It comes as no surprise to me that now that summer’s over, the reality of how to survive on one car in our active family of 4 is now not quite as rosy as it was over the last few, incredibly dry, school free, summer months. Thinking about what to do next raises so many issues, I hardly know where to start. As with so many things in life, in the end it comes down to logistics, priorities, and how hard we are willing to work to make this thing happen.
Let’s start with logistics. In the spring when we started, a close friend of ours was driving daily by the T stop that would drop my husband near the door of his office, so if I felt I needed the car for the day, help was just a phone call away. In a way, it almost felt like cheating because I wasn’t really living without the car at my end, just needed to plan for it. No real hardship there – just a need for foresight, queuing up errands more efficiently and being aware of my schedule and my husband’s, which weirdly has made us generally more aware of each other’s lives which has its good points too. Sadly (more so for our friend than us), the catch-a-ride-with-a-friend-to-work option is gone. So life in the new school year is considerably more complicated than it was at the end of last year’s.
The last few weeks have left me feeling fairly preoccupied with trying to figure out how to continue as we have. But emotionally, it’s been downhill as it is seeming harder and harder as we face a new round of activities and pending colder, wetter, darker weather. Thinking carefully, I have stacked the kids’ schedule to put activities where I really do need the car (darned cello is so big; amazing piano teacher lives just a little too far away) all on the same day. This took some doing, but it’s done. Other in-town activities are bike-able for the moment. I haven’t really addressed the reality of our very cold, snowy New England winters.
But what’s really been on my mind in the last few weeks are the other two elements in this equation, priorities and how hard we are willing to work to make this happen. Let’s start with priorities. Before my car died in the flooding of March 2010 (see post here), we were a 2 car family and happily so. Our approach was to simply use them efficiently by always using the smaller, better mpg car first and minimizing car use for short journeys, the bulk of which have something to do with child rearing and living in the suburbs. To achieve this, my husband and I have spent the last 8 years teaching our children the rules of the road, safety, independence, common sense and street smarts. We have spent hours walking and riding with them whenever possible, and also by modeling that we, too, can make our short journeys under our own foot or pedal powered steam. I hasten to add that as part of this effort, we have set as a priority investing in really good equipment for the whole family including bikes, hefty locks, the helmet of choice, regardless of cost (they’re more likely to wear it if they like it), front and rear lights (not just reflectors) and cargo racks to help transport school, athletic and musical gear (excluding the cello of course; but a flute and a clarinet we can do). Of this list, the one most parents seem to forget is the lights, either because it doesn’t occur to them (most suburban parents may never have had occasion to ride in the dusk or dark, only ever having cycled for recreation), or because they swear their kids will never be somewhere when they need them. The bottom line is better safe than sorry – dusk comes awfully early in November. So back to priorities. We’re well on our way to achieving the goal of self sufficiency for the kids in their own local transportation. We as a family understand conservation and practice sustainable transportation, whether or not there is a second car in the the driveway. The challenge is whether we will continue to achieve this if we decide to get a second car out of the feeling that a New England winter without a car is a step too far in a town with no public transportation.
Which brings me on to the third element: how hard we are willing to try. I guess the appeal at the start of this experiment was that in having only one car, it really forced us to live our values (OK, I’ll be honest, my values). If the car’s not sitting there in the garage taunting you with its ease and flexibility, there’s no arguing with the kids about whether or not you’re going to give them a lift somewhere. It has been liberating to some extent to see that we can do it, but within this experiment, I have also been keenly aware of avoiding the mistake of turning this into a crusade that makes my family (read my kids) miserable. Whereas for my 12 year old son, self sufficiency has translated to freedom, for my daughter, it still feels overwhelming a lot of the time. Some of it is personality, but some of it too is sheer size, ability and stamina. And of this I am keenly aware as the youngest sibling in my own family. So in thinking about where to go next, it’s not a straightforward equation of whether I think I can manage to carry on as we are. It’s all muddled up with the whole issue of decision making as a family, parenting and balance. My conclusion at the moment is that realistically we will move back into the realms of a 2 car family in the near future. I don’t think I have the stomach to torture my kids that much and the reality is that at the moment our family feels the need for a little more flexibility, especially in the winter months, than just the one car affords.
Does this feel like failure if we go down that road? Well, yes and (a qualified) no. Yes because I know we could live with one car. It would simply take more compromises and perhaps some unpopular decisions, like limiting particular after school activities or spending more time on my part shuffling my husband to the train station if I feel I need the car myself. So the feeling of failure is that we would be choosing to avoid those compromises. So how do I reconcile myself to this? Well, to start with, in the car I choose, about which, a lot more later. But ultimately, in thinking carefully about how we choose to use the resources we have, and on that, there will be no change. Whenever possible, feet and bikes will always come first, with a car a distant third.