I literally just got back from the Towards Carfree Cities conference in Portland. Actually, I'm not quite home yet, I'm camped out at Bike Works tonight. In a couple of days I'll post more stuff about the conference, including photos and tales of the Peterson's multimodal adventures in Spokane, Cheney and Portland. But for now, here is the text of the talk Christine and I gave Tuesday morning at the conference. We traded off speaking and in the transcript below what Christine said is in normal text and what I said is in italics. There was a very good crowd at the conference and I think our talk went over well.
Carfree Family Stories -- We're Not Supermen: How Mild Mannered People Demotorize Metropolis
By Christine and Kent Peterson, Issaquah, Washington
About two years ago, a story appeared on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer under the headline “A family of 4 – but no car.” “The Petersons are a family of four from Issaquah," it begins. "They like to hike, go to the movies, watch American Idol. A regular suburban bunch. Minus the SUV. Minus any car, for that matter. The Petersons don’t drive. They haven’t since 1987. As the rest of the country frets over the highest gas prices in history, the Petersons carry on as usual, biking, walking and riding the bus wherever they need to go.”
When Kent told me that reporter Sonia Krishnan wanted to interview us for this story, I had a hard time wrapping my mind around it. “Why is this a story?” I asked. “It’s just our life.” I joked with friends about our 15 minutes of fame, assuming things would quickly blow over. But papers in Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, and all over the country were picking up the story. Months later, Sonia told us she was still getting comments about it. It not only seems to be a story; it’s a story that won’t go away, and here we are, two years later, talking to all of you about our carfree life.
So much of our society is built around the automobile, although a lot of good work is being done to address that and to change that, and you’ll be able to hear about more of that this week. But we didn’t want to wait for the world to change. Instead, we were taking to heart the call to “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” And for carfree living to be humanly sustainable in our society as it now is, we’ve had to make some very thoughtful choices over the last twenty years about where and how we would live.
We first lived without a car in Duluth, Minnesota, four miles out of town, where weather regularly dealt us heavy snow and subzero temperatures, and we were challenged by the need to transport a baby, groceries, laundry, and furniture over routes never intended to be traversed by pedestrians or cyclists. When we moved to White Plains, New York, we chose to live close to downtown, within walking distance of Kent's job and some essential services. When we moved to Issaquah in 1993 with our two children, Peter and Eric, then ages 7 and 4, we sat down and planned carefully. We figured out that we needed to be within walking distance of a grocery store, good public schools, the local library, the local Episcopal church, the post office, doctors and dentists, and a pharmacy. We needed to be within biking distance of Kent’s work (which he defined as 25 miles each way), and we needed to be on a bus line. We managed to do all this by settling into downtown Issaquah, where we are also within walking distance of our Community Center, some great restaurants, convenient shopping, a fine local theater, and some really wonderful hiking trails.
When we first moved to Issaquah, various well-meaning friends of ours said, "Of course you'll need a car to live there." And most of the of folks who live there do have cars and live in the sprawling burbclaves that have grown up on the plateau or the three low mountains that surround the hundred-year old town core. And every day traffic crawls along Front Street with people "rushing" from some vital point A to get to some other vital point B. And they'll tell you that they are much too busy to walk, even though Christine and I regularly walk to our destinations faster than our auto-burdened neighbors.
I don't want to paint Issaquah as being some car-free Utopia; it's often as choked with the results of poor choices as much of the rest of this planet. But the core of the town is constrained on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by a lake, and that beautiful bit of geographic good fortune is recognized and nurtured by citizens and some of the local business and political leaders. Our mayor is a pedestrian, so she understands the value of things like crosswalks and sidewalks. Our streets are designed to manage run-off to keep the salmon stream clean. I was at a trail opening last fall, a walking/biking trail that actually goes somewhere and connects things, and one of our local councilmen told me how he and Louise McGrody of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington had first mapped the trail out and hacked their way through blackberry thorns years before.
