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.