My Karma Ran Over My Dogma

My mother has been progressive in many ways. One thing she did that I never imagined would become trendy was that she didn't drive -- an anomaly in the baby boomer suburbs. This topic was explored in a recent NPR report, "Like Millennials, More Older Americans Steering Away from Driving." I wasn't surprised by the stats on Millennials. Both my 20-something daughters don't drive, but it hit home when I learned that "the trend is gaining traction in middle-aged adults" as well. According to a new analysis by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, there has been a decline in people of all ages getting or renewing licenses. There are many reasons why people are losing the drive to drive: the financial and maintenance burdens of auto ownership, an increase in transportation alternatives even in the suburbs, the Internet as a vehicle for shopping and entertainment, a return to cities, and what finally steered us away from car culture: a concern over the impact of cars on our environment.

My relationship with cars has always been complicated. My father, who drove into his 90s, took my mother driving once, then she signed up with a driving school. But something kept her from actually acquiring a license. Perhaps it was psychological; the cousin my mother was named for died after being hit by a car. Unlike other suburban children, I was very familiar with various modes of transportation. I eagerly accepted when my father made me an offer I couldn't refuse. He'd buy me a car if I waited to the mature age of 17 to get my license, as opposed to the legal age of 16 in Pennsylvania. My parents' thinking was that they'd rather have me behind the wheel than me riding with a less responsible friend. I didn't actually have any irresponsible friends, but we struck a deal and my dad purchased a white Chevy Malibu with a dashing navy blue vinyl top. According to the salesman, the car had belonged to a minister who only drove it on Sundays. That had to be good karma. The Malibu was one sweet ride. It had incredibly fast pick-up and for that reason I drove it a little too fast. It was the only subversive thing I did at seventeen, made all the less subversive as my radio was often tuned to the classical music station; my speed easily triggered by a crescendo.

As a committed environmentalist, I hate to admit I worshipped that car; it was a coveted possession by my friends too who were lumbering around town in their parents' Volvos and station wagons. When I moved to Greenwich Village for college, my father decided to sell the Malibu. I certainly didn't need a car in New York City, and besides, my boyfriend had one. It was that sketchy late 70s/early 80s period when every woman was armed with Mace or pepper spray and you needed to post a sign in your car window stating: NO RADIO. Eventually, we made our way to Brooklyn Heights/Cobble Hill and got married. My husband noticed that even though he removed the radio every night, our car continued to be vandalized. He tried a new strategy; he began leaving the door unlocked with change visibly displayed for anyone in need. One morning he went out to the car and not only was the change gone, but the car was nearly gone too. He returned to our apartment carrying a charred license plate. Apparently, boys from a reform school had gone on a spree and firebombed cars in our neighborhood. We made out all right in the end, collecting the insurance and buying an even better car. Good karma?

After our first child was born, my nesting instinct kicked in. With our toddler in tow, we moved to a rural area bordering Princeton, New Jersey. Having lived my adult life until then in New York City, I felt like an alien, particularly because I hadn't driven in 11 years. This became most evident the first day I went grocery shopping. I wheeled my toddler in her stroller from our house, situated on a tract of farmland to the market. At the checkout, I emptied my cart and began looking for a place to park it. "Push the cart through," the cashier instructed. I stared at her, bewildered. "Push it through," she repeated. In New York City you couldn't push your cart through. If you did, where would you go with it? The woman repeated slowly, "Push ... it ... all ... the ... way ... through," in a tone obviously reserved for slow-witted shoppers. "So you can take it to your car." "But I don't have a car," I told her. "Then how did you get here?" "I walked." She was astounded. There were no sidewalks in our historic borough with a population less than your average Manhattan high-rise, and therefore no one walked ... anywhere. People often stared when I pushed the baby carriage down local county roads. I exited the market and felt like an uncaged bird upon discovering there were no barriers keeping my cart in. I guardedly pushed it all the way home.

After our second child was born, we couldn't avoid purchasing another car. I went from not driving at all to suddenly needing to drive everywhere. I was pulled over for speeding a few times and once for a taillight being out. To this day though, I've managed to avoid getting a ticket. More good karma?

But as my odometer began to rise, so did my eco-consciousness. I was writing articles and giving talks on the effects of global warming and carbon pollution, while cars were helping to pave the way to encroaching sprawl, over-development and McMansions. All that good karma wasn't creating much good karma for the planet -- my dogma was definitely suffering. Ironically, the most environmental thing to do was to leave country living behind and return to the city with its mass transit, local merchants and smaller, more energy-efficient living spaces. The best karma for me was to be a ma with no car. We made our way back to Brooklyn, where I'm residing happily with both my karma and my dogma intact.

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