City Living: The Joy of Not Having a Car

I was hopeful but uncertain about how much I would like being car-less in our new city.  I wondered how we would manage family life without a trunk full of sports equipment, crates of water bottles, on-demand pretzels and snacks, mobile phone chargers, Kleenex that doesn’t run out and a healthy supply of bags (the dry cleaning bag, the returns bag, the donations bag, the dirty shoes bag, the "left by another kid at your house" bag, the barf bag.)   I imagined a life without IKEA or worse, going to IKEA and only coming away with tea lights due to space constraints. 

I was excited about shopping with my cute trolley until I pictured walking home with a one-wheel-gone-missing trolley and a 24 pack of toilet paper balanced on my head.  (I know from recent experience that a one-wheel-gone-missing trolley is really just a very heavy, very awkward bag.)  Then I reminded myself I was returning to the land of Amazon and online grocery stores to take care of the relentless toilet paper needs even if it couldn’t solve for how to carry a large houseplant home.  (Answer: cute trolley gets dirty.  I cut off circulation to my right arm.)

Many of my concerns were about convenience and moving “freight” but I also wondered if I would miss the sanctuary of the car.  I wondered what it would be like on a rainy day after school and not having the comfort of a warm car to usher your kids into.  I wondered if the free-flowing conversation that sometimes happens between parent and child in the safety of a car would still happen on a noisy bus.  I wondered if I would get as much out of a podcast played in my ears instead of over the car speakers. 

But as it turns out, after six weeks of living in London, hope has beat out uncertainty.  Big time.  I do not love being wet and cold and packed in like a sardine on a crowded subway but I actually love not having car.  It’s definitely not always easy (ie, taking your feverish son to the doctor) but I’m confident that being on foot and on public transportation has been a major contributor in accelerating our sense of belonging to our new city.  I say the belonging bit with confidence for a number of reasons:

First, there is plenty of online shopping to solve the moving stuff around issue.  So many places deliver in London.   Having well-stocked backpacks and children old enough to pack them is another adjustment. We simply take more care when walking out the door knowing that we won't be returning for a long time.  And if there is something we would have had in our trunk but forgot to bring, we pick it up along the way.  (Shoes excluded.)  Our stuff now feels like the responsibility of each of us not just the one behind the wheel of the car.

Second, not having a car takes you out of the driver’s seat.  Ceding control, where you can, is healthy for all of us.  You are at the mercy of a bus driver or train operator and try as you might, you won’t be invited to ride shotgun.   Nor can you “make up” time by leaving a few minutes later.   You have to leave with plenty of time to get where you’re going (in London anything that crosses town usually means 45 minutes) and then surrender the rest of the ride to someone else behind the wheel or the upper limit of non-perspiring, speed walking.   Plus, until you exorcise it from your life, you have no idea how much traffic, terrible drivers and the teeny tiny number of available parking spaces causing 40% of the traffic intrudes on your sense of well-being. 

Third, not having a car means regular exercise just got a whole lot easier.  It also means that when confronted with an able-bodied but tired child, you can say “this is our only option” and they will know negotiation is futile.   So yeah, sometimes you have to dodge a few piles of dog poop on the sidewalk or suffer through a hail storm in the wrong outerwear, but you are burning calories while at it.  And when you’re (and they’re) burning calories instead of eating empty ones like stale car pretzels, the endorphins send you “well done” messages that make you like your life way more than you liked your leather seats.   

Fourth, after a few goes in the car, you know the way.  But when walking or taking public transportation, there’s always something more to experience because all your senses are engaged.  You are not just getting from point A to point B but you are creating a detailed mental map.  You see tucked away shops you wouldn’t notice from a car window.   You smell the coffee shops that roast their own beans.  You hear a wide range of voices, sometimes exuberant off-key singing, instead of the monotony of road traffic noise.  Your body begins to know where the wind tunnels are and where to expect a late afternoon sun beam.  My children might also mention not having a car improves the odds of stopping for a proper snack.  

All your interactions are closer and because you don’t have to keep your eyes fully on the road, you are free to notice them more.   Depending on the time of day (ie commuting hours), you might only be able to notice the dandruff on the guy sharing your personal space on the subway which isn’t awesome but still beats risking your left bumper and sanity trying to find parking where there is none.

And finally, if belonging is about community, mass transit can be a way to enter in to it.  Sometimes that means conversation (which I enjoy) but I’m finding that sitting or standing with someone in silence is a kind of solidarity.  I love not having mobile service when I go into the subway which forces me to engage with my thoughts or a book or the London Evening Standard.  It’s a wholly different kind of sanctuary than my car was, and I have to share it not just with my family, and yet it feels like one.   I doubt my children would agree on this point (they would say they prefer the car because there is more room) although they don’t seem at all hindered by sharing their day with witnesses.  Their sanctuary is wherever you are.

Not having a car isn’t viable in a lot of places but if you live in a big city, you might be surprised how much more at home you feel in your city without one.  So far it’s been one of our joys living in London.