Car-Free in Ann Arbor
Four believers tell how they do it.
by Patrick Dunn
From the February, 2013 issue
As awareness grows of the environmental impact of fossil fuels, Americans are falling out of love with the automobile. While a global solution to that dilemma is still far from clear, plenty of folks are finding their own individual solutions--especially in small, densely populated, and environmentally aware Ann Arbor. We spoke with four Ann Arborites who don't own cars and don't want to. Though all four have that in common, their motivations and methods are quite different.
Twenty miles a week on foot
Judging by stringent standards, and the 1925 Dodge Brothers Business Coupe in his garage, Bob Harrington doesn't live a fully car-free life. But that beautiful antique vehicle rarely touches the road, and neither did the Ford Edge that Harrington gave up in 2010. "I always leased cars, and you only get a certain amount of mileage with a lease," Harrington says. "For the last few leases, I realized I hadn't used up the miles because they sit in the garage."
As a racetrack construction consultant to NASCAR, among others, Harrington does commute to an occasional meeting in Detroit. He regularly flies to other cities for work, and in those instances he drives a rental car. But at home, Harrington says, it simply didn't make sense to own a car any longer. His co-workers didn't see it that way. "Everybody thought I was nuts," he says. "I should have a car, right? I'm in a car business. How am I going to get around?"
Harrington decided not to use his wife's car, either--a resolution he's broken only once, for an urgent run to the hardware store. He walks about twenty miles a week, making regular trips downtown from his historic north side home to run errands and visit the library. For longer trips, he employs a vintage 1970s-era folding bicycle outfitted with a collapsible basket and a tire repair kit containing spare tubes for the bike's unusual twenty-inch wheels. For his commutes to Detroit, Harrington rides to
the Enterprise car rental location on Huron and then folds up the bike. "I just toss it in the trunk and I'm on my way," he says.
Harrington says he regularly encourages local friends to follow his lead, and he claims to have converted a couple of his neighbors to a car-free life. And given his enthusiasm, it's not hard to believe. At age seventy-three, he says he's enjoying the health benefits of living car-free and has saved "piles of dough" as well.
He's in it for the long run. "This has not been inconvenient for me in the least," he says. "And I'm happy I did it. I'll probably never buy another car."
Journalist on a scooter
Ready to take on the car-free life, but not the intense physical activity of bicycle travel (like her husband Dave Askins), Mary Morgan had to find a way to split the difference. "I don't like getting sweaty," she says. "It's just more work to have a bike for me. And I knew that if that was the [only] option I had to use, I probably wouldn't use it."
Morgan left her job as opinion editor at the Ann Arbor News in 2008 and soon afterward teamed up with Askins to launch their government-focused website, AnnArborChronicle.com. With less reason to travel outside downtown than ever before, Morgan swapped her car for something less gas-hungry: a Honda Ruckus scooter. The vehicle isn't quite what the name may conjure up. "When I think of a scooter, what comes to mind is a little, girly Vespa, tooling around with your scarf flying," Morgan says. "This is not like that. It looks more like a motorcycle."
The racing-red vehicle is indeed scrappier and sportier than you might expect, sporting beefy tires and a couple of Chronicle decals. Given its generous onboard storage space, Morgan says her shopping trips are limited only by how much weight she can lug back to the scooter. On the rare occasions when she must have a car--say, when covering an out-of-town regents' meeting--she rents a Zipcar.
Like any vehicle, the scooter isn't perfect. It handles poorly in snow, which left Morgan in a tight spot while covering President Obama's appearance in town on a snowy day last winter. Security arrangements had been made for press arriving by car, and Morgan says she had to "beg" the Secret Service to admit her on foot. "I had written down the phone number for the press secretary for the White House, and that was pretty much what got me in," she says.
Despite the occasional mishaps, Morgan says Ann Arbor's small size makes it a great town to go car-free in. And according to her informal study of the growing number of scooter spots in DDA garages--and the growing number of scooters filling them--many Ann Arborites have followed her lead.
