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Peak Moment 205: Undriving™ - Changing the Way We Think

pm205_200.jpgBe the first in your group to get your Undriver License™ — it’s great fun! You pledge to reduce automobile use — yours or others’. Seattle founder Julia Field’s creative project is sparking imaginations and creativity by changing how people think about getting around — be it skateboards, sailboats, or just plain skipping the trip! Undrivers of all ages are jumping on the bandwagon, changing assumptions, and telling their empowered stories. (Janaia’s outrageous Undriver License™ goes wherever her bike goes. Read Janaia’s journal: Getting My Official Undriver License).

You can get your own Undriver License™ (or gift a friend!) at [www.undriving.org].

Janaia Donaldson: I heard about this really interesting project called Undriving™ in Seattle, so I asked the founder and program director Julia Field to come join me and talk about it. So of course we're coming undriving. Let's stop and chat!

Hi, welcome to Peak Moment. I'm Janaia Donaldson. My guest today here in Seattle is Julia Field, founder & program director for a curious project called Undriving™. Thanks for joining me.

Julia Field: It's great to be here.

Janaia: When we heard about Undriving, we thought "what IS this?" So tell me, what do you mean by Undriving?

Julia: Undriving means getting around without a car, so that could be busing, biking, walking, skateboarding, any combination of things and anything else that could get you there without a car. Telecommuting. One thing we talk about too, is "Skipping the Trip", which is a totally valid way of undriving as well.

Janaia: So it counts if you just don't make a trip in the car at all. How did you come up with this idea? Tell us what your project is.

Julia: Undriving started in 2007. I was involved with Sustainable Ballard, a neighborhood sustainability group. We were looking for a way to encourage people to leave their cars at home more often. Trying to think of what it would take to do that, how we could do that in a fun and playful way. One day I just woke up with this word "Undriving" and thought, "That's it!" Such a fun way to say it. From there it was a really short hop to the idea of an Undriver License™. So what we do is issue Undriver licenses to people who make a pledge to reduce their car use in the coming month in a way that might work for them. So they make a pledge and they get licensed. We set up our driver unlicensing station at different festivals and fairs and schools and workplaces around the area. People make a pledge, they their photograph taken — there's a lot of self-expression involved — Janaia: You have really truly made it fun. I will add for our viewers to know is that we went over to your Undriver station, got explained about the pledge and possibilities. So I wrote my pledge and you had these fun props that we could have our picture taken with. Brilliant idea!

-----At the Undriver License Station-----

Janaia: I came on my bike because I wanted to get an Undriver License. Besides doing a Peak Moment show [turning toward viewer] in which case I hope all of you will do less driving in your cars. [Writing on pledge form] I think what I can pledge to do in the next month is that I will do all groceries by bike.

Chelsea Whitney: Then we'll take your picture.

Sander Lazar: There's the camera, so One, two three [snaps picture, see it on computer, unlicense card pops out of printer].

Paula Jenson: What a great picture.


Janaia: So right there on the spot...it was really lovely. I didn't have to wait for the mail like the regular driver's license. You put it together, laminated it, gave it to us.

Julia: Yes, we make them on the spot. And I think the main thing that happens with people, the whole idea of the Undriver License, it sparks people to think differently, and to question their own assumptions about how they get around. And no matter where you are on the undriving spectrum, there's always something more we can do either to reduce our own car use or affect reducing car use on the planet.

And that's one of the really interesting things. A lot of people will pledge if they do drive a lot or have a car, they'll pledge to try taking the bus more often. Or to try bike commuting. And that sometimes mean the first step in their pledge might be finding a safe route. Because that's what in the way. So really it's an opportunity to kind of think about, "well, what could I do, and what's in the way of it?" And really start teasing it apart to something tangible that they really can do.

People who already commute by bus or bike all the time, or don't even have a car — it's really fun for them to see there's this whole wealth of things they could do as well.

Janaia: I liked what you suggested is that each of us in our pledge find something that's do-able but still a stretch. Really a great combination.

