An adventure in going car-free
Cathy, Aelwyn and Simeon on their Yuba Mondo bike, with room for two children and panniers!
I’m sitting at a suburban train station watching the Melbourne rain drizzle down, contemplating the 45-minute journey home from my midwife appointment that will involve a train trip, a bus connection and then a walk, all with a feisty two-year-old. I’m eight months pregnant, so I’ll make this trip at least another three times before baby arrives.
At times like this I find myself thinking ‘a car would be nice right about now ...’ So why don’t we have a car? Everyone else does, so why should we be any different?
It’s been three years since we went car free, and I’m still getting used to the surprised looks we often get when people realise we don’t have a vehicle. Not so long ago I would have responded the same way.
I grew up in the outer-eastern suburbs of Melbourne immersed in the beauty of God’s creation. The lush green of Mount Dandenong was at our back door and the Yarra Valley just down the road. My small Christian school offered strong Biblical teaching on justice, but for the most part my understanding of poverty and environmental issues was academic.
During my teen years my interest in environmental and justice issues grew. I started a Social Justice and Environment Network at my church, and I studied International Relations at university. But still these issues remained mostly theoretical. And, of course, once I had the funds, I enjoyed the liberation that came with my first car like most people my age.
A few years later I met and married my husband, who also revelled in independent travel – and speed; he had a car and a motorbike. Both of us had been learning about God’s heart for the poor and marginalised, so, after marrying we embarked on a world trip to deepen our understanding and to be challenged by the real-world experience of those who live in countries defined as ‘poor’.
We started with more than six months in countries throughout Asia, India and Africa, much of it spent with aid and development agencies. It was overwhelming to see, touch and smell what had previously been safely confined to the pages of books, the TV and newspapers. However, what struck us most were the numbers of people whose lives were already being impacted by an unpredictable climate. Over and over we heard villagers telling us that the weather had changed. The most frequent story, from Cambodia to India through to Ghana in West Africa, was that the rains didn’t come when expected any more, and when they did come, they were either too soon or too late, and increasingly too heavy, causing failed crop after failed crop. People with generations of cultural memory but who had never heard about ‘climate change’ were describing to us the impact of our excessive Western way of life on their fragile livelihoods.
Despite my years of interest in environmental issues, climate change had only been on the periphery of my thoughts. Now it was front and centre.
My desire for a deeper understanding of how Christian faith connects with creation care had led me to enrol in a Masters in Theological Ethics, with an emphasis on ecology, at Edinburgh University in Scotland, our final destination. Here, under the guidance of my supervisor, eco-theologian Michael Northcott, I started learning the hard facts of climate change.
Human-induced climate change has been caused by a complex range of interconnected factors; fixing the problem will, similarly, need multiple responses. But one thing became rapidly clear – if individuals want to reduce their own carbon footprint, thinking seriously about cars is an important starting point.
In his contribution to the 2009 book Creation in Crisis: Christian Perspectives on Sustainability, Northcott highlights that “motor vehicles are the single largest source of luxury so-called greenhouse gas emissions. Luxury emissions are the avoidable emissions of the rich and such emissions are responsible for a dramatic growth in global emissions since 1999.”
Facts such as these were confronting enough – the statistics show that pretty much anyone who lives in a developed country is part of the global ‘rich’. But my studies also reminded me that followers of Christ have a deeper way of understanding our actions and their consequences. Two stand out for me.
The first is the expectation that God’s people will demonstrate their love for Him through love of neighbour. In a globalised world, people such as the villagers we had met on our travels were clearly our neighbours. We cannot avoid the reality that what we do in Australia impacts people geographically near and far.
The second is God’s constant warnings against idolatry. Again, Northcott summarises it well:
God is described in the book of Exodus as a jealous God who is angered by the worship of idols. At the root of this anger is the divine knowledge that when humans devote themselves to things they have made from the divine creation, rather than to the creator, they devote themselves to lies. When they devote themselves to lies they bring destruction and violence into their society and they make sacrifices – even of their own children – to the gods they make.
Idolatry is essentially the worship of created things instead of the creator and, as Northcott highlights elsewhere, repentance can only come with a complete change of heart and mind, when the temples of idols are dethroned and when people devote themselves to worship of the true God.
But worship involves actions, and actions involve choices – and the choices that we make as individuals, households, communities, and nations reveal what we truly love far more than our words. Ultimately, what we eat and wear, how we shop and travel, all speak volumes about who or what we worship.
