Reflections on Three Months Car Free
It's been three months today that I've lived without a car. The funny thing is that my friends and family have been more concerned about my state of affairs than I have. That said rainy season is coming and I am close to capitulating for similar reasons as I did last time. I thought I would take a few minutes to reflect on what has changed since my last car free spell, what works well and what the future holds.
1. The first reflection I have is that being car free ironically is more dangerous than ever. If you are a cyclist, you really need to be extremely conscious of your surroundings. The deadly combination use to be cars and alcohol, observations suggest that this has been replaced by cars and mobile devices or mobile distractions. There is so much economic motivation to upsell users all the time, every moment, every place. So our mobile phones are becoming much more aggressive in that motivation. People feel that ic they are not connected they will miss something. I will tell you that if you are too connected, you will miss something. That car, person or bicyclist in front of you! If you have not seen this synopsis of Neil Postman's "Amusing ourselves to Death" you should.
2. The magic number is 15 minutes. If you able to get somewhere by bicycle within 15 minutes. It is likely that a bike and a car are neutral in transportation time door to door. Parking a bike in most cases is faster. The car may win, but it is usually 2 - 3 minutes faster in the wash. What is different is that a car exchanges human energy for gasoline power. This may not be socially acceptable to human and sweat. We'll have to see. Electric powered alternatives may be viable. I am not sure the Segway is the answer, but it is something to consider. I actually think electric scooters may be more viable. The state goal of the Paris Metro is a metro stop within 10 minutes walking.
3. Mass transit works if it is designed to either be extensive or service major corridors. Extensive systems like Paris, London, New York work well because they are extensive. The Chicago El is surprisingly workable as well. Caltrain serving up and down the Peninsula here works, because it goes through major business zones. You are usually able to get a ride or ride your bike from there. VTA the Light Rail system doesn't work. It does not hit the densest sections so basically it's nominally better than a bridge to nowhere.
4. Don't make people plan. The main appeal of a transportation system is that it does not require forethought. The car wins in people's minds since they don't have to look at schedules (they do think of rush hour, but they don't have to worry about missing something). Mass transit works where it does since you don't think about when to go, you just think about where to go. That is no different than a car. This implies that frequency matters more than anything else in a transportation system. If you plan for peak hours only it will fail. The reality of our modern society is that we no longer live by rigid schedules. If anything this has probably been facilitated by the automobile. Other modes of transportation have to catch up.
5. Cost transparency matters. When I look at when people think about using mass transit in the bay area, they think it's expensive. This is because each transaction is very transparent on a per trip basis. With cars, costs are forward loaded. You gripe for 10 minutes when you buy gas, but the next trip in your car. You don't think about the cost. In NYC, you buy week passes or monthly passes and you are done. This is how most local residents do it. People don't think in terms of total cost of the car because they never do the analysis. With mass transit as it stands in the suburbs you are always doing the analysis. The other thing bulk buying either in gas or a monthly pass is that it mitigates transaction times. My suggestion: A city concerned about traffic should consider working with VTA and Caltrain and get Go Passes or equivalents for all their residents for one year to see what the effect is.
6. The value of signaling of a car is highly overrated. Oddly, it's a necessity in most people's minds. A nice car indicates a little oh wow initially, but it dissipates real fast.
Not having a car is doable, but it requires a degree of rigidity in your life that is counter to our current structure of life. If you live within 15 minutes of your life tasks by walking or biking you are set. The car has transformed the radius, but the time factor is the same. I'm fortunate that my life generally meets this criteria. But if we are to make a car free life a viable alternative, we need to think about investing in systems that capture the flexibility and price bundling that cars do.