Julia: Really it's about designing our own experiment. We're the scientists, the lab rat, we're setting this up for ourselves, and we get to figure it out. And that's one of the things that really makes it work. We can share a lot of ideas of what other people have come up with, but really it's kind of about tapping into your own curiosity, resourcefulness, and creativity — and seeing what you may want to try for yourself.

Janaia: I think that's what makes this so much more engaging than, say, an educational awareness program only, which is just ideas going in one direction. Because you're asking people to think of their own way, so it works for them personally. And their creativity, which people enjoy getting to exercise.

Julia: I think we all have assumptions that we don't really question. We might think, "The bus is too inconvenient" or "I need my car to get to this destination." And we haven't really taken that apart to look at it. There's something about the playfulness of this that just sparks our curiosity. And people, when they see new possibilities, they get really excited and come up with a pledge that they're like, "I really want to try that." And what people come up with is — we couldn't make this up.

Janaia: Like what? Give me an example.

Julia: One of my favorite pledges...Jon Ramer came to get licensed. And he thought about...

Janaia: I'm going to interrupt you. The woman behind you is rollerblading with her ski poles — there's an undriver, a fabulous.... This gal that's on the rollerblading, that's just one of the possibilities, isn't it?

Julia: There's a lot of ways of undriving, and we don't even know what they all are. Which is why...we have these Undorsements on our license. Kind of like the Endorsements you can get on your driver license. But ours are for walking, biking, transit, train, skip the trip, telecommute, car share, sail. And then we have "other" which is always really fun. Well, on yours you put "anything possible."

Janaia: Yeah, I'm game! There were paddle-boarders out here on the water and people sailing. I'm sure there are things people haven't really thought of yet. That does make it fun.

Julia: One of the things that's very viable is combinations of modes. I really consider the bike-bus combination a mode in itself.

Janaia: I think things like sharing the car is good. In rural areas like ours, where we don't have very good bus service, that's going to the be the most viable for us. Now, I interrupted you with this gal on the rollerblade. You were starting to tell us a story.

Julia: John pledged — he thought about what he could do to reduce his car use, and he realized that every time he left the house he automatically got into the car. And so his pledge was to take his car key off his key ring. That led to a real big transformation in his life, because every time he went to leave the house, he had to think about "Do I need to take a car for this trip?" And he started walking and taking the bus and other things.

Janaia: What a neat trick to give yourself.

Julia: We had someone else who pledged to get directions before she left. Think about how many miles she must have saved, and how her stress level must have gone down as well.

Janaia: So she could go direct instead of meandering around.

Julia: So as people make their own pledge and their own experiment, they start making discoveries. With both of those, the health and stress levels — all sorts of things change. We had one man who said that he pledged to try riding his bike a few days to work. By the end of the month he had decided, actually, he was riding every single day. He had lost 30 pounds and his chronic health problem had gone away, all because he got a bike. So there are things we don't expect.

Janaia: There's health benefits, as you say. There's also benefits getting to know your community. Since we've come here to Seattle and have been biking a lot, I'm seeing bushes and flowers and people with dogs — up front and personal, not with this box between me and them. It's more friendly.

Julia: There's lots of community connections that can happen. One woman pledged to try taking the bus to work. She emailed a week later and she said that she was getting off the bus every day and saying "Thank you" to the driver for taking her to work. She wasn't driving around looking for parking, and was arriving on time and not stressed. A couple weeks later she emailed again and reported that there was this whole community of people at her bus stop that she was getting to know. They were at the same time every day, and so she was meeting more neighbors she hadn't met. When we get in our cars and just go up our driveway, there's much less interconnection.

Janaia: How many undrivers have you licensed so far?

Julia: We've licensed over 5000 now. We really quickly saw this wasn't just an "Our Neighborhood" kind of thing, that we had something really very viable here. We started getting inquiries from all over the country about it, and invitations to bring our station around.

Janaia: Are you expanding this?

Julia: There's only so much we can do. What we'd really like to do is get more people carrying out the program. One of our challenges with that is finding a system for making the licenses that was simple enough to be scalable and also affordable enough.

Janaia: Do you think you've landed on that?

