Thursday, May 14, 2009

Living Car Free Should Not Be Challenging

So, the other day Beth, who all of a sudden is going challengicious on everyone's ass, challenged people to live a week without a car and then blog about it.

Now I decided to rise to her challenge because I am hard-core like that.


But it is true that I have been car-free since September. And guys, I have to tell you, it's so freaking awesome.

But here's what's really awesome about being car free in London. It's not a challenge. Not even a small one. Not even a teensy tiny challenge.

Because the truth is the fastest way for me to get to school is ... to walk. There's no other faster way. Not kidding. I've tried the bus, I've tried the tube. I haven't tried biking, but given how long it would take me to park my bike, walking still comes out ahead. Walking is simply the most efficient method for me to commute. It's fantastic. I get some fresh air, I get some exercise, and it's about as carbon light as you can get!

Of course, any time I need to get anywhere further away, I rely on the amazing system of public transit that London offers. The tube is beloved by many, and it is a wonderful system (except for the frickin Victoria line. Don't ask me what's up with that line.) But, personally, if I have the time, I prefer to sit atop a double-decker bus and watch the city go by.

So, for me, not driving a car is not much of a sacrifice. In fact, driving a car, that would be the sacrifice, given the insurance, parking, and congestion fees that I'd have to pay. (If you want to drive in Central London during work hours Monday through Friday, you have to pay what's called a congestion charge.) Not to mention the traffic. If I had to drive around in Central London every day, I'd probably go mad. (Well, to be fair, I'd probably die before I went mad because I'd end up driving on the wrong side of the road. But, you know what I mean.)

I think it's great that Beth is challenging everyone to go a week without driving. But from an urban policy perspective, my opinion is, if you live in a reasonably dense area, and it's a sacrifice to take public transit, then that means the public transit system isn't designed correctly and it needs to be fixed. Personally, after living in LA, and attempting to commute via public transit, and then moving to London, I do not think that taking public transit should be challenge worthy.

Fixing public transit doesn't have to be expensive either. There are plenty of examples, like Curitiba, of very inexpensive but well designed public transit systems. What is required is innovative urban planners and some political will. Los Angeles has one line (the Orange Line for the Angelenos in the hizzouse) through the Valley that mimics the Curitiba plan. But, frankly, in my opinion, LA could stand to have a few more rapid transit bus lines in the city. I'd probably add rapid transit bus to Sunset, Wilshire, La Cienega, Sepulveda, and Vermont. You could do that at a fraction of the cost of the planned subway to the West side, and if you had rapid bus transit on those five streets, you could get from Los Feliz to Santa Monica in half an hour. Villaraigosa, do you hear me?!

Anyway, forgive me for rambling on about rapid transit buses like a rapid transit bus maniac, but in the end, here's my basic take away point. Colin once wrote a very nice post about how living sustainably should be like falling off a log. That's how I feel about public transit. Taking public transit, should be like falling off a log.

To paraphrase former Bogota mayor, Enrique PeƱalosa, we can design cities to support people not cars.

All it takes is our will to change.

P.S. If you are car-free in general, or willing to go car-free for a week, please do join in on Beth's challenge, and blog about your experiences.


Farmer's Daughter said...

Public transportation? What's that?

There's one bus stop in my town, half-way between here and my work. The bus comes once an hour. So let's just say there's not a whole lot available here.

I'd love to hear more about rural/suburban areas with good public transit systems.

ruchi said...

Yeah, there are definite density issues once you get into the more rural/suburban areas. Which isn't to say it's impossible to design, just harder.

But I'll keep on the look out for examples for you, Abbie. How does your area do in terms of links to urban areas? Do you have a suburban commuter rail system, or are you near a train station?

Eliane said...

Completely agree that driving in London is awful. I avoided it as much as possible. Not so sure that the public transport system is unchallenging - I suppose it mostly works but you do end up squished up against too many people too much of the time. You should try some of the European cities - just been to Amsterdam, where everyone cycles (well it's v. flat), and there are trams and buses and room to spread your legs. Makes London seem like cattle transportation. But at least it's transport.

Sadly I can't go car free now I'm in Wales. We're on a 60 mile an hour country road with no pavements just outside of town, so the kids get driven two minutes to school. But we use a tank of petrol a month which isn't bad for rural living.

