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Car Free in Carrboro

Living without a car in small town NC

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Try out the Car Free Calculator

If you’re curious how much money you’d save on your most common trips if you took transit instead of driving, this calculator will let you plug in your information (about you, your car, and your trips) and will tell you the costs.

Car Free Diet Calculator

Enjoy!

Little Boxes on a Hillside: A Review of New Urbanism

Originally posted on Carolina Angles on October 17, 2016. Authored by Mia Candy.

As a design and development practice, New Urbanism (NU) emerged in response to widespread suburban sprawl across the United States. The movement seeks to create vibrant, healthy, and sustainable communities through human-scale urban design. NU’s fundamental tenants include walkability, connectivity, mixed uses, architectural diversity, green infrastructure, and increased density. But its rise in popularity since the 1980’s has not been without controversy. Critics of NU have argued that the approach does little to alleviate our pervasive reliance on cars, and that the faux architectural diversity feels contrived, even creepy.

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Land Use map of Southern Village, a New Urban neighborhood in Chapel Hill, NC. Credit: Chapel Hill Planning, 2005.

I spend a good deal of time debating the merits of NU, but have never really considered it as an option for myself. I don’t own a car, and despite their best efforts, New Urbanists have yet to convince me that these developments are sufficiently walkable, bikeable, and accessible via transit. But life is strange, and two months ago I found myself moving into a New Urbanist apartment, on a New Urbanist street, in a New Urbanist neighborhood. Because I am a plannerd, I decided to use this as a research opportunity. I have spent the last couple of months conducting a series of (qualitative) (spontaneous) tests in order to evaluate my assumptions about NU, and to get a feel for the lived experience of the thing.

Test # 1: Get Milk (Amenities)

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Weaver Street Co-Op Market located at the village center. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

My litmus test for the convenience of a place is how easily I can purchase milk at moment’s notice. A local grocery or convenience store is an indicator more generally of the level of commercial activity in a neighborhood. NU communities are designed with mixed use as a core principal, and my neighborhood boasts a grocery store that sells milk until 10pm every day. The grocery store is an expensive, organic co-op. It is walkable from my apartment complex, but not for the larger houses on the periphery of the neighborhood. Overall, the retail and restaurants in this development are not particularly affordable or accessible by foot. I give it a milk score of 3 out of 5.

Test # 2: Get Around (Transit and Access)

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Driveway. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

I don’t own a car. I am reliant on public transit, my semi-trustworthy 1970’s Panasonic road bike, and really generous friends/chauffeurs. I was curious to establish whether owning a car is a prerequisite for living in this particular NU community. The short answer is, unfortunately, yes. There are two regular and reliable (free!) bus lines that access downtown, and for the serious enthusiast, it is possible to commute by bike. Within the neighborhood, connectivity is generally good, with minimal suburban dead-ends, and a network of lovely bike/ped trails. But the bicycle, pedestrian and transit networks ultimately fall short. Buses don’t run on evenings and weekends. Bike lanes traverse large highways and gnarly intersections, and end abruptly. There are no sidewalks outside my apartment, just an expanse of parking lot. I give this NU development a getting around score of 2 out of 5.

Test # 3: Get Lost (Connectivity and Orientation)

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Walking trail. Photo Create: Mia Candy.

A key signifier of a good place is that it allows you to get lost, without ever truly being lost. Wandering aimlessly through a neighborhood is one of the small pleasures in life, and a great way to get to know a new environment. But to wander aimlessly requires streets, sidewalks, and trails that are interconnected. The endless cul de sacs1 that characterize traditional suburban subdivisions do not make for pleasant wandering. It is well known that good urban form, whether planned or organic, requires a system of paths, districts, edges, nodes, and landmarks. Or, in non-planner jargon, things in the physical environment that help us navigate the world and develop a strong memory of a place in our minds. It is these mental mapping tools that allow us to wander, and orient ourselves, in equal measure.

So I set out to get lost in my new neighborhood. I found myself able to wander for an hour through the streets, discovering convenient shortcuts and trails, all the while, aware of my general position in relation to the town square. The chapel at the center of the development serves as a convenient landmark–situated on a hill, its spire is always peeking through the trees. Despite one or two frustrating dead ends, I was pleasantly surprised by the level of connectivity. Until I emerged onto a highway and had to turn back. I give this development awanderers score of 3 out of 5.