That's how things get done. As individuals we decide what matters and as individuals and groups we act on those beliefs. My neighbor Jeff Youngstrom and his wife got rid of their car a few years ago and now get around everywhere by foot, bike or bus. Seeing Jeff on his XtraCycle reminds people every day that you don't need a car to live in America, but Jeff and some friends also formed a grass-roots group called GAIT, an acronym for Getting Around Issaquah Together. Those of us in GAIT go to city council meetings, vote, brainstorm and coach others in various ways to make Issaquah more amenable to human-scale transportation. GAIT works because it's not just cyclists OR walkers. It's cyclists AND walkers. It's people getting involved in our community, acting locally to make our town a better place.
So as an individual, how do you decide what matters? It's one of those questions that sounds easy but if you really start thinking about it can be surprisingly hard. A starting place might be to think about making that list as we did, even if you have no intention of moving anywhere. Where do you go and what do you do now that is non-negotiable? What's very important? What's nice but not essential? Is there somewhere you go or something you do that you wish you didn't? Your list of what you need and want to be able to access easily and regularly, and what you are willing to go out of your way for, is going to say a lot about what's important to you. It may look a lot different than our list, and that's fine. But in the process of considering these kinds of choices, we can learn a lot about ourselves and what we value, and once we’re clear about that, we can begin to make choices that support our values, instead of simply being caught on a treadmill of 24/7 activity and overwhelming financial obligations, as it seems that so many people today are. For example, if you value spending time together as a family, does it really make sense to live an hour away from work so that 1/12 of your day is spent in traffic? Does it make sense to schedule your kids into and chauffeur them around to so many far-flung activities that your family has no time to eat dinner together at night? The choice to drive and to live the fast-paced, high-powered life that driving enables, is too often a choice to be driven by economic pressures and cultural expectations, rather than being who we are and following our own dreams, or even slowing down long enough to find out what those dreams are.
The life we're living today didn't happen overnight. It's the outcome of years of choices, of taking, literally and figuratively, "roads less traveled," and it's still in process. The thing about choices is that one can lead to others, sometimes taking you in directions you might never have thought possible. If you decide to live without a car, you may decide to move out of the suburbs to somewhere more centrally located. If houses are smaller or more expensive there, you may decide to live in less space. This in turn will mean making choices about which possessions to hold onto and which to let go of, and being really intentional and careful about accumulating more. If you’re not shopping as much, or driving as much, you may find you have money to do other things, like traveling or going back to school. Or you may decide you don’t need to earn as much money, and you can leave an unsatisfying but lucrative job to do something you love that doesn’t pay as well, or cut back on your hours at work to put in a garden, write a book, volunteer at your church or in your community, or do something else that matters to you. You may not want to do any of those things, and again, that's fine. But if you want to do something you’re not doing, or don’t want to do something that you are doing every day, we’d encourage you to think about what your priorities really are and look creatively at your options. It's amazing, sometimes, how one small adventure can change your life.
When I was a little kid, I was jealous of my older sister because she got to go to school. I was only three years old and had to stay home with my mom while Sis got to ride on the bus to school. Like I say, I was a little kid -- what does a three year old know? I thought school was some kind of cool place. I'd watched the bus go and I knew which direction school was, so one day I escaped. I got on my trike and hit the open road. Some busybody neighbor a few blocks down the road saw me, busted me and lugged me back home. But it was too late -- I'd tasted freedom and I liked it.
As the years went by, I figured things out. I figured out that once I'd get my trike going too fast it would tip over in the corners, so I needed something that would lean. Three wheels was one too many for me, and I was lucky to have parents that knew if you try to keep a kid too safe, then he'll never be able to handle a big scary world. So they raced along behind me, pushing me when I needed pushing and letting me fall when I needed to fall, and I learned to get around this world on two wheels. That's a lesson that's taken me quite a few places over the years.
I've learned a bunch of other stuff in the forty-some years since my tricycle days. Somewhere along the line I learned to drive around in automobiles, but I never really took to it so I gave up driving over twenty years ago. This wasn't some big planet-saving move on my part or some sort of profound frugality. I just liked getting around on two wheels and being out in the world instead of being inside a box that goes too fast, looking out a windshield as the world flies by.
