You drive me crazy

Will this auto addict succeed at living car free?

Photo By David jayne

One time, my friend Nicole saw a man pull out his eyeball on the Metro system in Los Angeles. She told me this as the two of us rode for an hour and a half from her suburban condo to Hollywood.

Horror stories such as this one reinforce the notion of a scary, dirty outside world that inevitably requires interaction with unpleasant strangers, and wouldn’t you rather travel alone in your car? But that didn’t stop us.

On a warm spring morning in March, Nicole and I headed to the Metrolink station and paid the weekend fare of $8.50 for a roundtrip ticket into Los Angeles. The one-ride ticket cost $1.25 or $5 for an all-day pass. Not bad, I thought. The travel time, while longer, beat driving, because we didn’t have to maneuver through Southern California traffic or deal with parking.

The previous day, I’d told Nicole’s friends about our decision to move around solely by public transportation during my visit.

“Why would you want to do that?” they asked, flabbergasted.

The no-car challenge

Truthfully, I didn’t really want to. I’m one of the lucky ones: I own a car and don’t need to take public transportation. I like the freedom of a car. I like the privilege of not having to worry about how I’ll carry my groceries home, and I enjoy the spontaneity this vehicle allows. I like feeling safe as a woman to venture out at night, knowing I can lock my car doors and speed away if a threatening figure appears or, if necessary, run that person over.

But I took the Metro because a fellow SN&R writer, Ted Cox, dared me to go a month without driving my car. He ridiculed my (minimal) automobile use, arguing that as an environmentalist, I shouldn’t drive at all. I should know better.

And I do know better.

Scientists estimate that 15 percent of human-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from cars, trucks, airplanes, trains and ships. In California, transportation accounts for more than 40 percent of our annual greenhouse-gas emissions, and we rely on petroleum-based fuels to feed 96 percent of our transportation needs.

Despite knowing this, when I embarked on Ted’s challenge to live car free, I had no idea how hard it would be to accomplish it.

We had our back and forths. Once, I received an e-mail from Ted, who’d vowed to give up meat for a month, complaining that he couldn’t eat sushi as a vegetarian. I explained that he could get avocado or tofu rolls. In turn, I sought his bike-riding guidance.

“Do I have to wear a helmet?” I whined, one warm afternoon in March.

“Yes, you want to protect that brain of yours,” Ted said.

Ted started riding a bike 10 years ago during college in Orange County, when a car didn’t fit into his budget. Growing up poor in east Los Angeles, he and his mom took the bus everywhere, familiarizing him to life without an automobile. Many years later he lived in Peru, where bakers, butchers and markets existed within walking distance of his home. Now, he primarily commutes by bike and light rail, despite living in Elk Grove. He hopes never again to own a car.

“I like the idea that I’m getting around on my own power,” Ted said.

A week into their 30-day Earth Day challenge, Sena and Ted met up to give each other pointers. The pair took a bike ride to a nearby grocery store to buy ingredients (above) for what Ted called “a sampling of veggie platters.”

Photo By Ted Cox

So do I. Although currently I probably drive an average of 10 miles a week, for prolonged periods of my life, I didn’t drive at all. Like when I lived in Washington, D.C., which offered an inexpensive, convenient, surprisingly clean mass-transit system, or during college in Berkeley, when I walked everywhere. And loved it.

Zen of bicycling

On that afternoon day, Ted ordered me to pump up my bike’s tires before we embarked on a 15-minute bike ride to a grocery store about a mile away on Freeport Boulevard to buy food for a vegetarian feast. The whole trip took one hour; had we driven, we’d likely have been back in half that time, I thought, a little irritated.

Sacramento’s weather, flat landscape and cycling infrastructure makes the city conducive to commuting by bike, but as I learned on the ride with Ted, bike lanes may suddenly drop, which is quite nerve-racking for a novice bicyclist such as myself.

To promote bicycle use, the city of Sacramento has slowed traffic through two-lane conversions and completed road diets, which means narrowing three or four lanes down to two, and adding bike lanes.

“Those are the types of things that make for a more pedestrian-friendly, livable city,” explained Linda Tucker, spokeswoman for the Sacramento Department of Transportation. “It’s no longer about building a corridor with four lanes of traffic.”

I asked Tucker if she thought it possible to go car free in Sacramento.

“Definitely,” she said, adding, “especially if you live in Midtown or downtown.” But I don’t live in those neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, in May, the volunteer-run group Bikeramento will launch Sac Sunday Streets, a closure of Capitol Avenue to cars on the second Sunday of the month. Bikeramento modeled the idea after bike-friendly cities, such as San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; and Amsterdam, Netherlands; where bikes and cars know how to interact.

“When I moved up to Sacramento three years ago from Redwood City, I realized biking around wasn’t as easy or safe,” said member Linda Khiev. “Drivers and bikers didn’t know what to do with each other.”

“Here, bikes are annoying,” added member Jeff Louie. “There, bikes are a way of life.”

Transit hitches

Before being laid off from my job in February, I looked into buying a monthly Regional Transit pass, but decided against it after learning it cost a whopping $100. With a car paid off and gas cheap, driving made more economic sense. A few years ago, living in a different city, I’d paid $40 a month for a bus pass.

