The car-free life

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August 17, 2009 // UPDATED 9:56 am - August 17, 2009
By: John Van Heel
John Van Heel
For most of us, the prospect of not owning an automobile is simply beyond the realm of consideration. And while people who live on the outskirts of the Twin Cities may indeed be car dependent, the good news is that for those of us who live and work in the urban core, the prospect of being a non-car owner is not only becoming viable, it is actually becoming an attractive alternative that more people should consider.

My experiment in not owning a car began almost two decades ago when I made the choice to go back to college. Knowing that I would need to support myself, it became clear that I would need to sell my car. The several thousand dollars a year that it cost me would be crucial in being able to make ends meet. So I began my study of architecture at the University of Minnesota with an introduction to alternative modes of transportation. As a kid from the suburbs this meant every mode that was not an automobile. Walking, the bus, and most of all a bicycle were what got me around. And while winters have presented some issues, this continues to be the way I live today. I long ago completed college, and I have yet to purchase another car. The cost savings are still good, but I no longer live this way out of economic necessity. Rather, it is because it provides me with a lifestyle that is convenient and enriching. With a home in Loring Park, and most recently a job in the North Loop, I think I have been able to live a life that is commensurate with what we imagine about life in places like London, New York and Paris — a life with an intimate on-the-street connection to the culture, events and myriad colors of a vibrant city.

I may betray a certain hometown fondness in saying that, but what is important, I think, is that it is the pedestrian life of these cities that is so important in defining their character. It’s not just landmarks, but also how people move around that determines what these places are, and what they reveal to us. Automobiles provide a really enjoyable way to see a city or landscape, but let’s face it, it is a highly edited experience. The various destinations that define our daily lives are, in a car dominated life, strung together more by the song on the radio than by any detailed sense of the land or community.    

The destinations that define my day-to-day life are largely set within the reach of my own feet. I think this gives me the same sense of the city that a ranger might have of a patch of forest, or a farmer might have of his fields. Things like the weather matter to me, not just because I need to prepare for it, but because it inspires the beginning, middle and end of each day.

Lunch at home is perhaps one of the nicer perks of living and working in the Downtown area. In addition to having the opportunity to get outside, I also have a chance to get my blood moving with a little exercise. At  home I can eat a healthy meal and spend 15 minutes with my feet up and my eyes closed. For me this is the perfect combination to ensure that I have a focused and productive afternoon. It’s what I call my FREE lunch — Food, Rest and Excellent Exercise. In the evening I might walk five minutes to Peavey Plaza and chat with neighbors while a band plays under the Honey Locust trees, or I might cycle 10 minutes in the opposite direction and glide through a big meadow where deer often roam. I’ve chosen this lifestyle not just because of my attachment to the big city, but also because of the connection it gives me to the earth, my community and to my own body.

Another important service that supports  my lifestyle is car sharing. The reason that I don’t own a car is not because I have forsaken the use of the evil internal combustion engine. Rather, my pedestrian lifestyle simply doesn’t warrant the owning of a car. Through car sharing I am able to have ready access to an automobile when that is the transit mode that most makes sense. HourCar came to Downtown Minneapolis around five years ago (hourcar.org) and now has vehicles located at different spots across the core of the city. Two vehicles (Toyota Prius) are located across the street from where I live. I can go online, make a reservation and in five minutes be standing next to a car unlocking the door — no paper work, no filling up with gas and no insurance payments.

I think that have a very manageable, comfortable life. My banged-up bicycle isn’t the status symbol that a shiny new car might be, but I stand pretty tall anyway. I think I represent something that is important for my city. As a professional working age person who actually chooses not to own a car, I think I represent a segment of the population that would be well worth keeping a measure of.  The number of people that there are like me is a good gauge, not just of the quality of the city’s pedestrian and transit infrastructure, but also of the perceived viability and attractiveness of  Downtown living. Many Downtown residents own cars, however it is unlikely that either stall size or freeway access drove their decision to locate Downtown. It was far more likely to be the notion of walking to work, to the theater or to a park that made the sale.

John Van Heel lives with his partner in the Loring Park neighborhood. He was president of Citizens for a Loring Park Community from 2003 through 2008, and currently serves as the chair of the CLPC Land Use Committee.