Car-Free Challenged, Part 2

Yesterday, I wrote about my experience during the first two days of the car-free challenge, and promised to finish up the story of my week today. So that’s what I’m doing now.

But first, I want to thank those who supported the Blogoaksphere Car-Free Challenge team. I admit, I probably wouldn’t have even bothered signing up for the challenge if Becks from Living in the O hadn’t started the team. For a while, I was kind of worried it would just be the two of us. But then we were awesomely joined by Gene from Our Oakland, Eric from Transbay Blog, and David from Fragmentary Evidence. So thank you so much to the other bloggers who participated!

And a very special thanks to the readers who contributed to TransForm to support my efforts! You guys rock!

Okay. Now on to the rest of my car-free week.

Being a bus evangelist

Thursday and Friday were pretty routine for me, so going car-free was easy. The only thing worth noting from either of those days was that I had the absolutely delightful experience of introducing someone to a new bus.

I spent a lovely evening out on the other side of the Lake, and when it came time to leave, I busted out my phone to check NextBus. A friend who was also getting ready to leave, and who was also heading downtown, suggested that we split a taxi back. I explained about how I couldn’t because of the car free challenge, but pointed out that the NL conveniently stops literally like ten steps from the door of the bar we were at, and would drop him off only a block from his destination.

He was pretty skeptical. But I held firm on my refusal to split the cab, and eventually he consented to take the bus with me, just this once. As we were waiting, I got treated to a little tirade about how the bus is always late and NextBus never works, but happily, the bus showed up right on time, and less than ten minutes later we were back in the DTO.

As he walked me back to my apartment from the bus stop, all he could talk about was how fast and convenient the NL was, and how he can’t believe he didn’t know about it before, and how now he will be so much happier going up to Lakeshore from now on knowing that he can get back so easily, and on and on and on. Victory!

Alone on the bio-diesel bus

Saturday brought me up to the hills for the second time in a week. I went to the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate for the bluegrass concert fundraiser for the Greenbelt Alliance. Normally I would have taken the bus up there, but the concert website said they were running free shuttles from the San Leandro BART station, and I was running late so I thought that would get me there faster. Plus I had some old BART tickets I found when I was cleaning that I’ve been meaning to use, so I figured I’d just go for it.

Ugh. I should have stuck with the 45! I get to the BART station and there are no signs or anything at all to indicate where this shuttle might pick someone up. I walk around the whole station, and after I find no hints about where a shuttle might go, I go ask the station agent, who cheerfully informs me that there was a shuttle earlier but that it was done for the day. Damn it. Panic ensues.

Then I recheck the website to see if it says anything about limited hours for the shuttles, and of course it does not. I try to calculate in my head how much a taxi to the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate would cost from the BART station, and all I conclude is that it would be very expensive. I couldn’t rely on either of the people who had offered me a ride to the concert either, because one of them was already there, and the other had decided to go via motorcycle. I could always take BART back to the Coliseum station and pick up the 45, but at that point I would be truly ridiculously late.

So I lit a cigarette and sat down at a bench outside the station to figure out my plans. As I’m sitting there totally freaking out, the free bio-diesel shuttle pulls up. So that was a lot of stress for nothing, but I think the Greenbelt Alliance could have done a little bit better job with the wayfinding there.

Anyway, so I took this shuttle. It was free, and sure, it was powered by bio-diesel. But also, it was just a big van and I was the only person on it. So while I’m happy that the Greenbelt Alliance provided a way for people without cars to get to the event, I don’t think my choice to use it instead of taking a ride with someone who was also going to the same location from downtown really accomplished anything except to take a lot of time and allow me to say I was being car-free. I certainly didn’t feel like I was doing much to help the environment riding in this big van all alone.

I failed the Car-Free Challenge

Sunday was totally easy, and with only one day left of the Car Free Challenge, I have to admit, I was pretty excited about how I was going to totally make my goal.

But then I sat down to plan out my trip for Monday evening. It was another meeting in the hills. I swear, I took more trips to the freaking hills during car free challenge week than I had taken all year. Anyway, the bus situation was pretty much the same as for the trip I wrote about yesterday — take the 39 up and the 54 back.

But instead of my meeting being right on Skyline, which I had found scary enough to walk on, it was in a neighborhood. I hadn’t really given a ton of thought to this trip before, because I figured that walking through a neighborhood would be easy, since the cars won’t drive as fast and so on.

Thank God for Google streetview! I checked it out to preview my route, and well, it took me about three seconds to decide that there was no way in hell I was walking to my meeting from the bus stop. The streets in this neighborhood were narrow, and curvy, and as far as I could tell, not lit. And there was absolutely nowhere to walk except the street. No shoulder, no sidewalk, and you couldn’t even walk on people’s lawns (assuming you didn’t care about being rude) because most of the houses had either giant shrubbery or like, a fence right up along the streetline.