My friend Davey once said to me "But deep down, you hate cars, right?" I found myself telling him, “No, I love bicycles.” Like almost everybody else, I've seen the car ads with the professional driver on the closed course, weaving through redwoods or driving along the Pacific Coast. It's always the only car on the road. That looks like fun. But that's not the real world, the world packed with way too many people packed into way too many cars. I don't hate cars; I hate the sprawl we've built for cars, and as Mr. T would say, "I pity the fools" stuck inside those boxes.
Now I know lots of folks have cars because, as they've explained to me, they don't have time to waste cycling everywhere. I'm the same way except I don't have time to waste driving. As near as I can tell, the only way to really waste time is to spend it doing something you don't enjoy. This is why my choice of getting around on my own feet or on a bicycle makes sense for me, and whenever anybody asks me about it, I'm happy to try to explain it to them. And I think that's another key to converting people to a carfree life. People tend to stop listening if the first thing you say to them is "You're doing it wrong." But if they see you out there, enjoying the way you get around in the world, it can make them think. And maybe they'll ask you about it, and maybe they'll act on what you tell them. It's great to have a slogan like "one less car" on your shirt, but it's nothing compared to the thrill of seeing someone who used to drive everywhere become a bike commuter. In Washington, the Bicycle Alliance has a program called Bike Buddy where new bike commuters learn from experienced bike commuters, but any of us anywhere can be buddies to new riders.
And if you're a parent, you have a daily opportunity to pass on the skills and joys of getting around without a car. We often get asked how we managed to live without a car when we had KIDS. Peter is 22 now and Eric is 19, so they both grew up carfree. When they were small, they traveled in bike seats, carriers, strollers, wagons, and even on sleds. Going anywhere was called “having an adventure,” whether we were going to the grocery store, the park, the library, or taking the cat to the vet or going to the zoo, or going on a hike or bike ride. We were delighted as they became more capable of getting around on their own – they were getting heavy! If you think about it, most parents are thrilled when their children learn to walk, often grabbing a camera to take a picture of a baby’s first step. They are usually pleased when their kids learn to ride a bike. But they are terrified when their kids learn to drive. Watching Peter and Eric transition from carrier or bike seat to trail-a-bike to bikes of their own, from stroller to walking holding our hands to walking by themselves, from going to friend’s houses in the neighborhood, to going to school by themselves – first to the elementary school, then the middle school, then the high school – to getting themselves to music lessons and track meets, all around Issaquah and beyond; to taking the bus alone to Seattle to watch the Mariners games or rent a tux for prom, to arranging their own plane trips to visit relatives or go to college, has been a very real outward and visible sign of their incremental growth, responsibility, and independence as persons who know that they can figure out how to get wherever they want to go in life. They know that having a car doesn't make you an adult, and driving one doesn't make you free – those are things that come from inside. They may or may not drive or own cars someday, but they’ll make that choice knowing that they have options, and with awareness of the real costs and benefits of those options.
Our kids are also proof positive that the carfree life transcends political affiliation. Now I’m not sure exactly where we went wrong with those two – you really try to raise your kids right, and then sometimes they still grow up and vote Republican! But they do know how much it would cost them to buy, put gas in, maintain, and insure a car. As Peter once told Kent, “I don’t ride my bike because I’m a damn hippie like you, Dad. I ride my bike because I am a FISCAL CONSERVATIVE.”
If there is one thing I've learned about kids, it's that they may not pay much attention to what you say, but they sure as heck pay attention to what you do. As soon as they learned to walk, they learned about carrying their own stuff. They not only saw mom and dad carrying groceries home from the store in backpacks, they were carrying their stuff in packs as well. When Peter got to the trail-a-bike stage, I had to make sure I'd say "stopping" or "slowing" as we'd come up to an intersection or else he would just keep pedaling for all he was worth. On hills I'd say, "I need your power, son," and it would be like a small motor kicked in. Any parent will tell you that kids have loads of energy. I think raising our kids carfree helped channel that energy in productive ways.
