Monday, October 01, 2007

Living downtown and car-free!!!

A lot of people hate living in the city: the crowds, the hustle-and-bustle, the noise. Then there are lots of other people who think they would hate it, but -- once they try it -- discover they love it!!!

I fall into this latter group. I'm introverted, solitary, and anti-social, so the idea of living in a place that's full of people? It was a no-brainer that I'd hate it! I wanted to find my own "Walden Pond" or something. (Never mind that I've never actually read any Thoreau -- it's the principle of the thing!) Then, as I explained in my post le metro, once I tried living in the city, I loved it!!! It was like a revelation of new possibilities that I'd never considered, and now I'm hooked! Today I'm going to explain why I love it, and encourage you -- if you've never considered living downtown -- to think about it.

My number one reason why I love car-free urban living is convenience.

Since your car can take you anywhere, anytime, it seems like it would be hard to beat that in terms of convenience. But really it depends on your temperament and what types of tasks you find pleasant or unpleasant. As I said in my post about le metro, the stress and time wasted on concentrating on driving, finding a parking space, remembering where you parked, not to mention keeping track of maintenance, insurance, etc. add up to a huge pain in the butt compared to the breath of fresh air that is stepping out of your house and taking a pleasant, invigorating walk to your destination. I think commuting by car and working out are both intolerably boring tasks, and it galled me to have to do each one separately if there was any way I could trade them both in for a task I like, namely going for a walk. Walking regularly is a pleasant, painless, even entertaining way to get some exercise. (The entertainment factor come in if you love people-watching like I do -- it's fun and a source of great free material for aspiring writers.)

An additional plus over traditional workouts is that you can't just start up with good intentions (buy the equipment and/or gym membership) and then decide you're too tired, lose interest, etc. If your only means of getting home involves your own feet, then you don't need a whole lot of will-power to stick with the program.

And that's not to mention the cost in actual money! It was painful to me to see such a huge chunk of my paycheck go bye-bye for a vehicle that I didn't even want. For all of my exmo friends who talk about how much better they're doing financially after giving up tithing: giving up a car is even better!!! I caught another person on my blogroll making a similar calculation here.

There are a bunch of bunch of great noble reasons for adopting an urban lifestyle. Not wasting fuel helps us move towards a sustainable future both in terms of protecting the environment and keeping the peace with other people competing for the same scarce fossil resources. Living in the city, you typically interact on a daily basis with people from all different backgrounds, making it difficult to function as a hard-core racist, and encouraging understanding among different groups instead. But choosing this lifestyle isn't a question of martyring yourself for a grand cause -- once you've tried it you may end up doing it just because you want to.

But what about the kids?

That's the best part! Admittedly the question of the school district opens up a whole can of worms, and it may be a challenge to find a solution that works for you as I have in my European dream. But aside from that question, urbanism means a host of different options for kids concentrated within a few blocks of your home.

Back when I was living in New Jersey, a colleague of mine used to talk about the hours she would spend driving one kids to one private school than the other kid to another school, and would waste whole days driving her kids to their various lessons. And she had only two kids who were both young teens. When you live in the city with decent public transportation, it's possible to give kids a bit more independence at a younger age. Obviously you need to work out age-appropriate rules, but you're not locked into a situation where your kids under sixteen are stuck at home (with maybe a strip mall or something within biking distance) except when you're available to drive them somewhere. Plus if the car isn't an absolute necessity for getting around, it's easier to put off the dangerous rite-of-passage of giving your kid the car keys until you're sure your kid is mature enough to handle it.

Kids aren't the only ones who benefit from being able to transport themselves conveniently without driving. There are plenty of people who can't drive because of various handicaps such as blindness, and there are others who shouldn't be driving but do it because it's so inconvenient in many parts of the U.S. to transport yourself any other way. Elderly people can stay independent longer when they live within walking distance of shops. I see this in France all the time: very old ladies with their baskets making the rounds to the market, the bakery, and the pharmacy, and having a nice chat with the shopkeeper at each one. That's what I plan to do when I get old. :D

Plus even people who are normally okay to drive are often in situations where they shouldn't drive (and end up driving anyway for lack of other options). That includes more-or-less unavoidable situations (taking a required prescription, feeling angry and hence less able to concentrate), as well as irresponsible ones (driving while talking on the phone or after drinking). Drinking is only half of the problem of drinking-and-driving, the other half is the driving, which should be just as avoidable. And even if you're a safe driver, you are endangered by having to share the road with tons of poor drivers, many of them in super-sized assault vehicles...

