Can a family of six survive in beautiful downtown Washington without a car? The answer, from our family with four kids 6 to 13 is a qualified, but enthusiastic "yes". We're going on nine months now without a car and find the pleasures far outweigh the pains. We've also saved a cool $2,500 in the process.
Our liberation from the burdens of car ownership was quite unintened. Not long ago, we heedlessly possessed not one, but two gas-guzzling station wagons, one a personal car, the other from my husband's employer. In a generous mood, we gave our own car to a needy family, only to have the company car repossessed. that left us completely without wheels.
The first few days of automobile withdrawal were panicky. We'd stumble out of the house in an early-morning daze, thinking we must have forgotten where we'd parked. There were visions of calamities with the kids and no way to get to the hospital. A two-car neighbor quieted my fears: "In any emergency, day or night, just knock on my door."
Panic soon gave way to euphoria as we shed the shackles of chrome and steel. Goodbye tickets, stickers, registrations, inspections, car payments and insurance. No more boots, towing and endless circling to park. Getting there, by foot, bus, subway, cab or train turns out to be half the fun.
Like most red-blooded Americans, we fully intended to get another car, but kept postponing it. Now we admit "Who needs the hassle?" We're hooked on being carfree.
This new life style does require a measure of self-discipline. We've learned to pick and choose, to plan ahead, keeping chores in geographical sequence and leaving heavy pickups until last. We let our feet do most of the walking: to school, work and even to the vet. In our Capitol Hill neighborhood, Victorian gingerbread, neighborhood shops and friendly neighborhood shops and friendly people have materialized from the blur that used to speed by our car window.
Skates, skateboards and bikes also have taken on new life. Our 13-year-old son has cycled both to Mt. Vernon and Carderock, something unthinkable in the old days. For more distant journeys, we hop a ride with friends going in the same direction and pick up the tab for gas.
Good walking shoes have become a must. We've also invested in whistles for nighttime outings and a sturdy grocery cart entrusted to the older kids for weekly shopping. Those two have mastered bus-subway transfers to perfection, shepherding the younger ones to museums and movies all on their own.
Lest I paint too rosy a picture, there are fleeting moments of back-sliding. Take the time I found myself at the Metro Center interchange, loaded down with Chinese groceries, duck sauce dripping down one leg, and my two smallest children surging out of sight on the wrong escalator. I would have gladly sacrificed a year of my life for a car at that moment.
We've also cheated. A vacationing neighbor turned over his car keys, allowing us to enroll our dog in an Alexandria training school, an impossible feat on public transportation. (Unless, as our kids suggested, she was disguised as a seeing-eye dog.) We have also rented cars for weekend outings, patronizing lesser known firms with rates as low as $19 perday and 100 free miles. National Airport subway stop is our pickup point and we use a standard credit card.
Winter has only quickened our resolve. We file right past stuck cars, dead batteries and icy windshields, trying not to appear smug.
Join us? One friend, whose car was totaled, has banked his insurance settlement, instead of investing in another car.
Throwing away car keys just might become a fad.