Of course, not everything is smooth. One day Eric decided he'd bicycle to Seattle with a pal of his, but he neglected to tell either Christine or me of his plans. I got the phone call when he had a flat tire miles from home. He'd brought neither a patch kit nor lights for his bike and it was getting late. Christine said something about Eric definitely being my son, and I did have to admit to being a bit proud of his initiative. But I did make sure he knew he had to let one of us know where he was when he headed off on his adventures, and "For gosh sakes, travel with tools!"
I currently work as the shop manager for Bike Works, a non-profit in Seattle whose mission is to "build sustainable communities by educating youth and promoting bicycling." We teach kids bike repair, take them on rides and tours and have programs where kids earn their own bikes while learning the basics of bike mechanics. We also refurbish and sell low-cost bikes, provide bikes to Fare Start graduates, and sponsor an annual kids’ bike swap. Each year we also collect and ship used bikes to Ghana through the Village Bicycle Project.
The kids are amazing. A couple of our shop mechanics started out as earn-a-bike kids, while some other Bike Works grads are working in other shops in the Seattle area. Still others are repairing their brother's or sister's bikes or keeping their own bikes running. If you ever get a chance to see kids helping other kids work on bikes, you'll see how we can build a better world.
I think that another piece of building that better world is taking the time to appreciate and care for the world that we live in – the world that my Book of Common Prayer calls “this fragile earth, our island home.” Yes, I do feel fortunate that our kids have never been carsick, never fought in the back seat, never argued about wearing seatbelts, and never whined “I have to go potty NOW!” 20 miles from the nearest freeway exit. But one of the real advantages of walking with kids around our town, year after year, is being deeply aware – and enabling them to grow up deeply aware -- of this amazing world around us. We've noticed the subtle changes of colors in autumn leaves, the patterns of cracks in ice on a frozen pond, salmon leaping in the creek, a garter snake darting across a sunlit sidewalk, an eagle perched atop the tallest tree on our street, a panoply of fireflies illuminating expanses of grass along the Bronx River Parkway on a summer evening. We’ve stood beneath the spray of sparkling fountains in a circle of bright flowers in summer, and admired Christmas lights in the neighborhood on snowy nights. We’ve discovered small bookstores, shops, and bakeries tucked away on roads less traveled. We’d never see it all if we were zooming by at 60 mph, much less be able to take time to enjoy it, or learn to love it.
Sometimes the kids definitely enjoyed it more than I did. When Eric was about three and we lived in New York, I was walking with him to meet Peter’s school bus in a torrential downpour. A number of us parents were waiting at the bus stop huddled under umbrellas, less than enthused about the weather. Eric, however, gleefully splashed through the puddles in his bright yellow boots. “Look, everybody, it’s raining! The trees are drinking, the grass is drinking, the flowers are growing! I love rain!” We should have known then that he was destined to live in the Seattle area!
Another one of the wonderful things about being out in the world, either afoot or awheel is that you actually get to converse with people. I chat with folks all the time. I cross paths with various folks on my commute. I've given people directions, met a local woman who picks up roadside trash while she's out walking her dog, helped fellow cyclists with flat tires or thrown chains, and had hundreds of stoplight conversations. Somehow walking or cycling seems more civilized and social. We're not cut off from the world by walls and windshields, we're out in the world with other humans.
What we've missed out on are trips to Walmart or Costco to buy industrial-sized quantities of stuff. We're OK with that. We can tell you where to get a good cup of tea in Issaquah or where the good bookstores are, but we'll have a hard time telling you what freeway exit you take to get there. Even though Christine works at Safeway, we shop more often at the local market one block from our house. Getting around via human power tends to reinforce your local connections.
