It has been almost a year now, a year in which the urgings ("You should really get one, you know. You can't really enjoy life here without one.") have changed to a mild envy ("What do you do with all your spare time since you don't have a wait in line for gas?).
Most people, on hearing that I do not own a car, make one of four assumptions: that I am single, have no children, live in the center of the city or pay a lot of alimony. If fact, my first wife and I live about a mile from the District line with our three children. It is the children's school friends who think we are just plain poor.
When we moved to Washington last August, we studied the maps, the bus routes and schedules and defined a rather narrow area in which we would look for a house that would allow us to commute, shop and seek entertainment either by walking, riding a bike or using public transportation. There was a strong moral or economic position against a car, and I think that at the beginning there was a tacit agreement that if things proved difficult, we would get one.
How do the days go? What are the weekends like? What are the advantages and disadvantages?
The house is two miles from work, and there is a choice of running, walking, binking or taking the bus. The choice is dictated by the weather, errands after work and how late I've slept. The children (6, 10 and 12) take the bus to school both for the school day and for school activities. The bus stops about 50 yards from the house, but since the fare crossng the District line is 80 cents (going to 90 cents), this would mean $4.80 per day for their fares alone. A family conference came to the conclusion that they should walk the mile to the District line and use school tokens (10 cents) and that we would put the rest in their banks for them.
My wife is not employed and thus does not commute. Stores for food, hardware, clothes and dry cleaners are well within 10 minutes' walk, as are the post office, liquor store and other essentials. A shopping cart helps with heavy loads, and a bike serves for excursions to the larger department stores, PTA and the like.
About four times a year, usually in conjunction with a trip to visit friends in Frederick or Middleburg, we will hire a car and do a massive shopping that fills the house and the rather substantial freezer in our kitchen. Like someone of much greater wealth, my wife knows that she will not have to pick the children up at school, take them to scouts or ballet lessons. Either they can ride their bikes, use the bus or get a ride with some kind person who offers.
The last-mentioned is a sore point. I feel that all those who offer rides do so grudgingly, mumbling to themselves that, if they can spend money on a car, then so can we.
Weekends are often troublesome. Soccer fields and bus routes rarely coincide. The solution, we feel, is to switch leagues to one in the District where the fields are never too far from the bus. Wisconsin Avenue and Georgetown, both well-served by buses, provide numerous movies and restaurants, and, besides, who would take a car to Georgetown on Saturday night anyway?
But that great Ethiopian restaurant reviewed in last week's paper is on the other side of Rock Creek Park and is simply out of the question. So is the sale of exquiste moder furniture, because it is in Alexandria. That would be three buses and two hours away and, in addition, the company does not deliver. This is not to say that I have not taken up at least four seats in the bus with the most outrageously large packages.
In rationalizing these disadvantages, we tend to be self-righteous and say that our life is simpler, that we and the children do not spend endless hours going mindlessly from mall to mall in search of bargins. With gas at $1 a gallon, can it really be saving to go from Wheaton to Tysons Corner to save on shoes?
There have been low points in this saga: Long waits for the bus, getting caught in the rain on a bike, and birthday parties missed the children. There are no weekend trips to the beach or days at a nearby lake. Fishing means the Potomac. But the lowest point was the Georgetown-George Washington basketball game.
It was a cold night in February. The walk to the bus was pleasant and the game great. People left the gym with a common excitement. The bus was crowded, and the atmosphere was still tingling with the tension of the last seconds. We got off and, in the cold of near midnight, waited for over an hour for our next bus. The exhilaration of the night faded into the dark and the dirty snow lying about.
It would have been great to get into the car, head home and have hot chocolate and rehash the game. That night was the closest I've come to deciding on a car. But the weather got better, gas got more expensive and then the lines came. Not having a car is definitely virtuous.
What do you need to assemble your "Doing Without a Car Kit"?
The first essential is a firm decision that both you and everyone else will be better off if you do not have a car. Then you need a house near public transportation. It may require a move, but this is not so bad because if your present house is not near public transportation it won't appreciate as much in value. So you've now sold new car to pay the settlement costs on your new house, which is one block from the subway and near two bus routes. The day they install your phone, you call Metro information and they will send you a pack of schedules, which are useful because most of the time most of the buses really do run on schedule. This allows you to plan your daily, weekday activities. A fleet of sturdily built, reliable bicycles is the next essential. Fixing the bikes with baskets for parcels and seats for the litte ones will broaden the scope of your trusty two-wheeler. (It is interesting how close one feels to a child on one's bike and the interesting conversations that take palce, something that never seems to happen in a car where the child seems so lonely in the back seat.) Finally, you need some good friends: Friends who will understand if you arrive at their house for dinner an hour late and covered with snow because you miscalculated the time to walk to their house in during wind and two-foot drifts; friends who don't mind being seen at good restaurants with you in your bicycle trouser clips, and friends who, when the time comes, as surely it must, will give you a ride when you need it.