Julia: We have, after some ado, and many different ways of doing this. We actually reconnected with a group that we had met right at the beginning. There's a program called My ID Club that issues ID cards for kids as a community service, that's run through the King County Police Union. When we very first started, we knew we wanted to make Undriver Licenses, but we didn't know how we were going to make them. We saw this group at a festival in Ballard, and I called them up and asked how we could get equipment like theirs. And they said, "well, would you like to borrow it?"

That's how we started. We then went very high tech, after that being very low tech, and are now coming to rest in the middle and again joining with them. They are now working on scaling their program nationally to other law enforcement agencies, and have a really great equipment setup that does what we need it to do as well. They're going to be our equipment arm, and we're packaging up the whole Undriver Program into a kit we'll make available to other groups.

Janaia: If other communities want to follow in your footsteps here, one step is what you're packaging together for your equipment. How would they contact you? Let's start there.

Julia: We have a website 13:33 Undriving.org. A lot of information there, stories about what undrivers are doing. Start there. We have a Facebook community that's growing, and we're Twittering as well.

Janaia: If you could have the whole dream of what Undriving could be — tell us what your vision would be.

Julia: I would love to see Undriver Licensing happening in a lot of different communities. I think we have a program that's very effective at engaging people. It really does lead to behavior change. There's a lot of other entities out there who have a mandate to reduce car use, be they transit agencies, workplaces. In Washington state there's a trip reduction requirement by the statement that employers all reduce car trips to the office. Schools: there are lot of reasons for kids to be biking and walking to school, and there's the whole Safe Route to School movement. So I think there really are a lot of entities that would have an interest in carrying out Undriver Licensing. And I think we have a creative way of engaging people to think differently.

And it really does lead to change. We've been doing followup surveys with undrivers at the end of the month. And we've been getting a twenty to forty percent response, which is really really high. It shows a passion for what they're discovering and their engagement. 96% say that they've followed through on their pledge, and over 70% say they've established a new habit or pattern as a result. And then they share a lot of anecdotes and stories about what they've discovered, and the kinds of changes that come from this.

And the other piece of this...we heard that people wanted to share their licenses with others. They've posted them on Facebook, and other things. So we started asking, "Have you shared your license or talked to others about Undriving?" 86% said yes. One man in his survey really early on said, "I felt you gave us permission to raise the issue with others." That's such a powerful thing, and it's something we don't even do in this culture. We don't talk to each other about this. It's kind of taboo.

Janaia: ... changing our habits, people sort of bristle at that.

Julia: But this is like a conversation starter. It's a very non-confrontational way to bring it up.

Janaia: In fact, that was one of the suggestions that one of your staff at your Undriver station gave to me: "You could just use this — whip this out instead of your driver license when the clerk asks for your ID. I've done it, and it just gave me that moment to talk about undriving. You could just see the little click of, "oh, I hadn't thought about that." It's wonderful.

Julia: You're wearing yours on your jacket. People put it on their commuter bags. I had one woman say, "I wear it on my commuter bag wherever I go, as long as I'm undriving, but only when I'm undriving." People enjoy showing it, talking with others. It starts them thinking. I think of each one of these as a ripple [from] a stone dropped in a pond, and we don't know what the effect is going to be.

Janaia: It is a carte blanche, being able to talk about the things that need to change in our culture. It's brilliant. Tell us a little bit about your story. You were obviously on this wavelength earlier than this.

Julia: About six years ago I had a car accident. I had this 1987 Honda Civic Hatchback [with] 100,000 miles. It probably would have taken me for another 100,000. But I got into this car accident. I just wasn't paying attention. My car was not worth repairing. So first I decided not to fix it, and then I decided not to replace it. But it was really not an empowered choice I was making. I was really scared of my capacity to be so inattentive. I really thought at that time, "oh my gosh, my life as I know it is over. I'm not going to be able to do any of the things I like to do, it's going to be so hard to get around without a car. How can I manage?"

What was so interesting was I discovered that I really didn't need it at all. So many things were very possible on foot. I happen to live in a very walkable neighborhood. I could bicycle a lot more. The bus — there were bus routes I didn't even know about going by my house. And even things that were further away — if I changed how I approached it, if I connected with other people a little more, many things were possible. And I got fairly quickly to the point that I don't even want a car ever again.