Another benefit of traveling together on foot is that you can really pay attention to each other, and the relaxed pace lends itself to conversations about things that really matter. Over the years I had many opportunities to chat with our kids about school, friendships, books, movies, career choices, politics, religion, drugs, cheating, weapons in school, and all kinds of things as we walked around Issaquah or rode buses to Seattle. Of course, this also means that you may find yourself having conversations in public that you wish the world wasn’t overhearing.
One afternoon I walked down with Eric to the middle school to sign a consent form for Peter to begin his Hepatitis B series of immunizations at the school clinic. We had to wait in line for him to get his shot, and Peter, to pass the time, decided to read the fine print on the form. He looked up at me in horror. “I could get hives from this shot!” he exclaimed. “I could be paralyzed! I could stop breathing! I could DIE!” He was not reassured by the explanation that these extreme side effects hardly ever happen, but medical people want to protect themselves from lawsuits. As we walked home from the clinic down Issaquah’s main street, rush hour traffic crawling along with open windows, he remained preoccupied with his imminent death. I attempted to change the subject as we approached a busy intersection. “Do you have any homework tonight?” I asked. “I’m not going to do my homework!” he announced loudly, and a few heads turned among those waiting to cross the street. “I won’t have time to do my homework, because I am going to be busy writing my will. I want to make sure that Eric doesn’t inherit my Legos. I’m leaving them to Nathan. There is no point in doing homework, because I am going to DIE tonight and it is ALL YOUR FAULT!” At that, more than a few heads turned. I was never so happy to see a light change, allowing us to hurry on across the street, with Eric wailing loudly, “But I want the Lego castle when Peter dies! It would be a perfect home for my Lego pirates!” Now I grant you, if we’d been sealed up in a car, no one would have witnessed this charming little scene. On the other hand, the children of people who drive have plenty of opportunities to embarrass their parents in grocery stores, shopping malls, restaurants, and so forth. In lots of ways, carfree families are just like everybody else.
One of the things we have to do, just like everybody else, is get to work every day. When we first moved to Issaquah, I had a job in Issaquah and my commute was less than a mile. Many days I'd walk that distance rather than bike it. Over the years, I've had various jobs in various locations in the Seattle area and when people learn that my current commute is 37 miles round trip, they shake their heads and say "That's insane. I could never bike that distance." Or they say "Well, you can do that because you are a super athlete."
Well, on the surface, it does seem like a silly way to spend several hours of my day. But here's the thing. I love where I live. And I love my job. And I love my commute. How many people can honestly say they love their commute? Well, this is a carfree conference, so maybe a lot of you!
I get to ride my bike several hours each day. I get to see the sun rise over the Cascades and set over the the Olympics. I get tan in the summer and stay damp and strong in the winter. I've seen raccoons, deer, coyotes, beaver, lizards, snakes, otters, squirrels, thousands of birds and dozens of friends on my daily commutes. Every day is unique and every day I get to ride my bike. Well, almost every day. Christine has this "concerned wife" look that she displays whenever we get an ice storm, and even though I have studded tires for my bike and I can control it, I can't control those SUVs that are slip sliding away. On those rare days I take the bus.
But most days I'm riding, and I don't ride because I'm a super tough guy. Some of you may know me from some other things I've done, some things crazier than my commute. I've ridden lots of 1200 kilometer brevets and back in 2003 I won the Raid Californie-Oregon, a 750-mile alley-cat race from San Francisco to Portland. A few years later I rode my single speed mountain bike the 2,500 miles from Canada to Mexico along the spine of the Rocky Mountains in a bit over 22 days and set a record that still holds today. Some folks look to those rides and cite them as evidence that I'm unusually tough and that's why I can commute long distances. I think they've got that backwards. I don't commute because I'm some kind of a tough guy. Whatever toughness I have (and it's not much, believe me) is a result of my commuting miles.
