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Une Voiture / aka “save gas, pedal your ass”

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Scenes from Firenze, Italy

We are about to attempt a grand experiment. We are selling one of our cars, “my” car, and becoming a one-car family. It’s absurd to think of this as a big deal or as an experiment and yet, here we are. Living in the suburbs of America, of Seattle, it is sort of an experiment—especially given that you’d probably have a hard time finding any other homes in our suburb with just one car. (Clarification: A two adult home with one car.) You’d have an easier time finding homes with more than two cars, of which there are several on just our street alone. Having two or more cars is the American way, after all.

I’ve always had my own car. Having grown up in rural Pennsylvania, cars were necessary. There were no public buses making the rounds through our roads lined with cornfields. Even if you wanted to take a bus or train to “the city” (such as New York or Philadelphia), you needed to drive to one of two places where Bieber Bus Lines picked people up. I suppose you could have ridden a bike, but those roads weren’t meant for biking.

(By the way, the state of Pennsylvania is infamous for it’s horrific road maintenance. Back in the eighties and nineties, it was rated as having the worst roads in the nation because, apparently, state officials were pocketing the money that should have gone towards road maintenance. Growing up, I busted more tires than I can count on pot holes. Everyone did. And last I checked, PA roads are still a mess.)

In my early twenties, I moved from rural Pennsylvania to Philly for a tech job, which also allowed me to buy a new car. When I moved to Prague from Philadelphia, I sold my beloved five-speed, hunter green VW Golf. That was my first “new car,” and it was a point of pride that I had a good job and could make payments on a brand new car, even if a Dutch friend told me that the Golf is “a secretary’s car.” 

Street Car, Pioneer Square

When I came back from Prague, I used an old car of my parents’ until I moved to Los Angeles, where I then used my husband’s old BMW. (He had moved to England for a couple of years and didn’t want to give the car up, so he put it in storage during that time.) Upon returning to the States, he bought a new car and gave me the old Beemer until it broke down on me in the middle of LA and left me stranded, several months pregnant. Then we got a “family friendly” Nissan Versa until my OCD broke the clutch (true story—I’ll tell it later and yes, I never drive anything but stick shift). From LA we moved to Seattle, and I declared that I wanted a larger vehicle, because of our giant, hairy German Shepherd; I had fantasies of road trips in the mountains – which we did actually do a few times, including a road trip to Montana. But in the past few years, we’ve been relying on public transport more and more. I took the bus to UW for three years and, since Husband started a job across the bridge in Seattle proper, he’s been biking to work. He’s become quite the hard-core biker these last few years, even tackling the infamous “STP” (Seattle to Portland) which, though it sounds like my version of hell, he loved it. So sometime last year I said to him, “When I’m finished at UW, what about trying to go down to one car?” With our lifestyle, it seems ridiculous to have two vehicles. Since living abroad, I’ve hated the idea of cars; They’re an incredible drain on finances, for starters. Though the hottest days of Summer and rainy Winters weren’t always the most pleasant on trams and underground on the metro, I still very much miss my commutes throughout Prague. Tram and Metro time was prime reading and music time. Logistically speaking, there will be some shuffling around and planning required. It’s all well and good to think about this in the Spring and Summer, during good biking weather. However, Winters have been getting uglier and uglier around Seattle. We don’t oftenget snow and icy roads, but the rain has been pretty brutal the last two years.  This means that there may be some mornings where Husband will need rides to and from the bus stop, which could be a hassle. I tend to look at it as an opportunity – in all the reading I’ve done about one car families, almost all of them mention “closeness” as a major factor. Meaning that all of the communicating around schedules, the time spent shuffling to and from bus stops, and all those minutes before and after work have actually increased those families’ feelings of closeness and bonding. For me, now that I’m done school and work from home, I also see that as a chance to make sure that I get my ass moving in the morning! I LOVE walking. Living in the ‘burbs has made it far too easy to lean on a car, to lean on convenience, to not spend time walking from one place to another, and, let’s face it… I used to go out in all sorts of weather, but now if I see the slightest bit of drizzle, I put off anything I need to do and stay inside. As they say in Finland, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. (Or maybe it’s Norway. Or both. Probably Sweden, as well!) Having a car again, while living in the ‘burbs has made me soft. When I spent the month in Berlin for a study abroad program last Summer, every morning I woke up looking forward to the walking. There was so much walking… and I realized just how soft I’d gotten as I bared the ninety-degree heatwave on the stuffy, cramped U-Bahn and S-Bahn. During that study abroad program, most of the other kids in the program always hopped the metro, because it was faster and easier. (I can say “kids,” by the way, because I was the oldest one there—quite literally old enough to be their mother! And I had an amazing time.) But I, and another of my peers, always chose to walk the couple miles to where we needed to be, instead of riding the Bahns. Not because I wanted to avoid the heat and cramped quarters on the Bahns, but because I loved walking the city. I loved that it was utility and not novelty. I’m sure I logged a minimum of fifteen of more cumulative miles most days.  I’m a tried a true flâneuse, and there is no greater way to learn and become part of a city than by fuß. Lastly, towards the end of our stay we got caught in a flash flood while visiting Sachenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg. This was, by far, one of the most memorable stories I have to tell of my time in Berlin. It certainly deserves its own post. The irony of our complaints about the rain and getting caught in a flash flood during a visit to a concentration camp was not lost on any of us. It was a good lesson and a wake-up call, and I do not mind walking in the rain one bit anymore. (Though I do love to reference “that time we got caught in a flash flood in Berlin”… )

Tramvaj in Prague

Our son is away visiting Grandmom this month, so Husband and I have been out and about quite a bit in Seattle proper. We’ve had several days of hopping the bus all over town, and we spent a significant amount of time walking from place to place. It was glorious, even on the unusually hot days, of which my hatred is well documented. I’m hoping that going down to one car will keep this effort at the forefront of our minds. Last year, at a symposium about sustainable cities, one speaker had said that convincing adults to recycle diligently, choose eco-friendly options, and use public transportation is hard, and we need to be working on the kids. One person commented on how his son would come home from school preaching about and enforcing their family’s use of water and their recycling habits. This stuck with me. Our son loves to ride the bus, he even has his own ORCA card. I’m working to make it a normal thing, to erase his memories of the convenience of using a car so that he doesn’t say what we’ve often said, “It’ll be quicker to just take the car.” I don’t want “quick and easy,” I want him to learn to take his time, to map cities with his feet and his eyes. He is un petit flâneur in the making.

As for my Husband, I can see how much he enjoys the biking. Unlike me, who has the extraordinary luxury of not being trapped in an office all day, he is trapped in an office. Albeit an office in the city with an amazing view, but an office all the same. The daily bike rides are good for him, and I’m thrilled that he’s preparing to brave the commute by bike during the Winter, as often as he can. I think that he, like me, is wanting to “toughen up” in this complacent suburban life of convenience. 

Biking in Berlin, Tempelhofer Field

All of this may sound completely ridiculous to those who live within “the city” and who don’t have cars or to my European friends… and I acknowledge that it is. But for as many to whom this sounds ridiculous, there are more fellow suburbanites with families and two cars who think that what’s ridiculous is the notion of everyone in the house depending on *gasp* one car… I’m tired of being in the latter group. I miss my days in the former. I remember my days without any car at all, and I realize how living in the ‘burbs has dulled my experience and made me reach for convenience at every turn. Having been on both sides of that fence, I far prefer going without.

** I acknowledge and am aware this is very much a “first world problem.” We’re fortunate that having two cars was an option. We are fortunate that choosing to go down to one car is an option, as well.

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