The real question, though, is whether it's even possible.

Admittedly, in the U.S. it's pretty challenging to find a place to live that is a "walkable urban space" (where pretty much everything you need can be obtained within 1/4 to 1/2 mile or so of your home, even perhaps your job, plus ideally convenient public transportation and safe bike routes fill in any gaps). Daddy, Papa and Me wrote a post about the possiblity of walkable urbanism in the U.S. And I'd like to encourage more people to consider it, because the more people that want a walkable urban space and make it a priority, the easier it becomes to make it a reality.


mathmom said...


You are making me jealous! My husband and I lived car free in our small southern college town for approximately 3 months. Two things convinced us to get a car: going to the laundromat in the rain by bus, and weekly grocery shopping by bus (I realize now that you don't grocery shop for a whole week when you don't have a car, but I was inexperienced...) We still managed to make do with one car for 6 more years.

Right now I drive about 300 miles per week, 150 miles more than I'd like. The saddest part for me is imagining the hours my 7 month old spends strapped into his car seat, looking at nothing, when he could be people watching in the open air... Maybe the next place we move will have better public transit.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mathmom!!!

Already getting by with one car is not too shabby. But in a lot of cases it's impossible to get one's job-and-housing situation to allign with the goal of going car-free, which is unfortunate, but not the end of the world...

It seems like grocery shopping without a car would be a hassle, but in our case it hasn't been a problem at all. It's a little more frequent, but you'd be amazed how much stuff I can fit into my little tote-on-wheels. There's a little market a few blocks from our house, so if I need to just run out and get one item I've forgotten, the whole errand takes about 20 minutes, and my little Leo loves coming along for the walk. (That's a bad thing as well as a good thing since he always insists on having a treat...).

SuccessWarrior said...

I'm going to be looking for carless convenience in my next move but it's so hard in this area. Everything has been built with cars in mind.

King Aardvark said...

It's an interesting dilemma for me. I love the convenience and activity factor of being able to walk/take subway everywhere. On the other hand, I love cars. As it is, I now live in the suburban wasteland around Toronto, so cars are an unavoidable fact of life. I did try walking to work once when the car was in the shop. It took an hour.

I miss my university days where I was downtown. You could walk across the entire meaningful part of the city in about 30 minutes.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Success Warrior!!!

It might not be impossible -- good luck finding something!!!

Hey King Aardvark!!!

It's true a love of cars kind of throws off this whole calculation... ;^) But even if you own a car for pleasure, there are advantages to having daily transportation (errands, commute) via walking, bike, or public transportation.

beatdad said...

I totally agree with you.

When I lived in downtown SLC, for about three years I had no car. Even there I could get to work, go out to eat, do my shopping, go to shows, movies and visit friends all on foot.

When I lived in Oakland this all fell apart, only because of the part of town I lived in.

Now, in Eugene, we do live about three miles from downtown and do much of our getting around by bicycle and on foot. However, it is such a small town, I don't feel at all guilty when I drive beacuse it usually only takes five minutes to get where I am going. Still, driving is not as pleasurable (as you have pointed out) as walking.

Bored in Vernal said...

Sounds wonderful. We lived without a car for 8 months in a small town in Missouri. It was very do-able, even with 5 small children under 7!

But just try living in a country where you are not allowed to drive!!! It can really put your back up. Grrrrrr.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wayne!!!

Yeah, back when I was at BYU, I remember SLC as being quite walkable. Provo too, actually, and the public transportation was pretty good within them and between them. That's cool that you're able to get a fair amount of your transportation by human power in Eugene as well! :D

Hey BtIV!!!

Wow, car-free with 5 children under 7!!! Even if the town is quite walkable, that's an impressive feat. I assume that means one strapped on in a pouch, one in a stroller, and three that can be counted on to walk on their own power? And not wander off, as kids are wont to do??? On the other hand, it's probably not that much easier to try to transport five little kids in a car -- it probably takes a while to catch them all and strap them into their respective car seats before going anywhere...

Not being allowed to drive because of sexist laws -- that's a horse of a different color, and not nearly as pleasant...

Unknown said...

I've been trying to ride my bicycle to work more, since I work only about three miles away from where I live. I have to admit, it's pretty nice. I still need a car, though. :-/

Oh, and tag.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey John!!!