People who don't ride or walk seem to think our way of getting around must be tiring or draining. The truth is that we need both stress and rest to build strength and stamina. A life of ease, where your only effort is clicking a mouse or pressing a gas pedal, will lead you to a place where every effort is draining, every step a struggle. But walking to the store, riding down the block or up the hill -- these small adventures build on one another. When my friend Scott Cutshall started biking, he had to rest multiple times per block. He weighed 500 lbs then. Today, a couple of years later, I think he's around 230 lbs. Less than half the man he used to be, and he’s pretty happy about that. His motto? "Keep riding, always." Maybe our way of getting around is draining. It drained a few hundred pounds off of Scott!
My daily rides, the rides I love, have taught me some simple truths. Do what you love. Any distance is biking distance if you have the time and enough food to keep going. We all get 24 hours each day. We should spend that time living the life that makes sense to us.
One of the things that made sense to Kent back in 2003 was to leave the software industry to be a full-time bike geek. At the time, Peter was starting college and Eric had some medical issues going on, so it made sense to me to start looking for a job. After nearly 17 years out of the work force, with the local economy in the pits, I didn’t have a lot of options. But I was good at walking to the Issaquah Safeway and shopping for groceries, and when Safeway.com went live that summer, I became a personal shopper. “You get paid to shop?” people ask. Yes, indeed, I do.
I start work at 5:00 am. I wake up at 3:30, and an hour later I’m out the door. I pause on the balcony to look up at the stars, the moon, the clouds, put up my umbrella if it’s raining, and head down the stairs into the early morning darkness. It’s quiet, peaceful. The streetlights cast shadows of trees across the sidewalks and trails as I pass. Occasionally I see someone out jogging or walking a dog, and there are a few lights in apartment windows, but mostly people are still asleep. I cross the Issaquah creek and hear the sounds of its waters singing in the stillness, and pause on the bridge to look and listen. A heron often feeds there, poking beneath the water’s surface for whatever it is that herons eat for breakfast. In the fall I can hear the fish splashing their way upstream toward the salmon hatchery. One fall morning, I wasn’t the only one who was aware of the fish. As I approached the bridge, the large dark lumbering shape of a bear – yes, a BEAR – loomed out of the darkness, moving down toward the water for a salmon feast. That day I backed up and took an alternate route, figuring that I would at least have an interesting excuse for being late to work. But normally, I cross the bridge, and pass through an apartment complex; a car passes slowly, delivering the morning paper. I’m out through an opening in their fence and into the empty school parking lot next to the silent expanse of a baseball field. I hurry through the trees on the school grounds, my human footfalls occasionally startling squirrels, geese, raccoons, or even deer. Out onto the path again, and I’m soon walking through the brightly lit door of the Issaquah Safeway. I love my commute, too, and I appreciate the exercise that it builds into my day. I will admit it’s more fun in clear weather than in a downpour that turns the school parking lot into a lake. That’s what boots and rain jackets and umbrellas are for, and once I arrive, hot chocolate chases away the chills.
One of the guys who's usually there when I get in is John, our Frozen Foods manager. John read the article in the paper about us, and he's one of the people responsible for extending my fifteen minutes of fame into two years at the store. Every time we get a new employee, he has to tell him or her about me and that article and how we don't have a car. He starts work at 1:00 am, so he's halfway through his shift and sitting at the table on a coffee break before I even get started. He'll ask me about the weather, and if I have to admit it's raining, again, he'll mutter, "Boy, walking in the rain, that sucks." I set my umbrella up to dry, hang up my jacket, and ask, in a pleasant, conversational tone, "So, John, how much is a gallon of gas going for these days?" Now this is a subject that gets John going like no other. In the middle of a tirade that I won't repeat verbatim in polite company, I hear something like "$4.22 a gallon! Can you believe it? That’s insane!" I grab my apron and name badge out of my locker. "Gee," I answer, a bit too cheerfully, "that sucks." By this time, other employees are coming up to punch in, and he takes the opportunity to tell one of the newer ones, "Hey, did you know she's famous? She and her husband were on the front page of the P-I -- there was a big story about how they've lived without a car for 20 years! With kids and everything!" She stares at me like I'm from another planet. "Don't listen to him," I tell her, as I'm clocking in. "It's really not a story. It's just our life."