Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Car-Free in the Winter

It is not winter yet. Oh, no, no, no. Not yet. But I've had a couple of questions lately from friends and relatives about our transportation plans for the inevitable cold months ahead (which can be long and snowy here in the Inland Northwest).

First of all, we have done five years' worth of car-free winters in DC, and winter is usually no picnic there, either. On the other hand, the walkability and dependable public transit options in the DC area do make for a different situation. We also spent three of our DC winters without kids, and the remaining two winters with only one kid, so we are indeed dealing with a different matter this time around.

Based on our experience now and doing this lifestyle with kids, I'm fairly convinced that any healthy person without children can live well without owning a car almost anywhere. Active transportation like walking and biking warms you up, so staying warm is genuinely not a problem if you dress appropriately. And snow can be stared down quite effectively with a good pair of boots (or a not-great pair of sneakers, which is what I've been using up until now). Having kids does complicate the winter issue insofar as young kids can't walk or bike as far as adults (or not at all, in the case of our 9-month-old), so they can't warm themselves up.

That being said, we will likely continue doing what we're doing now, just with more layers! I especially love wool and silk under- and over-layers, whether knitted by Mama or purchased from any number of accommodating retailers. Although wool under-layers can be expensive, they don't need to be washed often, so I can get away with just buying one of a particular item of clothing and airing it out to fresh between wearings. And, really, I could outfit my kids from head to toe in organic wool and silk and still come out ahead compared to owning a car!

I would love to ride my bike all winter, and I am going to try to do this as much as possible, especially on kid-free trips. I don't know how my tires will do on snow and ice, and I probably wouldn't want to ride next to cars in icy or dark conditions with kids. Cars around here will not be looking out for bikes past October. In the daytime, though, if it's just cold, our bike trailer is fully enclosed and blocks the wind, so it is surprisingly warm inside.

The same bike trailer turns into our double stroller, so again, if we adults can walk somewhere, the kids should be cozy inside with coats and a blanket. Thick snow might be a problem for this stroller, but a light snowfall won't deter the 20" inflatable wheels on this baby. Sidewalks around here tend to get shoveled pretty well (as opposed to the streets), so I'm really not worried about even deeper snows. And, really, who would drive a car in over two or three feet of snow, anyway? On truly terrible winter days, we will do what all of us should be doing: taking a snow day and sticking close to home while making do with what we have, or sending one of us stouthearted adults to the store alone if necessary.

As final options, there is almost always the bus for longer trips, or getting a ride from a neighbor in dire circumstances. I don't like doing this much, but neighbors should be neighborly, and I wouldn't deny someone the joy of being neighborly if we truly needed something and couldn't get to it.

Finally, there are two things I like to keep in mind about winter carlessness: first, walkability is much more about proximity of amenities and quality of infrastructure than it is about climate (look at Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, and even parts of Canada). By no means am I comparing Spokane to Finland, but it helps to remember that many other humans live in equally bad or worse winter conditions without cars, and they do just fine.

And second, driving a car in the winter brings its own discomforts, inconveniences (I recall one particularly irksome episode, waiting in line at Costco for snow tires as a favor to a relative after the first snowfall last year), and probably more dangers. Winter just has a way of toughening us all up.  


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