Learning not to drive, one baby step at a time

A habitual driver decides to hit the road on foot.

Robert Harbison/CSM/File
Drive my car: Commuters take to the crowded freeways in Los Angeles after work.

I was born to drive – literally. When I was a baby, according to family folklore, the only way to get me to stop crying was for my father to put me in the car and drive me around the block – and around, and around, and around. When I finally did stop crying, my mother made him sit in the driveway for at least five minutes with the engine running to make sure I didn't start again. If I did, we went around again. Gas was 29 cents a gallon.

It seemed as though I lived my entire childhood in a car. On Sundays, my family "went for a drive." Nowhere in particular – just for a drive. We drove until my father was ready to turn back, and then we drove home. All our vacations were road trips. We played, ate, and slept in the car along the way. Gas was 39 cents a gallon.

As a teenager, I was the first of my friends to get a car. My parents needed me to help at their shop after school. I worked for rock-bottom wages and used the money to put gas in my car. The shop was a little more than a mile from my house. Could I have walked? Ridden a bike? Taken public transportation? The only thing I knew was to get in a car and drive. And so drive I did. Gas was 59 cents a gallon.

After college, having grown up in the urban sprawl of the South, my husband and I moved to the urban sprawl of the Southwest. It never occurred to me that there was any way to get anywhere except by driving. Grocery store: drive. School: drive. Post office: drive. And so I continued to live my life in a car.

And then, 18 years ago, we moved to a quaint New England village where everything was what the realtor called "within walking distance." So what did I do? I drove. I drove to the grocery store two blocks away. I drove to the library just down the street. I drove my kids to the "neighborhood" school. Once (and the neighbors will never let me live this down), I drove one of my son's friends home – around the corner. (Well, in my defense, it was pouring down rain. However, my friends informed me, kids don't melt when they get wet!)

But for me, walking was something you did indoors to, say, get from the living room to the kitchen. Once you were outside, you drove. Gas was $1 a gallon.

It never occurred to me that driving everywhere was a bad thing – either for my fitness, my pocketbook, or the environment. And I must confess that, for an intelligent person, it took me a long time to catch on. I started figuring it out when I began keeping track of my mileage for a small business I started.

The big epiphany came the day I was going to the mall to return something and calculated that it would cost more money in gas to return the item than it cost me to buy it in the first place. So instead of getting in the car to return it, I donated it to charity. Gas was $2 a gallon.

Let me just say that the "reduce" part of the three R's of conservation has always been a challenge for me.

The "recycle" part? Well, that's easy. My town gives me a green bin and tells me that anything made of plastic, paper, glass, or aluminum goes in there. Done! Everything from my morning paper to my moo goo gai pan containers promptly hit the green bin when I'm done with them.

"Reuse"? Piece of cake! Sometimes I don't recycle the plastic moo goo gai pan container and use it to pack my lunch instead.

But "reduce"? Not using the resources to begin with? Not taking that disposable cup for my coffee? Not using paper or plastic at the grocery store? And not making that trip in the car? Well, that one takes more thought and effort on my part. And I admit I'm not good at it yet. But I'm trying.

The first time I announced to my family that we were going to walk to the movie theater (about 10 minutes from our house), they thought I was nuts.

"But," they whined, "we'll be late to the movie. It will take sooo long to walk all the way up there." So, while they sat in the empty car in complete disbelief, I started walking. I thought maybe they needed a refresher on how it worked – one foot in front of the other.

I often have these same arguments with myself. I hear my own whiny voice telling me that where I have to go is too far, or what I have to buy is too heavy, or that I don't have enough time to walk. I've used them all.

Sometimes I have to be stern with myself, the way I was with the kids. I have to say, "Self, walking is better for you, it's better for your pocketbook, and it's better for the environment."

So I am finally learning how not to drive – and just in time, too – because now gas is more than $3 a gallon.

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