Our Year Without a Car (With Kids)
July 2022 Newsletter
At the end of last summer, when we moved to Oxford, we committed to 10 months without a car. We have three children aged six and under, so we knew it wouldn’t always be easy. But we also hoped our carless state would help us to 1) save money, 2) encourage us to enjoy and explore Oxford on foot.
That means we’ve had 10 months of no car seats, no road trips, no errand runs via car. We’ve had to teach our children to use public transportation, to walk farther than they want to, and to be smart and savvy while crossing streets. As this email newsletter is committed to questions surrounding place and community, I thought it would be interesting to tease out some of the things we’ve learned over this year without a car. I know some of you already have lived successfully for some time (maybe your whole lives) using only public transportation when necessary. Because my husband and I have lived most of our lives in rural areas, we haven’t been able to do this in the past. At the conclusion of this year, I do hope we’ll be far less car-dependent in the future. (And I hope that U.S. towns and cities will become more walkable in their layout and design!)
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As I proceeded to and from school, I found there were excellent walking and biking paths toward town I could use, and multiple bus routes that were easy and safe to access. The time cost was largest with walking (it would take me 30 to 45 minutes to get to my nearest school building), but the benefits to walking were also huge. It gave me opportunities to exercise, to pause mentally and emotionally, and to enjoy the beautiful scenery and architecture around Oxford.
Walking my commute, especially when the weather was nice, also provided opportunities for the sorts of serendipitous encounters that built friendship and community: I constantly run into people I know, and have found this one of the most important factors in cultivating a sense of belonging in a given place.
When we haphazardly encounter people we know, we realize that we are part of a communal fabric that is large, complex, and fluid: it helps us to connect specific streets, parks, and buildings with ideas of commitment, accountability, and care. The street grid and the relational networks we depend on become layered, part of each other in an inextricable fashion. And this is the sort of process, I would argue, that builds our deeper love for a place. As long as our networks of community and built environment remain separate, we grow a more detached admiration. We will likely appreciate the place where we live, but we may not feel part of it in the same way we do when we realize, “Around that corner, or the next, I meet see someone I know.” For me, at least, the process of serendipitous encounter shapes a strikingly different experience of the city. It changes the way I perceive a place, as well as the way I explore it.
For our children, walking has been both their favorite thing, and the most annoying chore we asked of them. They love walking to the nearby woods and exploring, strolling along the Thames, or venturing up to the Ashmolean museum or the Natural Science museum. On these trips, we’ve always had either a stroller or a baby carrier, and have given our 4-year-old shoulder rides as needed. Our 6-year-old has had to finish these walks, since she’s too big to carry, and has thus learned to think about how far she wants to go with this knowledge in mind. She’s grown stronger and more resilient, both mentally and physically, as a result. The mental endurance is important to emphasize here, I think, because (as long as you aren’t asking them to go too far) walking is not difficult for a child. It’s the mental hurdle of embracing the tedium of walking, the slow process of getting from point A to point B, that is often harder. Walking teaches a child patience. Let’s be honest—it teaches adults patience! We’ve all grown accustomed to instant gratification when it comes to transportation.
Tiny Perfect Things is one of my favorite books for teaching the skills of mental resilience while walking. It beautifully portrays the imaginative vision and habits of attention that walking can cultivate, and teaches children and adults to look closely as they journey on walks. Walking becomes a formative habit of delight, one that can be enjoyed for its own sake, and not just for its destination. When we are walking together, my children and I play “I Spy,” or try and find all the colors of the rainbow. We look for tiny rocks, shells, or wildflowers. We use phone apps to identify plants, trees, and birds. And I try to use the time to ask them questions about their favorite things, about their hopes and plans for the weeks, and about the things they’re grateful for.
Taking the bus
We’ve also found the bus to be an excellent and important means of transportation. It’s way cheaper than the car, and more environmentally friendly. It’s also a space in which we can try to cultivate the sorts of behaviors and habits that support community. On the bus, or at the bust sop, we build up “little debts” and courtesies that encourage us to be neighborly.
Some bus drivers wave people on board when they don’t have the right coins, others recognize our routines and know our stops. I’ve met little old ladies who play games with my tired toddlers, helping me avoid a tantrum (or two) as we wait to get home. And then there are the random conversations I’ve had with friendly people at the bus stop: an AI scientist, a clarinetist, an Oxford native who knows all the streets and buildings that have changed over time.
