Seattle to the World: Undriving

By Bryan Mitchiner

The Story

One Seattle-based group that has been working quite successfully (from the onset) to promote sustainable practices is Sustainable Ballard. This diverse coalition of Ballard neighbors operates on the belief that steps towards a green future can be accomplished while maintaining a fun atmosphere. (Sounds a little bit Bright Green to me.) This guiding principle is the inspiration behind one of the group’s most popular programs, the innovative Undriver Licenses. This laminated card, similar to a typical drivers license, flips expectation by giving you license NOT to drive.

The idea for Undriving was born when members of Sustainable Ballard wanted to address issues of car dependency as part of their annual sustainability festival. Julia Field, the current director of the thriving program, came up with the creative idea of the Undrivers licensing program. Field was inspired by her experience following a car accident, which she says in retrospect is one of the best things that’s happened to her. She has since ditched her car, and now only relies on alternative modes of transportation. As a result, she no longer needs her drivers license. So she suggested creating IDs that reflect the other ways people can get from point A to point B. The idea rolled out at the 2007 Sustainable Ballard Festival, and hasn’t stopped speeding ahead since.


Undriving is based on a simple notion: driving less is both beneficial and doable. Meant to be fun and playful, the ID encourages residents to use whatever creative transportation modes they can imagine as an alternative to driving. The program's interface has evolved over the years to include a large dry-erase board designed like a typical license, which participants stand behind while their photo is taken. On the board, the new undriver can mark how her or she is going to cut back on driving, and hold up props symbolizing their chosen alternatives. Each participant receives a personalized Undrivers license free of charge (donations are accepted), which becomes a reminder of their pledge to work towards reducing time spent behind the wheel.


Whether you’re too young to drive, don’t own a car, or own four, everyone is encouraged to jump on board. Very different from what you expect to experience at the DMV, the process of getting your Undrivers license is fun. Participants are encouraged to use their creativity to imagine ways to reduce their driving, and to make funny faces while holding fun props (not your typical mug shot). And the licensing procedure reflects what's to come: often, people have found using their car less and walking, busing or scootering instead can bring more joy into their lives: “Taking the bus is more relaxing and easier than I expected,” one participant reported. Another undriver discovered that ditching their car had definite advantages: “It’s fun on days when I have activities after work to bus to them, and then listen to everyone complaining about traffic and parking.”


Field has found that committing to undriving can lead to new habits. Sustainable Ballard says that between 20 and 40 percent of Undrivers respond to their follow-up surveys, and of these, 96 percent report having held to their pledges, with 70-78 percent having established a new and lasting transportation habit as a result of the program. “One change leads to another,” Field Said. “I consider this an ongoing awareness practice.”

Undriver licensing continues to grow, and its popularity is catching on. In only two years, 2,610 people have applied and received their Undrivers license. Field has received requests from across the nation from universities, governments, transit agencies and community groups who want to replicate the program in their local area. In response, Sustainable Ballard plans to develop a kit that could assist other organizations in undriving their own neighborhoods. Additionally, Sustainable Ballard has discussed setting up an online Undriver Licensing program so that anyone across the world could print their own.

Why it’s Worldchanging

Every successful initiative to reduce driving reduces carbon emissions, lowers our dependency on oil, and minimizes congestion. But the uniqueness and character of Undriving is what stands out. By taking an everyday item -- the drivers license -- and reminding users that they don't need to make driving their car such a central part of their life and identity, the Undriver License encourages people to imagine complete mobility that goes far beyond cars.

And instead of finger-wagging, the program engages the whole community with a focus on having fun. People are beginning to realize the joys of biking outside or interacting with the community that they miss when they're stuck inside car. And so it comes as no surprise that Undrivers have continued to act on their pledge by making habits of their newfound undriving methods. Now that’s a change.

This post is part of the series, "Seattle to the World: 100 Best Innovations from the Emerald City."


I love Undriving! They were at our "Sustainable West Seattle Festival" this weekend and signed up near 150 people and their first family of 5 (on one licencse.) Rep. Jim McDermott signed up, as did Mayor Nickels. Let's hope they get (further) inspired! :)

I don't see all of the entries of this series "Seattle to the World" in one place... are they?


Posted by: Bill Reiswig on May 5, 2009 2:21 PM

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