Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Living Without a Car: A Mini-Review of Seven Cities and Four States

For readers with places to go and people to meet, the short version of this story is as follows. I rank the bike-friendliness of these places where I’ve lived, from best to worst as:

Gainesville, FL > Denver, CO > Golden, CO > Chicago, IL > Richland, WA > Naples, FL > Orlando, FL

The longer version:

I initially titled this post “Bike commuting: A mini-review…” because at first thought, the bike-friendliness of these places I’ve lived was synonymous with how easy it was to live without a car. A couple years after I started what turned out to be a marathon 16 year-long stay in school, I sold my old Toyota pickup, deciding to rely on my then fairly new 2 x 7 speed Rampar touring bike, Corn Dog. It wasn’t until I moved to Washington state 14 years later that I decided I needed a car again. In the interim, I relied almost completely on a bike for getting around, but at times, mainly in Chicago, I used public transportation extensively. I wanted to capture that part of the bike-free existence in this post, thus the new title.

Back to the ranking:

Gainesville FL is at the top of the list because of a favorable combination of sheer number of bicyclists, a climate that allows biking throughout the year, a relatively compact city center, a good supply of reasonable housing close to campus, and what is now probably a decent bus system. I rarely took the bus while I lived in Gainesville (about 9 years for a BS starting in 1982. Hell yeah!) because I loved to get on the bike and because it seemed like a 45 minute wait for a bus was not uncommon. Other things in Gville’s favor are a progressive attitude towards both the environment and weirdos who don’t own cars. Plus there are very few Seminoles, Dogs, Tigers, or other similar low-lifes to be found.

Denver CO is also a great biking city for many of the same reasons. There are lots of bikes, although they are perhaps not as concentrated as in Gainesville. The one year that I spent downtown at the corner of Washington and 13th St. right behind Wax Trax was a blast and I was close enough (not by accident) to a Wild Oats to do most of my grocery shopping via bike. The climate here makes winter biking a challenge sometimes, however it is doable. With all the sun that we get here the streets usually clear quickly after even heavy snows. Disclaimer: I owned a car while in Denver.

Golden CO is great too for the no car lifestyle, but suffers from being a bit too small. The restaurant scene in particular is pretty dismal, with the exception of a great sushi place. Kelly and I frequently get into the car for a trip into Boulder or Denver for dinner or a show. Also, housing prices in this area never really collapsed like they did in much of the rest of the country. The search for our current home, which was driven primarily by the requirement that it be close to NREL (Kelly works from home), took over a year and had us look at over a hundred different houses. Bicyclists are everywhere here. Dislcaimer: I’ve owned a car while I’ve lived in Golden. Reclaimer: it wasn’t always working. I went car-less for 6 months after my truck broke down and I abandoned it in the Safeway parking lot. It took the onset of winter and a couple cold wet bike commutes to get the motivation to have it fixed. I still don’t understand why Safeway didn’t tow that thing away.

Chicago IL illustrated the full spectrum of what it’s like to live without a car. Many neighborhoods there are self-contained and allow one to grocery shop and conduct everyday business on foot or bike all within a few blocks. Grocery shopping crops up again because I like to cook. During my car-less period I would first look for a good grocery close to school, and then look for a place to live near the store. Another plus for Chicago is the fact that the public transportation system there is great. Between the train and bus systems, it was easy to get around without a car. Still, in my seven years there, I mainly rode my sturdy old Trek 8500 Jeebus everywhere. There are enough bikes around during good weather to make drivers aware of cyclists. On the other hand, I did encounter more than a few aggressive drivers. I was hit twice by truck mirrors. Three times I had partially full 40 oz bottles of beer thrown at me from passing cars (all misses). In my big ring one night on my way back to the UIC campus from Oak Park, I heard the words “Wrong neighborhood!” yelled at me. Part of me actually misses the combative riding environment. My last few months in the area were spent in Des Plaines, and I did a 40 mile round-trip commute to UIC several times a week: Oakton St. to Milwaukee, veering off onto Elston as soon as possible, juking over a few blocks along Chicago Ave to Halsted, taking that to the science building on Taylor St. By the time I got to the lab I was so jacked up from the ride that I had no need for the massive morning coffee input I seem to require now. The counterpoint to that period of crazy long bike (and rail) commutes was 6 months of an ultra short commute from my office, but that’s really a story in its own right.

