Car-free and carefree

Learning to love life without a car

ECCO — Patricia Blakely said there have been “a few crazy days” since Dec. 15, when she parked her 6-year-old Subaru Forester in a garage, never to drive it again.

There was the winter evening when Blakely waited at a Hennepin Avenue bus stop near her ECCO home. She must have been hard to spot, bundled in her dark-colored parka; or at least that was the best explanation she could think of when the bus passed her by.

It triggered a chain of events familiar to regular transit users: Blakely missed her connection near 50th and France by 10 minutes, and soon she was picking her way across icy sidewalks at night, alone and two miles from home.

“I’m thinking, ‘This is nutty. I shouldn’t be doing this,’” she recalled.

Car-free life, she realized then, has its ups and downs.

“That was probably the worst that happened, and after that I kind of knew certain things weren’t going to work out real well, like weekends, nighttime, trying to see someone who’s not on a bus line,” Blakely said. “Then, I began to find out what I could do.”

Blakely, 64, hadn’t ridden a bus in 35 years when she put her car in storage and began her experiment in car-free living. Two months of walking and busing later, she cemented her decision and sold the Subaru.

Blakely discovered what some others have known for years: Life without a car is not only possible in Minneapolis, it can be rewarding, too.

She runs errands closer to home and spends less because she’s limited to what she can carry. She maintains an active social life, sometimes relying on rides from friends. (And she never takes “No” for an answer when she offers $5 or $10 for the favor.)

Over the course of nine months, Blakely’s reacquainted herself with a neighborhood she used to glimpse only through a car window.

“In a funny way, I almost feel like I’ve moved,” she said.

The choice

Googling “car-free” will inundate a web browser with a tidal wave of websites and blogs — including a few by Minneapolitans — advocating life without a vehicle for its health and environmental benefits. But a web search may be misleading.

Responding to an e-mailed question, Metropolitan Council Transportation Services Director Mark Filipi wrote it was difficult to parse the data on zero-car households.

Nearly one in five Minneapolis households have no vehicle available, according to latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 American Community Survey. But that figure is likely more reflective of an economic, rather than a lifestyle, choice.

The federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported in 2001 that low-income households were 10 times more likely to not have a vehicle. People living alone, in rental properties and in urban areas also were more likely not to have a vehicle.

Certainly, long before there was a popular “green” movement around driving less, people chose to go without a vehicle for reasons that may or may not have had anything to do with environmentalism.

For City Council Member Robert Lilligren (Ward 6), who counts only a few years of vehicle ownership in the last two decades, it was the idea that money spent on a car would be put to better use building a retirement fund.

“It took about three years to kind of settle in for me and say: ‘This is easier, it’s healthier [and] it’s better for the world, as well,’” Lilligren recalled.

“Now, I just feel like there’s so many benefits to making that decision so early,” he continued. “My whole life has been pretty much structured around not having a car.”

Lilligren has a car-sharing agreement some of his Phillips West neighbors, so he can drive when necessary, but he said most of his trips are by foot, bicycle or public transit. He’ll even ride his bicycle on official business, as when taking the Midtown Greenway out to St. Louis Park for a meeting of local officials studying light rail transit.

Loring Park resident John Van Heel (who recently wrote about car-free life in the Downtown Journal) gave up his car 20 years ago so he could afford a return to college. Now, Van Heel appreciates the smaller carbon footprint and more intimate knowledge of his city that comes with biking, walking and riding public transit.

“Ultimately, it ties into my vision as an architect, and particularly my vision for the inner-city as a potential location for creating sustainable communities,” he said.

New freedoms

Blakely acknowledged one particularly difficult aspect of her transition to car-free life: giving up the driver’s seat.

“We love to be able to just get in our cars and go where we want to go whenever we want to go — and it’s almost un-American not to,” she said.

Still, she traded one type of freedom for another.

Blakely said she was free from worrying about unexpected auto repair bills. She no longer stressed-out in traffic.

And if she was 10 minutes late to a meeting, it wasn’t her fault. Blame the bus.

Speaking of the bus: That bus stop a block away from her home used to keep Blakely up at night. That’s changed, too.

“It’s noisy, and it used to annoy me,” she said. “Now, when I hear it, it just reminds me that the bus service is operating and I’m happy that it’s operating. It’s there for me.”