The Way We Roll

What does it mean to live a car-free lifestyle in STL?

 

It's Aug. 14, 2013. I'm in my editor's office, sitting across the desk from him. I'm sweating and sweating. He's staring. I can't stop sweating.

No, I'm not in trouble with the boss. What I am is car-less, and I just walked five blocks from the bus stop to the magazine's offices in the oppressive heat of a St. Louis summer. Two days from now, it will officially be one year since I sold my car and began my adventure in car-free living. Sure, there have been some inconveniences—missed appointments, flat bicycle tires, torrential downpours—but the anniversary marks one of the most positive changes I've made in my life so far.

I know a lot of people in St. Louis who don't own a car. Some can't afford an automobile and all the associated costs. Others have experienced temporary bouts of irresponsibility that have left them legally prohibited from operating motor vehicles. And then there are people, like me, who simply choose not to own a car. The conscious decision begs the inevitable question: “If you can own a car, why don't you own a car?”

I think for anyone who has voluntarily given up car ownership, the answer to that question is complex. The benefits are obvious: reduced living expenses, more exercise, better environmental stewardship, increased social awareness. But ask any of the folks I know who have chosen a car-free lifestyle and they’ll tell you that giving up their car wasn’t just for the pragmatic reasons; there were more personal issues at play.

Take my friend Jonesey. She has been car-less for more than eight consecutive years. The first time she lived without a car was in 1998, following a divorce. “Our cars were in my ex's name, so when we separated, I just didn't have a car—but I still had to get to work.” She started asking for rides, then navigated the bus system. Finally, she realized it was easier to get a bike. She worked at a university, and the students there embraced a bike culture. Why shouldn't she? “Once I no longer had a car, I found I didn't want one,” she says. “More importantly, I found I didn't want to need one.” Jonesey has lived in St. Louis for more than two years, and she still doesn't own a car.

My decision was sparked by the desire to finally kick the student loans and credit card debt lingering from my early 20s. When I met my husband six years ago, he didn't have a car, and he hadn’t owned one for quite some time. You know what else he didn't (and still doesn't) have? Debt. After years of making monthly payments, I felt like I wasn't making any progress. I was still so far away from being debt-free. I made a decent salary and had a relatively modest lifestyle, so why, by my calculations, was it going to take me 10 more years to pay off what I owed?

I tracked my spending, charted my expenses and tried to determine where I could cut costs. I realized, at this point, I was spending almost $600 a month to own a car—not counting the cost of actually driving it or maintaining it. I couldn’t believe how quickly my car payments, insurance, a monthly parking pass and taxes added up before putting any gas in the tank. And my calculations were below average. In October 2013, the American Public Transportation Association published a Transit Savings Report that stated individuals who switch to public transportation and live with one less car can save, on a national average, $9,986 a year—or approximately $832 a month.

What made this realization really sting was that, most of the time, I only drove my car one day a week. As a Downtown resident, I lived close to my office and was within walking distance of a grocery store and plenty of restaurants, parks and entertainment options. The potential savings of not owning a car—and subsequently fast-tracking my debt reduction—was tempting. The idea had taken hold, and it wasn't letting go.

No matter what drives someone to, well, stop driving everywhere, it's undeniable that the car-free movement is gaining traction locally. In November 2013, the League of American Bicyclists reported that St. Louis has seen a 332.8 percent increase in bicycle commuters since 1990. St. Louis ranked No. 21 (out of 70 large cities), based on the percentage of commuters who bike regularly to work, with about 1,500 reported bike commuters in the city.

And that's just counting those who choose to bike. St. Louisans have no shortage of other transportation resources. That's due, in part, to policies such as Complete Streets, which passed in 2010 and requires future St. Louis City infrastructure projects to incorporate the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists and mass transit users into road and street design. Examples of Complete Streets design features include: sidewalks, crosswalks and accessible curb cuts; bicycle lanes; median refuges; bus shelters; bump outs for sidewalks and bus stops; and audible pedestrian signals.

Alderman Shane Cohn, one of the leading forces behind the implementation of Complete Streets in St. Louis City, emphasizes the economic importance of planning for a future that relies on multimodal transit options. “The automobile isn't going anywhere,” he says. “It's a feat of engineering. Our entire region is designed around it. But you have to understand that sprawl is a bad thing [financially] for government. It costs a lot of money to create new infrastructure—streets, lights, sidewalks, government offices, schools, fire departments. The younger generation, right now, is seeing the benefit of living in urban areas. They want a more attached life. Although the overall population of St. Louis has been declining, Downtown's population has had some of the largest growth in the country. That's because young, college-educated people are moving into the city. It's a migration based around the understanding that we need to move toward a more sustainable way of living.”

Cohn is right; automobiles aren't going anywhere. They will undoubtedly remain part of our lives. But the notion of using them less, sharing them more and creating a lifestyle in which a car is just one of the many ways you get where you're going—that's an idea whose time has come.

In May 2013, St. Louisans followed along as City In A Jar blogger Jessica Leitch ditched her car for 31 days as part of the Great Rivers Greenway CarFreeSTL Challenge during National Bike Month. Leitch blogged and tweeted about her adventure and appeared on KMOX weekly with updates on the experience. “It rained a lot in May, so I started out tweeting about how hard it was to bike in the rain or ride late at night,” Leitch says. “I got responses from regular bike commuters, offering advice and tips on how to deal with those challenges. I realized there are already lots of people in St. Louis who get around without cars.”

Her personal project inspired others. “A number of people I know started asking if they could join me on the buses and MetroLink to get a feel for what it's like to live without a car,” she recalls. Her friends weren't the only ones intrigued by the idea; Metro transit reported a 16 percent increase in ridership from its fiscal year 2010 to its fiscal year 2013.