Richland WA was where I spent two years as a post-doc at a sub-unit of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Richland was not a good place to be without a car. The small community supported minimal public transportation, and the Tri-Cities area is pretty spread out. Probably the main deal-breaker for me was the fact that the laboratory was somewhat isolated from possible apartments, bound on the east by the Columbia River and by the rest of the Hanford site to the north and west. A combination of these factoids, a pay scale slightly above subsistence, and a desire to get up in the Cascades for snowboarding and mountain biking led to the end of my car-less period.

Naples FL was were I was born, where my parents and sister Katie still live, and where I spent quite a few years without a car. When I lived there it was a terrible place to live without a car. Then again, I was a teenager who really wanted a car. Seriously though, I believe it has gotten better. I see more and more bikes and bike paths. A real problem facing the Cars R Coffins crowd in Naples is the very conservative politics there. If you don’t own a giant Cadillac or Hummer, you are not a Real American in the eyes of Sarah Palin or most Neopolitans. Similarly, the idea of controlling growth or having government interfere in any way in the area’s development is repugnant to most people in the area.

Orlando FL comes in at the bottom of the heap in this mini review of cities’ friendliness towards the car-less existence. My experience was (probably unfairly) colored by the fact that I lived outside of the city center near the University of Central Florida. Still, at the time Orlando had poor public transportation, was very spread out, was seemingly populated by crazy bike-hating drivers, had few bikes lanes, and fewer cyclists stupid enough to face rush hour traffic. It really felt dangerous to be riding around that city.

The facts are that you can live without a car in any of these places, it’s just that doing so is easier in some of them. I absolutely love hearing people say “Well, you have to have a car” because I know that for most able-bodied people that statement is total bullshit. I have gone for extended periods of time without a car and I know other people who have done the same. For most people, a car is a convenience, not a necessity.

If readers have different opinions about my rankings, or even better want to send in their own similar reviews, please shoot them my way and I'll post them as soon as possible.

1 comment:

  1. I found what you had to say to be extremely interesting. I haven't driven a car for the last 5 years (I'm 28) for the fact that the income I have really would not support one. I'm different than you in the sense that I do not think I could ever go without a car if I had the availability to have one.

    That statement may sound immature on my part I realize, however, for that comment almost implies that I don't care about the environment, which actually is not the case. I just honestly feel as though when I lost my car, I lost my freedom in the process.

    There was this innate sense of freedom that could be found when I would put my car on the open road at times when I didn't even have a real destination in mind. I remember being a kid, being in the car while my Dad would drive our family from New York to Charlotte and admiring how my Dad could navigate his way around the country with ease. Although I wasn't the one driving back then, I felt a bit how Christopher Columbus must have felt; as though I was exploring a new exotic land, when in reality I was just driving along the US Eastern seaboard with my family. As a kid, North Carolina was in reality a distant land I had never seen and the trip we took to get there was extremely exciting. That sense of excitement and exploration is something I'll never forget. By the time I had become an adult, I had grew to love the notion of traveling and seeing new parts of the country and I myself was able to have a childhood dream realized in a sense when I took my own voyage from Panama City Beach, FL to Charlotte, NC with me in the drivers seat at age 22.

    To most, being a man and driving 600 miles by himself is not much of an accomplishment, but I couldn't help but smile throughout the whole trip when I realized the true significance that "voyage" had to me.

    And so a part of what made me happy in life died the day I stopped driving essentially. Now I'm just trying to survive, and sometimes survival leaves a car out of the equation.

    I happen to live in Orlando, Florida and agree that living here without a car is really difficult.

    I'm happy you wrote this for the simple fact that what you have written might shed light on what life is like for others that experience the world without the freedom a car provides.

    I do hope to recapture the freedom I felt on that trip from Panama City Beach to Charlotte once again however.