Giving up car revs family up

He didn't set out to enter the Great Debate of our time. He stumbled onto it – with a crazy question.

Published September  17, 2007 by The OC Register
By Tom Berg 

SANTA ANA – He didn't set out to enter the Great Debate of our time. He stumbled onto it – with a crazy question.

In fact, Erick Cave expected his wife to reply: "Are you insane?"

As usual, he was driving her to work. As usual, their daughter and three dogs were riding in back. As usual, their 1987 Volvo was acting up. Again.

Last year, they dumped a couple grand into repairs. Then in January it cost another grand, which Jessica borrowed from her dad. Now, as they drove up Flower Street to the freeway, it was sputtering.

Great, thought Erick. What'll it cost this time? He did some quick calculations, and that's when the idea popped into his head. It sat there, grinning at him. Daring him.

"It's like I was stepping on a piece of land that no one had ever stepped on – at least no one I know," he would say later.

He turned off the radio. He looked at his wife and blurted out: "Do we really have to have a car?"

In answering that question, they'd learn more about themselves than they ever could've guessed on that sputtering ride to work.

YOU CAN HAVE IT

Understand, this was not a family that donned Lycra bike shorts each Sunday for a jaunt down PCH. They didn't own bikes. They hadn't ridden bikes in two decades.

One year earlier, Erick weighed 355 pounds. He'd worked off 100 pounds in the past year, however, so was prepared when Jess replied not, "Are you insane?" but rather, "How can we do this?"

Over the next few weeks, they discussed it: What if Rachel gets sick? How will we get to work? Get groceries? Visit friends? Do anything?

In the middle of one such conversation, the water pump died.

"You can either stick your toes in the pool or run full-barrel and dive in," says Erick. "We dove straight in."

He outfitted the family for under a grand: a 21-speed bike for him ($375); with an attachable trailer-bike for Rachel ($125); and a 6-speed tricycle for Jessica ($475) with a basket and a utility trailer.

The first few weeks were tough. But immediately they began to see savings. And changes in themselves.

Jess's mom offered to sell them her Isuzu Rodeo, but they said no, thanks. Then Jess's father, who works on race cars, came over with his tool box.

"I'm going to help fix your Volvo," said Allen Egan, 60, of Westminster.

Replied Erick: "You can have it. We discovered we don't need a car."

Egan looked at him: "Really?"

POWDER AND POOLS

Q. How do you lug home a 6-foot wading pool on a bike?

A. Bungee cords, dog leashes and a trailer with the sides removed.

Q. How do you get to work by bus?

A. Get up at 5:30 a.m. instead of 7 a.m.

Q. How do you reduce the soreness, redness and itching produced by a bicycle seat?

A. Generous applications of "Anti Monkey Butt Powder."

There is a pattern here. For every problem, Erick and Jess find a solution. Sometimes it's simply renting a car, which they do a few times a month.

"The biggest obstacle is your own attitude," says Erick, 38, who home schools Rachel, 8, while Jess works as a dog groomer. "It's getting out of that car mentality that's so much a part of us."

Jess started taking the bus to work. Erick started biking Rachel to tutoring lessons and to the park to play. All three of them bike to Target and the beach. They've discovered new restaurants. Met new people. Rediscovered their own neighborhood.

"It's taken a lot of stress out of our lives," Erick says. "We're not hurrying all the time. And we spend more time together as a family."

Within two months they paid off two credit cards. No car meant no car bills. It also meant no quick trips to Taco Bell. No morning jolt of Starbucks. No impulse buys of jeans or toys at Target.

Shopping on a bike, says Erick, prompts the question: "Do we really need an extra box of Crunch 'n Munch?"

One day Jess had a strange complaint: too much money in her wallet and no place to put it. Erick figured out they were recouping more than a third of their income.

"It's as if your boss came in," he says, "and asked if you wanted a 35 percent raise."

MOMENTS OF SILENCE

It was curiosity – not conservation – that started this experiment six months ago. But it had a ripple effect.

"I began reading about the environmental impact of what we were doing," Erick says. "And I realized, 'Wow, you really can make a difference.' "

Now they recycle plastic. They run less water in the shower. They turn off lights when not in use.

"A lot of people feel they can't do anything – it's too much trouble," he says. "I guess I'm showing people that everyone can do something."

And what he's doing is remarkable in a nation of 220 million adults owning 247 million registered vehicles. A nation so dependent on those vehicles that, according to Jane Holtz Kay's book "Asphalt Nation," by the time you finish this sentence, they will have traveled another "60,000 miles, used up 3,000 gallons of petroleum (products) and added 60,000 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere."

In such a nation, Erick and his family have become – unintentionally – the poster children for the Green Movement. For Al Gore and global warming. For conservation.

"I'm no environmental activist," he says, pointing out the old-fashioned, non-energy-efficient light bulbs in his home.

Then why live car-free in Southern California? Maybe for those rare moments on his bike when all he hears are the birds chirping and the wind in his ears.

"I call these my 30-second meditations," he says.

Or maybe it's because this no longer feels like a burden. He enjoys it.

"It's made me more purposeful," he says. "And in doing so, it's made things more worthwhile to me."

Contact the writer: 714-796-6979 or tberg@ocregister.com