Car-Free Challenge Participants Buck Stereotypes

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Throughout June, scores of participants in TransForm's first Car-Free Challenge have set goals for themselves to reduce or completely eliminate the use of cars, from those living in bike and transit-friendly Berkeley to far flung and auto-dominated suburban enclaves like Castro Valley. In addition to opening eyes about those who live normal and productive lives in the Bay Area without relying so much on cars for mobility, the Challenge is also a benefit for TransForm, as participants set fundraising targets to go with their car-reduction targets.

Many participants are contributing to the Car-Free Challenge blog, and their 300 or so posts are worth a few minutes of perusal. Tanya Narath of Santa Rosa, who has committed to drive less than 40 miles over the month, wrote yesterday,

Here I am at the beginning of week 3 of the challenge feeling amazed at how little I've actually driven compared to the last 20+ years! And amazed at how enjoyable it's been so far to leave my car in the garage. I've been noticing how much calmer I feel when I arrive at work and then when I get home at the end of the day. My 4-mile bike ride does wonders for my mental and physical health. I find myself paying more attention to my surroundings and enjoying the journey. Contrast this with how I used to feel after driving in to work, rushing from one traffic light to the next. I sure missed a lot of fun all those years of driving to work!

Perhaps most impressive are the participants who are parents with children. Those who resist auto restrictions in their neighborhoods the most vociferously are often parents who say they must have a car because they have kids, that single people and couples without kids just won't understand unless they become parents themselves.  Never mind the fact that any number of parents who can't afford to have a car still get their families around by transit, but it's instructive to see the parents who do so by choice, especially when they live in the middle of suburbia.

Annette Gormley, a single mother of two boys aged 12 and 14, has been car-free for five years and lives in Castro Valley, a town with limited public transit options. When asked why she is car-free, her response was interesting: "If no one rides transit, it's not going to get fixed."

Gormley said her mom and dad weren't typical 60s and 70s parents, but they were concerned with ecology and the environment. "My parents always raised me to think about what I was doing and what the cost was, for any action, for any decision that I do. My parents were nerds, they weren't hippies, but it was that era.  They built the roof of their house in the early 70s so they could add solar panels."

She said the transition away from her car was not ideological, but out of habit. "It started out as just taking public transportation, though I had a car.  I was paying insurance on it but I hadn't driven it in 2 years."

When Gormley started taking her boys on transit, she realized she had much more time to be involved in their lives. "When someone else is driving you, you can concentrate on your kids, not just be their chauffeur. You can really spend time with the kids and that is completely amazing.  When you're driving and you have to watch the road, you don't get the quality time with your kids that you do on a train or a ferry."

Asked whether transit takes longer or is less convenient, she conceded there was a learning curve and that she can't just run out to the market at 10 pm on a lark. "It's not impossible, but you really have to plan ahead," she said. "When you're looking at private schools you have to look at how they get there.  You have to think ahead of time.  What buses go there, what times.  Is there a layover at the BART station? Sports or Scouts is just making sure you buddy up with someone who is reliable."

Though she said some of her son's classmates think the family is poor because they don't have cars, Gormley insists she has raised her boys doing all the things their private school peers do. She said they have laptops and iPods and all the other things that their classmates have, they just don't drive to school.

"It's not normal to not have a car," she admitted. "I have one friend whose daughter had never crossed any street, ever, until she was a senior in High School and she joined the track team had to run around. She had been driven everywhere. That's the community I live in. And Castro Valley is only 2 miles wide."

She noted that her sons sometimes get upset when they want to go somewhere at the last moment. "They don't think ahead as much, because kids don't. They get upset sometimes with that."

On the positive side, she said her boys are very fit and are more independent and capable of negotiating the world around them because of their mastery of transit.

"All of their friends are learning how to ride public transportation. Their parents will let them go with my kids because they know my kids know how to go through the public transportation system. So sometimes they get to show other kids how it's done and that's good for them."