On May 1st 2010 I wrote in my journal about the great sense of freedom that I felt as I headed back into Portland on the train after leaving my Rav4 with Toyota Beaverton, beginning what would be a two year experiment in the car free life. Some interpreted my decision as an attempt to be green. That wasn't why I did it. I did it for the children of Iraq and Afghanistan. Every time I filled the tank I knew it was with their blood. Pretty soon I just couldn't drive it anymore. This experiment was my personal protest. Many people looked at me as if I'd completely mad. Looking back I can see their point. I'm a single Mom that works a full time job that's 15 miles South of the city. And naturally, I had to make that even harder on myself by moving 6 miles North of downtown to a community house where I would no longer be living by my own rules, without a clothes dryer (sweaty bike ride plus sour clothes, trust me, it's not a good smell), and add a nice hill climb on the bike ride home when I was the most tired everyday and you have a very bad DOE (design of experiment). As an engineer I should have known better than to change so many variables at once. But I always have tended to make my own life as hard on myself as possible.
The experiment started well. I had prepared to do this for well over a year, leaving my Rav parked while I tested out my theories and various routes to get around in life. At first I would ride my bike downtown and then put it on the bus for the 15 mile trip to Tualatin, where I work, and then ride the remaining two miles from the bus stop to my lab. Our city buses only accommodate two bikes, and it seems I wasn't the only one with this idea, so I was left stranded a couple times, enough to change my strategy. I would then lock my bike at the waterfront, get a nice cuppa at Three Rivers Cafe, and enjoy looking out of the sleepy morning river with it's dragon boat teams practicing their maneuvers. It was a nice start to the day, but gave rise to some jealousy. You see, I had been a regular kayaking fool before the experiment, but having no way to get my beautiful blue sea kayak to water I reluctantly sold her. I miss the times I had all alone on the water, whether a lazy paddle on the Tualatin, or something more aggressive on the Willamette or Columbia, it was my refueling station and after two years without it, I feel very empty.
After my quiet moments by the water I'd hustle to the bus stop, ride down the I-5 (often witnessing a beautiful sunrise), then catch a free shuttle, provided by the Tualatin Chamber of Commerce, or if the weather was nice I'd walk the two miles in. This morning trip takes about 1.25 hours. On the way home the duration stretches out for up to 2 hours, sometimes more. Yes, for the last two years I've spent 16+ hours a week in transit, about 800 hours a year (at my current rate of pay, that's almost $30k/yr). My company paid for my transit passes and my bike ride was free, so the only costs I had were for Zipcars, which is a car share program that helped me out in emergency situations. In my two years I've spent nearly $5k in zipcars, that comes to a little over $200 a month. So although my commute was free, in practical terms it was not at all free. Plus I could no longer work overtime because the weekend commute was impossible. I even had to walk out in the middle of important conversations because my shuttle was waiting. I'm a professional, and that's not acceptable. So the real cost is hard to calculate, but it was clearly getting to the point where a car payment and insurance made sense again.
When I started the experiment I thought about the health benefits. As a middle aged woman nearing menopause, the battle of the bulge is nonstop. I really had expected that this would be a non-issue if I took on so much activity. To my surprise I gained weight, but that was more due to the shared eating at the communal house in North Portland and my lack of discipline to turn down the candy, ice cream and pies. My cardio endurance did improve, but I did have quite a scare with chest pain last year. It was nothing serious but a loud wake up call to my age and changing body. My upper body strength has diminished considerably. My occasional knee pain is now a constant companion. The knee pain has caused my quads to waste to nothing. I have more hip pain. To do this commute also requires packing everything you and your child need on your back everyday. I now have a constant dull backache and worse posture, something new in my life. So the health benefits associated with a daily biking/walking practice are questionable. Mechanically it has caused me more trouble, but my heart health is top notch.
Regardless of my loss of freedom to move about the country at will, my lost time on the water, health concerns and the financial sacrifice, I persisted for two years in this, my personal protest. The house experiment ended after only 9 months and I moved closer in to town to another community, but this one provides each resident with sovereignty over their own space and each unit has its own kitchen and thanks to the goddesses and gods, there's a shared laundry facility with a dryer. My daughter's school is only a mile away and she can walk it easily after much practice (and the $1/mile allowance I gave her). It has extended her endurance a lot and has also sensitized her to those around us who, not by their own choice, are also walking. But after much consideration and seeing another summer approaching where there would be logistic hurdles to climb that stretched well beyond my creative capacity, I've ended my protest.
So what has it got me? The children here and abroad are no safer, if anything less so. My one vehicle didn't make even a miniscule change in America's footprint. As long as our military continues to burn fuel at their current rate, even every American going car free wouldn't matter. But for two years, everyday, I've thought about my world in a new way. I've made friends on mass transit. I've listened to the stories of people I've met who struggle each day just to get out of bed to face commutes of more than 4 hours a day for maybe a 6 or 8 hour job. I've listened to alcoholics who have lost their licenses. One recently broke her ankle in three places and faces over a year of riding the bus with a walker and in pain to get to her job, which she cannot afford to lose. I've sat next to smelly people, people speaking and even yelling and some invisible stranger and I've learned not to fear them or run another way. I recognize my common humanity with all of them in a way that my insulated car life had blocked. Sometimes I felt more like them, then this well paid professional that I am at work. And my daughter took the ride with me and has shared in these lessons. She hands money to the homeless without fear. She cares and wants to know about the man with the Navy cap in the wheelchair with the scarred face and missing ear as our bus heads towards the vet hospital. She's seen all kinds of people with various missing limbs, vision problems, hallucinations and colorful clothing, or lack of - and she seems to understand in a way that I never could have at age 7 that they are not monsters, but just like us only broken in different ways. We are all on this big blue boat together, for better or for worse, so we should give each other respect, love and even a smile from time to time. This world needs it - we all do.
One other thing my daughter has learned in her hours of waiting for buses and walking our city streets hand in hand with her Mommy - she's the queen of silly walks. Watch out John Cleese, Alexa is making her moves. Oh, and although my protest wasn't about global warming, or being green, my choice in a new vehicle is. Our new sled is a Prius C - so far I've been getting 50+ mpg consistently on my commute to work and it's plenty peppy. I'm not quite ready to be so green as to go without a clothes dryer again, but this is a start.