I didn’t need to put the question to Twitter this time about whether that trip was safe or not. I really wanted to do my zero miles for the car-free challenge, and I genuinely tried, but it certainly wasn’t worth dying for. I considered trying to minimize the miles by asking for a ride to and from the bus stop, but then I realized that would just totally inconvenience the person who was kind enough to give me a ride, and also would be totally pointless, since they were driving from downtown anyway.

So there you have it. After going totally car-free for six days, I logged 16 miles in a car on the final day of the challenge.

What I learned from the Car-Free Challenge

I don’t know that I actually gained a whole lot of insight from my experience. I mean, I learned that it’s a pain (and sometimes impossible) to go places in the hills without a car (or bicycle, I guess). But I already knew that. I learned about bus I wasn’t familiar with before, which is always fun. Although I can’t say that I anticipate riding the 54 all that often in the future, since I don’t have much need to spend time at Merritt College.

I guess the main thing I took away from the week is that the Car-Free Challenge is not really for me. Before the challenge started, when I was trying to encourage others to participate, I kept telling that it isn’t about not driving at all, but rather about being more conscious of how much you drive, and making a point of not driving when it isn’t necessary. I didn’t mind doing it, because I support TransForm, and I like the concept.

But the fact is, I have already reduced my time in a car to pretty much the minimum of what is practical. Any other week, I would have totally taken rides to my three events in the hills, and after doing it the other way for two of those events specifically because of the challenge, I can say that next time I’m in the same situation, I won’t be going via bus. Even when one does one’s best to make lifestyle choices that don’t require a car, there will always be some things you have to do that being car-free really doesn’t work for. If I had a car of my own, I might say that the way to be more conscious about reducing unnecessary driving in situations like that is to carpool with other people who are also going, but for me, that’s just a given, since I don’t have the option of driving alone.

I heard (secondhand, not from someone who works there, so take it with the requisite grain of salt) that TransForm is sensitive to the problem of the high registration fee for the challenge, and will likely not charge nearly so much next year. If that’s the case, I hope that more people will sign up then. I would certainly feel better about being pushy about getting people to register if it cost less.

But if you didn’t participate last week, there’s no reason you have to wait a whole year to try the experiment. Just set aside one week, and tell yourself that you are going to try to reduce the amount of driving you do. Keep a log the week before of the amount of miles you go in a car, and set a goal for yourself of reducing that 20% or 30% or hell, even 10%. And then just spend the next week trying to be really conscious about whether you do, in fact, need to drive to place X or place Y. Think about if walking is a practical alternative. Or take a look at Google Transit and see if there’s a bus that runs nearby. Think about when you might be able to carpool, or when it might make sense to combine errands into one trip. You’ll probably be surprised about how easy it is to make a measurable reduction in your driving.

5 thoughts on “Car-Free Challenged, Part 2

  1. Mike Hardy

    IMVHO, publicly talking about the real challenges of trying to go car-free and thoughtfully talking about how to do non-car-oriented trip planning is a great thing, and I think your posts here are a win on your part for the car-free challenge, 17 miles or not.

    To anyone thinking about just leaving the car parked for a week – it isn’t easy and you may not achieve it, but give it a shot. Normal humans do it :-)

    Cheers for thoughtful attempt V Smoothe

  2. Gene

    Glad to take part. I managed to go the whole week not riding in a car, or anything bigger than the e-bike all week
    Then for the after party, my wife was driving to the Y so I succumbed and rode with her. But not bad considering I live in the hills.

  3. Ralph

    One of the things I miss about DC is the way I could navigate the city without every using my car. I could walk from the Shakespeare Theatre in NE to the Washington Zoo in upper NW or if I were feeling lazy I could hop the Metro. I can also walk most of SF. What both of these places have is a sense of neighborhood. One never feels like one is walking in an exposed area. You always feel like you are among people and have a place to duck inside if the walk gets too long. I can not wait to Oakland gets there.

  4. Sussu

    Hi Esteemed Better Oaklanders,

    I know this is really bad form to barge onto the comments with an unrelated promotional item. Sorry. We are Sugar Mama and we are trying to make A Better Oakland by microfinancing local artists at a fun party this Saturday. The party is in West Oakland. If anyone here is interested, here is the East Bay Express article about us http://www.eastbayexpress.com/ebx/sugar-mamas-sweet-idea/Content?oid=1854289, and here is our website http://sugarmamaparty.blogspot.com/, and most importantly, here is where you can buy tickets http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/112400. Please join us, and please help spread the word. Thank you.

  5. todd

    another oakland blog not covering the real issue!
    “A Better Oakland” = cops not killing innocent people like Oscar Grant. After a year and a half, this trial is about to come to a close in Los Angeles.
    Good job on your car-free challenge, but PLEASE cover what is the most important issue in Oakland right now.