This weekend, as we mentioned in Morning Fizz yesterday, I'll be moderating a panel at the Climate Neutral Seattle Unconference about the challenges and opportunities involved with living car-free in Seattle. Which seemed like a perfect opportunity to answer a question I'm asked fairly frequently (usually by relatives in more car-dependent cities like Houston, but fairly regularly by folks who live here): Why would you live car-free in Seattle?
For me, the decision to get rid of my car came slowly, with a series of incremental changes that eventually made it clear I was better off without a car than with one. The first sign came when I kept getting tickets—not because I was driving poorly, but because I wasn't driving enough—city law requires you to move your car every 72 hours, ostensibly to prevent people from ditching junkers on the street. I could have made a point of moving my car every three days (at this point, I was driving, at most, once a week), but parking in my neighborhood was a nightmare, and frankly, after a while I just started to kind of forget I owned a car.
What finally convinced me to take the plunge, though, wasn't the cost of owning a car, but the fact that I saw so many other people, with lifestyles far more complicated than mine, who had chosen to live car-free. Look, for example, at the Sightline' Institute's Alan Durning, who has three kids and managed to go carless, a decision he documented in detail on Sightline's blog. Hell, my boyfriend at the time, whose commute was much longer than my 10-minute walk, had stopped driving himself after his ancient Volvo finally bit the dust. So what the hell was my excuse? Another major factor was the fact that I presented myself, very publicly, as an environmentalist, and what kind of environmentalist drives a car (albeit a 15-year-old Honda) in a region where cars produce more than half of greenhouse gases?
So, since mid-2003, mine has been one of those Seattle households without a car. I commute to work by light rail, bike, or bus; run errands on transit; and walk everywhere else. When it literally isn't possible to get where I'm going by transit (if you know of a way to get to Mount Vernon by transit, with bikes, on a Sunday, let me know, because I spent half the morning trying to figure that one out), I use a Zipcar—usually, that happens about five times a year.
After nearly seven years living car-free, I've had a good long while to think about the challenges and benefits of going carless. Since the challenges are obvious—juggling plans with friends and significant others (I don't have kids, and I totally understand why people who do decide they need a car), waiting for buses in the rain, stinky/loud/obnoxious people, the need to plan around the schedule—I'd like to focus on the benefits. Here are mine:
• Riding the bus or train gives me time to do stuff I couldn't do in a car—going through my RSS feed in the morning, reading the newspaper, checking out my Twitter feed. Even though it would take me less time to drive (at least, on mornings when Rainier Ave. isn't a parking lot), I gain that time back while other folks are sitting in traffic, their eyes (hopefully) focused on the road.