The thought of living without driving terrifies many adults in the United States because car dependence defines so much of our built environment and culture. But in every community there are people who can’t drive. And not just places where not driving is relatively convenient, such as Capitol Hill or Portland.
In fact, more than one-third of people living in the United States don’t have a driver's license. This includes people like me who can’t drive because of our disabilities. It also includes young people, immigrants, people with suspended licenses, and people who have aged out of driving. Additionally, there are many people with licenses who can’t afford to own a car, pay for insurance, parking or gas.
But despite how many of us there are, the narrative we’ve been sold is that without a car you are not a person who has valid mobility needs. That story is particularly alarming when you consider the equity implications of who is considered a nonentity.
People without driver's licenses, both who identify as disabled and those who do not, are more likely to be Black, indigenous, or people of color. People with disabilities are four times more likely to be unable to drive, and two to three times more likely to live in a zero-vehicle household.
Wanting to address our erasure as nondrivers, in the fall of 2020, we began organizing other nondrivers as part of the Disability Mobility Initiative to insist that our voices be included. This looks like showing up to testify at transit board meetings where service cuts are being considered, or sharing stories in op-eds and TV interviews about how broken sidewalks and fast-moving traffic make it difficult for us to access our neighborhoods.
We’ve also invited elected leaders, transportation planners, and everyone else who normally drives most places to spend a “Week Without Driving,” where they experience what it’s like to try to get around their own communities and patterns of daily community life without the privilege of driving themselves. When it comes time to allocate resources and make plans, we hope this challenge helps them remember how inconvenient or just simply impossible it is to get places without driving right now.
And while our work at the Disability Mobility Initiative primarily addresses the gaps in access for nondrivers, car dependency has other environmental, climate and societal costs that are externalized to low-income and Black and brown communities. From neighborhoods segregated by highways, housing costs exacerbated by parking minimums, exposure to air and noise pollution, vehicle crashes and pavement-induced heat islands, our decision to build communities centered around the ability to drive yourself in a vehicle everywhere you need to go was and is a failure.
Rather than minimizing the mobility needs of those of us who can’t or don’t drive, we should be celebrating and encouraging nondrivers, especially those young people who understand the extraordinarily high costs of car dependence and who are choosing not to feed into this dysfunction.
For people who have spent decades centering their lives around vehicle ownership, it may be impossible to imagine our country without car-dependent mobility. But those of us who are nondrivers are already working towards a different future. A future where you don’t need to worry that your car payment eats one-third of your paycheck, where you can let your kids walk to school on their own because there are sidewalks the whole way, where the light rail station is surrounded by affordable apartments rather than parking garages. A future where you could get from one rural community to the next because we run rural bus routes or rebuild our rail network, where you can still get to all our national parks even if you don’t have a car.
Also, critically, the world nondrivers inhabit is one where you build connections across your community as you wait together at the bus stop, or when someone offers you a seat on the train. None of this happens when you’re hermetically sealed in a private vehicle.
Nondrivers can see a different future, and we want you to join us.
Anna Zivarts is a low-vision mom and nondriver who was born with the neurological condition nystagmus. Since launching the Disability Mobility Initiative (DMI) at Disability Rights Washington in 2020, Anna has worked to bring the voices of nondrivers to the planning and policy-making tables. Anna serves on the board of the League of American Bicyclists and the National Safety Council’s Mobility Safety Advisory Group.