Test # 4: Get Locked Out (Community)

This is not a test I recommend trying on purpose. But when I accidentally locked myself out of my apartment, it turned out be a useful exercise on the importance of community. Standing on a balcony, barefoot, and in my pajamas at 7:00am on a Wednesday morning, it occurred to me that I needed to be rescued. Luckily, my balcony faces the bike/ped trail that is densely populated by runners, dog walkers, and parents with strollers, pretty much throughout the day. What I needed in that moment was not only someone I could call out to for help, but a group of strangers willing to arrange a ladder, lend me their cell phones, and offer me something to drink while I waited for a locksmith. I needed community, and New Urbanism provided. I give this neighborhood ahelpful neighbor score of 5 out of 5.

Final Thoughts

What has surprised me most while living here is the level of diversity I have found in streets, and parks, and houses. I am certain that when the community was built 20 years ago, the faux architecture appeared creepy and contrived. But two decades of real, lived experience in the place has given it an almost natural feel. I discovered homes, weathered over time, paint chipping, and gardens overgrown with wildflowers. It felt – and I have no doubt that the homeowners associated would disagree with me on this – real, and lived in, and only a little bit like pleasantville.

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Mailbox outside one of the homes in Southern Village. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

Footnotes

1The actual plural for ‘cul de sac’ is ‘culs de sac.’

Featured Image: Row houses in Southern Village. Photo Credit: Mia Candy.

About the Author: Mia Candy is a recent graduate of UNC’s planning program, and an editor emeritus here at Angles. She grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, where she first developed an interest in urbanism and the complexities of urban development in emerging cities. Mia is a placemaking consultant, and a planner at Renaissance Planning Group. Her lifelong dream is to write a children’s book.

Car Free on Arlington Streets

The County Board of Arlington VA has approved two new street types: a car-free street and a shared street. This is great news for mobility advocates! The move will allow for the Rosslyn neighborhood and the Courthouse neighborhood (where I lived for seven years) to use these street types as they redevelop, improving awkward and unsafe streets near transit. The two new street types can also be applied elsewhere in the County (Ballston or Crystal City, perhaps?) through a community planning process and action by the County Board.

What’s a car-free street? This is a street reserved for pedestrian and bicycle access only, typically with permanent or movable bollards that physically block vehicular traffic (the movable bollards allow for emergency and construction vehicle access). Most people think of a pedestrian mall, such as the ones in Charlottesville VA or Times Square in New York City. However, a car-free street doesn’t have to be that elaborate or involve a shopping experience. In Arlington, the intent is to provide greater and safer connectivity for pedestrians on short blocks/streets.

What’s a shared street? This is a street for all modes, including low-speed vehicular traffic and sometimes transit. Typically these are designated with special pavement or pavers, no curbs or graded separation, no painted lines or bike lanes, very low posted speeds (e.g., 5 mph), and they have a human scale (i.e., people want to be there). When people salivate over Europe’s lovely small alleys and pedestrian-friendly streets, this is often the type of street they’re talking about – one where cars are welcome, but every user sort of instinctively looks out for one another and “plays nice.” I love this type of street because everyone has access (my friends can tell you about times when I have gleefully pranced on shared streets in cities such as St. Augustine FL and Portland OR). Many streets in America already behave this way, even those in the suburban NJ neighborhood where I grew up: no sidewalks, no curbs, and a mix of low-speed traffic, kids on bicycles, dog-walkers, etc.

Kudos to Arlington for adopting these two new street types – I’m surprised it took this long, but glad it’s here. I look forward to enjoying these streets when I come back for a visit.

Carfree in the backcountry…not so much

This summer I took an amazing trip to the Pacific Northwest. I spent two weeks out there, some parts solo and some with friends. It was a wondrous, restorative, exhilarating trip for many reasons – and there was a lot to enjoy from a car-free perspective, too. I explored Vancouver BC by bike, took Amtrak Cascades (twice!), and rode multiple bus routes in Portland OR.

I mean, how gorgeous is this view from my train?

However, portions of the trip would have been impossible without a car (requisite disclaimer: I’m not anti-car. I simply recognize that there are times and places for them). For example, my friend LT and I hiked in Olympic National Park for three days and two nights. The cover photo for this post is a picture I took from our campsite at Moose Lake. Incredible, right?

