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It's hard to believe that I've lived car-free for nearly 10 years straight now. However, it's also hard to believe I ever thought owning a car was a good idea. I'm reminded of this any time I visit someplace where I need to rent a car. It's fun having one for a short time, but before long I realize how much worse the quality of life is when you have to drive everywhere.
However, I will be the first to admit that there is one key factor has allowed me to enjoy a car-free life for 10 years in 5 or 6 different cities. I won't give it away right yet (jump to the bottom if you want the quick answer), but will first quickly run down how I got around in each of the 5 to 6 places I've lived in the past 10 years, in chronological order.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina: After college, I moved to Chapel Hill, largely because I was sick of the sprawling and ugly "urban" environment of Florida. Also, I absolutely loved the state when I visited it for a summer internship the year before, and I thought I might end up going to graduate school at UNC for city and regional planning (which I did). I lived somewhat on the edge of Chapel Hill, but I was just a block away from a bus stop for a bus that traversed the small city... and was free to use. I actually ended up working at a Whole Foods Market nearby and biked to work most of the time (~10 minutes one way if I remember correctly). Otherwise, I would simply walk or take the bus. Chapel Hill is quite small, and I could also bike to downtown and the university campus, but that required a very long uphill ride and I'm more of a Dutch "take it easy" biker than a "lycra cyclist," so I often just took the bus. (A Trampe Cyclocable would be useful there!) Nonetheless, I did bike into town a fair number of times.
Carrboro, North Carolina: Carrboro and Chapel Hill are very connected — you can't easily tell the difference when you cross from one to the other — which is why I said above that I have lived in 5 or 6 different cities in the past 10 years. The same free transit service that serves Chapel Hill also serves Carrboro. I moved to Carrboro around the time I started graduate school, after one year in Chapel Hill, and then lived there for about two years in two different homes. I used the free bus system a fair amount, but I biked and walked more in Carrboro. The distances to Weaver Street Market (a popular coop market that is essentially the center of Carrboro — pictured above), downtown Chapel Hill, and UNC were even shorter than from my home in Chapel Hill. There was also a nice off-road bicycle path along a railway part of the way to UNC, and a nice small street with a large tree canopy and bike lanes much of the rest of the way. The off-road bike path is actually what led me to do my thesis on the relationship between bicycle transportation and different types of bicycle infrastructure.
Sunnyvale, California: In the summer of 2006, I did an internship for the San Mateo County Planning and Building Department. I lived in Sunnyvale (in Silicon Valley), a few cities south of the department offices in Redwood City. Shockingly, I found the same old Dutch-style Schwinn model that I had been using in Chapel Hill at a Goodwill or thrift store in Sunnyvale (probably from 1970 or so — looked like this one). I've never noticed that model anywhere else! It was a heavy bike, but it did a good job of getting me to and from Caltrain's commuter train stations, and also around the nice, quite bikeable cities of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area (note: the trains include bike cars). It was all very convenient. Biking in such a beautiful place was a great pleasure, and I also loved riding the trains. I can only imagine how much less pleasant it would have been to drive around there.
Well, actually, my wife and I visited a couple years ago and did rent a car and drive around a bit, and I can say that it was a ton less enjoyable.
Groningen, Netherlands: I've written about my 5 months in Groningen at length, so I won't add anything here. Biking is the way to get around in Groningen, even more so than the rest of the bike-friendly Netherlands. More info can be found here:
Charlottesville, Virginia: After graduate school, I got a job as the director of a nonprofit focused on advancing transportation choice (especially for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders) in the Charlottesville area. It might surprise you, but I didn't own a bicycle there at all. The apartment I lived in was a 5-minute walk from a pedestrian mall in the center of downtown Charlottesville, which was where my office was located. There were also bus lines right there that took me out to a health food store where I shopped. I didn't even need a bike, let alone a car. (Granted, I did have a work bike for awhile that I used for some purposes, but mostly just bike-oriented work stuff.)
As we all know, it's a good idea to "stop and smell the roses." From a car, you're extremely unlikely to literally do that. From a bike, it's a definite option in some cases. On foot, it's the obvious thing to do. I had known for years that bicycling was a great pleasure. In Charlottesville, transporting myself around on foot most of the time, I came to realize how nice walking could be.
Wrocław, Poland: For the past 5½ years or so, I have lived in this city of about 1 million people in southwest of Poland. It has a beautiful city center (or downtown as I guess I'd call it if I had just arrived in Europe). I've lived in 3 different apartments here, but none have been more than a 30- or 40-minute walk to the city center, which is where I used to work before I became a full-time blogger. If I didn't feel like walking, there were always trams nearby that could get me around the city. For the past 3 years, working from home and living just a 10- to 15-minute walk from the center, I primarily walk — which also offers some much-needed moderate exercise. However, I also take trams and use the city's bike-sharing system fairly often.
So, have you figured out what I'd consider to be the #1 factor that has allowed me to live car-free easily and pleasurably for 10 years?
In my opinion, it's location. Location, location, location.
In every city, I chose a place from which I could easily and enjoyably get to my key destinations either on foot, bicycle, or public transit. Of course, specifics of those transportation options helped in some cases — Caltrain's regularity and quality of service, Chapel Hill and Carrboro's free bus service, Charlottesville's fairly pedestrian-oriented downtown, Groningen's tremendous bike-friendliness, Wroclaw's great walkability and mass transit, etc. But the key thread has been living in a location in which it doesn't make sense to drive.