"I think the idea of just getting used to something different is a hurdle for a lot of people," she says. "But once you start living the lifestyle, I never think, 'I wish I had a car.' It just doesn't occur to me anymore."
"No one comes out of the womb with a car," Joel Batterman says. At twenty-four, he remains car-free.
Batterman grew up in a family he describes as "fairly environmentally conscious"; both his dad and his grandfather biked to work. While attending Huron High School, he began following the family tradition. "I started using a bike around the time most kids start driving," he says. "Growing up, I was pretty conscious of climate change and the various costs that driving has that aren't always just reflected in the price of gas."
While completing his undergraduate work at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, Batterman admired that city's well-integrated infrastructure for cycling and other alternative transportation. And when he returned to pursue his master's in urban planning at the U-M, he began making it his mission to bring alternative transportation in metro Detroit up to the same standards. Upon graduating in 2011, he was hired as transportation programs coordinator for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, a nonprofit seeking sustainable solutions to the metro area's environmental and economic challenges.
Batterman's work with the Alliance is focused on lobbying Lansing on regional transit issues. He worked primarily out of the organization's Ypsilanti office before moving to Detroit in December to be closer to the main office in Ferndale. Batterman says his girlfriend usually uses a car for longer-range shopping trips in Ferndale and Detroit, but he recently acquired a folding bicycle easily transported on bus and train trips back to Ann Arbor.
Although cycling is important to Batterman, he says there's "only so much we can do" with biking and walking: mass transit is also key. And he believes that the high cost of car ownership is already starting to turn the tide. "A quotation that I like is Henry Ford's saying that if you asked people what they wanted in 1900, they would have said a faster horse, not a car," he says. "There's an extended process of cultural change that goes into the kind of transportation that we use. But I think it's pretty clear which direction we're heading."
A cyclist's trial by fire
It was a typically bustling day on the streets of New York City, and Sally Carson found herself in one of the worst possible places for a cyclist to be: in traffic, between two double-decker tour buses. "They don't see you, they don't know you're there, and they'll ride really close to each other in traffic," Carson says. "It was a sunny day, and it just got dark all of a sudden. It was like time stood still, and then I just sprinted out of the canyon as fast as I could."
That was just one incident in Carson's trial by fire as a bike messenger, a process that she says involved "a certain amount of just acclimating to constant near-death experiences." She took the messenger work to pay her bills after moving to New York from Virginia in 2001. "Riding all day, every day, forty or sixty hours a week, totally made me fall in love with cycling," she says. When her car was totaled in a hit-and-run accident in 2002, she didn't bother replacing it.
Carson, thirty-four, has since lived the car-free life in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and now Ann Arbor, where she moved last summer to found a tech start-up. She commutes daily from her home on Ann Arbor's west side to her office on State St. downtown. While she has high praise for the local cycling community centered around Sic Transit Cycles, the vintage-bicycle shop on Broadway, she thinks Ann Arbor needs "much more comprehensive bike infrastructure," including more signage and more bike lanes. But she says the city is making progress, and in the meantime it's bike-friendly enough that she will stick around. "I would never live in a place that I couldn't live car-free," she says. "I deliberately structure my life around being able to use my bike as my primary form of transport."
Her commitment to two-wheeled transit isn't limited to local travel. Carson has biked from Maine to Miami and across parts of Thailand. She recalls surprised Thai locals asking her why she didn't own a car if she had the money. Her answer was simple. "Bikes are better," she says. "It's more fun. We would never have had those conversations with those people if we were in a car."
This article has been edited since it appeared in the February 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. The year Mary Morgan and Dave Askins launched the Ann Arbor Chronicle has been corrected.
[Originally published in February, 2013.]
On February 28, 2013, cv wrote:
Portland Oregon has done this for ages- Ann Arbor has fallen way behind...
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