Alan Durning is the author of over a dozen books including How Much Is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth, The Car and the City, and The Year of Living Car-lessly. He is a former senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington D.C., a sought after keynote speaker, and a consultant on a number of advisory panels such as the Sustainable Washington Advisory Panel, the Urban Sustainability Advisory Panel, the Washington Health Foundation’s Policy Board, and the advisory board of the Center for a New American Dream (where he was a founding board member). He is also the green parent to three children, aged 15-22; the eldest of whom inadvertently launched the family’s “Year of Living Car-lessly” by wrecking their one and only automobile. Instead of replacing the family ride, Alan and his family embarked upon a year-long experiment to get their kids to school, soccer and birthday parties without a car. I caught up with Alan 18 months after the experiment began and he and his family were still living car-lessly. Here’s what Alan Durning had to say about his car-free existence.
MNN: Did you take much grief from your kids over this experiment or were they happy to be involved in it from the start?
Alan Durning: We’ve taken some grief but not as much as I feared. We did bribe them with cell phones so whenever they started to give me a hard time I just asked if they were ready to give up their phones. We still arrange all of their transportation so they haven’t been as inconvenienced as you might think. Sometimes they complain when we tell them they will have to bike or walk somewhere … especially my daughter. She doesn’t like to bike because it messes up her hair.
Have your kids had to miss many activities?
No, they haven’t missed any that were clearly important to them. For some things they didn’t care that much about they may have had to decide whether it was worth biking to get there and occasionally they made the decision to pass.
Do you feel that your kids understand what you are trying to do?
I think it goes back and forth for them. The adolescent mind is not logically consistent. But they are happy to take credit for it sometimes. For instance when there is a discussion at school about climate change they are pleased to point out that their family doesn’t have a car. But there are also plenty of times when they just think the whole thing is a pain. Teens in particular are so concerned with fitting in with their peers, and all of their friends live in households with at least one car if not one car per driver. So they alternately embrace it and think it’s silly.
You have already surpassed the experiment’s one-year mark and are still car-less. Is this a decision that you continue to reevaluate or are you permanently car-less?
We’re evaluating it constantly. We did it as an experiment, not as a vow. We’ve stayed car-less month-by-month (we didn’t sign another one-year lease so to speak.) In fact, in the last few months it has actually gotten harder to be car-less because our transportation needs are changing. Our kids will be in high school soon and we don’t know if it will be easier because they will be more independent or if it will be harder because of all of the social and extracurricular things that we hope they will be involved in. I will make no predictions about where we’ll be a year from now … car-less or car-full.
What were the best and worst moments of your experiment?
The worst moment? It was a cold, rainy night and we had taken a bus across town. My youngest was very cold and hungry and the bus was very late. We had no food to give him and there wasn’t any place nearby to get him something to eat. If we had had a car, I could have had him home, warmed up and fed in eight minutes. Instead, he was crying at the bus stop and I couldn’t fix it. By the time we got off the bus (which was 10 blocks from our house) we were beginning to think he had a fever. My wife took him into a shop where he could stay warm and I ran home and got our bike trailer and we put him in it with a lot of blankets and got him home and put him to bed. It turns out he was better in the morning. But the feeling of not being able to do my job and take care of my children was by far the worst. The good news is that those moments have been very rare for us.
Some of the best moments for me have been cycling with my kids. As I mentioned, my daughter doesn’t particularly like biking. But the other day we had a great ride on our tandem bike. We biked nine miles and she had never gone nine miles before. She didn’t want to do it at first, but she was having a great time and she came home proud and beaming. That was certainly one of the best moments
Do you have any advice for other parents who may be considering a similar experiment?
I probable have too much advice. The first thing is to go slow. It might be too much to go completely car-less at first whereas it may be possible to shed one car. You can save a lot of money by shedding a car. Even an old, run-down car that is completely paid off will still cost you about $400 a month. And if you like to drive new cars and turn them in every few years you’re probably paying $600-$650 a month. The scale of money that’s involved is very, very substantial. So what you might get out of this is thousands and thousands of dollars in a college fund. That might be more motivating to many parents then the environmental benefits.
Parents also need to understand that there will be a lot more planning. Basically you are substituting time spent driving for time spent planning. The downside is a loss of impulsiveness. The upside is that you tend to set priorities and do things that are more important. You tend to make more conscious choices about how you are going to spend your time and this is a big plus.