I wrote a link-laden comment over on the Cascadia Scorecard Weblog in response to Alan Durning's post announcing that his family has decided to try car-free living. Unfortunately they're stripping html from their comments (damn spammers anyway!), so I'm putting the linky version here. All but the last link go to other entries here on Mad Times.
We went through an almost identical process a little over a year ago and are still car-free.
For us, living out in Issaquah (16 miles east of Seattle along I-90 for readers outside the Seattle area), where buses are few and far between and flexcar isn't an option, it has a different set of challenges. Around town here, we can get by most of the time with bikes and feet. For trips around the region, the bus works sometimes, and when it won't we rely on informal car sharing relationships with our wonderful friends. For trips, we rent a car or take the train.
As you say, though, your transportation needs are subject to your own choices. Choose to live close to work or close to transit and your need for a car decreases immensely. Kipchoge Spencer said it well recently: "The most efficient kind of transportation is already being where you want to go."
Taking the plunge with a family of five, though, that's true courage. I look forward to hearing more about your family's experiences!
Becky's off at our church's annual women's retreat so I took the opportunity to go to Cascade Bicycle Club's Bike Expo. It's held at Seattle's Warren G. Magnuson Park in a big old hangar (Magnuson is a converted Air Force Base).
Predictably, almost all of the emphasis is on recreational riding. There were lots of bikes that look like they'd implode into a small pile of wire and soot if I were to rest my copious girth atop them. And lots of what I call "novelty bikes" (no offense intended mine qualifies ;-) like tandems and the various and sundry flavors of recumbent (and recumbent tandems!). The other major portion of the exhibitors were groups promoting their rides (like the Chilly Hilly on Bainbridge that I've decided not to do this year). Then there's a smattering of other things like places providing various bits of gear, and insurance agencies and health service providers and food vendors (both to eat at the expo and to eat while riding your spindly contraption up chilly hills and such). Lots of high-tech-fibre clothing.
In short, not a whole lot to interest me except academically. I did buy a spiffy new rain jacket that I think I'm going to be happy with.
I had a moment of inner conflict when the only Xtracycle on the exhibit floor was being used as bait in the Sprint booth. Bastards. The only other xtracycle I saw was in the bike parking corral and was a clearly well-loved example tricked out with a front basket, an air horn, and various other customizations.
There's a photo contest that was fun to look at. Also a small exhibit of classic bikes with some interesting details.
Also lots of fit and friendly people.
It's kind of a trek to get there from Issaquah without a car (about two and a half hours of bus and wait), but it was a beautiful day and I got a nice jacket out of the deal and had time on my return trip for a stop in to Twice Sold Tales for some kitty petting and a book and a leisurely dinner at Flowers (the review that links to is currently a historical oddity since it concentrates on the smoky ambiance and Seattle's restaurants have been smoke-free for a few months now. Nice.)
This area has two different transit agencies as an artifact of the insane measures it takes to pry open the wallets of our car-centric neighbors to pay for public transportation.
Metro is the principal system with express routes, local routes and milk runs across the region. Metro's schedules are provided on a route-by-route basis in the form of little folded single sheets you can tuck in your pocket. You still have to pick up new ones for the routes you use about every six months since they can't seem to leave the schedules alone for longer than that (for example, the 200, a jitney that runs all around Issaquah had a single one of its daily runs shifted recently)
Sound Transit is the newcomer funded by a ballot measure a few years back. They've taken over most of the express bus business from Metro and also do some heavy rail commuter routes as well as oversee the construction of the new Seattle light rail line. Sound Transit schedules are all published in a single staple-bound book about the size of a small trade paperback.
Neither system provides a decent way to print out a single route schedule from their web page.
I live in Issaquah where only one Sound Transit route is relevant to me, the 554 which runs in a relatively speedy 30 minutes from Issaquah to Seattle. I didn't want to schlep around their novel of schedules so I'd know the details for this one route, and I didn't want to print out the 10 pages of paper it would take to print it out (plus the aggravation of having to use IE since their printable view doesn't work in the standards-compliant browsers).
So I scraped their four different pages of 554 info and recombined them into a single page suitable for printing 2-up double-sided for a one-sheet printable Sound Transit 554 schedule. Which I provide to my fellow Issaquanians with my compliments.
