Street Smart Chicago

Car Free: A year without wheels

Bicycling, City Life, Essays & Commentary, Green, Transit Add comments

By Brian Hieggelke

“Sod the streets at once. Rip up all city streets with jackhammers and use the junk-asphalt (after melting) to create a huge parking and auto-storage lot on the outskirts of town, preferably out of sight… All public movement would be by foot and a fleet of bicycles, maintained by the city police force.”
—Hunter S. Thompson’s platform for his run for Sheriff of Aspen, Colorado, 1970

My cell phone rang at the office early one morning. A colleague, May, was calling to tell me she’d be quite late to work—her car had broken down on South Lake Shore Drive, in the far left lane, and she was waiting for a tow truck. Her day was off to a rather harrowing start.

A few minutes later, June, another colleague, rushed into the office, wide-eyed and upset. Her morning had been much worse. On her way to work, another driver had nearly run her off the road. When June swerved around to avoid a collision, she ended up in front of the other car. That driver lost it. Deciding she’d been cut off, she pulled up beside June, nearly running her off the road, and started screaming, “I’ve got a kid in here.” Moments later, she bumped her car into June’s, then fell back and started ramming into June’s car until a police officer, who’d seen the whole incident, interceded. “Lady, that’s road rage,” he scolded the vehicular aggressor. “I could arrest you for attempted murder.” Instead, he booked her for battery, and told her to find a relative to pick up her kid. She was going to jail.

Although I sympathized with my co-workers’ plight, I don’t ever have mornings like this. I no longer own a car.
I never really got into cars. In high school, I courted Jan, my future wife, in a faux-wood-paneled Vista Cruiser station wagon and did so without irony. I didn’t own a car of my own till a couple years after college, when my parents gave me a hand-me-down baby blue Pontiac. After that, I bought new cars or, more accurately, leased new cars. I liked the discipline that the lease forced. It made me turn a vehicle in while it was still young and spry, and not prone to the arthritic repairs that plague elderly cars. This was important, for I was legendary for my indifference to maintenance; I’d be lucky to remember to get an oil change every 100,000 miles.

Last summer, our lease was up again. I studied Consumer Reports; we visited a couple of car dealers to try and decide what model would fit our budget and needs. But I just wasn’t into it.

When I’d lived in New York City right out of college, we hadn’t owned a car and I loved it. Every day I’d ride the subway down to Wall Street and back again. Every weekend, we’d explore the city, often walking incredible expanses of Manhattan, in a constant state of wonder and discovery about the big exciting city. Although we’d earlier left the suburbs for the inner-city confines of Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, it was that time spent on the streets of New York that made us committed city dwellers.

A couple decades later, I missed that spirit of discovery, that tangible connection to the city that walking and riding the subway brought.  Furthermore, a “practical” car was costing me about $1,000 a month to operate and park; that’s $12,000 a year for something that was as much a nuisance as a boon. So I made the pitch to Jan: why not just turn our car in when the lease expires and see what it’s like? If it doesn’t work out, we can go lease a new car anytime we want. Meanwhile, we’ll save a lot of money…

Surprisingly, she agreed, our kids signed on, and we did it. I actually turned the car in a week early.

I expected summer and fall to be a pleasant experiment, but I really didn’t know what to expect come winter. Would not having a car just add to the misery of my most miserable season? Would we be test-driving Hondas in the snow? A year later, we’re still car free and expect to stay this way. Beyond the financial windfall of our change, we’ve connected with the city in a whole new way, we get more exercise, and our stress level has fallen. And we’ve learned, much more than we ever expected to—about our selves, our city and our society.

America’s fascination with technology reaches the level of fetish when it comes to transportation. We give our children toy cars and airplanes as soon as they’re able to hold onto them. Getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage, and soon after, what we park becomes a measure of our status in the world or, more likely, the status we aspire to. From the blue-collar NASCAR class to the nouveau riche, it’s a measure that cuts across racial and economic lines. When I worked at an investment bank in the eighties, it was routine for young associates to buy a Porsche with their Wall Street bonuses; the older high rollers traded up to Ferraris.