Even if you need a car for some things, merely cutting the car out of your daily commute can make a big difference.

I'll come have a look at your meme... :D

hm-uk said...

I would love to live without a car again! I did it for ten years in Boston, MA. It should be even easier in London, where the mayor imposes congestion charging to discourage people from driving through the centre of the city. Our odometer says that we use our car 25 miles per week - the rest of the time we are able to walk or take trains, buses or the underground. It is less stressful to walk and in a congested urban area it can also be quicker than taking a car!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Hm-Uk!!!

It's similar in Bordeaux -- it's actually faster to walk places than to take a car. There's no congestion tax (as far as I know) but the congestion itself is a deterrent. Plus, you can't really just pull up to a shop downtown and park. There are several enormous underground parking garages, but they aren't necessarily right next to your destination, so you end up having to get out of your car and walk (or take the tram) no matter what.

Of course one difference with London is size. In Bordeaux you can easily walk from one end of the downtown area to the other -- the long way -- in less than half an hour. So it's small enough that you can walk anywhere, but big enough that there are places to go. ;^)

Unknown said...

That's also a good thing about Boston, the size. It's small enough to walk just about anywhere in 15-20 minutes and with the T it's even convenient enough to live on the outskirts. It's one of the things I loved most about Boston when I lived there. The only problem with the T is that it closes early, or it did when I lived there. I don't think it was open past 1 AM for those late night bar-hoppers.

The cost of rent and the condition of the apartments were probably the least.

San Diego was OK as far as public transportation. Really if you live in the right area you can bike just about anywhere. But it's also very expensive to live in those areas.

Freckle Face Girl said...

You have to admit that it even more fascinating when living abroad or in an interesting place like NYC. It opens you up to experiences & sights that are missed in the car. I know I would like it, because I actually love walking.

Unfortunately, I am living in an area where it is unheard of (suburbia). Walking is strictly for enjoyment. At least there are nice trails for it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey OrdinaryGirl!!!

I've heard Boston is very walkable, and it's nice to hear San Diego is also pretty good.

You're right, though, that as a general rule it's incredibly expensive to live in walkable urban areas, at least in the U.S. It's possibly an indication of the demand for it compared to the supply. It's a little different in Europe because nearly every city has a core of old neighborhoods that pre-date car transport, hence sprang up in a more pedestrian-friendly way.

Hey FFG!!!

When I was living in suburbia as a teen, I used to walk for pleasure all the time. As a high schooler, during the summer I used to go on a walk around the nearest lake nearly every day. Walking for pleasure is definitely worth the time for it's own sake, but if you really like it, it's a good indication that you might like moving out of the suburbs... ;^)

Anonymous said...

We live in town and love the car-free thing (we have one, but for limited usage). I do like the walking as well. I did the same thing in NYC, but haven't lived anywhere else where it was really feasible. CV Rick wrote an excellent post about the Suburbs that this reminds me of (if I knew how to link, I would). Suburbs and cars and all that - they don't strike me as sustainable, or helpful for humans.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Wry!!!

That's cool that you guys are in a situation where you can do most of your daily transportation on foot. I agree with you about suburbs not really being sustainable or helpful.

Anonymous said...

I lived in San Francisco for 2 years without a car, and the only times it got to be a pain was in visiting family in other parts of town. Even within the City three transfers each way meant a 2 hour round trip. Other than that it was pretty good, as we had everything we needed close by. And yes, we saved boatloads of cash.

Which we used to buy a car.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mike!!!

That's excellent to hear that it's possible to save money by living car-free in San Francisco. I would have thought that cost of renting an apartment (or buying a house) would have ruined the potential savings.

xJane said...


I remember being a high schooler in Germany (driving age: 18) and having XtrEme(TM) independence. It was awesome: I took busses, and U-Bahns, and trains frickin' everywhere. When I got my license, I occasionally borrowed the family car, but mostly it didn't change my habits (I already knew how to get into The City & what stops to take, putting parking a car into the mix, or worse, not being able to drive home after hanging out with friends [drinking] was enough to make me not drive). Then I moved to LA, which is the antithesis of walking. I dream about having good public transport. Maybe I'll move to SF :-D

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Jane!!!

That's cool -- sounds like you've had essentially the same epiphany I had!!! Too bad about L.A., though. If San Francisco is an option, it's one I'd consider seriously if I were you. :D