Janaia: How long did that take you — to shift that feeling?

Julia: That's a good question. I would say it was within a few months. It came from the necessity of getting along without it. But I would never have even tried this had it not been for the accident.

Janaia: Your necessity became the mother of invention for your life.

Julia: Through that I discovered that I didn't really need a car. And I'm hoping that through Undriving that other people, through much smaller and less radical shifts, could make their way to that kind of decision and in a much more empowered way.

Janaia: Well, sometimes the universe has to kick us to move, and what I love is that you grabbed that as an opportunity. Not only that, it led to your empowering a whole lot of people to do it by choice, which is easier for most of us.

Julia: The other thing that's really interesting about that is it's so much about shifting our thinking. Our awareness. I really do think of Undriving as an awareness practice. We're shining a little light in some area that we hadn't been aware of, and trying something a little different. And that expands things. Until we know we're not aware of something, we can't do anything about it.

Janaia: I will add, with a bit of envy, that you live in a place that makes the range of choices much wider. Thus I'd love to see Undriving happening in any city, or any good-sized town, where there are a variety of choices. But what you get me to thinking is that undriving, or driving less — because one of those little things you could pledge is to help there be less car driving anywhere, by anybody — and I realized it could be ourselves or the people we know. In our community, there's lots of ways to help there be less drivers. And thus being an Undriver doesn't mean you have to live in the city to do that. It can be empowering to others as well.

Julia: In different places, even different neighborhoods where we've taken this, we've found a little bit different character of pledges that people make. We did an event on Bainbridge Island, and over there what we started finding people pledging, and encouraged people to pledge, was in the direction of what I call "Mundane Carpooling." If you're going to the grocery store, for example, to invite a neighbor to join you. We don't really think of taking trips like that by carpooling. But by doing that, you're taking one car off the road, and one trip is missing. So even in real suburban areas you can undrive in different ways, even if bus service isn't so good. There are a lot more possibilities than we tend to think of. It's really just about sparking ideas, and sharing those. Because one idea leads to another.

Janaia: And I can see that if what you do is say to your neighbor — say that neighbor is getting older — it strikes me that undriving has a lot of possibilities for the aging population, too. By reaching out to your neighbor to say, "Would you like to come to the grocery store with me?" Or sometime when your neighbor is sick to say, "Would you like me to pick up some groceries for you?" Inadvertently what you're doing is building a network of support for one another that has been shredded by our cars, all of us in our separately little vehicles. Are you collecting the stories?

Julia: We are, and we want to share more of them. We just finished a series of videos, more about undriver stories on the web. Love to get more of that going.

Janaia: In our last couple of minutes, are there things we haven't covered that are dear to your heart about undriving?

Julia: I wanted to mention about Intercity Transit in Olympia, which is our first affiliate, our founding partner affiliate. They are going to be carrying out the Undriver Licensing Program. We're just getting started with them. They are the transit authority in Thurston county. They also run Safe Route to School programs in a dozen schools, as well as work with employers in trip reduction. A great place for us to plant this program through them and just really see what it can do. I'm also hoping we can pilot some ideas for planting it in a school and letting it spread through the school, go person to person, could have a lot of potential.

Janaia: I can imagine schools would be great — kids with their bikes and their Undriver license could be really extremely happy.

Julia: We've gotten a great response from people of all ages. I'm really excited about the kids, who are of course the next generation. The more they can get excited about getting around without a car, the better it is for our planet.

Janaia: And they're set to go. They need to be on that different footing, compared to how it was when I was growing up, and a car was "of course." Thank you! This has been brisk, and wonderful. And I just commend you for taking your experience, which you say wasn't the best, and turning it around for yourself and then being the birth-mother of a fabulous idea. I hope it spreads very far and very wide, and a lot of carbon doesn't go into the air because of you personally.

Julia: Well, we're doing our part. Al Gore in his new book talks about the three things we need to do to change the course here. And the first one is changing the way we think. And that's really the frontier that Undriving is working on.

Janaia: Changing the way we think...you're watching Peak Moment. We're doing our part. Julia and the Undriving project are doing their part. And we hope you are too. Join us next time.

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