Car Free in Carrboro

Living without a car in small town NC



Photo Journal: Pedestrian Experience of Nashville

This past weekend, which was fall break, I went to Nashville TN with some of the people in my program. It was a part-learning, part-recreational trip and we had a great time nerding out, playing Cards Against Urbanity, meeting local planners and advocates, and enjoying the music scene.

Nashville Skyline

One of my favorite parts of the trip was walking around downtown with the Executive Director of Walk Bike Nashville. We gained a lot of insight about the development that’s going on in the city, what’s being done to improve pedestrian infrastructure and transit, and the pilot project on Broadway.

The pilot project involves portions of the street painted blue and blocked off from vehicular traffic and is intended to help residents and visitors imagine what the street could be like with more space for relaxing and walking. This is on one of Nashville’s busiest streets and an area of a lot of conflict for pedestrians and cars. Because Nashville’s transit system is so lacking, the thousands of people who come here every day jockey with cabs, Ubers, and police cars for control of the space (add the infamous bachelorette parties into the mix, and you’ve got street conflict). There was also a recent change to the crosswalks in this area to make them diagonal crossings, also known as “scrambles,” which halt vehicular traffic in all directions and let pedestrians cross diagonally. Folks around us seemed confused, but it’ll catch on.

Needless to say, I loved what they are doing with the pilot and hope that they can make it permanent.

Another great feature that we thoroughly explored was the Shelby Street Bridge. It’s a car-free bridge for pedestrians and cyclists that runs from East Nashville (by the Titans stadium) to the door of the Nashville Symphony downtown. It’s amazing that you can park on the other side of the river (for free) and walk over to downtown, thus eliminating the need to drive into the core. However, as Nashville grows and the parking lots around the stadium face development pressure, I’m not sure how much longer that resource will remain available.

Shelby Street Bridge


All in all, Nashville’s pedestrian experience suffers from having a weak transit system (every transit rider is a walker, and forcing people to drive downtown just reinforces that roads are primarily for cars), and lots of construction means lots of missing or diverted sidewalks (like the feature photo for this post). But they have a lot of good things planned and a few great resources already in place (like the pedestrian bridge).

All photos are my own.


Even for an enthusiast, learning a new transit system takes time

My dear friend EDT came to stay with me in Carrboro this week while she was in town for a conference. We both had a lot of grad school work to do, but managed to carve out some time to enjoy Carrboro and reminisce over our memories from DC.

Despite my self-identification as a transit enthusiast and general bus-system-know-it-all, when she asked me for the best route to take from Carrboro to the conference center, I had to pause…and look it up.

Full disclosure: I do not take the bus regularly here in North Carolina. Chapel Hill Transit has many, many positive qualities (#1 being that it is free, which EDT had quite a hard time believing), but taking it does not dramatically decrease the time of my “commute” to and from class, so I don’t often take it. Sure, it increases the comfort when it is super hot or rainy or freezing, but I enjoy walking 99% of the time. As a result, I haven’t reached the level of familiarity and comfort with the system that I would have if I was on it every day. I am lucky enough to live close enough to where I “work” that I can walk.

Long story short, I put her on the wrong bus. But EDT is a city-living, transit-taking pro and managed to hop quickly off of her bus and get on the bus behind it after she received my frantic text.

It served as a reminder to me that: 1) getting used to a transit system takes work – either through some dedicated memorization of maps or by putting in the time to take physical transit trips; and 2) for occasional users, this unfamiliarity and resultant fear of taking the wrong route (especially for bus) is an enormous barrier to taking transit.

Trip: Carrboro to Friday Center
Total trip time: 33 minutes, plus a few for the accidental transfer!
Total trip distance: 5 miles
Mode: Bus
Line: CW or J, and transfer to the FCX
Frequency: Between 3-14 minute headways in the morning
Cost: $0
Level of crowding: Moderate
Trip quality: 4 of 5 stars
+ for convenience, speed, and price
– for transfer and no place to sit at bus stop, plus the confusion for the occasional user (some of which was user error)

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.


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.


Try Transit 2016

Remember, September is Try Transit Month! With the recent gas shortage causing long waits at the pump, it’s a good time to try taking transit around the Triangle area. Or, switch to an active mode such as biking or walking, at least for a portion of your trip (which extends the life of your current tank of gas, too). Check out or ask me how!

Thoughts from the APA-NC Conference

Last week I had the privilege of attending the North Carolina Chapter of the American Planning Association’s conference in Asheville, NC. I wasn’t originally planning to go, but how could I pass up a trip to Asheville?! In addition to the gorgeous mountain setting, vibrant downtown (with breweries aplenty), and a roadtrip with new friends, there would of course be the chance to meet practicing planners and to hear from folks outside of the UNC/Chapel Hill bubble.

