Minneapolis man survives – and thrives – without a car

  • Article by: ERIC ROPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 23, 2014 - 4:42 PM

Selling my car has shown me it’s possible to live without one — and to enjoy a city I’d previously experienced at 30 miles an hour.

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Use a smartphone to get a Car2Go short-term rental in Minneapolis.

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I sold my car.

And I have no plans to buy another one.

It was a hard decision — and something of a radical one in Minnesota, where cars are a staple. In fact, it took me many months to ease out of my Subaru Impreza and to prove to myself that I really didn’t need it.

Now, two months after selling my car and nearly a year since I stopped driving it, I no longer worry about traffic or parking, my wallet is thankful, I’m in better shape and I feel much more connected to my adopted city.

So, how do I get around?

My primary modes of transportation are buses (in the winter) and bicycling (in the summer), interspersed with a lot of walking. But I credit two tools for getting me to take the plunge: car sharing and my smartphone.

For a long time, I held onto my car because I wondered “What if?” What if I have to make a large purchase at Target or pick up a lot of groceries? What if I need to get somewhere quickly?

With expanding options from Hourcar, Zipcar, Car2Go and taxi-like services such as Lyft and UberX, I’ve discovered I can find a ride whenever I need one — as long as I have my phone with me.

The other night as I left work, for example, I checked Metro Transit’s mobile site for the arrival time of the next bus traveling down Nicollet Avenue. Within minutes, I hopped the bus from downtown to a friend’s improv show on 37th Street. Later that evening, after dinner at a nearby restaurant, I checked the same site and learned that there wasn’t another bus for an hour.

Instead of waiting, I opened another app and found that a Car2Go ride-share vehicle was just around the corner. I drove home, locked the car and left it on the street for the next Car2Go user to find. The ride cost me less than $6 — a marginal cost after subtracting the expense of maintaining a vehicle.

I had never owned a car — nor driven one for very long — before arriving in Minneapolis four years ago. In both Washington, D.C., where I had been working, and New York City, where I grew up, owning a car isn’t the norm, in part because both cities have expansive transit systems.

Knowing I’d need to have a car in Minnesota, I hired a driving instructor in Washington to help me brush up on my technique. I drove at night for the very first time when I peeled out of the dealership lot in White Bear Lake in my used car.

For a while, I was hooked on the novelty of driving. After about two years, though, I started to question my car logic.

The winter only seemed longer as I scraped off my windshield, lonelier when I was sitting alone in traffic. It was worse during our precious warm months: I yearned to be outside. Owning a car seemed limiting, and not worth the money.

“I think we’re tied to our cars so that people refuse to go to certain parts of the city because they don’t want to park, they don’t want to pay for parking or they have to leave somewhere early because their car is parked in a certain spot,” said Bill Lindeke, the carless host of the transportation-focused streets.mn podcast. “And in a way, the car sort of owns the person, instead of the other way around.”

I have no children, I live along a bus line in Uptown and work downtown, about 4 miles away. My company has a few vehicles for work-related trips during the day. Yet I was still one of 61 percent of Minneapolis residents driving to work solo.

Last spring, I bought a bike and started riding to work. Come fall, I got serious about understanding the bus system. Late this past winter, I took the Subaru to a carwash, took some photos of my car, then sold it on Craigslist.

Ride sharing

For grocery runs and trips to the suburbs, I have access to a Zipcar near my house, which must be returned to the location it was taken from. (Locally owned Hourcar has a similar model.) For short trips, I use Car2Go.

Of course, it made little sense to pay $9-$10 an hour (or about 46 cents a minute in the case of Car2Go) to rent a car when I was already paying more than $300 a month for loan payments, insurance, gas and parking for my own vehicle. Subtract my vehicle, however, and the occasional cost of car sharing has quickly become negligible.

On average, I make only two or three Car2Go trips per month, but the peace of mind of knowing the services exist is enough for me to rely on the bus system during the colder months.

Becoming a biker

The Minneapolis bike infrastructure has grown rapidly, but I’ll be the first to admit that becoming a bike commuter was a bit intimidating. It took time to determine what kind of bike to purchase, locate the best routes and learn the etiquette. (Raising your left hand to signal a right turn was a bit baffling at first.)

I’d never been that into biking, so each ride was a lesson. Google Maps bike directions were often my best guide. And only recently did I discover the wisdom of attaching saddle bags to transport groceries or hold a spare jacket.

Bike commuting requires more thought about the weather than driving does, though I can take the bus or use a bus bike rack in the event of rain — something New York City doesn’t have. Parking is plentiful and traffic — apart from stoplights — is nonexistent, especially on the side roads I frequent.

I also discovered the joy of biking down Nicollet Mall on a warm summer day as shoppers peruse the farmers market, smelling food cooking at nearby restaurants from the Midtown Greenway after a long day at work or cruising home with a friend along the Mississippi River after a night in Northeast.

