Why People Walk, Part 3: Car-less and Car-free

Last week I read another book that I had been waiting for from the library, How to Live Well Without Owning a Car. I have read lots about the subject of living without a car, so I did not necessarily expect to learn anything new from this book, and in fact most of the ideas covered were familiar to me. However, I did find it to be an interesting read because of its approach — focusing first and foremost on the amount of money one would save by not owning a car. The author also emphasized throughout the book how “normal” he was — he works, shops at major stores, attends church, goes on dates, and goes out to parties and clubs — all without a car. A book with this format is probably going to reach a whole lot more people than one that focuses on the environmental effects and depicts someone who lives an unconventional lifestyle.

This book talks about “car-free” (or carfree) living, which is giving up ones car by choice. There are also many people who live without a car not by their own choice, primarily because they cannot afford to own one at the time. Regardless of which camp a person falls into, most people without cars have the same goal and similar choices for getting places without a car: public transportation, bicycling, and walking. Depending on location and circumstances, someone might use one or all of these methods, but most people are going to do some amount of walking if they do not own a car.

How amenable is Berkeley to living without a car? I was thinking this yesterday evening as Joe and I were returning from a walk nearby to do a few errands. We had between us some bike parts, a bag of coffee beans, some office supplies, and groceries — all from different stores and all purchased near our house. Taking care of everyday tasks and errands without a car in Berkeley is very easy for the most part (as long as you don’t live way up in the hills). Pretty much everything you would need is available right in Berkeley, and many of the stores that do not exist in Berkeley can be visited by taking BART for a couple of stops. Traveling as a family without owning a car may be more challenging, but I do know some families that get around well without using a car very often.

Speaking of BART, public transportation also allows someone without a car in Berkeley to go other places — San Francisco, other East Bay cities, and over to the Peninsula to connect with Caltrain. Berkeley also has an Amtrak stop for the Capitol Corridor, which goes down to San Jose one way and out to Davis and Sacramento in the other direction. Some trips are quick and easy, but others require some logistics and planning and a bit of time. Weekend trips to popular locations such as Lake Tahoe are pretty difficult without a car. Car rental locations and car share stops are both available in Berkeley.

One topic that was barely addressed in How to Live Well Without Owning a Car is safety. I am mostly thinking about being out at night, which the author talks about at night at various points in the book. If you are male and live in a relatively safe area, or if you are always able to go somewhere with a large group of people, this may be an option. Otherwise, night-time activities are a bit more challenging without a car. Related to this, public transportation in the Bay area either stops or runs very infrequently at night, and you cannot just hail a cab to take you home.

An awareness event called World Carfree Day occurs each September, and Berkeley has been participating for the past few years. However, this day happens to coincide with the How Berkeley Can You Be parade — which usually features a long line of art cars as part of ArtCar Fest. It’s a strange combination for one event to have a promotion of car-free living and a celebration of the car as art.

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9 Comments »

  1. antitext said

    ah, so you’re one of the reasons that it took so long for that book to come from the library! i’ve finally been reading it this week. my partner and i have been living car-free in berkeley, and loving it, since we arrived this past august.

  2. bookofvoices said

    I’m another car-free person in Berkeley. I owned a car for the first couple of years that I was here (and I even have ample parking available), but I sold it since I simply wasn’t using it much. I live about a 10-15 minute walk from the Downtown Berkeley BART and two blocks from a stop on the 43 bus line (and others) and I work about a 10 minute walk from a BART and All-Nighter stop in San Francisco, so I have little trouble getting around. About the only thing that I have trouble with is buying large objects such as CD racks (good wooden ones are such a deal at Rasputin and Amoeba!) so I have to appeal to housemates to help me with those. And I am a fairly large male so I don’t worry much about wandering around late at night.

  3. Amey said

    Hi!
    Wow, I fell behind on your blog a bit. There are some great recent posts.

    My yoga teacher and his family live carfree in Santa Cruz – they walk to all his classes and their kids walk to school. They are lucky to live close to downtown so things are pretty accesible. He teaches one class a week out in Aptos, and has to ask students to pick him up and take him back, because the public transportation is not great down here.

