By Jonathan Krall
To some, a car is a symbol of freedom. To others, going “car free” means independence from the stress of driving. With Car Free Day and Try Transit Week coming up in September, now is a good time to ask: what is the appeal of doing without a car? So I asked my neighbors in Alexandria.
As it turns out, cars are kind of a pain. Eric Zander of Del Ray finds grocery shopping easier by bicycle: “due to parking and such, it is actually faster to ride than drive." For Mark James, also of Del Ray, a car is a burden. “I've been car free since April 6, 2013 and LOVE not having the responsibility in owning a car." Dino Drudi of Old Town takes DASH because he likes “being 'chauffeured' around.” Scott Anderson of Cameron Station tried going car free and his perspective changed: “Living without a car has taught me that a lot of the people who do drive cars, ought not to. I have been hit twice, thankfully without serious injury."
In the USA, cars are pervasive. Some responses to my question came from car owners who simply drive less than they used to. While cars are still endemic, vehicle-miles-driven in the US stopped growing in 2005, with nationwide impacts. In July, Iowa DOT chief Paul Trombino told the Urban Land Institute that he plans to reduce Iowa's highway lane-miles to save money. Virginia Tech's Ralph Buehler studies local trends. In 2012, he reported that 12% of Alexandria households are car free, the highest percentage in the DC area outside of DC itself (Arlington was third at 11%).
To my mind, the growth in car-free living is a sea change. Rather than fewer cars, however, the change is that Americans have more options and use them more often. Put another way, we can now go car free without being mistaken for losers, freaks, or New Yorkers. For Stacy Langsdale of South Old Town, it was easier gave up her car while in graduate school, where “there was no social expectation of car ownership.”
As I myself tried car-free living, I kept my car until it was only causing expense. Anderson had a similar experience when he moved to Virginia. “I took with me an old and somewhat unreliable car, so when I saw that there was semi-decent bus service and things I could walk to, I decided to drive it as little as possible. After a few months of really not using the car at all, my oldest daughter needed a car so I gave mine to her.” For Langsdale, “the trigger was the realization that my registration had lapsed and I didn't feel any urgency to renew it.”
Without a car, some trips take longer, but with the benefit of exercise and, with transit, time to read. Running errands without a car requires advance planning and problem-solving, something I personally enjoy. While some do crosswords to keep their minds sharp, I figure out how to run my errands by bicycle on a rainy day without getting my groceries soaked on the way home. Lightweight rain gear and a good weather app come in handy.
Margaret Wohler, another resident of Del Ray, tells me that “errands with children [are] easily solved with a cargo bike or tag-along. My little kids enjoyed this...bundle them up in winter, or adjust the timing of your errands in bad weather."
Car-free living is hardly a “lifestyle,” but it can be healthy. More exercise, slowing down, and reducing stress are sure to please your doctor. Says Wohler, "I have adjusted my shopping habits to biking: I grocery shop every day and get fewer things in smaller quantities, European-style."
Like any change in habit, trying transit can have unexpected benefits. When I began taking the bus four years ago, I found co-workers at the bus stop, ready with workplace news and gossip. Because I value exercise over gossip I usually ride my bicycle. But on rainy days, when traffic seems more aggressive, the bus can be a lifesaver. And that workplace gossip, a career-saver.
Alexandria celebrates Car Free Day on September 22 and Try Transit Week September 21-25.
crossposted at Alexandria News