Getting on board

Busing was also somewhat complicated at first. I first had to purchase a GoTo card, Metro Transit’s bus pass, at a local grocery store.

Hopping on the No. 6 outside my house to get downtown for work was easy, but what if I want to go to some obscure address outside of my normal route? Bus stops in Minneapolis provide woefully little information about where buses go. For a new user, it’s enough to keep you in your car.

“The transit system works reasonably well if you’re going to go downtown, or to one of the downtowns,” said Prof. David Levinson, a transportation expert at the University of Minnesota. “There’s relatively fewer cross-connections. So if you’re not going to downtown, but you want to go from Point A to Point B, Car2Go might very well be faster.”

To plan my routes, I turned to Google Maps again, but its app only uses scheduled bus arrival times. For real-time data, I rely on a combination of Metro Transit’s NextTrip (a valuable, if somewhat cumbersome, mobile site) and a similar but more user-friendly tool created by local developers called OMGTransit.com.

Are there hiccups with taking the bus? Sure. While Metro Transit is expanding nighttime and weekend service (a 3.9 percent increase in off-peak service last year), missing an off-peak bus can still leave you stranded.

Is it colder waiting for the bus? Yes. But it was a lot warmer after I bought a better coat, wore long underwear and wrapped my head in a scarf.

Taking the bus helped me discover something rare in the Twin Cities: a public environment where strangers occasionally talk to each other.

“What’s the most interesting building you’ve seen in the Twin Cities?” a woman asked me recently after seeing a book about local architecture sitting on my lap. On another occasion, a man sitting next to me read an article in my newspaper over my shoulder about icy roads and snarled traffic. “You wouldn’t know it on here!” he said to me matter-of-factly.

Bus interactions aren’t always this pleasant, particularly when alcohol is involved, but observing and encountering a variety of people on a daily basis is one of the things that makes city life so interesting.

Not for everyone

Going carless isn’t for everyone, of course. I happen to live along a transit corridor and not far from where I work. Many people in the Twin Cities have long commutes to and from the suburbs and rely on their cars to get their children to the soccer game and the orthodontist.

“Kids plus no car seems like a Triple Lindy level of difficulty,” one Twitter follower told me when I asked about managing without a car.

Not everyone has the mobility to ride a bike, and the bus system isn’t convenient if you work in a location that’s off the beaten track.

“A lot of it just depends on how you arrange your life,” said Levinson, whose five-member family owns one car. “In the city it is very different than in the suburbs because there’s a lot more choices in the city itself. I think that it [being without a car] is certainly more possible now because of Car2Go than it was previously. Places that were accessible by transit, but inconveniently, are now less inconvenient.”

But for some urban families, the growing number of transportation options may mean the ability to get rid of a car — or even two.

They just might find — as I did — the many intangible benefits to becoming car-free.

 

Eric Roper • 612-673-1732

Twitter: @StribRoper



 

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  • MY TRANSPORTATION TOOLBOX

    Metro Transit

    Find real-time bus arrivals and bookmark most-frequent stops to your smartphone’s home page using NexTrip at MetroTransit.org. OMGTransit.com provides a similar service with a better Web interface. Google Maps is the smoothest method for routing trips (click the bus icon to seek directions).

    GoTo card

    Local city buses cost $1.75 or $2.25, depending on whether or not it is rush hour. Riders whose employers don’t participate in the Metropass program should get a GoTo card, which can be purchased at most Cub and Rainbow stores. Use the website to refill them or to arrange an automatic refill.

    Biking

    Check out tinyurl.com/TCBikeMaps for a summary of local bike routes by area. Google Maps bike directions are a helpful tool for routing on the fly. The city of Minneapolis has several instructional videos about riding in an urban area at tinyurl.com/TCBikeRules.

    Car2Go

    Use the app to locate more than 350 Smart cars scattered around Minneapolis, which can be left at any legal on-street parking spot. (No need to pay the meter.) The cost is about 46 cents a minute including tax. (Car2Go is not yet available in St. Paul.)

    Zipcar and Hourcar

    Hub-based car-sharing models for longer trips or those that involve hauling. Zipcar costs $25 to sign up, $60 a year and about $8.75 to $11 an hour to drive, depending on the vehicle. Hourcar is $5 a month for individuals and cars are $8 an hour, plus 25 cents a mile. Vehicles can also be rented by the day.

    Taxi Magic

    The high-tech way to hail a cab, Taxi Magic is a GPS-based app that connects to Blue and White Taxi and Suburban Taxi in the Twin Cities. It’s faster than phone-based dispatch, and a map displays the taxi en route to pick you up. The Minneapolis rate for Blue and White is $2.75 a mile after an initial $2.50.

    Lyft and UberX

    These new services allow people to essentially act as chauffeurs of their own, private vehicles. Lyft’s cost per ride in the Twin Cities is $1.90 a mile, 24 cents a minute, 75 cents at pickup and a $1 “trust and safety fee.”

    Eric Roper

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