, assuming we could sell the house.  But my husband’s job is here, and our community.  I’ve thought about it – almost all of my family is now located in one small area of coastal Massachusetts, and I could go back to navigating the trains with the boys in tow.  I’m sure there’d be Jewish life and we have tons of community and old friends there – I miss them a lot.  But even if we could sell the house, we’d lose the farm, and we’d struggle to buy anything other than a tiny suburban or urban lot on the North Shore of Massachusetts.  No goats, no farm…no thanks.  I’m not ready to give it up.  Moreover, I think the narrative that we should all live in walkable, dense communities ignores the fact that we need people who don’t to grow our food.

So the question emerges – how far can we go on the car front?  Is it better to simply try and whittle down, step by step, each dependency, but keep the car for the things we value most, or is it worth it to throw down the gauntlet, and try to really live a car free life in a rural place?  Would the hardships and inconveniences be unbearable or freeing?  The problem is that the investment is a major commitment, and we won’t know until the day when it is drizzly and cold, and I still get out the bike and pile the kids in for the 6 mile trip to the farmstand.

I don’t know if we’ll get there, but I do think about it.