In order to get to Olympic National Park, LT and I had to rent a car from the Seattle airport, where we were, and drive about 2.5 hours to Port Angeles, where we stayed the first night. Then, once we were in Port Angeles, we had to drive still another 30 minutes to the Olympic Visitor Center, and then another 30 nail-biting minutes to the trailhead. After all those miles of driving, our hike wound around the mountains for about 4 miles until we reached Moose Lake. It was secluded, breathtaking, and everything we wanted from our National Park. And there was so much driving to even get to the part where the hiking began.

Why is this a problem? Well, I took it for granted that driving is just how people access our National Parks, until I read this article by Andrew Carpenter over at Mobility lab. In the article, he lays out why this is a problem and what can be done about it. Andrew says:

A system that is so favorable to cars places a burden on itself and visitors for that very reason. With growing numbers of visitors, surpassing 300 million in 2015, the National Park Service is struggling to maintain its infrastructure as millions of cars wear down the roads. In addition, despite diversity initiatives – about 78 percent of visitors are white – indicating national parks remain inaccessible to many underprivileged and minority Americans. As the Park Service explores its options, the existing driving standard forms a barrier to many of these goals.

He goes on to categorize our National Parks’ transportation concerns in three ways: getting around, getting in, and finding our parks. Some parks (e.g., the National Mall in DC and Grand Canyon National Park) have great non-car mobility inside the park, while others struggle and even have congestion (e.g., Yosemite). There are some parks that do a decent job of getting people to the parks with connections to transit like Amtrak. And Andrew acknowledges that for large, remote parks, a personal vehicle may still make the most sense for getting around.

Some of you are probably thinking: duh. Parks are really large, devoid of infrastructure, and lacking the presence of people/industry/commerce, and that’s what makes them amazing natural resources that we should preserve. I totally agree. Building a Metro to Moose Lake would be nonsensical to the mission and imperative of Olympic National Park.

But.

Everything has a trade-off. LT and I spent hundreds of dollars renting a car that stood idle for 3 days while we hiked, and which people with lower incomes might not be able to afford. We shared the road with dozens (maybe hundreds, maybe thousands) of other people on their way from Seattle to Olympic, causing traffic for locals as well as for other vacationers. We released fuel emissions into the air outside and inside the park, contributing to global warming and decreasing air quality.

This is a topic with no silver bullet solution. Obviously cars are going to continue to be a good option for many parks and for many people. But it’s worth thinking through these issues of mobility in our National Parks, especially as they remain under-funded and inaccessible to many populations. My thoughts:

  • If vehicles are the best way to get around many parks, what are the options to reduce the # of vehicles and increase access? Strategies could include shared vehicles like shuttles, reduced-price rentals for low-income folks who want to access the park, dedicated low emission vehicle fleets for park visitors to use, and entrance fees that reflect the true cost of driving/parking and incentivize those who bike/hike up to the entrance. Some of these solutions are contradictory, so the National Park Service and local planning organizations would need to assess which combination is the best fit to meet their specific goals.
  • How does the state of transportation in and around our National Parks reflect auto-centric biases, as well as biases about which types of visitors are attracted to the parks? For example, snow removal policies on paved roads vs. paved trails enable and prioritize motorist access but not cyclist access (see GGW’s great piece on Mt. Vernon Trail snow removal by the National Park Service).
  • How does our national attitude toward physical activity contribute to automobile traffic and congestion, particularly within the parks (e.g., people driving around the Grand Canyon’s rim instead of getting out and walking down into the canyon)? How accessible should our parks be for those in cars vs. those exploring on foot/bike/shuttle/kayak/etc.? And importantly, how can we make our parks accessible for those with mobility issues while also balancing the need to reduce congestion?
  • What are the trade-offs and benefits for each park in the long and short term: financially, environmentally, socially, etc.? Calculations are needed for the long-term expense of road maintenance versus alternatives like investing in shuttle systems.

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September is for Trying Transit and Going Car-Free

September is a great month to be a transit rider, pedestrian, cyclist, or advocate. That’s because it’s Try Transit Month and Car-Free Month!

While there’s no universal governing body over these events, many cities around the  world have adopted their own days/months/weeks and events to promote less reliance on the automobile. Trying transit and going car-free go together (obviously), so it’s a win-win for cities to promote their public transit systems and also show people what reduced car congestion feels like.

 

Coming up is one of the more popular events of this month, World Carfree Day, on September 22. Paris is one popular example, but car-free days have been held in cities big and small all over the world. On this day, people around the world are encouraged to leave their car at home and bike, walk, carpool, telecommute, or take the bus to work, school, or play.

Washington DC, where I used to work, does a lot of promotion for Carfree Day (they call it Carfree Metro DC). If you’re in the DC area, you can sign up to take a pledge to go car-free or car-light on that day. What’s “car light”? If you can’t give up your car entirely, perhaps instead of driving the entire way to work you use a park & ride facility and take Metro, or you arrange a carpool with a colleague or friend.

How will you plan to celebrate Car-Free Day?

Since I’m already car-free, I pledge to celebrate Try Transit Month by:

  • Take transit for 2 trips each week in September when I might normally walk
  • Get at least 2 friends back in DC to go car-free on September 22

For those of you in the Research Triangle Park area, GoTriangle (our regional transit system) promotes Try Transit Month and has a lot of great resources on their site.

I’d love to hear about your personal pledges and what you plan to do to celebrate on September 22 and all month long!

Car-Free Resources Roundup

I thought it might be useful to compile a list of resources for getting around without a car. These can be helpful even if you own a car! Maybe you want to use transit more, get healthier, experience your community, or you find yourself car-free here in the CH/Carrboro area temporarily. Or maybe you’re here as a visitor! (hint hint)

I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. The area has many transit agencies with great resources, and UNC’s Transportation & Parking department has some great programs, but I’ll re-share them here so they’re all in one place.

Also, I know that lack of experience riding transit (and ensuing anxiety about where you can get to, how to pay the fare, etc.) is a huge barrier to entry for first-time users. Even if you’ve taken the bus or subway in other cities, using a new bus line can be intimidating. Hopefully my perspectives on these resources will help remove some of that anxiety.

 

My Personal Resources for Car-Freedom

  • Google Maps. This is my first source for transit information in a new area. Other apps are better for real-time arrivals, but this is how I figure out “can I even get from A to B without a car?”
  • Nextbus. This is my #1 app for real-time travel information. It reads your location and shows which bus stops/routes are nearby. Great for when you already know where you’re going, and need to find out when.
  • Zipcar. Zipcar lets you rent a car for a very low hourly rate after paying a yearly membership fee. The one major drawback is that you still pay even when you’re not physically in the car (e.g., you go on a hike) and you have to return at the pick-up location.
  • Lyft. For when you get stranded.
  • Amazon Prime. For groceries or pantry items (e.g., antibacterial wipes) that are bulky or that I buy regularly, I use Amazon Prime to restock. This saves me from having to make a transit trip 18x a week to run out and buy simple non-perishable stuff that I don’t need to see in person. Peapod is a similar concept, but for groceries. I don’t use Peapod because I love going to the grocery store, but people love it.
  • Other car-free tips:
    • Make your trips efficient. Going to the store twice because you forgot something is 10x more frustrating when you have to wait for the bus…for the second time that day. Combine your trips and minimize the back and forth. On the flip side, when I have a long day of class I’ll pack everything I need for the day.
    • Choose the best quality shoes you can afford. I go through shoes very quickly with all of the walking I do. It makes your walk experience a lot better (and your motivation to take active transportation) if your feet don’t hurt all the time.
    • Be prepared for weather. It makes the car-free journey a lot more pleasant if you have a rain jacket, umbrella, rain shoes, or the appropriate cold-weather gear to keep you toasty as you go.
    • Be generous to those who give you rides. This depends on your personality, but when I grab a ride with someone I try to be effusive in my thanks, pay for gas occasionally and/or reimburse them for gas each trip, and offer something in return (cookies!) every once in a while.

Other Official Resources for Taking Transit

Bonus Resource…

So when you don’t own your own car, what do you do about car insurance? In all my digging, the most helpful online dialogue was the Popville post on driver-only car insuranceDisclaimer: Everyone’s insurance situation is unique, and this isn’t a specialty area of mine, but I do think it’s helpful to share what I do know.

