Leaving the car at home

Leaving the car at home

Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay, Gwen DiPietro explores the lessons her family learned by moving to a place where they could get around without a car.

A year ago, our family of five moved from the D.C. suburbs to a city neighborhood of Pittsburgh.  There were many reasons for our move—a new job, schools, proximity to family—and many more benefits to our family that we did not fully anticipate as we packed our boxes. One of these unexpected bonuses was our new-found ability to leave the car at home and locomote by foot or bike.

We bought a house in Squirrel Hill, a neighborhood on the eastern side of the city that is bounded by two enormous city parks and the campuses of Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham College. Our new home is a block from a major bus line, and six blocks from the neighborhood shopping district.  Suddenly, our cars had become optional, even burdensome.

The first day of school arrived. Our older son grumbled his way down the hill, walking to school, and taking his first real walk in his 14 years of existence. Finally, we seemed to have hit upon a counter-spell to the computer’s thrall. His legs grew stronger, his back grew straighter. Getting lost became an opportunity to demonstrate that he could find his way home. He learned to navigate street signs, traffic lights, and bad weather, gaining confidence and capabilities that he never needed back in the world of perpetual carpooling.

Our daughter also exited the carpool world, hopping happily onto a school bus packed with girlfriends. She learned to be timely—both in her ability to get to the bus stop on time, and to recognize the impact that tardiness has on others (such as the uncertainty created by an inconsistent bus driver!). Her bus time is for socializing, reading, a little homework, a little snacking. Unexpectedly, we found the time waiting for the bus to be a lovely interlude, a few minutes for mother and daughter to connect away from a house full of boys—to straighten a blouse, talk about plans and hopes for the day, discuss the passing pedestrians, and chat with the neighbors waiting for their own buses.

Our youngest son entered third grade at a school less than a mile from our home. We challenged each other to only take the car when absolutely necessary, and found that 90 percent of the time, walking or riding bikes was not only possible, but highly preferable to the car. We walked for the first few weeks. We discovered that the walk wasn’t long enough for all the things we had to talk about. There was the neighborhood hawk to spot. We had never seen buckeye trees before, with all their weird foliage and debris, and hadn’t ever had the chance to examine the giant plane trees arching over the streets. Some of the older sidewalks were enormous squares of slate—who knew that sidewalks didn’t have to be poured concrete?  I heard about the details of his day in ways I had never heard before, about who won the football game at recess, the great book he’d found at the school library, why he didn’t finish his lunch the day before, who was in trouble, and who were his new real and imaginary friends.

After learning the back roads and neighborhoods, we started riding bikes to school. By skipping the carpool line, my son was in his seat just as quickly as if we had driven the car, with the added benefit that he was invigorated by the fresh air and ready to sit for the morning. We were noticed by classmates and teachers—we were the nutty ones who rode bikes when it was chilly and walked when it snowed. Other families left their cars at home and the bike racks started to fill up. We strategized about how to keep fingers and cheeks warm, and how to transport the extra gear for special events and cupcakes for birthday parties.  What began as a challenge has turned into a new lifestyle for us.

We explored our new hometown by bike and by foot. We found that we could get to soccer and baseball practice without the car. Legs grew stronger, the inevitable extra pounds stayed off, sights and sounds were easier to see and hear, neighbors were easier to meet.

After years in an office, I rediscovered the outdoor world. Stiffness from sitting at a desk was replaced by occasional scrapes and bruises from tumbling off a bike after hitting a cock-eyed sidewalk crack. I had forgotten how quickly the weather changes over the course of a day, how invigorating the wind from a fast-moving high pressure system actually feels. I relearned how to predict how much time we had to get home before the rain started, and I noticed again how many leaves a tree has—how had I forgotten, but how could I have noticed through the windows of a car at 35 mph?

We walk to the library now and bike to the grocery store. We stroll with our visitors to the ice cream shops or the movies. We gather the fall leaves and the acorns and the buckeyes, and enjoy the neighbors’ flowers. By shrinking our environmental footprint a bit by leaving the car at home, we’ve left our footprints and bike treads in hundreds of new places and filled our hearts and memories with conversations and sights that never seemed to happen within the confines of the car.