I’ve been marking days off the calendar with a black X, like a prisoner might in a jail cell. Only I’m not counting down a sentence, I’m celebrating days of liberation. Liberation from the alarming gas pump, from town traffic, from sedentary, bad-posture travel. X marks the days I don’t drive at all. Days I never turn the car key in the ignition.
It hasn’t been easy. I have three school-age kids. All of them play soccer, on different teams. Even though we live in town, in striking distance of most things we need, it’s always something. Someone needs a ride to the bus stop because the class project is too bulky to carry. Or it’s our turn to do carpool duty for soccer practice. Or it’s the grocery-shopping day or the weather is terrible. Or somebody just has to get to a friend’s house, right now.
At this point, I’m averaging about one X-day a week.
On those days I ride my bike to the bank, walk to the post office, pick up the daily grocery needs at the store around the corner. If I have to get to the university, I hop on the new mass-transit bus system. The kids make their ways to school on buses or long-boards or bikes. Marypat rides her three-speed bike to work and on her errands, the one with shimmery, pink streamers hanging from the handlebars and baskets on the back. I work at home.
The library is close by. Main Street is two blocks away. For exercise and dog walks, we use the town trail system, which we can access within a couple of blocks. I can get an hour-long mountain bike ride, or any number of road bike workouts, or a good long walk without vehicle support.
The interesting thing is that it doesn’t feel even slightly like hardship. What feels like hardship is when I’m about to claim the satisfaction of an X day and something comes along that I can’t get past without firing up the car. Now that’s annoying.
It also doesn’t feel like hardship because there are a surprising number of side benefits to going car-less. There’s the exercise, for one thing. Walking and riding around town adds to or even negates the need for my exercise regimen. Who needs the club membership, not to mention the drive to get there?
Then there’s the head-space factor. I do some of my best writing as I’m walking or riding a bike. It isn’t uncommon for me to throw the bike down in the garage and sprint to my desk to get down the good story opening before I lose it. Even if I’m not making writing breakthroughs, the rumination time that is part of moderate exercise is as good as 20 minutes of meditation.
Leaving the car behind also tends to enhance my level of community schmoozing. I actually encounter and interact with people. I meet a city commissioner at a stoplight and bring up the neighborhood concern that’s been on my mind. I stand in front of the post office and visit with an acquaintance I haven’t seen in years, even though we live in the same town. We’ve probably passed each other in cars dozens of times, but what’s that worth?
I’d like to claim that it’s all about living lightly on the planet, shrinking my carbon footprint, a pure strike against climate change. There’s a smidgen of that, I guess, but I’m basically as selfish as the next guy. When it comes down to it, I can’t stand dropping $50 on a tank of gas, especially considering that I drive a Honda!
So today’s a new day with the mirage of a big black X hanging out there on the horizon. I know it’ll be a struggle, but Ruby has a carpool ride to her out-of-town soccer games. Marypat just took off on her bike for a round of garage sales, I’m thinking of a road bike loop south of town, and Eli has plans to go to a dance, but I’m already marshalling the arguments for why he should walk to it.
I’m shooting for two Xs a week, maybe even three.
Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and pedals in Bozeman.