Becky went to the local multiplex and saw a movie this afternoon. She called me when she was done and I left work and met her at PCC where we got some food at the deli (and chatted with a friend who works there and another friend who was shopping). We sat at a cafe table outside and enjoyed the pleasant evening air and view of Tiger Mountain while we ate our dinner. We bought a bag of groceries and then went home.
All by bike.
I did a double-take at the picture showing a strangely elongated mountain bike, and before I'd really even figured out what it was I was looking at, the five-year-old part of my brain was already saying "want! want! want!" I spent an absurd amount of time poring over the wealth of information at the Xtracycle web site. I looked at every picture in the galleries, read through all of the FAQs and even downloaded and printed out the user's manual. A week ago last Friday I ordered a Freeradical conversion kit which arrived last Wednesday. It was all I could do to force myself to wait until Saturday to put the thing together, but the trepidation about possibly rendering my bike temporarily unrideable if I couldn't finish it helped me out.
Here's a picture of my bike before the conversion.
To install the Freeradical, you take off the rear wheel, the rear derailleur, the rear brake, and the chain (and in my case, the fender and rack). Once the rear end of the bicycle is naked, you bolt the Freeradical frame into the rear dropouts (where the wheel used to go) and onto the chainstay bridge (right behind the bottom bracket where the cranks attach) or in my case onto a couple of plates sandwiching the chain stays (no bridge on the 6500). Once the frame is secured you mount your brakes where the wheel will now go, mount the derailleur, string new long cables for each of those appliances, patch in a chunk of chain to make the chain long enough for the new geometry, then mount the wheel and get everything adjusted into functioning properly again.
Here's what the bike looks like with just the Freeradical installed.
At this point it's rideable again, but it isn't an SUB until you've installed the vertical racks and their custom-fitted gear slings called "Freeloaders" (yes, the guys at Xtracycle have a lot of fun coming up with all these names). Plus the snap deck, a varnished wooden board that tops the whole thing off and makes it a polished hand-crafted sport-utility piece of bicycle art.
Pretty cool, huh?
It rides really well, maybe a little smoother than before. I need to tinker with the derailleur adjustment, but that's just because I'm not used to working on these new-fangled indexed shifting systems.
The cargo capacity is easily 10 times what I could carry comfortably with the rack and panniers. There's pictures on the website of people carrying kayaks and surfboards. I can't wait to take it to the lumber yard for the first time. One of the things I need to do is rig up a platform for carrying home a pizza (though I can probably just bungie the box down to the snap deck).
A few of the more sobering statistics from his post (but go read the whole thing because it's very close to something I had in mind to write for Mad Times only much better)
Williams-Derry goes on to estimate the economic cost of all these accidents and comes out with somewhere between $4 and $8 billion per year. At the low end that's a per capita cost of over $600 per year.
It's like with health care, though. It's hard to get too fired up about it because if you're lucky, most years, your share of that cost is $0. Speaking as someone whose share for this year is in four figures (and could have been a lot worse!), I'd like to find ways to lessen these costs both for myself and for my neighbors.
One of my biggest gripes with the bus route maps provided by Metro and Sound Transit is that there's hardly any reference to the actual landscape along the routes so unless you already know where the bus goes it's really hard to figure out where the bus goes. And there's no system map on either of those sites letting you see what routes might serve the area you want to get to.
Enter Bus Monster, a brilliant melding of the bus routes with the fabulousness of Google Maps.
You can search for a location and see what buses stop near it. From there you can click on the route you think you want and it will be overlayed on the map. Even cooler, you can load up to five different routes on the map at once to visualize your connections. It's also tied in to the cool prototype bus monitoring system UW-ITS so you can click the pin on a particular stop and get an estimate of when your bus will arrive there.
All of this was developed by Chris Smoak and just went live yesterday, so be gentle with it for a while. And send Chris lots of money.
Before I start prattling on about buses and walking and bicycling I need to come clean and confess that while we haven't owned a car for almost three months that doesn't mean we haven't used cars in that time. I'd say that maybe two days per week on average we've had the use of a car.
We've done weekend rentals from Enterprise twice which is ridiculously convenient with their rental office only a couple of miles from our house.