Riding the bus can be taxing, exhausting, annoying. Sometimes I—or my children—just wanted to get home. But the bus has also given me opportunities to think through the ideas of membership and courtesy we’ve discussed here at Granola over the years. As David Sax recently wrote for The New York Times, “Engagement with strangers is at the core of our social contract. … Far from random human inconveniences, strangers are actually one of the richest and most important resources we have. They connect us to the community, teach us empathy, build civility and are full of surprise and potentially wonder.”
I do not know how much my four-year-old will remember from our time in Oxford, but I do know she’ll remember and love the double decker buses.
We honestly haven’t left Oxford much. We’ve been to London a couple times, and got to see Tewkesbury and Gloucester in March. (Tewkesbury Abbey is beautiful!) We also did one longer trip to Cornwall for a few days, and our girls loved searching for shells and walking along the shore. But as my husband noted in conversation, life without a car has prompted us to simply enjoy where we are to a greater degree. We’ve spent almost the entire last 10 months in the same five-mile radius. And we don’t regret that. We’ve received the opportunity to really enjoy Oxford, and to develop daily habits and haunts in this lovely place. There are other places in the UK and in Europe that we’d love to see someday. But I think we’ll have sweeter memories of Oxford because we savored our time here.
I will admit that I have missed having a car with kids. Sometimes it would just be nice to have the option to drive. Sometimes I just don’t want to make my tired kids walk the last half mile back to the house. Some days my shoulders are sore from the previous day of holding a weary baby or toddler while walking back home. And there can be something really sweet about the process of driving somewhere as a family. We’ve done some road trips together, and have really enjoyed them.
But walking is also special, and I think if our family did it more often in the future, it would be good for all of us. It’s building habits of love and attentiveness and resilience that will stick with us, I hope, as we all get older.
Back in 2018, I wrote a piece titled “The Art of the Stroll,” which sought to unpack some of these ideas a bit. I wrote about my grandfather, who lived in one town for 50 years and walked the same routes daily throughout those years. I’m sharing an excerpt here, because it helps explain how I’ve grown to feel about walking over time:
There’s a vast difference between getting to know a place with your two feet, and knowing it via car. As a runner, I’ve noticed that my speed greatly influences my ability to take in passing geography; even at a jog, I miss details. Experiencing a street at 25 miles per hour cuts out huge chunks of detail and color, desperation and beauty. Our gaze is limited by the necessary act of keeping our eyes on the road, as well as by the detachment the car offers via insulated windows, air conditioning, stereo speakers, children talking or crying, or companions laughing.
As Rebecca Solnit notes in her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, cars are necessarily insular spaces—and as we travel in them, we disconnect from the world around us. “Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors—home, car, gym, office, shops—disconnected from each other,” she writes. “On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.”
Walking is a slow and porous experience. The words we use to describe it—meandering, sauntering, strolling—have their own leisurely and gentle cadence and suggest a sort of unhurried enjoyment. But to walk is also to be vulnerable: it forces us into physical interaction with surrounding streets, homes, and people. This can delay us, annoy us, even put us in danger. But it connects us to community in a way that cars never can.
… In You Are What You Love, James K.A. Smith writes that love is a habit: a daily training of our souls. By immersing ourselves in specific “liturgies”—daily rhythms, habits, and stories—we shape or tune our hearts to specific loves. This training is “more like practicing scales on the piano than learning music theory,” writes Smith. “The goal is, in a sense, for your fingers to learn the scales so they can then play ‘naturally,’ as it were. Learning here isn’t just information acquisition; it’s more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being.”
While Smith’s book is focused on ecclesiastical worship and love for God, his theory of the human heart and the importance of liturgy applies to every area of human life. After all, if we are ruled by our hearts and not just our heads, then every practice we engage in is important in the formation of our desires and our character. Every ritual and rhythm is ingraining something into the fabric of our being. My grandfather’s walks were—or at least, with time, became—a ritual of love, a daily recitation of devotion to Moscow, one block at a time. And as he spent time out loving his city, it comforted and loved him in return.
“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back,” Solnit writes in Wanderlust. “The more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for you when you come back.”
Do you have a car? How often do you walk or use public transportation? What does each medium of transportation/movement teach you?
Do you live in a walkable town or city? What have you learned from your experiences in that space?
What forms of community and neighborliness do our habits of driving, walking, or biking teach us? How can we become more neighborly drivers, specifically?
Share your thoughts via email or in the comments below! Look forward to hearing your thoughts.
news + essays
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