This obsession writ large explains much about our national priorities. Ever since newspaper editor Horace Greeley admonished a new nation to “Go West,” the desire to traverse the open road has becoming a defining national motif. The invention of the automobile made the road every American’s destiny; after World War II that destiny became the suburbs. Vast spaces organized around the automobile, suburbs are impossible to live in without a car. For a generation or two, we bought into that easily accessible “fulfillment” of the American Dream: a third of an acre, a two-car garage, and a strip mall on every mile. In 1952, former General Motors President Charles Erwin Wilson said, “What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and what’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” This quote morphed into the foundation for a longstanding linkage of American prosperity with the automobile. Today, many American families no longer own a car—they own several.

“The pedestrian is a social being: he is also a transportation unit, and a marvelously complex one and efficient one. He is self-contained, self-propelled, and moves forward with a field of vision about 100 degrees wide, further widening this with back-and-forth scanning movements to almost 180 degrees. He monitors a host of equations: two crossing patterns at left front, 290 feet a minute, three on the right, angle on the cars 30 degrees and closing, a pair abreast dead ahead, a traffic light starting to flash DON’T WALK. In fractions of a second he responds with course shifts, accelerations, and retards, and he signals to others that he is doing so.”
—William H. Whyte, “City: Rediscovering the Center”

I get around now by walking, riding the CTA and taking taxis. When I need a car, I share one through I-Go or, more rarely, rent one. In a year, I’ve rented cars twice—both times, ironically, for wakes in the suburbs. Walking is another windfall of my car-free life; beyond the health benefits, it offers a tactile relationship with the city, a sense of place grounded in its details, its people, its millions of small patterns of daily existence adding up to a dynamic urban mosaic.

Last summer, I was walking the two miles home from work one Sunday afternoon when I noticed that what seemed like the entire south end of the Loop was shut down for a movie shoot. I’ve encountered plenty of movie sets in the city over the years, but never one so vast, taking up so much real estate. I kept walking, and soon discovered street signs and bus-stop ads describing the wonders of “Gotham”: I’d wandered into the shooting of the extensive car chase through the city in “Batman Begins.” I decided to walk around and explore a bit; workers were circumspect about the nature of the project, yielding a fake movie name when I queried them, then fessing up when I pointed out the Gotham signs. It was as if I’d stumbled onto a vast secret project right there in downtown Chicago.

The car-free life solidifies your relationship to your local community. I walk to the grocery store now, and have to take care not to overload my cart, which means local shops, like the wine store in front of my building or the coffee shop across the street that roasts its own beans, are more important. I rarely miss my Saturday morning at the farmers’ market on the street where I live. It’s where I buy my produce.

I am lucky that since I live downtown, I’m close to a stop for every El line in the city. The CTA has become a daily part of my life. The CTA’s smart card—the Chicago Card Plus—is a revolution in transit travel. Nevermore need I worry about whether I have the right change before getting on the train or bus; never again need I wait in line to buy a ticket. Simply shake my backside in front of the sensor—I keep the card in my wallet—and get on the train. My credit card is automatically nicked for $20 whenever I need a re-up.

The CTA shapes your lifestyle when you live a car-free life. I’m less likely to go places too far off the El system now. We learned this the hard way last October, when we went to a party in Bridgeport. After riding the bus down State Street, we had to walk by the housing projects that abut IIT. We were the only pedestrians in sight that early evening. Crossing the expressway, a man on a bike who’d emerged from the projects started circling around in front of us. When he rode toward us determinedly and started talking, rather strangely, Jan panicked and took off running. I bravely hesitated a second, and then ran after her. He rode after us, suspiciously apologizing that he was trying to help us. When we arrived at our destination, we laughed at our lack of steely resolve, but this scare put us into a perfect frame of mind for a Halloween party.

