Friday, July 12, 2013

Moving to be Car-Free (Again)

As you have probably gathered, we have been living against our will as exiles in suburbia for the last several months.  I started this blog partly in response to our situation, to remind myself of my values in an environment that seems designed to undermine them.  That sounds overly dramatic, and I know that there are people who manage to live simple, non-materialistic, non-car-centric lives in the suburbs. But really, trying to live car-light in the postwar suburbs is like trying to lose weight living next door to a McDonald's: possible, but unnecessarily difficult.

For this reason, I'm thrilled that our liberation from suburbia is now imminent!  Our situation has become secure enough in our new city that we will be able to move into a more permanent home in August. We have already located said charming bungalow, so I wanted to expound a bit on our thought processes in choosing a home that supports a car-free life with little ones.

The Fabric of Our Lives

I do love cotton. But in this case, I'm referring to the geographic fabric of the places we choose to live and be. 

For myself, I feel that my life's fabric is a cohesive whole when I know I can walk to anyplace that I need on a daily or weekly basis. That is our general guiding principle for choosing a place to live. That doesn't necessarily mean that I will walk to all of these places; I may bike, take public transit, or carpool, depending on my needs, time, energy, and the weather, but I like to know that nothing I need on a regular basis requires me to run across a freeway, walk more than a block or two on those hideous 6-lane tributes to postwar engineering (you know the ones), or generally take my life in my hands. Even if Trader Joe's is 5 miles away, I like to know that I could walk there safely if the mood were to strike. is a very useful tool to determine whether the neighborhood you're considering is generally walkable. It has features that allow you to plot your commute by time and mode of transport (a 30-minute walk, for example, or a 10-minute bus ride).  It does have some limitations, however, so it is necessary to check into the specifics yourself.  For example, an outlying area covered in strip malls, big box stores, and wide streets will receive a high walk score, though no one in her right mind would like to live there.  I know WalkScore is working on a new Street Smart feature to mitigate this problem, but it is not operational yet.

With those general ideas in mind, here were our specific guidelines for choosing a walkable home.

#1: Walking distance (or one easy bus ride) to working spouse's work.

In How to Live Well Without Owning a Car, author Chris Balish argues that if you can get to work reliably and regularly without your own car, then you can live without one altogether. Work is the one place you need to get to on time, on a daily basis. Everything else is negotiable. For us, walking distance is under 2 miles or so, a 30- to 40-minute walk. 

The house we settled on is even closer to my husband's work than we planned, more like a 20-25 minute walk. Keep in mind that 20 minutes of walking is not like 20 minutes of driving: it is 20 minutes door to door. No looking for parking, no waiting in traffic, just 20 minutes of fresh air and exercise. Forgot your wallet? No U-turns or driving around the block necessary: just stop, turn 180 degrees, and continue walking down the sidewalk until you get back home to pick up whatever you left behind.

This is actually the first time we will have the luxury of living within walking distance to work. Walking Daddy is looking forward to leaving behind his two-bus commute and having a bit more freedom. I will also be able to walk to meet him with the kids for lunch or after work for evening activities downtown.  For lazy days, running-late days, or bad weather days, there is also a bus that can take him to work in 5 minutes.

#2: Ten-minute walk to at least one real grocery store.   

Not a convenience store or just a farmers' market. This may or may not be where we do our large weekly grocery run, but it needs to be a place where we can pick up bread at 10 o'clock at night, or eggs for a last-minute birthday cake.  We then like to have other grocery stores or farmers' markets within a 30-minute walk or an easy bus ride.

#3: Ten- to fifteen-minute walk to at least one park with a playground. Multiple parks preferred.

With young kids, a park within walking distance is a necessity and sanity-saver. We prefer to have more than one park to choose from so the walk is interesting and varied for us parents as well.

#4: One library within a comfortable walk or a very easy bus ride.

See my last post on libraries: the library is a weekly necessity for us.  In our new home, we will actually have three libraries within a 2-mile walk, including the main library branch.

#5: A neighborhood where we want to take walks.  

Walking is the major leisure activity for the adults in our family, so some elements we look for are sidewalks, interesting homes, mature trees, businesses for window shopping, and multiple parks.

#6: Other amenities desirable but not necessary for daily/weekly life: A hardware store, coffee shops, clothing and household stores like Target (we do much of this kind of shopping online anyway), churches, bookstores, restaurants, theaters, community centers, doctor's offices, or natural parenting stores (I only mention these because our city just got one - Bella Cova).

Note that our list of priorities reflects our current life stage and needs... if we didn't have kids (or if we liked bars), then bars, clubs, and restaurants would figure higher on the list. With very young kids, we're not too concerned about schools yet, though we will have one right across the street, which will be nice for the playground and comparatively slow traffic.

 But doesn't that cost more?

To paraphrase the bookseller in You've Got Mail, yes, housing in a community like I'm describing is worth more. There are ways to cut the extra expense, such as choosing a smaller dwelling, picking an apartment over a house, or living in an up-and-coming neighborhood. We are fortunate to live in a city where the cost of housing is low enough to begin with that we don't have to compromise any of our house wants (size, style, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, yard, etc.) to live in a location we love, BUT we would be willing to sacrifice any of those things for location in a heartbeat if we had to. When we lived in the DC area, we did sacrifice quite a few things we wanted in our home itself in order to be able to afford to live in a walkable neighborhood.

While our housing expenses may be higher than they would be in an outlying suburb, our overall cost of living is much lower. By living in a walkable community, we save hundreds per month on car ownership (about $8000 per year according to Balish), not to mention gym membership. We're healthier and happier being part of the fabric of a community, rather than having the different parts of our lives divided up into pieces. Is all of this worth either higher housing costs or less square footage?  There is no doubt in my mind.



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