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Road less traveled

Easing gas pedal enacts a principle, proves their mettle

Isaac Wilde was tired of hearing his parents gripe about global warming. So last fall the 6-year-old burst forth with a suggestion based on his rudimentary grasp of greenhouse gases. "Why don't we just stop using our car?"

It was an idea that took hold.

His parents, Sarah Huber and Parke Wilde of Arlington, had thought about this possibility before. "Every year on New Year's Eve, I'd resolve to use the car less," Huber said. "I always said I was going to try to cut out one or two whole days a week of driving. But we fell back on the excuse that we can't do it because we have two young children. I'd say it's too cold or too wet or too dark or they're too small to expect them to walk."

Then three things happened last November. Huber and Wilde saw the film "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's Oscar-winning exploration of global warming. The temperatures in the Boston area soared above 65 nearly every day for a week. And East Arlington, where the family lives, acquired a Zipcar -- a service that allows customers to rent a car by the hour.

"It seemed to me at that point that if any family could drastically reduce car use, it would be us," Huber recalled. "We have the infrastructure: We live in a town with buses, trains, a bike path, and now a Zipcar."

So the family bought a new calendar. Every day they avoid the car, they write "No car" in red on that day's calendar square. It's been more than three months now, and they are averaging car use only four or five days a month.

"It seems silly, but I find the calendar is key to my motivation," Huber said. Wilde agreed that the reminder on their kitchen wall serves as inspiration.

"If it's late in the day, and I feel lazy and want to take the car to the gym instead of walking, I look at the calendar and realize I don't want to spoil our chances of getting to write that big red 'No car,' " he said.

Shunning the car was not such a stretch for Wilde, who routinely takes the T from Alewife -- which he reaches on foot or on bike -- to his office at the Tufts downtown campus, where he is an assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy. The challenge was for Huber and the two children.

Isaac walks three blocks to school, but Huber was accustomed to doing a lot of driving with her 4-year-old daughter, Keziah.

Now Huber transports Keziah primarily by bike trailer -- whether the destination is a piano lesson in Lexington, a nature class in Belmont, or a crafts session at the Arlington Public Library. Keziah listens to books on tape and eats snacks during the ride. When Isaac joins them, he rides his own bike or uses a Tag-along, a kid-sized apparatus that hitches on to an adult bike like a tandem. Or they simply walk.

"Grocery shopping turned out to be the hardest thing for me to adjust to doing without the car," Huber said. "But now I bring a couple of backpacks and just fill them up."

Bruno Vasil, a recent retiree who lives across the street from Huber and Wilde, said he has watched their comings and goings over the past few months with admiration.

"No matter what time of day or the weather, Sarah is always either walking or bicycling with the two children," he said. "I am envious of her energy and her intrepidness. She's out in any weather condition at any time of day."

Walking and biking during the unseasonably warm months of November and December went smoothly. A cold snap that began in late January forced Huber to become more resourceful. When she and Keziah left the house one morning last month for piano lessons, the thermometer registered 8 degrees.

"Keziah had about four layers of clothing on, plus a snowsuit. I put her in the bike trailer and wrapped an outdoor sleeping bag around her. When we got to Lexington, she said she was toasty warm, and I was sweating from the exertion."

Huber and Wilde expected that the car-free experiment would make them feel virtuous. What has surprised them is how much fun they are having. They find themselves linked to their community in a new way.

"Since we're not driving, we are more likely to shop close to home. That means we support local businesses and see our neighbors more," Huber explained. "And biking or walking means we can stop and talk to people along the way. I was biking to Belmont last week, and I saw a woman I knew in college shoveling her driveway. I never even knew she lived there. If I'd been in the car, I wouldn't have even recognized her, let alone stopped to talk."

Community building has happened in another way, too. Friends who know about the family's car-free experiment have gone out of their way to help. "If our neighbor is going to the grocery store, she asks if she can pick us up anything," Huber said. "In December, a friend invited me to go gift shopping with her. And of course we spend less money because we go to fewer stores. Last month Isaac needed a white shirt to wear for a concert. Normally I would have driven to Target. Since I didn't want to do that, I asked a friend with kids if we could borrow one."

Wilde emphasized, though, that the experiment is not turning them into freeloaders; it works both ways.

"On the rare days that we do use the car, we offer to do errands for other people," he said. "The point isn't to eliminate all cars; it's to cut down on everyone's fuel consumption."

Joy Mueller is one friend who has benefited from the family's principles. She and her husband, John, who is the minister at Calvary Church, United Methodist in Arlington, decided a decade ago to get by with just one car.

"Sarah has often lent me her car to get to Middlesex Community College, where I teach math," Joy said. "She's like her own little Zipcar service. I think what she is doing is just great."

John Mueller agreed. "The experiment Sarah and Parke are doing is part of a larger effort on their part to integrate their values with their actions. There are all sorts of things people can do to improve environmental sustainability, and Sarah's family is providing inspiration to the people they know."

"I like to imagine that when Isaac is a little older, he'll be more independent than other kids his age because he won't be accustomed to me driving him everywhere," Huber said. "He'll bike or walk to his activities because that will be what he's used to doing."

Wilde emphasized that they do not feel like environmental martyrs in the least. "Reducing our car use does not make for a miserable life," he said.

"Some people do things that are much more severe. They move to communes, give up electricity, move off the grid. What's nice about what we're doing is that it's not a hardship. It's sustainable, and we feel like we're living richly."

The long-term plan is to get rid of the car when their insurance is due in a year. After that, they hope to rely on the Zipcar or taxis when necessary.

They have two sets of neighbors who would also like to reduce auto use, and discussion has arisen about sharing two cars among the three households. Each family would have a few of days of auto use per week and share in the all related expenses.

"We'll use the money we save on insurance to buy two tandem bikes!" Huber said.

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