We’d planned to grab a taxi home afterwards. Part of the pact we’d made with ourselves when we gave up our car is that we would never hesitate to hail a cab when we wanted one. Rainy day? Hail a cab. Late night? Hail a cab. Physically exhausted or carrying a bunch of shopping bags? Hail a cab. We can afford a lot of taxi rides with the thousand bucks a month we’re saving. Since we suspected the flow of cabs here would not be as steady as in our downtown neighborhood, we figured we would telephone the taxi dispatch. Bad idea, apparently, as the seasoned locals at the party all pointed out that we’d be waiting at least an hour for one to find its way to Bridgeport. The party guests insisted that one of them would drive us home; we reluctantly and appreciatively agreed.

We learned that night we needed car sharing. It would have meant one of us would have to refrain from the adult beverages in order to drive, but it would have been the best solution to visiting a taxi-deficient zone on a late night.

I-Go car sharing, a service in Chicago operated by an affiliate of the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology, is a brilliant solution to the urban transportation puzzle. After signing up and paying a modest fee, you have access to perfectly functional cars—usually a Honda Civic—parked at one of twenty-eight strategic points around the city. Simply go online and make a reservation, which can be done at the last minute if the car’s available, walk to the location and drive off. You pay by the hour and the mile; insurance and fuel are included. Car sharing springs from the environmental movement: Nothing is more wasteful than city dwellers owning, operating and storing their own cars. Think about your car use: it may be one of your most valuable possessions, yet it probably spends most of its time in disuse. Even if you drive to work, it sits parked all day till you leave.

I’ve found I-Go to be an outstanding service, even though I only need it once a month or so. I caught I-Go CEO Sharon Feigon on the phone as she was heading out to launch two more cars in the service; another two are coming on line next week. She says the service is really taking off, and expects to have fifty cars by yearend. “We have 1,300 members, and are growing at the rate of a hundred members a month,” she notes excitedly.

I-Go has a sign hanging at one of the parking spaces that says, “Don’t let a car own you.” It might have been written just for me. When you think about it, a car is an enormous impediment to movement within a city. Everywhere you go, every decision you make, is shaped by your need to find a place to park this 3,000-pound hunk of steel you’re toting around. I don’t even like to carry a backpack. Without a car, you’re liberated: your schedule can be ruled by efficiency one day, serendipity the next. Want to stop at Marshall Field’s on the way home from work, or pick up lunch at a not-so-usual place on the way in? A no-brainer if you’re moving on foot or by CTA.

“‘The young man who drove me to the airport says he lives thirty miles from school, a one-hour drive each way,’ I record [architect Daniel] Solomon’s words in my book. ‘His 2-1/2-year old truck has 78,000 miles on it and he hasn’t been anywhere. Fifty times the Odyssey, eight times the travels of Marco Polo, how many hundreds of times the walks of Leopold Bloom? And with what density of experience, what learned in his 78,000 mile journey?’ Where is it writ that this nation of the fresh start did better by its policy of split and sprawl?”
— Jane Holtz Kay, author of “Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back”

The social implications of being car free have been one of the biggest surprises. We’re past the just-out-of-college-and-haven’t-bought-a-car-yet stage, so our friends greet the news with sheer disbelief—“Yeah, right, you don’t own a car”—followed by extreme curiosity about how we get by. This is followed by what I’ve come to call “car pity,” wherein we’re constantly being offered rides, use of cars, and so on—gestures always appreciated, of course, but never necessary. Although the one-sidedness to our friends’ generosity is vexing—how can we reciprocate?—there is, nevertheless, a pleasant social element to this spontaneous car pooling that didn’t exist in our car-owner days.

