Seattle's Bold Bioneers

Meet the bikers, bus riders, and moochers of carless Seattle.

Welcome to Biosphere 3, the hermetically sealed city in which citizen explorers engage in strange sustainability experiments.

What are Seattle's brave new bionauts investigating? Cold fusion? Chilly fusion? Pissing-rain-in-the-middle-of-May fusion?

No, what cranks the biofuels of these bioneers is whether it's possible to survive and thrive in Seattle without a car.

(Insert blood-curdling scream here.)

Madness, I know.

Fortunately, their experiments are being documented for all to see.

Alan Durning of the nonprofit Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch), a Seattle think tank devoted to promoting sustainability in "Cascadia," is detailing his "year of living car-lessly" on the institute's Web site (www.sightline.org). To be honest, and Durning is, it's not that he's literally carless, it's just that after his eldest teenage son totaled the old family Volvo, Durning decided to go without a car for a year (until next February). It's an experiment to see how the family of five (wife, high-schooler, two middle-schoolers) will fare by walking, biking, busing, and mooching.

Yes, mooching, because while the Durnings don't have their own car, they're not above begging some rides from friends and associates who do. Which is a little like saying you've quit smoking because you're no longer buying cigarettes, merely bumming other people's. The Durnings also sometimes use cabs and Flexcars, which they calculate into their costs and savings. They ought also to count the gas burned by the good Samaritans who chauffeur them around. But hey, the researchers inside Biosphere 2 had to pump in outside oxygen to keep from suffocating in their bubble. Since this isn't hard science but a sociological experiment by an eco advocate, Durning is free to set his own terms.

As any parent knows, raising a family in this day and age without motorized wheels is a challenge—especially with kids of dating age. The modern family, not to mention the modern commuter, isn't rooted to one spot. We live life in wide and complicated orbits that take in the whole, sprawling metro region, and we've got technologies (like cell phones) that encourage movement without loss of productivity. A typical middle-class couple might have jobs on both sides of the lake, yoga practice on Queen Anne Hill, a doctor in Lake City, classes at Cornish, a favorite Mexican joint in White Center—you know the drill. I'll let you figure out the combinations and permutations if you add kids and pets into the mix.

Modern life is full and complex. To some extent, we're experiencing the local version of globalization. We might say we want urban villages, but we're also consumers who demand choice and customization. Being satisfied with what's down the block isn't always going to cut it. We don't all have neighborhood schools or churches or therapists or day cares. Durning says that using the phone directory, he's identified some 248 businesses within a mile of his Ballard home. A disproportionate number seem to be auto-body shops. Despite the abundance, I'd be surprised if he finds everything his family needs within this so-called "walkshed."

What Durning has discovered is that smart carless existence is maybe a little less careless, because everything takes more thought and planning. That "added incremental mindfulness," he writes, is a major bonus.

Another carless chronicler is Carla Saulter, who writes the "Bus Chick, Transit Authority" column for Real Change and blogs as "Bus Chick" at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Web site (blog.seattlepi.nwsource.com/buschick). In her most recent column, May 26, she accuses Seattle of "carism," as in being too friendly to cars and hostile to walkers, bikers, and bus riders. She, too, admits to cheating, bumming the odd ride here and there (thank goodness a few people are "carists"). But she generally laments the proliferation of strip malls and drive-through windows and the lack of bike lanes and sidewalks.

A real, hard-core bioneer family are the Petersons, featured in the May 28 Seattle Times. These courageous folks are carless, too, and have been since 1987. None of the Petersons even has a driver's license. To make matters more challenging, they live on the Eastside, where it's more acceptable to be gay and married than to be without a car. Mossback is a total defender of parental crackpots. It builds character in kids— at least I sure as hell hope so. But for all the benefits, cost savings, and character-building potential of being carless, how many of us would pay the price dad Kent Peterson does? He commutes by bike three hours (round trip) to his job in Seattle. He's living his work: The Times reports his day job is promoting bike commuting for the nonprofit Bicycle Alliance of Seattle. But a three-hour daily commute—by any mode—isn't a lifestyle model that's going to convert people.

Even if I could fit inside spandex, I wouldn't spend my time that way.

And time is the precious commodity of modern life. In an April 30 op-ed about car commuting in an era of $3 gas, author T.C. Boyle wrote in The New York Times: "No matter the cost of gas, we need to get to work, and each minute shaved off the commute is a minute—golden and fat and glowing—added to our real lives, the lives that begin after work, at home, in the bars and restaurants, with the children and the bills and the dog."

That is the ultimate challenge for Seattle's carless biospheroids: to boldly discover a lifestyle that guzzles neither gas nor time.

The bills and dog await.

kberger@seattleweekly.com

 
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