The experience was life-changing for Leitch, who went car-free permanently in October 2013. “Living Downtown, it's easy for me not to own a car,” she says. “There's a MetroLink stop a few blocks from my loft and a bus that takes me right to work. It's definitely easier to do in a condensed neighborhood. But I have a lot of friends who, because St. Louis is so spread out, feel they still need a car. If you want to go car-free in this city, you have to change your mind-set or you have to live in an area that's more accessible.”

She makes a good point: From my perspective, the biggest obstacle St. Louisans face in making the leap to life without a car is understanding how to get around without one. Like most people who’ve given up their cars, I've developed my own formula for getting where I want when I want. It involves multiple forms of transportation; some flexibility; a little sacrifice now and then; and, most importantly, a lot of planning. When I want to go somewhere—to the movies, out for drinks with friends, to a particular art exhibit or social event—I can walk or ride my bike, take public transportation, have a friend pick me up or any combination of the above. I just have to plan ahead and know how long it will take me to get to my destination. (I've never been one to make people wait on me, and I don't want my being car-less to change that.) When it comes to getting to where I need to be—work obligations, doctor appointments, etc.—I plan out my routes on MetroLink and Metro-Bus to ensure I can get there on time. If I'm crunched for time or need to get to multiple destinations faster than public transportation can get me there, I have Enterprise CarShare. It's my backup plan, my fail-safe, my saving grace—because, well, it's a car.

For the uninitiated, car sharing is popular in urban centers and on college, corporate and government campuses throughout the country. Cars can be rented for short-term use—for a minimum of one hour—by those who need an extra set of wheels on a semi-regular basis. As opposed to traditional car rentals, car-sharing vehicles are reserved and checked out from locations that are independent from brickand-mortar rental offices and the constraints of office hours. In St. Louis, Enterprise CarShare has vehicles stationed Downtown and on the Washington University campus. Carsharing has been a successful venture for Enterprise, which launched the initiative in 2007 and now has programs active in more than 35 states. So when I need to get to a doctor's appointment, make it to an important interview on time and looking nice, or go on a worryfree date night with my husband, I use car sharing.

Using car sharing on a regular basis can get expensive, though, which is antithetical to my cost-cutting goal. So I try to use more economical options as much as possible. I also do a lot of pre-planning—something all my carfree friends agree is an integral part of not owning a car. It's common to schedule a haircut, chiropractor appointment and trip to the grocery store all in the same afternoon, consolidating into five hours what might take eight or nine hours if spread out over separate errands. That might sound a bit hectic, but it actually frees up a lot of time to devote to yourself. In fact, “liberating” is a word that gets tossed around frequently among the car-free.

At first, it might be hard to believe that not owning a car offers people a greater sense of freedom—since it takes longer to get somewhere by bike or bus than it does by car. But Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke the truth when he said: “Life is a journey, not a destination.” I recently accepted a full-time position at a company Sources: Jess Lietch, jess@alivemag.com; Jonesey, sarah.j@left-bank.com; Shane, citizenshane@hotmail.com In an annual report published by AAA called “Your Driving Costs,” the organization Metro closed out FY13 on June 30, 2013 with ridership up across the board on MetroLink, MetroBus and Call-A-Ride for more than 47 million rides—a 0.7% increase over the prior year and a 13% increase since FY10. in Maryland Heights. It's an hour-plus bus ride each way. Leaving my house at 6:30am and returning at 6pm might seem oppressive, but in that commute, I've finally found the time to read that I've been yearning for. I email friends and family from my phone. And I have time and space to think—not to mention that I meet a lot of wonderful people on the bus who I wouldn't otherwise get the opportunity to know. I've been a car commuter, and although it's cliché, I have to admit that I spent my morning drive frustrated and cursing at the cars around me, and my drive home doing the same. Biking to Soulard Farmers Market on Saturday mornings makes my shopping trip twice as long, and I can't haul as many bags as I could in a car. But I get to see the city as it wakes up in the morning, wave at business owners opening up shop and cruise through Citygarden when it's serenely quiet. Not being in a car, focused on where I'm going and how quickly I can get there, has brought me newfound peace of mind on a permanent basis.

Being forced to cut back on the commitments you can make is also liberating. Initially, I worried, “If I don't have a car, I can't do as many things.” But, now, the mind-set is: “If I don't have a car, I don't have to do as many things.” Instead, the focus turns to the things I want to do. When I had a car, I might have felt obligated to stop by the grocery store after work, pick up a gift for a friend's birthday, return movies to Redbox or swing by the gas station to fuel up. Instead, on any given weeknight, you'll find me and my husband at an outdoor patio on Washington Avenue sharing beers and a game of cards with other nearby residents. Or checking out a newly opened restaurant. Or curled up on the couch with our dog, watching a movie and drinking a nice bottle of wine. It's not that we don't get to see our friends and family. We haven't become hermits. And all those errands still get done. We just find that without a car, there’s a set time for to-dos and want-to-dos. And it's easier to separate those things now.

As you've probably realized, my life isn't completely or strictly car-free. I hitch rides with friends, and I rent cars on occasion. Perhaps a more accurate term for my lifestyle is “car independent.” I no longer depend on a car to get me everywhere. It took selling my car to realize that it was, in fact, a dependence. If you've ever gotten rid of cable or stopped drinking soda, you'll understand the concept of taking away something that you felt was a natural and unquestionable part of your day, only to find that you're happier and healthier without it. For me, that was the experience of getting rid of my car. What I found instead was this cozy little place in my life where all my priorities come together. And in all honesty, I feel that life has become less constraining… more free. And that's worth the extra sweat.

 

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Photo credit: Illustration by Jason Potter

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