I was at the conference for 2 days along with about 20 of my fellow DCRP students. I attended 5 sessions and made a connection with 4 practicing planners (yay, networking!). I also ate 3 biscuits and visited 2 breweries but you’ll have to ask me about those separately (omg the biscuits…).

Here are some of my takeaways from the sessions I attended:

  • Ensuring that community members, stakeholders, planners, developers, elected officials, etc. are speaking the same “language” when it comes to discussing options for planning is critical. One way to do this is to include terminology sessions in the community outreach process. For example, the community cannot make decisions about prioritizing a transit system’s ridership vs. its coverage without knowing what those two terms mean first. This is something we’ve also talked about in my PLAN740 class and it was cool to see it put into action in Wake County. —Strategies for Building Community Vision – The Wake County Transit Plan Process (Tim Gardiner, Teresa Gresham)
  • Walkability is measured in many different ways. One way I hadn’t heard before was to think about planning for walkability in terms of 1) adjoining land uses, 2) connections to other modes, and 3) barriers such as missing sidewalks. I also got to hear about Durham’s Station Area Strategic Infrastructure Study (SASI) where they are assessing pedestrian and cyclist circulation around future planned light rail stations (10+ years out!). This is wonderful because the light rail project won’t spontaneously generate adequate pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, so it needs to be planned for ahead of time in order to make light rail successful. This is the opposite of what they did with the silver line Metro stations in Tyson’s Corner, VA. —Is Your Community Really Walkable? Find Out and Fix It (Dick Halls, Paul Joyner, Garrett Artz, Scott Whiteman)
  • Another session was a panel with a few of the authors from the Carolina Planning Journal‘s 2016 issue on just creativity (emphasis on “just”, as in justice). I found the discussion of the American Tobacco Trail’s history as a divider of the community fascinating, and an example of great regional planning that was missing local level engagement, thus the project is not as successful as it could have been. Throughout the panel discussion were critiques of Richard Florida’s Creative Class and the missing ingredient from his agenda for the city, which is justice. I’m biased because the Carolina Planning Journal is run out of my program, DCRP at UNC, but it was the best session I went to all week.  —Just Creativity: Perspectives on Creative Placemaking (Julia Barnard, Kofi Boone, Ben Hitchings, Carly Hoffmann, Adam Levine, Rachel Wexler)

DCRP students are, as a rule, brilliant and social justice oriented. As such, we identified some things about the conference that we’d change, if we ruled the world:

  • Lack of racial & ethnic diversity of conference presenters and attendees. I couldn’t find demographic information for APA-NC members specifically, but according to the Census data, North Carolina is about a quarter non-White. The panelists didn’t reflect this, but it is imperative to hear from people who are representative of the state’s makeup, especially as we continue to grow and become increasingly diverse.
  • Lack of gender diversity of conference presenters and attendees. Of the 5 sessions I attended, 3 were all-male panels and another session had only one woman. If DCRP is any indication of what the future of planning looks like (lots of women among the first years), in a few years this should be in balance.
  • Absence of social justice in the conference session topics. The only session that discussed equity and justice openly was the one (mentioned above) put on by the Carolina Planning Journal. This shows me that justice is not at the forefront for many practicing planners in North Carolina. If equity was a major aspect of projects it would be something we’d hear about at a conference, right?

Overall, a great conference and I’m glad I went! I also had many observations about Asheville itself, including the walkability, reflections on how the city is growing, the walkability, the beg buttons and crosswalks, and the walkability. It deserves its own post, so look for that in the coming days!

Trip: Carrboro to Asheville (round trip)
Total trip time: 3.5 hours x2
Total trip distance: 217 miles x2
Mode: Car (Note: there is no public transportation option between the Triangle and Asheville, except for an airplane)
Line: N/A
Frequency: N/A
Cost: $10 contribution to gas
Level of crowding: Traffic was light both ways
Trip quality: 4 of 5 stars
+ for convenience, speed, and gorgeous mountainous country route
– for no public transit option

A sign that makes me say “heck yes”

A short & sweet post on this gorgeous Friday, folks. I’ll share with you this sign (see featured image for this post, above) that I saw last weekend while visiting Richmond. I found this gem on the entrance to the pedestrian bridge to Belle Isle.

I just love 1) the expressions on the little stick people’s faces, and 2) the admonishment at the bottom: “In an accident, moving vehicles are at fault.” Heck yes.