I’ve started to playfully refer to drivers as “car people” in the same spirit that gays call straights “breeders.” When I was a car person, I never realized how much stress driving in and around the city creates. When I’m behind the wheel, I join my fellow travelers in a mutual contest of automotive aggression. Occasionally that aggression manifests in the extreme, like the road rage my colleague suffered last week, or the time a cab driver bumped the front of my car when I refused to give way to his aggression and “allow” him to force his way into my lane, in standstill traffic, in front of me. The screaming match that ensued with the cabdriver is now a source for family chuckles—we were so hysterical with anger that we could only screech his taxi number repeatedly in some attempt at sounding authoritatively threatening—but the intensity of the situation at the time was no laughing matter.

On the other hand, I’ve generally found CTA riders to be a civil crowd. Sure, we get our share of strongly “perfumed” homeless people or drunken college kids, but we riders have a tacit understanding that ours is a shared destiny. We help others out, in small ways, whether it’s pointing out the empty seat on the bus to the blind woman who boards, or helping a visitor from Iowa get her massive suitcases down the stairs and onto the Blue Line platform.

When we’re in cars, on the other hand, we’re in a solitary fortress. We act out, with more aggression than normal, because we feel a certain level of anonymity combined with the empowerment that 3,000 pounds of mechanized steel under our control offers. Imagine how our behavior behind the wheel might change if we arrived at the office, after cutting someone off or running a red light, and a video of our transgression was playing on the monitors of our co-workers. Personal accountability is a powerful force for civility.

I’m certainly no anti-car extremist. In fact, I love road trips and have taken a couple over the last year, using a car borrowed from my in-laws. There is nothing like that profound sense of freedom to be found behind the wheel, jetting down the highway from town to town. Just ask the cop who wrote me a speeding ticket near St. Louis this spring.

But there’s a big difference between cars in the city and cars on the open road. As Chicago undergoes a central city renaissance—apparent in even the most cursory perusal of real estate development around the Loop, it’s obvious that our urban density is increasing, and increasing fast. Density is not always a bad thing; much of the excitement of New York City derives from the masses of people moving through its streets. But most New Yorkers have learned to live without cars in the city. In London, drivers who bring cars into the central city are now assessed a “congestion charge” of approximately $14 a day; proceeds are earmarked for additional buses and enhancements to the public-transportation system.

Chicagoans are welded to our cars, and it will take visionary leadership to start moving our collective values away from automotive dependence. Although Mayor Daley has been a forceful proponent of increasing bicycle usage in the city, the bike is still a challenging vehicle for its user. While sidewalk-to-street-width ratios are disproportionately favorable to cars, bike users suffer a much rougher fate even than pedestrians. I bicycled out from the Loop to Northerly Island this past weekend, and was struck by the lack of clarity about the paths to be used by cyclists, especially on Solidarity Drive, the road that connects Shedd Aquarium to the Adler Planetarium. Where a separate bike lane might stand between the cars on the street and the pedestrians swarming the sidewalk, parked cars are given sway. It’s a stark reminder of a disjointed value system that favors car users above all.

The old Meigs Field airport terminal has been turned into a field house of sorts for the charmingly underdeveloped park that the Mayor created with his nocturnal backhoes. Hanging on its walls are photographs from the 1933 World’s Fair, the dramatic art deco “Century of Progress” that was centered on this site. Ironically, one of the images of the fair’s midway shows Northerly Island from the sky; the dominant structures are temporary edifices built to promote Ford Motors, Chrysler and Chevrolet. These new beacons of industry were the epitome of the future, our salvation from the Great Depression. American car culture had its coming-out party on what is now a vast open field of wildflowers and migratory birds.

One night last month, we were leaving Four danceclub around midnight and stepped out into the hot summer air. I smiled at a now familiar site: the Critical Mass-style bike ride, a celebration-cum-protest by those who believe bike culture is superior to, or at least equal to car culture. The twist? The riders, perhaps a hundred in all, were nude. As we watched them circle exuberantly around the triangular intersection, clogging three major traffic arteries, I couldn’t help but smile. These are my people now.

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