The no car challenge

Today is the halfway mark of my time in Ghana. It seems like I just got here, but it’s also been forever since I left home. As weird as that all feels, it’s especially strange knowing that I’m only going to be home for four and a half weeks—less time than I’ve spent travelling, in short
I have so much I want to do during the month I’m home. I’ve been thinking about how to maximize the time I have and get more out of it, and I decided I’m finally going to take the plunge. For the month at home, I’m going to take the no car challenge: no driving within the Seattle city limits. I’m going to get around the city walking, biking and taking the bus.
I’ve thought about doing a lighter version of this for the past two summers, but it hasn’t really worked. There are a number of factors which have limited my driving: rising gas prices, sharing a car with my brother, a busy work schedule, the increasing difficulty of finding parking in Seattle and the fact that my house is pretty well served by buses. But I always flake on plans to become more self-sufficient. My laziness takes over, or I want to go shopping with friends, or I just can’t bring myself to bike anywhere knowing that highest point on the highest hill in Seattle is a few feet from our property line.
I thought about it again this summer for the brief period I was home, when I emerged from my Whitman bubble long enough to notice that gas has gotten absurdly expensive. And I had the classic environmentalist quandary: as much as I want to celebrate rising gas prices, as much as I know they’re necessary and still not high enough, I was cringing at the thought of paying so much to drive around the city. And I realized that the only way out of that quandary is to just say no. I don’t need a car in Seattle. There are plenty of other ways to get around.
The main advantage of driving is that it’s “efficient”. This is definitely true in important ways—if you want to get somewhere quickly, driving is your best bet. But I think driving within Seattle also leads me to make choices that aren’t in my best interest. With a car at my disposal, it’s easy to decide to head to Value Village with my friends on a whim. Without cars, I’ll think twice about spending an hour on the bus to go shopping for clothes I really don’t need with money I don’t really have. Cars might take less time, but you can read or knit on a bus if you’re stuck in traffic. In a car, you just have to sit there and be pissed off. If you have access to a car, it’s easy to run to the store right before dinner for the ingredient you forgot. If you have to walk a mile to get there, you’re more likely to try to come up with something creative using the stuff you already have at home. Plus, if I actually end up biking and walking places frequently (which I suspect will happen once I get sick of paying bus fare), I’ll get in much better shape and probably survive my farm labor better.
There’s another huge benefit I see to not driving everywhere: it has a spillover effect on the people you interact with. I read something a while ago about a guy who decided he was going to walk everywhere he went. The article talked about the impact this had on his personal relationships. It wasn’t possible for him to visit friends for a few hours or just the day—often, if they lived more than a few miles away, a visit meant he had to spend the night. As a result, he felt he was able to cultivate more meaningful relationships with people.
I’ve seen something similar during winters in Seattle. The city of Seattle is completely incapable of dealing with snow. We don’t have snowplows, we take forever to de-ice the city, and no one knows how to drive on frozen surfaces. About every two or three years, Seattle has a massive snowstorm which completely shuts down the city. Usually, order is restored within a few days, but sometimes, it’s chaotic for a week. In this environment, buses run late on shortened routes and most people don’t drive. But school is also cancelled, or it’s winter break, so everyone wants to hang out with friends. In high school, this frequently translated to gatherings at centrally located houses. I would walk miles in the snow to go over to friends’ houses and drifted around between groups of people. In snow conditions, everyone becomes more hospitable. People stick together, sleepover invitations are extended and everyone looks out for neighbors and friends. No one worries too much about schedules or being on time.  Life is a bit more relaxed, and it moves more slowly.
I’m hoping that by driving less, I’ll be able to cultivate a little bit of that spirit in my life. Freshman year of high school, I rode the bus every day, and I always looked forward to my time on the Metro. It gave me a chance to decompress, listen to music, meet interesting people or get a bit of reading done before I got home. It wasn’t time that I ever viewed as wasted, and it was a nice break from the rest of my day, when six thousand things were going on.
I’ll report on this experiment as it develops. Here are the Official Rules I’ll be using (though these may be amended as needed).
1. No driving or riding in a car within the Seattle city limits during the time I’m home.
2. Driving outside the city (eg. to go to Issaquah to see family, to visit friends in Walla Walla, hiking, etc.) is ok, but every possible attempt should be made to minimize this driving. This will include trying to limit the number of these trips, carpooling/coordinating with other people and looking into alternative transit options (eg. bussing to Issaquah).
3. No weaseling. This means no getting rides from people when it’s out of their way, no making friends come to my house instead of me going to them, etc.
4. No being obnoxiously self-righteous about how I’m saving the planet, because I’m totally not. This is an experiment being undertaken for completely selfish reasons.
Exceptions to the above:
a) If I’m scheduled to work at another store (not my normal store, which is easy walking distance from my house) and get off work at 10pm or later, driving is ok for safety/logistical reasons.
b) If I’m going in a car with someone to somewhere they’d be going anyway and they won’t be persuaded to go another way (eg. going out to dinner with the whole family).
c) If I have to transport a large enough quantity of material that moving it via bike or bus would be logistically impossible (groceries do not count here).
d) If there’s a medical emergency, designated driver situation or something important like that.
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2 thoughts on “The no car challenge”

  1. If you start biking up Queen Anne you'll get into fantastic shape. Just look at Max. You may also feel like puking the first few times.It's amazing how possible it is to take things for granted. I'm on basically a forced 2.5 month no car experiment here in Ann Arbor, because no one I know well has a car.(no bike too, but that's just because I'm too lazy to go rent one). Things like going to the grocery store take 3 hours, and once again, you build a lot of arm muscle. Also you can't buy ice cream : (Let me know when you're in a reasonable place to talk on the phone/over the internet?

  2. I suspect the first few times I try to bike up Queen Anne, I'll make it like two blocks and then just end up walking. But with practice, maybe I'll end up incredibly buff.I can definitely call you from Ghana–if you're on Eastern Time, we're four hours ahead. I'll try to do that sometime this weekend.

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