Have you tried overland train at all in London. Another way to see the city. I used to like the North London Line - Stratford to Kew - that goes through Camden to Hampstead and on. It's raised so you get great views over the city and all the stations are Victorian, a bit dilapidated, the way I like London.

ruchi said...

Eliane, heh, I guess it depends on your frame of reference. For me, coming from LA, I find the London system of transport much LESS challenging. At least it runs often! I also prefer it to Paris' subway which I find really confusing. Amsterdam is amazing though, I agree. Maybe once the mayor finally puts in all the cycle lanes they keep talking about in London....

Stephanie said...

Yeah! I've been car-free since the beginning of January and I LOVE it. When I go back to the U.S. in the beginning of July I'm going to have to do a ton of driving again, which disappoints me. I just don't find the transportation within the cities reliable in the Bay Area.

The bus system where my college is is supposedly really good too, but there a 15 minute wait is a "quick bus". I'm far too used to waiting a maximum of 10 minutes for a tram or subway here in Vienna. It's frustrating.

Fix said...

I've been reading the comments on the NYT article about the German suburb with limited cars with some amazement. How do you get groceries with no car? Um, you carry them. In your arms or in a little wheelie granny cart. And you buy only enough that you can carry. And people do this all the time, all over the world. How do you deal with kids with no car? Um, the same way that people in New York City, Chicago, and other countries do. Sometimes for many generations. A lot of no-car kids have really rich lives, believe it or not.

And I keep hearing about cars give us choice. How is there true choice and freedom if you don't have access to public transport and you can't even walk or bike places because the car infrastructure is so thick and dangerous? This is where the political will you're talking about, Ruchi, comes in - and it requires some ingenuity and imagination on the part of all citizens.

Viva National Bike to Work Day!

Mary said...

The small town where I work has no public transportation , no bike lanes. I live 15 miles from work (my partner and I split the difference - his business is in another small town 7 miles away), drive a car that gets 40 mpgs, and have arranged my work schedule so I can work a four-day week, eliminating one 30 mile trip a week. At this point it's the best I can do, but I'd like to have a good alternative.

Rosa said...

Farmer's Daughter, Mary - one thing I was really impressed with in Britain was the combo Post Buses. In some rural places (we saw them in the Hebrides & in rural Scotland) the mail is delivered in a minivan you can pay to ride along in, twice a day. It doesn't seem to be timed for work commutes, but for stuff like grocery shopping it's very nice (and for simple socializing - the buses I rode were full of chatty old ladies & teenagers).

For me, I'm stuck to the car because we have so much family in places even Greyhound doesn't go - I do just fine biking around town & bike commuting (or busing, Minneapolis' bus system is great) but then I have to go to Iowa or Nebraska and there's just no way to *get* there without driving.

Which is ridiculous - 50 years ago all these places were accessible by train.

Mary said...

The post buses sound like a good system. Your remark about socializing points to another drawback in the lack of public transportation/increased necessity of cars in rural areas (and suburban areas, too)- it cuts down on community and increases isolation.

Katy said...

I live in a major city with a craptastic public transit system. We have light rail that seriously only goes 7 miles in two directions. Its great if you are in the medical center and want to go downtown, or vis versa, but not good for anything else.

Buses? What are those? Now I will say that I due ride the buses everday and for people who have to commute downtown, the park and ride/Express buses are great. However... notice the park and ride part of that??? Makeing connections is such a headache and can take you HOURS out of your way.

I do ride the bus to work every morning, but I have to drive my car to a place where I can catch it.

Joyce said...

We have an fantastic bus system here, in a town of @170,000 population. Unfortunately, a small town that is now basically attached to ours, and from which there are many commuters, is fighting the expansion of the MTD into their boundaries. They don't want to have to pay taxes for what they see as "smelly, noisy" buses. Really dumb. And the argument I heard from one guy was "Hey, this is a town full of three-car garages. Why would we need the buses?" Apparently, he thinks only "poor" people ride the bus- which is absolutely not the case here, but never mind...

Rosa said...

I think that's the big block in the road for bus rapid transit - middle-class people who would never ride the bus think light rail is cool.

It is *amazing* the demographic difference between the light rail and the bus that used to run that route.

And people say it's about snobbery but I think it's fear - if all those white-collar scaredy-cats had a friend to ride the bus with them and teach them how to do it, more of them would ride the bus.