From Minivan Mom to Urban Traveler: Decades-Long Journey to Car Freedom
August 7, 2023
This story is a part of ecoRI News’ Rhody Riders series, a collection of stories about people who live without a car and use a combination of walking, bicycling, and public transit to get around the Ocean State.
PROVIDENCE — It took a few decades and several moves for Providence resident and transit advocate Valerie Reishuk to become car-free.
Reishuk, 68, started traveling without a car in the 1980s, when she moved to a small but walkable suburban community outside Cleveland, Ohio.
“I owned a lot of stuff. I wanted to start to lighten up, and have fewer things in my life, and be a little less complicated,” she said.
When she first moved, she used her car only to get to work and went everywhere else on foot. By the time she finished her undergraduate degree at a nearby college, she only traveled between campus and her apartment.
From those early, nearly carless days, Reishuk’s life grew to include parenthood, home ownership, and then taking care of elderly relatives. She had to use her minivan to get around.
“So, I actually did a lot of driving for a while there in the middle part of my journey and missed [not driving] horribly and became less physically fit because I wasn’t doing the walking that I had been doing before,” Reishuk said.
But things started to change again after she divorced, her daughter moved out of the house, and she decided to get an apartment in downtown Cleveland.
“For four years, I resided in a very intense urban environment, a bigger city than Providence, and kind of taught myself to be the urban child that I am today,” she said.
Although she lived in the city, Reishuk worked in the suburbs as a teacher, and mostly used her car for traveling back and forth. But scarce parking and the fear of losing her spot in her busy neighborhood inspired her to make her weekends car-free. During her free time, she explored the city and its high-speed transit system.
In 2015, Reishuk’s last year in Cleveland, she retired and sold her car, then made her way to Providence in 2016, where she had family and had spent many of her summers.
She started to learn the public transit options in her new city and loved that there were trains that could take her to other metro areas.
“I still found it very car-centric in Rhode Island, so I would rent Zipcars when I first moved,” she said of the car-sharing company. But in 2017, Reishuk was diagnosed with epilepsy and decided to give up her license.
“It’s been OK for me, and it gives me a new lens. I’m not a youngster. I’m a 68-year-old senior citizen,” she said, explaining that part of her identity and her disability give her a unique perspective on transportation.
(“She’s like Providence’s grandmother of car-free living,” said the person who suggested Reishuk would be a good person to profile for this series.)
She is the proud owner of a senior discount bus pass. She also has a second full-price card that she carries with her in case someone else getting on the bus at the same time can’t afford the fare.
Some of her favorite places to go are Warren and Bristol. Every summer, she also takes a trip to Newport via the ferry from Providence, walking to the terminal on the way there and taking the free shuttle on the way back.
She occasionally uses the ride-shares that her insurance covers for doctors’ appointments because transit isn’t always the safest option when bus stops are on busy roads. Her nurse practitioner, for example, is on Route 114 on the East Providence-Barrington line, and Reishuk would have to cross the road to get to a bus stop, which she said is dangerous.
Most of the time, though, when she has the chance to hop in a car, she chooses to walk or take transit instead.
At a dinner with friends in Bristol recently, Reishuk refused the offer of a ride home.
“By the time you go get your car out of your garage at your house,” she told her friends, “I’ll be home on the No. 60.”
Although she loves taking public transit and walking around Rhode Island, she does believe that there are ways the state could improve its transportation situation.
If she had a magic wand, first, she said, she would eliminate legal right turns on red lights in Providence. Second, she would better fund public transit.
“We’re not funding it at the right level,” she said. “Public transit should be the default.”