Breaking up (with cars) is hard to do

Volunteers accept challenge of a monthlong hiatus from auto love affair
by: David Plechl, Sarah Gilbert kisses son Everett goodbye before riding her bike to a meeting. She and husband Jonathan Hanson (holding son Truman) will leave their SUV in the driveway during the family’s month of public transit and pedal power.

Sarah Gilbert and Jonathan Hanson's relationship is on the rocks - the one with their black Mercedes ML320 SUV.

They have five years of memories, starting back when they had a six-figure income. But the Mercedes has become increasingly high-maintenance, and mechanics and gas pumps are never a cheap date.

In a Thursday ceremony at Pioneer Courthouse Square, Gilbert and Hanson, along with about two dozen other Portlanders, will celebrate what they hope will be the end of their SUV relationship - by handing off their car keys.

For the next month, the couple will rely on other ways of getting around: buses, light rail, Flexcar, walking and their bicycles - including a bike trailer for their young boys. It's all part of a promotion called the Flexcar Low-Car Diet Challenge, a joint project put on by the car-sharing firm with the Bike Gallery, TriMet, Amtrak, the city, Multnomah County and the state of Oregon.

'We're just trying to highlight how easy it is to use other forms of transportation,' Kaleb Miller of Flexcar said.

Participants for the project were found through networking by Patty Fink, a former TriMet employee who is the car-share company's Portland-based national partnership developer. Fink has been on a low-car diet since losing her Subaru Forester to a car accident a month ago.

'I'm trying to go without a car for an extended period of time,' said Fink, a single mom.

'There are days when I'm happy I don't have a car, and there are days when I really wish I had one. … It's saving me quite a bit of money.'

At an orientation last week, Hanson, Gilbert and other participants were given a tour of helpful Web sites and resources, ranging from the TriMet trip planner at to the site for Flexcar, which has cars stashed around the city that people can rent for about $9 an hour. Participants also received a bag of goodies, including 25 hours of free use of Flexcar, a $50 gift certificate from the Bike Gallery, a monthly pass from TriMet, and one roundtrip Amtrak ticket to either Eugene or Seattle (approximately a $100 value).

At the meeting, the complex psychological bond that people have with driving and their cars was apparent.

'I'm a control freak, so I like driving,' said Amy Davies, a mediator for Habitat for Humanity International. 'This is going to be interesting.'

'Are we allowed to wash the cars?' Rebecca Hix, a perky environmental consultant, asked about Flexcar. 'If it's a sunny day, I can't drive a dirty car.'

For those participants who, like Hix, already don't use their cars much, the 'challenge' won't be that much of one. But for others, like Gilbert and Hanson, the coming month of a carless existence represents a genuine lifestyle change.

The way they were

Until recently, Hanson drove the Mercedes everywhere, even short distances. He takes care of the couple's two boys - Everett, 4, and Truman, 14 months - while serving in the Army Reserve and studying at Portland State University.

'Once you get used to it, you don't think there's any other way to do it,' he said.

Gilbert, a writer and blog developer for AOL, works from home but uses the car often.

'I have meetings all over the place,' she said.

But they are excited to change, for reasons of money, health and politics.

When the two Cleveland High grads rekindled their flame at a reunion five years ago, both were making good money. But Gilbert is no longer a Wall Street investment banker and Hanson no longer a stockbroker. Money is tight, and their Mercedes has been racking up sky-high repair and gas bills.

Hanson, 5-8 and 230 pounds, needs to lose 10 in order to get a promotion in the Army Reserve.

'I had just started riding my bike again, so the timing is great,' he said.

Then there are the politics. They both say they want to set a good, environmentally conscious example for their children. And Hanson, who is scheduled to be deployed to Iraq in the fall, has researched the oil industry and doesn't like what he's found.

'We're sort of protesting gas prices,' he said. 'It's ridiculous.'

So people can track the group's progress, Flexcar will be setting up a Web site, Gilbert will be posting about it on her blog,, as well as

'I hate being dependent on a car,' she said, though she remains attached to her SUV. 'It's a love-hate relationship.'

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