Monday, February 18, 2008

One Car, Two Car, Red Car, New Car?

I don't think I have mentioned on the blog that we have been a one-car family for the past six months. If we lived in Boston, or DC, or Chicago, this probably wouldn't be considered much of an accomplishment. In fact, it might be the norm. But in our very small city, with woefully inadequate public transportation, it is unusual for a middle class family to have one car. People actually look at us strangely when they discover this. They look like they want to ask us if we can't afford another car (because why else wouldn't we have one?), but that wouldn't be quite polite. The assumption, of course, is that everyone would WANT to have more cars, right?

It wasn't always this way, of course. I'm guessing that there was a time, in my closely-settled mostly-Catholic neighborhood of 1930's single family homes, when many wage earners took the bus or the only family car to work each day, and the kids actually walked or rode their bikes to school, music classes, friends' houses and such. But times have changed, and many among you are familiar with the current stereotype of the Soccer Mom in her minivan SUV, carting small beings about for hours each day while multitasking on her cell phone. Indeed, I am often a version of that stereotypical mom, cruising about in my battered minivan on my way to the dance studio with children (and knitting) in tow.

But here's the deal. Last August our second car, known as the "beater car", bit the dust. And while we planned to get another car, it just didn't seem that urgent, because my husband rides his bike to work about 80% of the time. He has been doing this for years, putting his environmental commitment into action and getting regular exercise by pedaling the few miles each way to and from his office. I greatly respect his commitment to bicycle commuting, even though I don't always understand it; it's not like his route to work is a relaxing trip along back roads with pretty scenery. Instead, it seems to be an adrenalin-inducing exercise in defensive maneuvering, given our famous Masshole drivers. But it works for him, and it helps that there is a shower at his workplace that he can use in the mornings.

The other 20% of the time my husband takes the bus to work. There are actually two different bus lines within a block or two of our house, so it is reasonably convenient for him to do this. But unlike in bigger cities, where many office workers commute to work via bus or subway, white-collar workers on our local buses are few and far between. Even with casual clothes, he stands out: his stainless steel travel mug in hand, his Atlantic Monthly on his lap, his white skin. It doesn't bother him a bit to be the odd man out, but it certainly says something about our city, and our culture.

So given that DH rarely needed a car, the first couple of months of our one-car arrangement worked fine. Every so often we'd hit a snag: my 9 a.m. dentist appointment that conflicted with getting kids to school, or that one day I couldn't pick the kids up from school on time and he had no way to get there to cover for me. Then we'd say, "Hey! It's time for another car." And we'd sit down and run the numbers, and then we'd think, "Huh. Maybe we can last a few more weeks." Car shopping is a drag with small children in tow, and life is busy, and there were just so many more interesting things to do (and so many other places to put our money).

But in early February we hit the six month point, and you know, it was February, in the way that only February can be. I was tired of being the one doing every school drop off and every school pick up, and DH was tired of being left car-less when I went away with the kids to visit my mom. We finally called a dealer to put in a request for the car we wanted, with the specific features we wanted, fully expecting the search for said car to take several weeks (if not longer), but voila! The car was on the lot. And as of Friday, we are the owners of a 2008 Toyota Matrix, standard shift. It's shiny and zippy. (Jessie, does this mean that now I can be cool like you?)

I do feel some guilt at giving in and getting another car, but it was a catch-22: if I am working, and putting my 4yo in part-time preschool, then we really need an additional car. Yet, much of my work income will now go to pay for the new car and insurance. DH reminds me that my job is about more than money, and that preschool for my youngest is about more than childcare. I'm still unsure. If we had any close family nearby, then I think we could make it with one car, because we would have the option to occasionally borrow a car. And Zipcar would be perfect--but it doesn't exist yet in our city. If we were true environmentalists, then perhaps we would take a stab at urban homesteading like a local couple I met last year; they have two children and no car, and they bicycle all over the city with their children (and everything else) in tow. But I'm not ready to take that step.

It's odd, our American love affair with the automobile. What is your relationship to your car?