We've mooched rides to events with friends (thank you, Chris and Larry & Ann and Karen and Marilyn and others). ("mooching" is carpooling when there's no prospect of your returning the favor of being the driver any time soon)
We've taken shameless advantage of the fact that Rachel still has a functioning car.
But the most gratifying thing has been how many people have just handed us their keys and loaned us their car for an afternoon or a week when they weren't going to need it.
My favorite example is Becky's Thursday art class. The class is in Kirkland. Taking the bus from here to there is far from convenient (rant saved for another day). A friend pointed out that when she takes the bus to work each day her car sits at the Issaquah park and ride doing nothing. She gave Becky a key and Becky takes the shuttle to the park and ride, finds the car, drives it to Kirkland for her class, does a couple errands on her way back and leaves the car back at the Park and Ride. It's like the car has a secret life on those days.
The gift in all of this is that it makes us aware of our dependencies. When we have our own conveyance, we live in the illusion that we are self-sufficient. We hop in our car and we go where we want when we want without having to answer to anyone. But there are dependencies tugging at us all along the way that we don't even think about. We depend on other drivers to follow the rules of the road and be predictable. We depend on emergency personnel to help us if we have an accident. We depend on the road crews that build and repair our roads. We depend on the businesses that supply our gas and car maintenance and our cars themselves. We depend on the people who work to pull crude oil from the ground and process it into gasoline.
Each one of those dependencies has a need on one side fulfilled by an effort or surplus on the other. Yet almost all of our dependencies are formalized away, fulfilled without our ever having to face the people in whose lives we are partners. We live in tight community that we don't even see.
One unlooked-for benefit of our carlessness has been that it gives a glimpse of the community of need, not just to us, but also to those who have so generously been helping us.
Of course we didn't just leap from total auto dependence to our current relatively car-free state. Over the years we've made a number of choices that have resulted in a lifestyle that more easily lends itself to this kind of adventure.
The point I want to make is that none of these factors just happened. They were choices we made.
People say to me "oh that's nice that you live close enough to work that you can bike" as if it's some kind of fluke.
I don't mean to sound self-righteous. There are lots of other ways to live. People choose to live where they live for reasons that make sense to them. This is just what makes sense for us.
This is cutting close to one of my pet peeves. People complain about traffic. These complaints drive me crazy. People talk as if "traffic" is some unavoidable force of nature like the weather.
Traffic doesn't bother me at all. I don't even notice it.
If traffic is bothering you, then you are traffic. Traffic is too many people all driving their cars to the same places at the same time. Every single one of those people made a choice that resulted in them being there in each other's way. Complaining about it is a way of saying that you think other people's choices are less valid than yours. You can't change the choices other poeple make, you can only make your own. Choose differently or accept the consequences.
Okay, I'm taking deep breaths. Sorry about that.
I'm sure there's stuff I complain about that you all could throw that "choice" argument right back at me. Like I could choose not to let other people's complaints about traffic bother me. I'll have to work on that...
Back on March 6th, our car suffered a mishap. No one was hurt beyond the inevitable soreness. The repairs would have cost a couple hundred dollars less than the current value of the car so the insurance company totalled it. We'd had the car for a couple of years in which time it had depreciated by about $3,000. We were still paying on a small loan, so between paying that off and our $1,000 deductible, we ended up with no car and a check for something like $4,000.
Apart from the financial loss we weren't particularly traumatized by this event. We'd never really bonded with this car. It was just transportation.
But even so, it was our only transportation.
Take a look at that last sentence. Nothing shocking about it. No reason to question it. No car = no transportation.
Of course, it's completely untrue. We have proven this repeatedly over the last two months because we have not replaced our car. It has taken some effort and some compromises, but we've managed to live in Issaquah without owning a car.
Shocking, I know.
I've been mentally composing a grand epic article about our experiences living car-free in the suburbs of Seattle. I know enough about myself to realize that if I keep on thinking of it as a grand epic then it will never get written, so I'm going to try to write it in little pieces. Stay tuned.
Here in King County we have a rather inscrutable "advisory measure" on next Tuesday's ballot. It's basically a poll with no binding consequences on how King County voters would like to have a regional transportation package funded.
If you're as baffled by the available choices as I was, you'll want to head right over to the Cascadia Scorecard Weblog where resident Really Smart Guy, Alan Durning gives his take on the implications of the various choices.