August 15, 2009

70 days and counting

(revised and edited, to correct errors created by blogging from a mobile device at midnight)

This "70th day" kinda caught up to me, because I haven't really been counting. Back in June my mother-in-law's car broke down. Since it was summer-time, and I was already planning on riding to work by bicycle, I offered up my car as a loaner until she could find something else. The rest, as they say, is history - if only in my own little personal circle. I must qualify that while I am proud of this mini-landmark in my bicycle commuting, it pales in comparison to what a lot of my commuter-heroes have logged. I know of more than a few that celebrated their 1,000th car-free day recently, so this is merely a stepping stone for me, not so much a proclaimation. It may not even be the longest personal streak I've logged, come to think of it... but it is certainly the longest streak I've logged since relocating to Olathe in 2004. Moving here form Overland Park doubled my commute distance overnight, and I never really got a good streak going - even when I still had the gas-guzzling Buick in the driveway - a worthy excuse NOT to drive, at a whopping 6 MPG city. I'd ride three days in a row, often, and then I'd find something that put me back in the car. (Read: excuse) This time, with the car completely removed from the equation, there has been no alternative, no option. It has been ride, or walk. My mother-in-law's car breaking down has been one of the best enhancements to my cycling and training since I got my first set of clipless pedals!

It's to the point now, also, where there have been legitimate challenges and potential excuses. Real tests of my commuter fortitude, and tests of my family's patience. The wife has been great, my biggest supporter. We've both caught ourselves over the last couple months taking for granted the fact that we've always had two cars. The thoughts are automatic. Appointments, schedule overlaps: there has been enough time invested in this car-free streak to see how these issues play out, and we've both been caught, saying things like "oh, well, I'll pick up such and such and just meet you over don't have a car!" It always brings pause, but in a good way. For me its just been interesting, each day a challenge: not being able to say "oh, I'm tired", or "oh, it's raining," or "ugh, it's too windy," and slink into the car. The real test was seeing if life would still 'work' with a wife and two kids and school and activities, and then suddenly removing one of the conveniences.

A recent example, the wife heading to an all-day school conference last week meant she would need to drive, like she would anyways... but I'd be home without a car, with two kids on summer break wanting to go to the pool, which is several miles away. Use of resources, figuring out what makes the most sense, and thinking about the smartest way to approach things have become the norm, which is, honestly, refreshing. The old 'norm' would've involved a car taking one person to one location, where-in that car would occupy a parking space for eight hours. My car, utilized or not, would be conveniently at my disposal in the driveway. It gets slightly more complicated and less convenient when that 2nd car is removed, because the next option would be to drive her to work, drop her off, and then drive back whatever, then drive back and pick her up later. Sure, only one car is involved, but we would have made the trip twice. So, one less car...twice the gas. Option three, a friend of hers also attending the conference picks her up and drops her off afterwards, a friend that lives enroute. The problem took less time to sort out than it probably took you to read this. But it's that pause that so many people don't take. "We need another car." Sticking to a one-car situation like this simply requires people to think a few steps beyond convenience. So far, there hasn't been a situation come up in over two months that was just 'impossible' because I didn't also have a car.

I have to remember that a one-car family is not neccessarily a unique situation, either. Only a generation ago, having more than one car meant you were quite wealthy. It is also often about geography: someone living in an urban area reading this might be asking themselves what the big deal is. There are areas where going car-free is no issue at all - places like New York or Chicago, with good transit in place, lots of density, options and integrated living designed in - real, integrated communities.

Here in suburban Johnson county, Kansas, however, you have the perfect storm of a young group of cities designed around the assumption that everyone would be driving everywhere, or cities whose design philosophy was changed due to the planning of the cities around them. Toss in the proximity to a state line with differing ideals that, to date, have never been able to agree upon or fortify a real transit plan. On one side you have a real need for alternatives, and on the other an apathy driven by wealth and "me" culture, rapid development, sprawl, and a modified American Dream that includes cars as status symbols. The KC-area is very car-centric, and despite it's initial design there have been changes that have put cars on the map for good here. Over the decades, the Strang Line (for example) has long-since had its rails buried underneath asphalt and dashed white lines. Interstate highways have cut across streets that used to make sense, used to go straight through. Even Union Station was thought to be a waste of space, on the list of buildings to be razed just a few years ago. Now, it's essentially a museum: but it should have always been a transit hub, as the original builders envisioned. Light rail continues to be voted down, no-one looking farther than five years down the road. Gas prices go up, the buses fill up... but gas prices drop, and everyone gets back into their cars. Meanwhile, for those that NEED the bus, the rates increase again for 2010. This is a fickle town for transit.

That very desire of the majority to hold on to car-culture, despite higher gas prices, despite environmental buzz-talk, keeps real change from happening. The people that truly need alternatives NOW are the ones that suffer. For me to pull off this streak of consecutive car-free days, I've been lucky enough to have my health, my bike, the right trails and roads in precisely the right places, and tolerable weather. For someone that does not have a background of cycling in traffic, does not have a good route to and from work, its as-if the odds are stacked up against them to try and make bicycle commuting work. Impossible? No. But this town doesn't make it easy. We've got a lot of people on the bubble, a lot of people that stuggle to keep and maintain just one car, people that are not cyclists that have been put onto bikes to make it to work, onto unsafe and unfit streets... and they're held there by city planners that drive comfortably to work each day in luxury sedans. Sure, I'm generalizing, and there is a track record of progress gaining momentum with help from MoBikeFed and others... but, my ultimate point here is that EVERYONE should have it as easy as I've had it. Everyone that wants or needs to should be able to hop onto a bike-lane or trail that actually leads them close to their job. It should be as automatic to city development as assuming that everyone will follow the school, work, two-car family, taxes and death formula. With those daunting tasks ahead of all of us involved with advocacy, and fall and winter looming, I continue my car-free streak for the forseeable future. Even when my mom-in-law figures out her automotive solution, I honestly don't think I want the car back.

My next major purchase is a cheap mountain bike to get me through winter's challenges.

Stay tuned!

Coming soon.... CommuterDude, the Movie.... For a long time I've wanted to chronicle a week's worth of commutes and edit it down into a tolerable mini-documentary on what its like behind the scenes. What happens when I leave my desk in the afternoon and walk off with my panniers in-hand? Well, I'm putting a storyboard together, and you'll get little tastes here and there, coming soon.

Thanks, as always, for reading.


Chris said...

I'm sure the "gag" reel would be priceless! Good luck on the streak, while I'm not car=less you have inspired me to ride to work 150+ days a year since 2005 and love it!

Jason said...

This is great stuff! Keep rolling!

Can't wait to see the Movie! :)

O. T. said...

We made it with one car for close to 3 years. It was a struggle a, for the most part, only included a smidgen of bike commuting. However, I appreciate the challenges. We did just recently purchase a second car again. But we did it on our terms, after carefully evaluating the need and cost. But it does change the way you think. Car #2 2 will be leaving with child #1 and we will go back to one car by choice in about 28 months!! Hopefully, bike commuting will be a bigger part of the equation at that time Great work dude.

Susan Tomlinson said...

That is wonderful!

My own car-free-ness waves and wanes; it seems to depend on how much out-of-town elder care I've had to do. Problem is, I use the car go out of town and it seems to trigger a switch in me that says I get to use the car more when I'm in town, too. Got to find a way to turn that switch on and off at will...