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Sunday, May 28, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A family of 4 — but no car

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

The Petersons are a family of four from Issaquah. They like to hike, go to the movies, watch "American Idol." A regular suburban bunch.

Minus the SUV.

Minus any car, for that matter.

The Petersons don't drive. They haven't since 1987. No one in the family has a driver's license. At 17 and 20 years old, the Peterson kids have never been behind the wheel.

As the rest of the country frets over the highest gas prices in history, the Petersons carry on as usual, biking, walking and riding the bus wherever they need to go.

"We're not anti-car," said Kent Peterson, 47. "We've just figured out that we don't need one."

Top questions people ask the Petersons


1. How do you get ice cream? "From the store." The family has used foldable shopping carts, backpacks and bike baskets to carry the groceries.

2. What if you want to go on vacation? "We take the train or the bus. We take the shuttle to get to the airport."

3. What if there's a real emergency? "Call 911."

4. What happens if you buy something big? "We get it delivered." Kent Peterson used his bike once to bring home a new 13-inch TV from Target in Issaquah. He rested the TV on the bike bar and, using it as a dolly, walked it home the one-mile distance.

5. What if it rains? "I take an umbrella," Christine Peterson said. "I wear flats, generally. I won't do cute little heels. I will never be on anyone's best-dressed list." Kent Peterson wears a bright-yellow rain jacket and dry-fit bike pants. At his previous job, he used to keep a week's worth of anti-wrinkle clothes at the office and change there.

6. How do you plan to go to the movies? "Christine has a lot of the bus stuff in her head, but sometimes we use the schedules of Metro's online trip planner," Kent Peterson said.

7. Have you saved a lot of money? The Petersons say their lifestyle afforded Christine the opportunity to stay home and raise their children. They say they have never calculated all the money they would have spent paying for two cars since 1987.

8. Is there some deep philosophy behind this? "No. We just don't like driving."

Mom, Christine, walks 25 minutes to her job as a personal shopper at Safeway.com. Sons Eric and Peter walk or take the bus to school and work. And dad, Kent, bikes 35 miles round trip to his job at a Seattle nonprofit. For identification, all carry either passports or state ID cards.

The Petersons' choice to go carless is often met with shock. Usually, they try to avoid bringing it up.

"We've gotten asked the weirdest things like, 'How did you take your sons to Little League?' or 'How do you buy ice cream?' Well, you know, we go to the store for ice cream. Just like anyone else," said Christine Peterson, 49.

Americans sit in their cars an average of 206 hours commuting every year, according to 2004 figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Vehicles in U.S. households outnumber drivers. We spend $7,967 annually on gas, maintenance, tires, insurance, registration fees and loan-finance charges, says the American Automobile Association. And that's just for one person to drive a medium-size sedan 15,000 miles when gas was $2.40 a gallon.

The Petersons are part of a much smaller statistic — the 8 percent of U.S. households without a car. This is not a big deal in, say, New York City. It is something else when you live in Issaquah, a small town near the foothills of the Cascades.

Besides that, cars hold a unique place in the American psyche; driving the open road is synonymous with freedom.

Kent and Christine Peterson used to believe this. But over time, they say, their dependence on cars began to rob them of money, time, and most of all, happiness.

In the 1980s, as a newly married couple living on the East Coast, Kent and Christine drove 60 miles each way, in separate cars, from their Bethlehem, Conn., home to software jobs in White Plains, N.Y.

After Christine had their first child, Peter, she went back to work right away. That's when her commuter frustration hit a new high.

"I had this new baby I never got to see," she said. "So we started to look at how much time we were spending in the car."

She and her husband ran the math on what it cost for day care, gas, car repairs and eating out, because both were too tired after work to cook. After factoring in take-home pay, they discovered they were clearing $70 a month. Christine quit to stay home with the baby — and they got rid of the first car.

Then, in 1987, the family moved to Duluth, Minn. Burned out by the software industry, the Petersons took over a used-book store but weren't raking in the kind of income they were used to in the tech sector. Something had to go. They sold their remaining car and cut a third of their expenses.

It was a new way of life. They biked four miles, even in the Minnesota winter, from their home to the book store. To transport the baby, Kent found a metal shopping cart, pulled off the wheels, fashioned it with bike tires, and secured it to Christine's bike. He strapped the baby's car seat in the metal cart and bundled him up "like a starfish."

"We rode like this in the snow," Christine said, laughing. "So when people say now, 'You're so lucky you don't have to pay for gas,' I tell them it's not something that happened overnight. You make your choices and you figure out what you have to do."

In 1993, Kent was offered a software job in Issaquah. So the Petersons devised a plan. They were a car-free family with two children now.

The couple sat down with a map and figured out the logistics of where they would live. They calculated hills, distance to grocery stores and schools. They looked at bus routes. The four of them moved across the country by train and settled into an apartment in downtown Issaquah. Peter and Eric grew up walking to school.

"I knew that other kids found it kind of weird that we didn't have a car," said Peter, 20, a junior at Eastern Washington University. "But now I'm a lot less reliant on one than everyone else I know. I don't have to deal with shelling out that money at the pump every day."

There are drawbacks, though. Especially when it comes to dating.

"In my last relationship, [my girlfriend] asked me, 'Are you ever gonna drive?' She was like, 'I don't think I can deal with it.' "

They broke up.

Kent and Christine always told their children that owning a car would be their choice — and financial responsibility. That means no help from mom and dad with insurance, monthly payments, gas or maintenance costs.

Kent believes this so much that in December he took a new job as commuting-program director for the Bicycle Alliance of Washington in Seattle. It takes him three hours to bike back and forth to work across the I-90 bridge.

Eric, 17, said it would be easier to drive to his job in Seattle and classes at Bellevue Community College than take the bus. But since he's been carless his whole life, "it doesn't seem like something I need," he said.

Still, being a teenager without wheels can be rough. "If you want to go somewhere, people kind of expect you to have a car at this point," he said.

The brothers say they respect their parents' decision. They're just not sure it will work for them long-term. Depending on the demands of their future jobs, Peter and Eric may be slogging through the morning crawl like the rest of us.

"I have the attitude that I will get a driver's license and learn how to drive," Peter said. "Someday."

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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