I tend to be bossy (act more surprised!) and sometimes I wish I had a marquee to put in my front yard or to strap on top of my car so I could take my bossiness to a whole new level. If I were no longer limited to just my immediate circle of acquaintances, I would have the power to tell the whole town what to do. I could drive around with my marquee announcing in all caps, “Hey, teenagers! Stop walking in the middle of the road! Ever hear of sidewalks?” or “You know, it’s probably illegal to drive with a baby on your lap.” or “C’mon, just take your shopping cart back – it’s like 10 feet!”
Or I could use my marquee to address my biggest pet peeve: “Guess what? When a car is at idle, emissions of carbon monoxide are at their highest. Prolonged exposure to low levels of ozone can reduce a healthy adult’s lung function by 15 to 20 percent. Estimates are that one in three Utahns experience some type of respiratory problem during high pollution periods. If every driver along the Wasatch Front would park his/her vehicle for one day per week, emissions would decrease by 125 tons that week or 6,500 tons for the year.” Too much? It might not fit on the marquee. Maybe I should get a loudspeaker instead.
Seriously, with our state’s record of having the worst air quality in the nation, it frustrates me when I see a whole row of minivans and SUVs lined up at the curb idling for long periods of time as parents wait for school to get out, often in mild weather, instead of just rolling down the windows and turning off the car. Oh, oh, I have an idea! Maybe if we all turned our cars off outside the school, our kids wouldn’t have to stay inside the school for recesses. Because really, if we’re being compared to Beijing, you know it’s got to be bad.
So what do I do about the poor air quality (I mean, besides complaining)? I turn off my car instead of idling. What else do I do? Um, that’s about it. See, I do just enough so I can be judgy about those idlers without feeling like a hypocrite, but I haven’t been doing much else to limit emissions.
I have valid excuses: we have a tight schedule and it’s much faster to drive, if we lived in or near a city, we’d have more public transportation options, and often extremes in weather deter me from walking or riding bikes. Let’s face it, cars make life easier, and the times I’ve been temporarily carless because of mechanical trouble, I’ve felt stranded and helpless. I was almost certain that it would be impossible to ditch the minivan.
I rode the bus daily in college – I saved money on gas and parking, had plenty of time to study or read, and avoided the stress of maneuvering through traffic or bad weather. It was easy because we lived right next to a bus stop with several routes to take me to school or downtown or anywhere in between. Sometimes it was cold to wait at a stop in the winter, but I don’t remember being miserable, in fact I kind of miss those days (but not the clothes – oh, the 90’s…).
This month, the state of Utah has set up the Clear the Air Challenge in an effort to get people to park their cars more often and look for alternative ways to get around. Our family signed up and we have tried to make some small changes by walking or biking to nearby places more often and by looking for ways to combine trips or avoid trips where possible.
But then I thought I would see if I could go without the car for a full week. I didn’t want to impose any of my restrictions on my husband, and assumed he’d still use his car for work or other errands, but he was immediately on board with the plan. My kids grumbled a bit at first but were okay with it by the time we our experiment began.
Of course, I planned in advance and chose the week with the fewest scheduled activities. I shopped for all the possible groceries we might need for the week and I got plenty of cash so I wouldn’t have to get to an ATM. We let our son get his birthday bike three weeks early so he would be able to get places on his own. We felt prepared.
Then an emergency popped up and tested our resolve. On the first day, my husband was doing home repairs and realized he needed some things from the hardware store. It was a hot day and he was right in the middle of a project, so I wouldn’t have thought any less of him if he had just taken the car. But he rode his bike to the store and strapped his purchase with bungee cords on the rack, and then rode back to the store again later when he needed more supplies (because a home improvement project never gets solved with only one trip to the hardware store – everyone knows that).
Most of the week went smoothly. We walked or rode to church, scouts, marching band practice, the pool and the grocery store. Instead of driving to the rec center, we exercised at home. My husband took the bus in to work on the day he had to go for a meeting and did the rest of his work from home since he’s on summer break.
The hardest trip for me was the bike ride to my son’s piano lesson in the middle of the afternoon on the hottest day of the week. It was about 25 minutes each way with a few big hills and backpacks full of piano books and water. We were pretty sure we were going to die by the time we got home, but he was a trooper and stuck with it.
But the worst part was that while I sat on the front porch during his lesson, I saw the mom of a previous student parked at the curb for 40 minutes with the car idling and the air conditioner running. 40 minutes!!! If only I had a bike-sized marquee…
I did have big plans for us to take the bus, the high speed train, and the light rail to downtown Salt Lake City, but the bus has very limited stops in our town. Outbound buses only leave in the early morning with the last one leaving before 9 a.m. and there are no buses on Saturdays. If we could only get out of our town, we’d have many options for transportation, but our schedules didn’t match up with the bus’s schedule. It’s too bad there aren’t any buses running in the afternoon. I think it would be great for our boys to get passes and get themselves to all the fun places I can’t take them when I’m teaching piano. It would teach them to be more self-sufficient and would get them away from video games and tv.
We did use the car three times this week – once for a son’s dentist appointment (because no one wants to ride a bike up a 2-mile hill in 100 degree weather after getting a filling), once to get our oldest to a last-minute job interview in another town, and once because we found a really good deal on another bike on Craigslist and wanted to have enough bikes for each member of our family.
I know we’re new to this whole thing and that there are many people who bike or bus all the time, so it might sound like because it’s new to me I think I discovered something no one else has. Believe me, I know we’re not trailblazers here – we should’ve tried this years ago, but we do have the zeal of new converts. This experience has made us more aware of things we hadn’t noticed before. For instance, we’ll pay more attention to cyclists as we drive after some close calls with clueless drivers. We also noticed that there’s a need for more bike racks around town. At church, we counted seventeen bikes parked in front of one entrance in a big jumble.
I think it was a successful week overall – the boys didn’t complain, I didn’t feel stranded, and we didn’t starve or miss out on any activities. Now that the week’s over, we’re in the habit of asking ourselves if there’s another option before we automatically jump in the car. Our kids are aware that our expectations have changed and that if they need to get somewhere within a mile of our house, it’s unlikely we will drive them.
My husband described this experience as transformative, and I agree. When you go from only seeing one option and suddenly you have three or four, it’s exciting and empowering. It has changed the way I look at small, everyday choices and I hope it will help my boys realize there isn’t only one way to get somewhere in life.