It is hard to deny that our culture’s worship of the internal combustion engine is increasingly bringing destruction to people all over the world. This is not to say that everyone who drives a car is worshipping an idol. But I could not escape the reality that faith in God coupled with knowledge demands that each follower of Christ must ask themselves hard questions about their own lives, the difference between needs and wants, and make a frank assessment of what they truly worship accompanied by real actions that demonstrate love of neighbour. I couldn’t sit with this knowledge and do nothing.
Thankfully, God had also started revealing what some of those actions could involve for us.
Being far from home meant travelling extensively via public transport (buses, trains, ferries and more), exposing us to an idea that we had never before considered – that public transport could be a meaningful, vital, and often achievable way to travel.
At times it was and is challenging: in some places it became an intimate sharing of body odours in hot, cramped conditions, and involved untold hours of delays and stomach-churning amenities.
Yet, we had discovered that there was a beauty in slowing down, experiencing the journey from here to there, having time to read, reflect, rest, or share moments of camaraderie and the crossing of cultural boundaries. We began to experience new opportunities for God to move. We started to recognise the possible personal benefits of not owning a vehicle.
As we experienced the efficiency and creativity of European cities that have such great transport options (the bikes in the Netherlands were a sight to behold!) we decided that an attempt to put faith and values into action for us could be to live without a car. This involved weighing up the pros and cons.
Our initial list looked something like this:
- We would save money on running costs, which we could use to buy bikes, and hire cars when needed.
- We would have to slow down and think more seriously about how we use our time.
- We would spend more time in our local community, and be more likely to run into people and build new relationships.
- Walking and using bikes would keep us healthier.
- We would become more connected and sensitive to our local environment.
- We couldn’t just jump into a car for a trip, escape, holiday, to visit family and friends further away. We would miss out on things.
- Hiring a car involves using cash that we might already have spent.
- If you need something from the shops and it’s a cold, wet, windy day, you still have to go out on a bike.
Within two days of arriving back in Australia, we discovered we were pregnant with our first child. Now we were going to discover if our nice theories would work out in reality.
And the reality is that sometimes not having a car can be hard, and it’s even harder than we expected with children. But hard doesn’t mean ‘impossible’. For the most part, it’s worked out quite well - and we’ve learnt a lot that we never expected.
It has been a humbling exercise in learning to accept the generosity of others. We have many friends nearby who have cars that are available when needed, and we frequently get asked to car-sit when people go on holidays. It has deepened our understanding of the family of God and our need for others.
In many ways, going car-free was an experiment. But it’s important to make it very clear that this was a choice for us, not everyone else, and it’s not dogmatic. Where we live allows us to make this choice: we have great access to public transport and we live in walking distance of shops, many friends and our church, and my husband’s work is a 30-minute bike ride away. And, importantly, we are open to having a car if our needs and circumstances change.
Choosing to go without a car has been our way of responding to God’s challenge to abandon our idols and make choices that demonstrate love for God and neighbour, but we do so knowing that this will look different for everyone depending on their circumstances.
Now the baby I was carrying on that wet day at the train station has arrived, and we’re a family of four without a car. Life with two young ones and no vehicle certainly takes more thought and planning, but every time I’m tempted to complain, I think of how our culture’s worship of created things is impacting millions of people throughout the world, and decide that the train will do me just fine – for now.
by Cathy Cook
Step. Step. Dusty path. Up the well-worn track.
A woman walks it, here she comes. Up and, later, back.
Walking tall she bears her load, the way is far and wide,
Baby bundled tight to her back, children at her side.
Determined push, the stroller rolls, on path of concrete ease,
She’s dashing to the corner shop for milk and frozen peas.
On the phone - distracted air - her child, she wants to wander,
But cars race by, with speedy zeal, so there’s no time to ponder.
Step. Step. Dusty path. In the summer glare.
Firewood balanced on her head, with poised and graceful flair.
Walking tall, she thinks ahead of housework that’s in wait,
But pauses now to say “hello”, to neighbours at the gate.
Determined push the stroller rolls, ‘Quick, the day is hot!
Let’s take the bus, here comes one now, we’ll chance the motley lot.’
On the phone, she chats about state politics quite proudly,
Pretending not to hear an old lady muttering loudly.
Step. Step. Dusty path. You are our daily friend.
She hopes one day for a change in things, if fortune will send.
Walking tall, she’ll carry on, hoping for the best,
She dreams of old age with a grin, of feet propped up in rest.
Determined push, the stroller rolls. An eco-lifestyle choice.
She hopes that hers is not another unheard voice.
On the phone she discusses the difficulties they face:
Of how to slow down, and to stop, in this crazy rat-race.