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TTAC: Going car-free may work for you, but it won’t work for all


Dear Leader
Staff member
From The Truth About Cars, an article that goes a bit against the grain of what we've been seeing on so many urbanism blogs and Millennial-dominated news aggregator sites.


From the article:

> I live in the big, bad city in part because of transportation choice. I could live for less in the suburbs, but it’s nice being able to complete some errands by walking. I lived in the suburbs in the mid-Aughts, and while I mostly liked it, I wasn’t a fan of firing up my Accord for a run to the store in which the engine wouldn’t even get warm. However, if I tried walking that same distance, it’d be about a half-hour round trip, before factoring in time at the store. So walking wasn’t a good option. ...

>Thing is, this is all about my personal situation, and everyone’s is different. I know someone who sold her car upon moving back to Chicago – she works from home and lives in a densely built part of the city, near an El stop. Her two feet, Uber, and the CTA will help her get around. I have other friends in the downtown core who are in the same boat. But I also know other Chicagoans who could easily be carless, but aren’t – they keep wheels around so they can do grocery runs more easily, or go to the suburbs, or go on road trips. ...

> If you’d like to advocate for more/better mass transit, that’s fine. I’d actually like that – it might help reduce traffic. But taking to Twitter or a big-city newspaper to brag about easy it is to live in a city and go carless shows an ignorance towards the rest of the world. It may work for you, but it won’t work for everyone. ...

> I think that’s what bugs me about sanctimonious auto writers on Twitter – the lack of understanding that what works in Manhattan, New York doesn’t work in Manhattan, Kansas. Go ahead and advocate for more transit choice, or policies that could reduce congestion, or whatever. But understand that just because you can exist without owning a car, others can’t.


There are perhaps a dozen US cities where public transit and/or cycling infrastructure/culture/weather make it possible to go car free. For the rest of the cities going without a car is a hardship.

I know a few car-free/lite people here in Ft Worth. One is religiously car-free; she rides a bicycle everywhere and her kids do too. But when her boyfriend moved in, well now there's a car in the driveway (hey, at least it's electric).

Another is a blogger who decided to go car-free I think as much for blogging material as anything else. I think her husband has an old truck that they use occasionally, so maybe car-lite is a better term.

Then there's Durango (his real name) who rides a fixed gear bike everywhere. One year he rode the 100+ miles to Wichita Falls, rode the Hotter Than Hell Hundred ride, then rode back. Almost 350 miles on a bicycle in about a day and a half. He does own a BMW but he stopped using it some time ago. Something on it broke and he hasn't yet bothered to fix it. He works as a mechanic for the local bikeshare and rents a house a little over a mile from work.

I thought I would like to try car free some time, but the more I think about it, the less it appeals to me.
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Playing a little devil's advocate here...I know the US is inherently a country that values individual liberties and individual choice in pursuing the American Dream above everything else, emphasizing picking wherever YOU want to live and what to do with YOUR land (Manifest Destiny, 'get off my lawn' and NIMBY politics, yada yada yada).

But...instead of trying to slowly and painfully change suburbs and car-oriented areas, what if we advocated people actually move to urban areas with density, walkability, and transit? I first heard this theory in an urban economics class in planning school and it was shocking at first but now it kind of makes sense. I believe the discussion was about economic development and how every locality tries so hard to have its own job-creation campaigns and win business in their own jurisdiction but with hap-hazard results. What if, instead, we just told people to move where the jobs are the best? Obviously, many people have constraints which limit their ability to move (family, health, financial, etc.). But a lot of people don't - as an example, I saw in a LinkedIn post the other day that 41% of Arlington County, VA (just outside of DC) households are 1-person households. For people who don't have a ton of constraints, I frankly think saying "Oh I'd love to use transit, but there is very little service where I live" is a cop-out answer. Transit can't go everywhere. But maybe YOU could try to move to a more transit-rich area. It's crazy how many people actually do have the means to live in transit rich areas but just won't because they want the suburban lifestyle yet complain about how there's no transit where they live.

(yes I understand that things aren't that simple, but what if they were? As a personal example, my job currently requires reverse commuting 20 miles each way out to the middle of nowhere. My hours are weird, so I need to drive. As a new urbanist, I hate it. I hate driving every day and I hate calling myself a transportation planner. So guess what, I'm actively looking to move to a bigger city so I can change my lifestyle. Will it be more expensive? Yes. Will it be harder to uproot my spouse from his current job and dream of buying a house in a cheap area? Yes. Will it be more competitive to find a planning job in a bigger city? Yes. But those are not good enough reasons (to me) to not try. Again though, I admit that I am lucky enough that I don't yet have constraints like children or aging parents, or health issues that limit my geographic mobility.)

But I really do hate all of the cop-out excuses people give for where they live sometimes, like "oh living in the city automatically means a poor school district therefore I'm not even going to try to understand the other benefits".
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^Well let me play devils advocate to you. You have a lot of things going for you that many people don't - education, opportunities, youth(?), job prospects, etc. It sounds like your life is aligned so that you can fairly easily make choices that allow you to bike to work, take transit etc. Others are economically bound to their physical location (assuming they are healthy) and can't make the move/change direction just to take a new job that could only be temporary. And then there's lifestyle values. Some folks just don't like other people, period. They have social anxiety, don't like the hussle/bussle of urban life, find personal value in owning recreational equipment (need personal space), etc., etc.

Yes, if American's were forced to make the change to urban life (forced relocation) I know we could do it and we'd all complain but adjust/thrive given time, but this isn't China and it would deeply wound the philosophical underpinnings that this country was built on. Is that worth it? Maybe for the reduction of carbon footprint, but what would that do culturally to the US? I can't think it'd be a good thing.

Realistically, younger generations are moving closer to urban centers anyways. The only reason more people aren't doing it is because of the cost, which, real-talk, is a big freaking deal. So maybe instead of focusing on general plans, locals should be looking at subsidizing urban center real estate costs to incentivize folks to move more centrally. But which municipality has that kind of money?. And then there's businesses - they pick the real estate costs that are cheapest, not the most central for employees. And sometimes businesses move across town, suburb to suburb! And then what - are employees expected to relocate everytime a business finds a cheaper location? What if the business is located in a crappy part of town? Should employees move there and raise their kids in that environment?

These and many more other basic reasons are why people rely on flexible means of transit.

Full disclosure, I've had the same exact thoughts because I am/was an avid bicycle commuter and have been for the last 12 years. Though I now commute 90 miles roundtrip for work everyday. But as I've had to move across the country for work, changed jobs (in town), bought a house, gotten older, gotten more serious about my career, I've found that people using cars isn't crazy, it's just practical. Until such time I have an easy access for multiple means of transportation to do the everyday business of life (go to airport, get to work, grab groceries on the way home, etc.), my fuel efficient and reliable VW TDI is staying in my driveway. Though, my roadbike still calls to me....


I wouldn't expect people living in the burbs to go car-free; burbs are often built for cars. Homes and stores are far from each other, public transit is insufficient or nonexistent. I grew up in a suburb, and I hated how difficult it was to get around without a car.

But that doesn't mean it has to be that way. If suburbs had better public transporation, and more mixed use zoning, then they could be a lot more walkable. That could have a really positive impact on the culture too — as it is, suburbs are a bit alienating.