Nearly a third of us can’t drive. 

That’s the reality. There are people like me who can’t see well enough to drive, and a lot of other people with all kinds of disabilities–physical, sensory, mental health and chronic health conditions–that make driving unsafe. There are also people who are too young to drive, people who can't afford to drive, people who don’t know how to drive, including immigrants from other countries where driving wasn’t so wrapped up in notions of adult- and person-hood. And there are people who have aged out of driving: 35 percent of women over the age of 75 don’t drive.

Not being able to drive or afford to drive also impacts younger women. In communities with reliable bus or train systems, these routes and schedules were designed to prioritize the needs of people traveling to and from work. But for many caregivers–a disproportionately high number of whom are women–travel involves lots of other trips beyond the commute: dropping kids off at child care or sports, getting groceries, running errands. For caregivers like me who are unable to drive, what would be a fifteen-minute drive to the dentist becomes a two-and-a-half-hour journey with three bus transfers.

Of course, “nondrivers” isn't a strict binary. Someone can be a nondriver most days because their household has one car and their partner needs to use it. They can have a chronic health condition that flares up and prevents driving, or they can only safely drive in certain conditions or on certain familiar roads. Or maybe their car is broken and that spare part will have to wait until the next paycheck. 

But the American notion of independence is tightly wrapped up with the idea that driving equals freedom. If you’re too young to drive, just wait. If you’re too poor to drive, you better hustle. And if you’re like the rest of us where driving just isn’t safe, too bad. 

When I talk about how many of us can’t drive, I’ve started to anticipate a lot of pushback. Are there really that many nondrivers? Kids and youth shouldn’t count! They’re not old enough to drive! 

But kids should count—16 is a construct we invented for when we allow people to test for a driver's license. There’s no magical thing that happens at 16 where a child suddenly emerges from a cocoon and needs to go places. Kids much younger than 16 travel places all the time; we created the school busing system because we recognize we can’t always expect parents to drive them everywhere. 

And when kids can’t safely or comfortably get somewhere on their own, the responsibility of chauffeuring usually falls to moms, eating up their afternoons and weekends. Not every family has the resources or flexibility for this chauffeuring. Research by Rutgers Professor Dr. Kelcie Ralph found that young adults who grew up in a family without a car completed less education, had lower incomes, and faced more unemployment than their peers who were raised in families with consistent car access–even when controlling for family wealth, residential location, family composition and race. Car dependency is bad both for families with car access and for those without. 

Let’s pull back for a moment and consider why there is such resistance to acknowledging that driving doesn't work for so many of us. 

First off, people who can’t drive or afford to drive are more likely to be Black, brown, and Native American. Decades of structural racism in housing and land-use policies, and a profound underinvestment in transit systems that were seen as primarily serving poor and non-White populations, mean that the transportation options available to people outside of driving are abysmal. 

This bias against nondrivers is even enshrined in state constitutions. From Washington State to Alabama, constitutional amendments adopted in the last century prohibit gas tax revenue (the main transportation funding source) to go to transit. The resulting underinvestment in transit means that in most places in our country, the only way to get places if you can’t drive there yourself is to ask for a ride. 

I think that’s the world my parents envisioned for me as I grew up. I could just ask them for rides. As I got older, I could ask my friends, and then I’d get married and get rides from my spouse. 

If you ask anyone who’s had to rely on favors to get where they need to go, it gets old, fast. In Washington State, our Legislature funded a study about the mobility of nondrivers and the researchers were surprised to find that while relying on rides was a major source of mobility for nondrivers, the emotional burden of asking for those rides was a significant deterrent, especially for women, low-income and disabled people. 

When we insist on visibility as nondrivers, our presence demands a reckoning of the costs and moral efficacy of car dependency. Rather than being ashamed about our disabilities or the lack of resources that prevents us from driving, we should be proud of our status as nondrivers. Instead of a future of congested drive-thrus, oceans of parking lots and freeway-ramp spaghetti nests, our existence tips the scales in favor of communities designed in ways that work better and are healthier for all of us. 

Right now, in most communities in the US, getting a coffee, taking a kid to sports practice, or attending a medical appointment require getting in a vehicle. The distances we need to travel, and the segregation of where we live from where we work, go to school or recreate mean that we are locked into car dependency, whether or not we can afford to drive or are able to. Additionally, even if the distances aren’t too great, the environment for traveling outside a vehicle is too often unsafe and miserable, a maze of missing sidewalks, unsafe crossings, and deafening traffic noise.

What if, instead, there were a coffee shop and a grocery store within walking distance of your home, and to get there you didn’t have to sprint across a multi-lane arterial and trudge to the front door across vacant acres of parking lot? What if the sports field or school wasn’t on the outskirts of town but rather easily accessible by biking paths or the bus so that your seventh grader could get to soccer practice on their own? What if when you wanted to go to the mountains or the beach, you could catch the bus, enjoying the trip with a glass of wine and a good book? When I picture the kind of community I want to grow old in—the kind of community I want my kid to inherit—this is what I think about. 

And it’s not an unachievable dream. We know that our current system of car dependency excludes so many, and pushes up the cost of living so that many more families are teetering on the edge. The good news is that we aren’t locked into it. Over the last century we painted ourselves into this corner, where personal cars became the only option for access. Over the next hundred years, guided by the vision of nondrivers, we can paint ourselves out, bit by bit, creating communities where cars aren’t necessary. 

Anna Zivarts is a low-vision parent, nondriver, and author of When Driving Is Not an Option: Steering Away from Car Dependency (Island Press, 2024). Anna launched the Week Without Driving challenge and directs the Disability Mobility Initiative at Disability Rights Washington, where she organizes to bring the voices of nondrivers to the planning and policy-making tables. Anna sits on the board of the League of American Bicyclists and serves as a member of the Transportation Research Board’s Committee on Public Health and Transportation.