If you’re ever in Richmond, make it a point to visit Belle Isle, it’s a joy. Maybe that’s because of this sign! (Hah). Or, maybe that’s because in addition to the captivating views of the James River and shady paths, there are no cars on the island – just pedestrians and the occasional cyclist. Something to think about…

Oh, and for those of you curious about how I got to Richmond from Carrboro without a car:

Trip: Chapel Hill, NC to Richmond, VA (round trip)
Total trip time: 5 hours x2
Total trip distance: 164.2 miles x2
Mode: Bus
Line: 405 and Megabus
Frequency: 405 ~every 60 minutes and Megabus ~4x per day
Cost*: $25 Megabus roundtrip + $2.25 GoTriangle 405 + $17 Uber** = $44.25
Level of crowding: Very
Trip quality: 3 of 5 stars
+ for cost, ability to actually get to Richmond by bus, and convenience of Durham station
– for Megabus delay, random stop halfway through the ride to Richmond, and comfort

*New field
**When I returned back to Durham Station on Labor Day Monday, the buses weren’t running because of the holiday, so I had to Uber back to Carrboro.


Public Input Meeting Success and My First Bus Fail

Last night I attended the Chapel Hill Mobility and Connectivity Plan public input meeting. I enjoyed the format and got a lot of good ideas for public meetings that I might host in the future. One memorable activity is that they gave each participant $1,000,000 in fake money and we had to allocate our money among projects that improve walking and biking (see the feature image on this post). I was impressed with the planning staff and the staff from Stewart Inc. (the firm supporting the town in developing the Mobility plan).

My trip to the Chapel Hill Library from Carrboro, though, was much less enjoyable. First I got on the wrong bus (the J instead of the D). Then, when I finally got on the D, I got off across from the Library and realized that the nearest crosswalk was actually at the next bus stop further on. Not the biggest deal in the world, but it was warm and I ended up extending my trip by a few minutes just walking over to the crosswalk, pressing the warning lights button, crossing, and then walking back over to where the Library path entrance was.

Granted, you can’t have a crosswalk at every single bus stop. However, considering that my destination was the town’s Public Library, I wish the street wasn’t so hazardous to cross right there.

Trip: Carrboro to Chapel Hill Public Library
Total trip time: 45 minutes
Total trip distance: 3 miles
Mode: Bus
Line: J, D
Frequency: Every 10 minutes
Level of crowding: Very
Trip quality: 3 of 5 stars (+ for directness and cost, – for confusion and lack of crosswalk)


Getting around, MBA-style

Friday night I hung out with my friend in the MBA program. [Aside: C and I were on the same freshman hall in undergrad, then we both moved to North Carolina for graduate school at the same time, so now we’re in school together again. Small world.]

Planning seemed to be a familiar concept to most of his classmates, especially among the real estate folks (there’s a whole concentration in my program for economic development and real estate, so it makes sense that there would be parallels). I enjoyed hearing from them about what brought them to North Carolina…and, of course, since the business school is on the opposite side of campus from where I attend class, I geeked out a bit asking them all how they commuted and where they lived and whether they had cars and what they thought of CH Transit.

Hearing about transportation from non-planning students was refreshing. We get in our own little planning world where everyone is supportive of biking and walking and transit, and forget that most of the world doesn’t think about this stuff all the time.

A few highlights:

  • C has been driving every day to class, but admitted that he was getting tired of it. So he took a bet (not on my urging, I swear) to walk to and from class for 10 days straight! Of course I asked him to do a guest post, and he agreed (cough-C-now-you-are-publicly-accountable-for-it-cough).
  • A few of the students I spoke with didn’t have a car, just like me! They’d come from big cities, also like me: New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, and DC. Some of them were biking or carpooling to class, and one person was walking. It made me happy to meet a fellow walker.
  • We took my first Uber in Chapel Hill (!) to move from one person’s house to another. I protested, but not well enough. It was about a mile with temperatures still in the 80s, so comfort while walking would have been an issue, and with 5 people in our group the cost to take an Uber was extremely low. Still, not the mode I would have chosen had I been by myself. But good to know that Uber is alive and well in the area in case I ever need it.

Given that I’ll be sharing my trips taken by different modes, I’ve added some additional info to my trip details. Check it out:

Trip: MLK Blvd. – Rosemary St.
Total trip time: 4 minutes
Total trip distance: 0.9 miles
Mode: Car (UberXL)
Line: N/A
Frequency: N/A
Level of crowding: 5 people in 1 UberXL
Trip quality: 4 of 5 stars (+ for expediency, comfort, cost and – for environmental and congestion impacts)

Stay tuned for that guest post from C!

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