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Share The Ride In This Hustle, Bustle Era, A Family Chooses To Adjust To A One-Car Lifestyle

“When are you going to get another car?!” my exasperated acquaintance asked. I’d just related that I’d be limited to my bike if I wanted to go anywhere because my husband, Tom, was taking the car out of town for a couple of days. When I told her we had no plans to go back to two cars, she rolled her eyes at the inconvenience.

I occasionally frown at the inconvenience, too, but mostly I grin at the money we save and the pollution we prevent.

“Yeah, but is Tom grinning?” another friend queried, when I told her how we were thriving as a one-car family. “After all, you get the car and he has to walk to work every day.”

Well, he can add, too: no maintenance cost (say, $400 a year), no insurance (another $500 a year), no license fee or taxes ($150), no gas (if he drove to work every day, he’d spend $100 year, I suppose), plus the additional expense of purchasing the car (perhaps $1,500 a year). After 10 years, we’ll have saved $26,500.

But money is really secondary to why we long dreamed of owning only one car. The news that visibility at one of America’s most beloved national parks - the Grand Canyon - was being reduced by automobile exhaust generated hundreds of miles away set us to thinking about the real cost of owning cars. Then, when we became parents and it turned out our daughter was asthmatic, we were further sensitized to the environmental costs of car ownership. Automotive air pollutants include substances that exacerbate asthma.

Each turn of the ignition key sets far more in motion than four wheels. Remote and sensitive areas are probed by oil exploration. Ocean life is threatened by the risk of oil spills during production. Then, the refining process produces a series of pollutants.

And there’s more: Oil and grease from cars are carried via storm drains to ground and surface waters. Waste tires pile up. Old batteries leak lead and other heavy metals …

So for the past five years or so, we’ve been easing into the one-car lifestyle. And we haven’t been doing it alone. It may be a quiet trend in the United States, but in Britain environmentalists have introduced the Road Traffic Reduction Bill, calling for a 10 percent reduction in automobile traffic within 15 years.

Here in the U.S., individuals opting for one car say it’s not such an onerous adjustment. I’ve been corresponding with some one-car family members via user group e-mail on the Internet. Though I know very little about these “pen pals,” usually not even their full names, we share a lifestyle bond.

“One car is a pain at first,” says a working mom who has lived the one-car lifestyle for several years. “But my husband and I got more efficient, and now we enjoy time together and the hassles have gotten less noticeable.”

Certain circumstances certainly help ease the transition to one car. When we sold our second car, we lived in an area (suburban Washington, D.C.) that has a combination of excellent public transportation and a paved bike/ walking path system.

Then, when we moved to a small town, it was easy to find housing within walking distance of Tom’s job. I work at home. Tom thinks walking - a mile - is probably quicker than driving in the winter, when he’d have to warm up the car and scrape ice before making the commute. As it is, he arrives at work rosy cheeked and invigorated in 20 minutes. In the summer, he zips into work on his bicycle in only 10 minutes.

Of course the picture isn’t always so rosy. One former Anchorage resident tells of commuting without a car during the spring thaw in Alaska. “The world becomes a lake! It made walking or waiting for the bus a nightmare. I whined a lot every spring.”

In my family, we do our major complaining when one of us needs to take the car out of town. But it only happens a few times a year, so the left-behind family members stock up on groceries and get cozy at home. We always have our bikes or our friends with cars if the isolation goes on too long.

“Our main hassle is getting our car worked on,” says another one-car family member. “So we rent a car. We use a car dealership that has cheap per-day rental rates, and it’s just a block away from our mechanic’s, to boot. Actually, we sometimes even look forward to renting a car because we get a little thrill driving around in a late-model, cushy auto.

“We both work outside the home,” she continues, “and we have more husband/wife time because we commute in the same car. In the evenings especially I look forward to chatting with my husband about how the day’s been as we drive to pick up our daughter. Sometimes if things are hectic, our morning and evening commute time is the only chance we get to talk all day!”

Most one-car families use a combination of biking, walking, public transportation and efficient juggling of errands to make their lifestyle work. As one cheerful individual put it, “If you decide to make the transition from two cars to one, it can seem like a major pain at first - you have to do more planning and coordinating. After a while, though, it becomes routine and no big deal.”

MEMO: Kristi G. Streiffert is a free-lance writer based in Coulee Dam, Wash.

This sidebar appeared with the story: NEXT WEEK A Colville family survives nicely without any car at all.

Kristi G. Streiffert is a free-lance writer based in Coulee Dam, Wash.

This sidebar appeared with the story: NEXT WEEK A Colville family survives nicely without any car at all.