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ELCA World Hunger

Solving the last-mile challenge

After 10 car-free years, I am a car owner once again.

Shedding my car meant mastering new ways of moving around the world. The alternatives come naturally now, which is why so many of my posts try to encourage—hector, even—readers to take up their carbon-dependent, gas-guzzling beds and walk, ride a bike, or take the bus.

But for a year now I have suffered from what transportation planners call the “last mile” problem. My wonderful local transit hub can get me around and between towns from Canada to Portland, Oregon. But only a handful of buses can get me the three miles to the Skagit Station—all before 6 pm, and never on Sundays. Bicycling is a great option for good weather and daylight savings time, but from November to April my biking day ends by 5 pm—and snow, ice, showers, or 40-mile-per-hour gusts can keep it from starting at all.

My new challenge is to own a car without lapsing back into blind dependence on it. To stay committed to biking, walking, and taking buses FIRST instead of lazily letting the convenience of my car gradually eclipse the other options. To continue to SEE the options and to start figuring out how to overcome that last-mile—or last-three-mile—problem.

Fortunately, trends are going my way. Google Transit is taking the mystery out of planning a public transit trip. Cities like New York and Mexico City declare some areas car-free on weekends. More than half a million members share almost 8000 cars in car-sharing programs across the U.S. (Find the closest to you here) General Motors itself is a partner in the new RelayRides program in San Francisco, a system through which private car owners profit by sharing (for a fee) their cars with neighbors who have been vetted and screened.

I see my car ownership as temporary, a sort of bridge to the world I have been trying to create by not owning one. Perhaps I’ll persuade more people to take my country bus line so we can extend its hours. Perhaps I’ll organize a small car-sharing group among my country neighbors. I have lots of allies, especially among the young.  A recent New York Times article noted that 46 percent of people 18 to 24 would choose access to the Internet over access to their own car. Only 15 percent of their baby-boom parents felt that way. “The iphone is the Ford Mustang of today,” quipped an automotive analyst.

Even more exciting, car ownership is declining among the young. In 1978, 50 percent of 16-year-old Americans obtained their first driver’s license. In 2008, only 30 percent did. My son was over 18 when he got his first license, and at 24, he still has no car. Those with licenses drive less, said the Times:  21- to 30-year-olds now drive eight percent fewer miles than they did in 1995.

Life without a car takes ingenuity, creativity, and commitment. It also costs a lot less. (Buying, registering, insuring, fixing, and fueling a 14-year-old-car in the last six weeks of the year boosted my 2011 expenses by 11 percent.) And it’s getting easier.

My 2012 resolution is to own a car that stays off the road as much as possible. Here’s where I get back to hectoring. Won’t you join me? Get to know your local bus system. Walk to the store. Set up a carpool. Urge your mayor to declare a popular part of town car-free for an afternoon. Dust off your bike. Keep your car, but drive it less. Broaden your transportation strategy to include some more active choices. Together we can figure out the last-mile problem.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity

Carless and driving

Wednesday, September 22 was World CarFree Day.  It was a big yawn.

Besides a bike ride in Chicago, not much happened. It never made the news. NPR paid it no attention. Since nothing really happened, commentary in the blogosphere debated the premise: the idea of being carfree.

As someone who hasn’t owned a car in nine years, I read with great interest why cars are so popular. Cars, says Loren Lomasky of Competitive Enterprise Institute: Free Markets and Limited Government, help us learn, travel, earn money, and enjoy privacy. They give us control over immediate environment, unlike buses (very true, I found myself nodding.)  They promote autonomy. They let us choose where we will live and where we will work, and they let these two be separate.

People want cars, says—but small cars like the Tata Nono, because in places like Lagos and Mumbai, American-style cars like Camrys (much less SUVs and trucks) won’t do.

World Carfree Day images showed healthy young people walking and biking in perfect weather. What about rain and snow?, the CEI asked. What about lugging groceries and children? (For the answer to that one, check out BusChick’s NPR essay, which aired last Saturday) What about folks with disabilities? Instead, the CEI recommended, protest World CarFree Day by taking a drive!

I did drive on September 22. Instead of being car free, I’ve been enjoying a free car as I house and dog sit for friends in Seattle. Last Wednesday I drove an elderly cousin up to Skagit County to see my visiting parents, and then drove all the 80-somethings to a restaurant for lunch. Had we done this by public transportation, it would have taken all day, and my elders and their aging joints would have had to walk miles and miles. Not possible.

I was grateful to get to use a car. I’m glad they exist. But I wish we owned fewer cars and shared them more. I wish we biked and walked more often, especially on trips under a mile. I wish our public transit systems were stronger and more convenient and bike lanes and sidewalks were wider and safer.

Others feel like I do. CityFix includes cars and buses in its vision of sustainable urban mobility. And Chicago’s Active Transportation Alliance’s mission statement sounds like mine:

The mission of Active Transportation Alliance is to make bicycling, walking and public transit so safe, convenient and fun that we will achieve a significant shift from environmentally harmful, sedentary travel to clean, active travel. We advocate for transportation that encourages and promotes safety, physical activity, health, recreation, social interaction, equity, environmental stewardship and resource conservation.

“Carfree” isn’t a practical goal for the United States, with zillions of rural communities and only a handful of cities (like Chicago) dense enough for get-anywhere-anytime-you-want public transportation systems. But “car lite” is possible. Instead of railing against cars, the ATA is building a movement around active transportation. Cars will still exist, but the ATA’s goal is for Chicagoans to make half their trips by active transportation. And because they are working to reduce pedestrian and bicycle crashes by 50 percent, those trips will be safer. Think how slim and healthy those Chicagoans will be, and how pleasant and safe walking and bicycling will be.

So I’m glad I skipped Carfree Day. I’m going to celebrate the active transportation movement by walking, biking, taking buses, trains, and ferries, and borrowing or renting a car when I need one. I like strengthening  and expanding alternatives instead of shaming drivers and stoking disagreement. For heaven’s sake, let’s unite around something for once, instead of clashing.

I’m still going to celebrate Buy Nothing Day, but that’s another post.

Anne Basye, Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal