by Elissa Fuchs
Cars may be one of the world’s most revolutionary inventions, but they also cost a lot, pollute the air and upkeep and maintenance can be a major headache. For some area residents, a car represents a cost they can’t afford, or perhaps they look to spend their money in other ways, inspired by environmental and societal benefits of being car-free.
Living without a car is no easy feat, especially for parents in the Petworth community. These moms and dads often have to juggle commuting, childcare, grocery shopping, pediatrician visits and social activities all without four wheels to call their own.
Take Julia Graff, a civil rights lawyer who moved to Petworth a few months ago. She and her husband Brad Leneis decided to sell their car in the spring to curb costs.
“It’s really expensive to have a car, and we didn’t rely on it for much,” she said.
She and Brad use their bikes to commute to work downtown. One of them will strap their two-and-a-half-year old daughter Amery to a bike seat and drop her off at daycare in Columbia Heights before making the rest of the trek downtown. The other will do the reverse at pick up.
“There’s no bike lanes [north of Columbia Heights] so I go on the sidewalk with my daughter,” Julia said. “I’ll go into the street after drop off.”
The corner of 14th Street and Randolph, she admitted, is a little tough because there is no stop light, so she edges into the crosswalk. But 15th Street, south of Columbia Heights, has great bike lanes, segregated by rows of parked cars.
The weather doesn't bother her much. “If it’s raining, we put on rain jackets,” she said. Still, she imagines she’ll opt for the bus sometimes during the cold winter months. When errands need to get done, they reuse their kiddo gear. When Brad has to go the dry cleaners, he'll load the bike trailer with clothes and bike across town. Julia uses a jogging stroller when she needs to pick things up. The biggest challenge, Julia said, is going on the spontaneous excursion.
“It’s the summer and we wanted to go places,” she said. While they have rented cars, “it is inconvenient to run to the airport to rent a car.”
Still, being carless has been a good experience so far. “We are more economical and less lazy,” she said.
Sara Schoen and her husband Ari Appel haven’t owned a car since moving to DC in the mid-2000s. She said this decision stems from ethical reasons (they are both professional environmentalists) and financial ones (they can afford a car, but prefer not to incur the expense). When she was pregnant with their now 11-month old daughter, Orli, they asked themselves and their friends if they needed a car.
“There was enough support that we didn’t,” Sara said. From their Petworth home, they walk to Orli’s daycare in Mt. Pleasant, then hop on the 16th Street bus to head to work, or walk back home on days they work from home.
For excursions or errands involving a car, they will use ZipCar or Car2Go when they're not taking their daughter. To strap young Orli in, they use a Corroco-brand carseat designed for urban car-less families. Like Julia, Sara uses baby gear to get errands done.
“For grocery shopping, the stroller is the best,” she said. “I put her in the carrier and the groceries in the stroller.”
Orli’s pediatrician is at the Mary’s Center on Georgia Avenue, and Sara now also goes there for medical care. They haven’t relied on bikes for traveling with Orli, but “we probably will start putting her in the bike trailer soon.”
As for challenges of not owning a car, she said it’s a hassle to install car seats in rental cars, and expensive to rent ZipCar. Plus, “you lose the freedom to hop in a car.”
For these reasons, Sara said that “every weekend we think about getting a car, we just keep not doing it.”
For Mia Paustian and her family in nearby Crestwood, being carless was an ethical decision.
“My husband [Matthias] had always been environmentally aware,” she said, adding that he grew up in Germany and is very comfortable with biking. “When we came to DC, we made a conscious decision to be car-free; we decided where to live in DC based on where we could be car-free.”
To get their four-year old son Leo to school, they either put him on on the bike or walk with him. On days she goes to her office downtown, she’ll bike the rest of the way after dropping him off. The roads can be difficult to navigate, but “there is always a way around.”
Still, she advises that “14th Street can get harried, and on 16th Street, cars go fast. It is not ideal with Leo.” A lot of cars double-park on 14th Street, and she wishes police would direct them not to double park.
To get groceries, Mia may go by herself with her grocery cart. “It’s painful,” she admitted. “But we’re happier.”
When the weather is bad, Mia will turn to the city bus system or Uber, with Leo strapped inside a booster seat. She doesn’t anticipate buying a car anytime soon, even if new challenges arise.
“We want to stay car-free, even though Leo will be going to German school in Potomac, Md. in a few weeks, and we have no idea how we’ll get there,” she said. Not having a car, she added, inspires them to “get out in the open air, do something good for the environment, and good for ourselves.”
Miriam Goldstein, a congressional staffer, and her husband Eric Wolff, a journalist, also navigate Petworth car-less with 13-month old boy-girl twins. They already were without wheels before their children Diana and Solomon (Solly) arrived, and decided there was no need for change.
“We walk to places, there is so much within a short area,” Miriam said. This includes the two-block walk to daycare with the twins in the stroller. After drop off, she’ll return home to bike to the Hill. On days Eric works from home, he’ll just go back to his home office after saying good-bye to the kiddos.
Like Sara, they see a pediatrician at Mary’s Center and as with Mia, they walk with a cart in hand to the grocery store. They also invested in a long tail cargo bike, which has two seats in the back for the kids and extra power pedaling. It’s great for traveling with the children around the area. The couple said they will rent cars to travel to family or make a Costco run, but have no plans to buy one.
“We are trying to get away without a car,” Eric said.
Eric and Miriam did bring up the point of wanting better biking infrastructure, an issue that others echoed. They want to see the city prioritize bike lanes. Avid Petworth News readers, they were somewhat frustrated with the recent ANC decision to prematurely oppose DDOT's Livability Study recommendations about a suggested bike lane along New Hampshire Avenue between Grant Circle and Georgia Avenue. They understand the sensitivities and politics involved, and hope more of an ongoing dialogue happens about this important issue.
Everyone interviewed agreed that a personal commitment to being car-less is generally not enough—it depends exactly where you live and what services are available. For some, the financial and environmental benefits outweigh the inconveniences, especially when mass transit and private services like Uber are available.
For others who can't afford to rent a car or jump in an Uber when needed, a bike may be the only option. Having the infrastructure in DC -- and in Petworth -- to make that more of a reality is something that DDOT, the local ANCs and residents, should all be concerned about supporting.
This is the first article by new Petworth News contributing writer Elissa Fuchs. A native Washingtonian, she lives in 16th Street Heights with her husband, son and newborn baby girl. She works in communications and enjoys yoga and running in her spare time.
Learn more about Elissa and the new contributing writers on the About Petworth News page.