Some Minneapolitans embrace car-free lifestyle

A bicyclist
A bicyclist rides east on 28th Street on a below-zero weekday morning. Scores of Minneapolitans hit the road on two wheels each day — rain, snow or shine. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Kenny Fennell grew up in Boston without a car and, since moving to the Lyndale neighborhood in June, he’s continued to live car-free, biking most days to his job in Downtown Minneapolis.

Fennell said biking is easier in the summer than in the winter, but that it’s manageable year-round. “It’s actually pretty warm once you get going,” he said.

His bike has two-inch tires, fenders to guard against splashing snow and water and a rack on which he can attach a bag. His daily commute takes about 15–20 minutes.

Fennell said he thinks that not owning a car makes him and his girlfriend more “local” in their day-to-day lives. Instead of driving somewhere for dinner, they’ll walk to a restaurant on Hennepin or Lyndale avenue. He’ll walk or bike to the Seward Co-op — about a mile away from his house — instead of driving to the store. And though he’s never done it, he knows he has the option to rent a car or use the Hourcar car-sharing service if he ever needs to get somewhere Metro Transit or his bike can’t take him.

In recent years, much more attention in Minneapolis has been paid to increasing infrastructure for people to take alternative modes of transportation. The Minneapolis 2040 plan calls for building out a multimodal network that prioritizes walking, biking and transit. Recent street improvement projects, such as the reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue between Lake and 36th streets, have added bike lines, widened sidewalks and reduced parking for cars. A recent pilot has added bus-only lanes on Hennepin Avenue during rush hour. And the city has expanded the length of its protected bike lane network.

Part of the aim of these initiatives has been to reduce effects of climate change and improve health by enhancing air quality. It’s part of a broader citywide push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Minneapolis 80% by the year 2050, using 2006 levels as a baseline.

By some standards, these initiatives appear to be helping to get more people to ride bikes. One study, conducted by University of Minnesota researchers in 2015, found that the number of trips taken by bike in the 19-county Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area increased by about 58% between 2001 and 2011, MPR News reported. Across the metro area, walking trips have also increased, the study found.

It’s not just local governments that are taking action. Private citizens are too, and say they find living car-free isn’t just good for the environment — it’s also convenient.

Jesus Leyva, a St. Paul resident who works at Perennial Cycle at 34th & Hennepin, is among the ranks of local bike commuters. Leyva said he bikes about 10 miles each way to and from work, a commute that takes about 50–55 minutes. He takes that ride rain, snow, sun or cold.

Leyva said he likes the flexibility that bike commuting provides him. For daily errands like grocery shopping, he either walks or takes transit. He said people who want to live this way should “ease into it” and suggested that they perhaps don’t start in the winter.

Uptown resident Gordon Loery, who takes transit to his job near the state Capitol in St. Paul, also suggested that people who wish to live “car-lite” take it slowly. He said starting small helped him get more comfortable with the transit system. 

Many people live without a car because of economic necessity. 

Dianna Clise, who lives east of Lyndale Avenue, has been car-free since this past spring, when her car broke down. Waiting for a bus to take her east along Lake Street on a recent weekend afternoon, she said the “day-to-day” has been OK but that the bus isn’t as convenient as she’d like.

Clise said she tries to schedule her errands during times when transit is likely to be more frequent. Her advice to people without cars? “Live on a bus line,” she said.

Kenwood resident Gene Tierney runs the organization CarFreeLife, which aims to make it easier for people in the Twin Cities to drive less. He’s also the founder of NeighborCar, a new venture launching in 2020 that will help people in apartment buildings share ownership of a car. Tierney said the service will likely be in Minneapolis.

Tierney said not owning a car makes people more conscientious about planning their errands and activities. He said people are making the choice to either give up one or more of their vehicles for both environmental and economic reasons.

Car ownership, for example, costs an average of $9,282 annually, according to AAA. A study from the University of Minnesota Center for Community Vitality found that over 61% of those costs leave the state in the form of fuel and depreciation.

The typical household saves $300 to $500 a month when it gets rid of a car, Tierney said.

Citywide census data show the movement away from car usage has been modest.

About 61% of Minneapolis’ 230,077 workers over age 16 drove alone to work in 2009, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. That’s a reduction of 0.8 percentage points since 2009.

The proportion of Minneapolis workers who bike, walk, take public transit or work at home increased to 29.9% in 2017 from 28% in 2009. The proportion of workers who carpool dropped to 7.9% from 9.4%. (The census data don’t capture people who are part-time bicyclists, according to MPR).

The proportion of Minneapolis households without vehicles has decreased slightly since 2009 — to 17.1% from 17.5%.

Lowry Hill East resident Abigail Johnson, who chairs the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee, is able to work from home. Johnson, who moved back to Minneapolis from New York City two years ago, said she’s never really had a car as an adult and that she chose a place to live where she wouldn’t need one. She didn’t want to be responsible for the cost of car ownership and said she was also passionate about making the streetscape more equitable.

“I know a lot of people that would walk if they felt the system was set up to let them walk more or if they felt the bus was set up to be more convenient than driving,” she said.

Johnson said she walks to the grocery stores near her home several days a week and that she finds that she has less food waste because she buys less. She said she thinks she’s always going to make decisions about where she lives based on her desire to walk, bike or bus.

Emissions from passenger cars, SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans account for about 15% of Americans’ total greenhouse gas emissions, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.