*reprinted from an article in June 2002.
This year, I asked my family to stay out of their cars on my birthday - and then tell me about the experience.
Giving them all fair warning, I sent this birthday wish to each of their 16 household’s a month in advance. I guess that I was trying to create a new way of celebrating our birthdays. (My idea was actually rooted in the gift my sister Patricia gave the year before when she phoned me to say that in my honour, she rode her bike to work.
This year, I invited my entire family to participate and it proved far more challenging for some more than others. For the nearly half of my family who live in suburbs my request sounded ludicrous: go about your day without their car! But they would not have doubted my intentions as, having never owned a car myself, I was simply asking them to celebrate my birthday as a day of action.
First to respond, was my father-in-law, Bob. Always so proud of the fact that he had never set foot in a city bus all his adult life, he announced that this kind of ‘gift–giving’ appealed to his raised-in-the-depression ethic. Now retired and volunteering at a soup kitchen, he looked to the public transit schedule. However, transit being what it is in his small city, he ended up carpooling. As did my mother-in-law who carpooled to a friends' home for her bridge game. Both made a point of letting their friends know that this 'strange behaviour' was a birthday gift for the environmentalist son-in-law. (Eyes rolling.)
Before the actual day, stories about their experiences began to filter in... It was fun, and gratifying to realize that these car-free alternatives – so much a part of my life and work – were being discussed in my extended families’ households.
Ironically, Patricia, the one who set it all in motion, called me the day before my birthday to apologize: she had come down with the flu and explained that my birthday gift might have to be delayed for a week or so before she could cycle to work. (It snowed in eastern Ontario on April 29!)
Apparently at dinner the night before, her three teenagers had been asking what environmental benefits could possibly come from them walking - when the school bus was making the trip anyway?
My sister Elinor, in suburban Toronto, reported that she needed to prepare her neighbours in advance. Sheepishly, she asked if they could set up a carpool for her son before next Tuesday. As it turned out, this somewhat wacko request broke the ice and did indeed generate some carpooling that lasted far longer than my birthday. She laughed when she told me that, up and down her street, people were talking about her bizarre birthday present to a brother in Vancouver.
Others had various experiences. One brother reduced his driving distance by parking in the downtown of his small city, and took the commuter train. Paul walked instead of taking the subway. Elaine, who normally walks, planned to dance on her way to work. (..and I'm sure she did.) A brother-in-law, who drives a bus in Vancouver, celebrated my birthday by “yielding to bicycles all day, long".
As birthday gifts go, it was a great celebration. And it has encouraged me, and others to engage the friends and family members into meaningful action around the issues that are important to us - eating vegetarian, donating blood, volunteering, giving money to street musicians, etc.: by asking them to celebrate your birthday as a day of action.
This article generated some discussion and it was printed as Idea #1 in 500 Ways to Change the World, which went on to add: "The social inventor Greg Wright additionally suggests that a new form of birthday card could emerge from this idea: the Day of Action card. This card would be sent to friends and tamily by the birthday person a few days before the big day. It would include details of what the person would like them to do in place of giving a gift. They could even say, "Please do this every year on this day.""