Carla Saulter is a writer, parent and bus rider from Seattle who blogs about being car free on her website BusChick.com. She also writes about public transportation and children at Grist.org. According to her bio, she exchanged her car keys for a bus pass in March of 2003, and has never looked back. You can read more about why she takes the bus in her lovely This I Believe essay, Bus Chick’s Manifesto.
In honor of the “back to school” time of year, we chatted briefly with Carla about the delights and challenges of living car free with kids. Take a peek at our conversation with the Bus Chick herself below. Then feel free to add your own ideas and thoughts on how to work public transportation into your own family in the comments section.
CYWB: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us, Carla! It would be fantastic if you could begin by giving us a brief overview of the landscape of your car free life.
Carla: Because my family does not own a car, transportation considerations were one of our key selection criteria when choosing our home. To me, the location of our home mattered more than the house itself. Even a few blocks can make a huge difference when you spend a lot of time walking.
My husband and I both bus to work (he works in Redmond and I work downtown), and our kids’ daycare is within walking distance. So, one of us can drop them off and catch the bus from there.
CYWB: A lot of people think about going car free or light and say, “that’s great, but it couldn’t possibly be me.” In surveys we’ve conducted, parents often indicate that they need to be able to pick their kids up from school, run errands after work, etc. I wondered if you could speak to whether going car free could actually be anyone.
Carla: By the time we had kids, we had fortunately already set up our life in such a way that would enable us to continue to be car free.If you’ve already got a home and a job and your life set up a certain way, making the shift can be more challenging.
It’s doesn’t have to be all or nothing, though. The key is thinking about your life differently, and identifying opportunities to make the choice to not drive. Take going to the grocery store for example. People always think it takes longer to walk, yet if I were to get my kids in the car, drive the 7 blocks to the grocery store, look for parking, get out of the car, unstrap them, and get across the parking lot to the store, the time savings are negated. We tend to accept the daily hassles of driving as given parts of life, when there are lots of other options.
The huge thing for parents is getting kids to and from school—a large percentage of traffic during rush hour is caused by parents taking their kids to school, and many people think they are doing their kids a favor by driving them to school. But in fact the most dangerous place for a kid to be is in a car, and trafficcreated by parents driving their kids to school alsocreates danger for the children who do walk. The key is re-imagining how your kids get to school, and separating your commutes from theirs. If your kids walk, bike or take the bus to school, that frees up your options for how to get yourself to work. If you have questions about commuting with children, I would check out the organization Safe Routes to School and Anne Lutz Fernandez’s book, Carjacked. Both have good, reassuring information for parents who are considering this.
When you’re accustomed to driving, any other choice seems like a lot of hassle –on the surface, getting in the car seems the easiest. When trying a new commute, there is considerable work on the front end, and the challenge is getting people over the initial hump. Challenge yourself to try something for a week—or even once—with the understanding that it’s only a test. If you don’t like it, you can stop.
CYWB: Something you’ve written extensively about is how your kid’s lives have been improved by their experience being on public transportation. Can you talk a bit more about this?
Carla: One huge positive is that my kids are going to be great walkers! Exercise is always going to be an integral part of their life, because they’ve grown up with it as something that’s completely normal.
Their experience is such that getting around doesn’t mean being strapped in a box. The going somewhere for my kids is the adventure, being on the bus, waiting for the bus, walking around in our neighborhood. We’re partners in crime, and everything is an adventure for us. And the majority of the time, young children LOVE buses.
CYWB: Do you have a “survival kit” that you bring on the bus?
Carla: Good question! Not exactly, though there are things I always have with me. I don’t bring toys on the bus, because they take up a lot of room in my bag, and I don’t find that they provide much distraction for an antsy child. We live very close to the library, so I always keep compact, age appropriate books in my bag. I also have bubbles for bus stops, and nonperishable snacks:raisins or crackers. I am intrigued, however, by the idea of having a special (compact) toy box that only comes out on the bus!
CYWB: Not to put you on the spot, but is there anything that King County Metro could do to improve the public transportation experience for parents?
Carla: Taking a stroller on the bus is terrible. The current policy is that you need to fold the stroller down before you get on the bus, which is extremely time-consuming, cumbersome, and inconvenient. There are some good reasons why this policy exists, but it’s not communicated well or enforced consistently. Low-floor buses help with accessibility for all riders, including parents with children.Link Light rail is easy because you can roll your stroller onto the trains, but there are still some issues. Parents: I recommend using an infant carrier instead of a stroller, but if you are going to bring one,make sure it’s a lightweight umbrella model.
CYWB: For some people, money talks, and according to AAA, you can save up to $9000 annually by not having a car. Have you ever been able to do something awesome with the money you’ve saved?
Carla: My husband has never had a car, so he’s been able to put away quite a lot over the years. Our kids college funds are basically already taken care of, and we can go on adventures when we want. But besides savings, another way to think it is that when you’re a car owner, a lot of your time working is spent towards paying for it. If you’re not doing that, perhaps you’d be able to work less and have more time with kids. Or, you could choose to retire early so you have more time with your family that way.
CYWB: Some parents express the concern that if they don’t drive to work and an emergency happens, they won’t be able to easily get to home or school. Has that ever factored in to your considerations?
Carla: I think that’s crucial. When I started outriding the bus to work, even before I had kids, I would worry, how would I be able to suddenly leave work if I had to? What would I do if I needed to go home? Now my husband’s employer offers the GuaranteedRide Home service as part of the ORCA Passport program, and it provides tremendous peace of mind. But even if that service isn’t offered at your workplace, you can always give yourself permission to spend $100 a year on taxis. That’s a small amount compared to the cost of driving every day.
CYWB: Do you find that having a car forces you to become hyper-local? Do you think you miss out on experiences because of that?
Carla: People feel like having a car provides them with unlimited options. It’s true that cars are useful for certain purposes, but not for every trip, every time—certainly not for the majority of trips that Americans use cars for, which are two miles or less. What I’ve found is that there’s so much in my neighborhood! We go to the library twice a week, and we have three community centers, the lake, and amazing parks all within walking distance. My husband and I also take the bus to go to night events all over town, and we take a Zipcar when we need to go somewhere far. I love being part of my community, knowing my neighbors, and feeling connected. I think this really gives your kids a sense of place. I mean, why do you live in a neighborhood? What does a neighborhood mean to you if you are always in a car going somewhere else? We just moved onto our street, and we’ve already met most of our neighbors because we’re always out walking. Our lives are not limited, but absolutely enriched.