    I tried to be less car-dependent a while back – but I found it too difficult for where I live and with teaching classes. For example, in some of my yoga classes, I provide the mats & blocks and straps. So, that’s hard to do on a bike! Also, a few of my classes get out late at night (8:45 pm). And safety (and hunger!) were an issue there. I already don’t get home until 9 with the car, and on the bike it was more like 9:30. So… in the end, I rearranged my schedule to teach classes close to home.

    It’s a comprimise, but I love reading about your carfree walking adventures. Have you read the book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking”? I’ve had that on my book shelf for a long time.

  4. Dan said

    I just wanted to thank you for your great blog! We are moving to Berkeley in the next few months from the suburbs of Philadelphia. One of the main attractions is the walkability of Berkeley, and though we probably will use our car way more than is ideal, we will use it way less than we do now.

    Anyway, I have been reading your very informative blog and am grateful for your insights and suggestions. Thanks and keep up the great work!

  5. Gary said

    Jen,

    Great post! Where we live here in Brooklyn, legal and economic constraints certainly discourage car ownership (at least to some extent). Due to alternate-side-of-the-street parking regulations, for instance, cars in our neighborhood have to be moved twice a week, and insuring and registering even an old beater can run $2000/year. Furthermore, it’s two blocks or less from our apartment to the local post office, bank, drug store, grocery, subway, library branch, stationery store, YMCA, hardware store, liquor store, etc. We don’t need to drive at all.

    Yet it appears that even in Brooklyn, having a car is remarkably commonplace — SUVs seem particularly popular, despite the obvious drawbacks. In fact, a recent news item in town concerned the number of residents of Park Slope (one of the most expensive of the upscale brownstone neighborhoods) who actually keep two (or even three!) vehicles, and the subsequent dearth of street parking.

    And yes, even we have a car. It is indeed a pain to move it twice a week, and the expense is substantial. Like a lot of folks, of course, we walk or take the subway during the week. But as much as I enjoy using my feet to get around, I have to admit that a car comes in handy sometimes. Every few weeks, it’s useful for going shopping for the big and heavy items (like cat litter) that are difficult to bring home via public transportation, but being able to get out of the city on the weekends — we drove up to Connecticut on a perfect Saturday afternoon last week — almost makes it all worthwhile. While it’s incredibly convenient to have everything we need within a few blocks’ radius of home, it can also foster a sense of claustrophobia.

    Of course, our car is 15 years old and has 200,000 miles on it, meaning any major repairs would probably cost more than the thing’s worth. In other words, we’re only one transmission or blown head gasket away from being car-free, whether we want to be or not!

  6. […] It was a pleasant surprise to get so many email messages and comments in response to my post about car-free living. A common thread in many responses was the aspect of hauling large or heavy items without a car, […]

  7. […] August 17, 2007 at 10:29 am · Filed under Walking Philosophy More in this series: Art, Psychogeography, Car-free […]

  8. Fran said

    I read through all the comments and the article, but is it hard for those with out car who don’t live as close to were they may need to go? Is it a hassle? But if in the book “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car” one stated that you can live a perfectly normal life, going to the club, parties, the store, and work, isn’t all of those things time comsuming? I would think that you would need enough time to where you need to be without being late. Because I read that one person lived about 10-15 minute to where they need to go.

  9. Fran: I think the time factor depends quite a bit on where you live, what methods of transportation are available, and what you are willing to do. Dense urban areas are the best for someone without a car because it is easy to get around quickly and without too much advance planning. If you ride a bike or take transit to get places, these things take some adjustment period of figuring out how they work, best routes, etc., but once you have it down then it takes much less time. Ideally it would be nice if we did not have to think about time. If public transportation was easy, more frequent, and more efficient, time would not be a factor. Some things that may help people in thinking about the time factor:

    — is there lots of traffic in your area? if so, how often have you thought you would save time by driving, only to find it takes longer because you get stuck in traffic?
    — is exercise important to you? if so, you could think about your transportation time also being exercise time if you walk or ride a bike.
    — if you commute to work, do you find you need “wind-down” time after stressful days? If so, you may find that you arrive home refreshed if you can walk or bike part of the way home, or more relaxed if you can read or listen to music on public transportation.
    — can you trip-link for errands? this is something many people do, even in a car. if you can take care of multiple tasks in one area, you’ll save time.

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