The following post was written by my friend Matt Herbst who recently moved to Seattle. Matt graduated from Iowa State and now works for Microsoft. So far he’s been getting around by transit and shares with us his experience living car-free.
The heart of urban thinking is how people live their day. Since a lot of Americans spend so much time in their commute, many times a couple hours or more every day, it makes sense to put emphasis on transportation in city planning. Unfortunately for midwestern towns like Cedar Rapids or Des Moines, almost all of the transportation eggs went into the wide road and plenteous parking lot basket. After living in Ames for about four years, a city which tells one of the only bus success stories in Iowa, I got used to seeing buses all over the place and consistently got lost whenever I used them.
Then I moved to Seattle.
While my hometown of Cedar Rapids has about a dozen bus routes, King County Metro (the Seattle area transit system) has over 200 routes, many of which run weekends and into the evening. Every part of town I’ve cared to go to was very close to a stop. I can even get down to Tacoma, 35 miles away, in just two transfers. Once I moved here, it was hard to come up with an excuse to have a car. But there are a few downsides to not owning a car:
1. Can’t leave the city. Renting a car is an easy option if this only happens once a month or so.
2. Slower on transit. For a commute, this is easily avoided, but unplanned trips across town can take 2-3 times as long if you’re unlucky.
3. Can’t haul stuff. Again, you can try renting a truck, but even if you have a car, it might not be able to haul big stuff anyway.
4. Buses don’t run at night. A taxi or a ride from a friend works in this rare situation for me.
5. Transit is inconvenient. If you don’t know the system, it can be a hassle.
Then again, there are a lot of reasons not to own a car:
1. Pollution, if you care. You can cut a lot of emissions.
2. Gas. Never have to buy it.
3. Maintenence costs.
6. Dealing with traffic. Reading and texting are possible on a bus… so it’s no big deal.
7. Car depreciation.
8. Breakdowns and accidents.
9. Tickets of all kinds.
That’s right, cars are inconvenient. With a car, you always have to return to a parking spot… so your path through town needs to be a circle. With a bus, I can walk from one side of downtown to the other and then just grab a bus instead of walking back. Easy.
Certainly cars have a role in a good transportation system, but the fact that almost everyone in the US (4 out of 5) has a car is astounding. Perhaps people associate living without a car with the helpless feeling you get when your car breaks down. However, after learning a few bus routes, it’s nice not having to worry about all of those problems cars bring and it’s a bit liberating. If your city has a transit system, give it a try. See if Google Maps has transit directions for your area (but note that in Seattle, the KC Metro website has better directions). The folks you’ll encounter will help you out and you’ll be surprised how fast and easy it can be.