A couple of weeks into the no-car challenge, Ted bragged about how easily he’d transitioned to vegetarianism. Sure, I thought bitterly, because that’s merely a preference, unlike transportation, which presents real logistical and financial challenges.

Every minute spent waiting at a light-rail stop or riding a bus is time I could be conducting an interview or writing a story—basically, earning a living. Even my green side couldn’t dispute that fact.

“Time is money,” agreed my friend Cole, during a few days we spent in Florida in March. On a bustling Saturday night in Miami, a people mover circled above a trendy downtown area. It was completely empty.

“It’s a social faux pas to show up walking here. Transportation is a social-class divider in America,” said my Miami friend, Dave, adding that public transportation is also considered socially unacceptable and a service used only by those who can’t afford to own a car. With few exceptions, I’ve also found this class division to be true.

“Do your friends use the Metro?” I later asked my Los Angeles friend, Nicole.

Photo By Ted Cox

“No. They think I’m weird for doing it,” said Nicole, who works for an environmental organization and takes public transportation even though it doubles her commute time “to do the right thing.”

Her enthusiasm, though, has faded. Nicole used to leave her house at 6:30 a.m. to get a spot in the tiny Metro parking lot 3 miles from her house. Then she’d apply her makeup in the car and wait until 8:30 a.m. to board the train to get to work by 10 a.m. When she doesn’t find a parking spot—which is often—she ends up driving to her destination.

“If people have to work harder to take public transportation,” she said, “they’re not going to do it.”

Guilt-tripped by Chevron

Here’s a confession: Despite growing up in Sacramento, before the no-car dare, I’d never ridden light rail. Not once. But in late March, I paid $2.25 for a single-trip pass and hopped on the Blue Line, which runs from Meadowview to Watt Avenue.

Light rail was a controversial system when it first developed in Sacramento, said Dain Domich, president of Friends of Light Rail and Transit. Our city was one of the first in California to get a fixed-rail system, as advocates touted the benefits of a system with a fixed schedule and fixed stations and routes that never change.

Chicago’s “L” system is the best example of a fixed-rail system, said Domich, who attended Northwestern University in the 1960s. The “L” connects the depths of the suburbs to downtown, with a station located every quarter-mile to 2 miles, basically running 24 hours a day.

Sacramento’s light-rail system is now a $700 million system with expansions in the pipeline, Domich said, including a line to Roseville and connection to the Sacramento International Airport.

“[Light rail] enhances the quality of life and ultimately drops down the cost of living in the region. That’s good for everybody,” Domich said.

During my inaugural light-rail ride, I waited about 15 minutes for the train’s arrival—what’s considered reasonable wait time for passengers. On the train, a young man bumped to hip-hop on his laptop, despite the no-music sign, and several passengers greeted one another when they boarded.

I considered how light rail might work for my life if I could pair it with car sharing, a system in which members reserve a car online then pick it up at a designated lot using an electronic key card. I’d be able to drive when I absolutely needed to. Unfortunately, car-sharing companies haven’t yet settled in Sacramento, because our population density hasn’t been high enough to guarantee a market.

Because I don’t have a normal 9-to-5 work schedule, taking public transportation would require constant planning, I realized dejectedly as our train passed a Chevron billboard with the words, “I will leave the car at home more.”

Great, now even Chevron is laying a guilt trip on me. Maybe it’s acceptable to guilt someone into recycling; come on, it’s so easy, how could you not? But to guilt someone into spending more money, time and effort on a daily basis to ride mass transit when they have the choice not to? Well, I don’t know about that.

The problem is that a hundred little Senas could abandon their cars tomorrow and it won’t matter, not as long as 70 percent of China’s energy comes from coal-fired power plants or as long as industry continues to produce massive amounts of toxic byproducts that pollute our air and waterways.

The solutions to global warming are much larger than you and me and that guy over there deciding to slightly alter our lifestyles.

California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 encompasses critical transportation-related measures, such as a low-carbon fuel standard, better land-use planning and the “Pavley bill,” which demands efficient new passenger vehicles starting in 2009 (a measure stalled by automaker lawsuits and former President George W. Bush and his administration).

We need every state in the country to adopt similar legislation. In Sacramento, we need more bike lanes—and not just in Midtown and downtown—and we need to bring streetcars back to the central city. We need every city to develop a mass-transit system that’s so convenient and cheap and easy to use and saturates a community so deeply that it’s not used solely out of necessity or considered a “sacrifice” to ride; instead, it becomes a question of: “Why on Earth would we travel any other way?” And we need to invest in the infrastructure to get us there.

Ultimately, I must confess, I failed the dare. I drove a total of about 20 miles during the 30-day experiment, on about six different occasions—on a few rainy days, and when I had laundry to wash or groceries to buy.

But I also reduced my car usage, carpooled more, had fun riding a bike and figured out light rail enough so it doesn’t seem like drama to ride regularly. Also, I got Ted to give up eating meat for a month. Ha!

Mostly, I realized from this experience that when it comes to eco-responsibility, I want to do what I can, and hopefully a little bit more than that. But this Earth Day, let’s demand that government and industry hold up their ends of the bargain, too, so we can actually achieve the massive change we need.