I personally don’t have auto insurance, so here’s how I cover myself when I do happen to drive a car:

  • When renting a car: I opt for the supplemental liability protection and the personal accident insurance (~$20 per day). You can get this directly through the rental company at the counter when you pick up the car. Yes, credit cards come with some coverage, but typically only for collision damage – think damage to the car. But if I happen to injure another person, and they sue me for their medical costs, the supplemental liability protection protects me. (Note: how good the protection is, and how much of a pain the process is, remains to be seen, and hopefully I’ll never have to know).
  • When driving a friend’s car: This is sticky depending on their policy and the state. Many policies (like my parents’ policy) cover occasional non-cohabiting drivers. Again this depends on the state as each state has different penalties for driving without insurance of your own, particularly for liability.
  • When driving a roommate’s car: Since I don’t have non-driver insurance of my own, I don’t! Insurance companies will consider a roommate part of your household and require that you’re on their insurance to be covered at all.
  • Zipcar and Car2Go: These include minimal coverage with your use of the shared cars.

If anyone has other info to add about non-driver insurance or how they cover themselves, please add! I’ve been thinking about getting some non-driver insurance of my own, so I’d welcome a dialogue on that.

Why am I waiting so long at lights?

I love walking around Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Two weeks in, and the people are pleasant, the weather is starting to be less overbearing, and there are sidewalks aplenty with lots to look at and explore. I’ve been walking the 20-25 minutes to class every day and have no regrets so far.

But.

Already my pedestrian experience is stymied by a few things. I don’t want this blog to turn into a list of grievances (and it won’t – there is too much to love about being car-free here!), but as a car-free person and advocate, I do think it’s important to point out areas for concern that others may not recognize.

  • Long crosswalk wait times. Yesterday morning I waited what was at least 60 seconds (according to when I first looked at my running watch, so it easily could have been 90+ seconds) to cross at a 4-way intersection in Carrboro. I need to do more research into what the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) has to say about signal timing, but that seems far too long to me. This intersection is in an extremely walkable area with many restaurants, bus stops, coffee shops, grocery stores, the public library, and shops.
  • Lack of crosswalks in key directions. Another intersection that I regularly walk through is shaped like an “X” rather than a “+”. One of the “X” arms doesn’t have a crosswalk at all, so if I need to get to the other side of that street legally, I need to use 3 crosswalks and wait through 3 lighting cycles (see above super-long crosswalk wait times) to do so.
  • Beg buttons (pedestrian crossing buttons). For a comprehensive, layperson-speak overview of beg buttons, here’s a Gizmodo article. In a town as small as Carrboro that champions being bike-friendly and walk-friendly, they are unnecessary. Cars on E. Main St. should already be hyper-aware that there are pedestrians about. There are enough pedestrians (my opinion only – here’s where a study of pedestrian volumes would help, but I don’t have one to cite) to justify a timed signal. Beg buttons just don’t make sense to me, and they are all over Chapel Hill and Carrboro. To sum up how I feel about them, I’ll quote Rachel Quednau over at Strong Towns:

“I know that the beg button may not seem like a big deal, but it is yet another way that cities send a message to pedestrians: You are not normal. You don’t belong here. You need to push a button just to walk somewhere while we have built our transportation system to prioritize the free movement of cars.”

I’m hopeful –actually, certain– that over the next two years I’ll learn some radical approaches to improving pedestrian safety, access, and physical experience, and I look forward to sharing them here! In the meantime, you can find me waiting at the lights 🙂

Around Town: “Walk Chapel Hill” Signs

As I was leaving an event this afternoon, I noticed a “Walk Chapel Hill” sign on the sidewalk. While the information on the sign was helpful in terms of finding my way around to various landmarks (e.g., that the ArtsCenter is an 8 minute walk), it really communicated three things:

Walk Chapel Hill Sign 1

  1. The town of Chapel Hill recognizes that there are many walkers on its streets.
  2. The town places importance on the comfort, safety, and mobility of those walkers.
  3. The town is designed (and hopefully will continue to be designed and improved) with walkability in mind. Among other things that means pedestrian-sized and pedestrian-oriented street infrastructure and development density.

 

Thanks to the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership for the great signage!

There are no national standards for pedestrian wayfinding (the technical term for signs that help people walking to find their way), but there are many best practices and firms that specialize in helping cities and towns do this well. I can’t find who may have helped the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership with these. If you’d like to learn more, Alta Planning gives a nice overview on their site and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has also written about the concept.

Walk Chapel Hill Sign 2

What is “Car-Free?”

Coming soon – what I consider car-free to mean, whether there really is a “war on cars” conspiracy, and what carlessness means for different populations.

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