Car Free in Carrboro

Living without a car in small town NC




Sorry for the radio silence (blog silence?) this week. The election results hit me and the rest of the planning grad student community here pretty hard.

Among the many things on my mind is what the future of transportation planning looks like in the new administration. Streetsblog sums it up in their piece this week, Democrats Who Embrace the Trump Infrastructure Plan are Deluding Themselves. While infrastructure has been a campaign focus, and  make the argument that infrastructure probably means more highways, highway expansions, and projects that appease rural rather than urban voters (although rural appeal isn’t a problem by itself). Essentially, transit and biking/walking improvements will have little political appeal and little incentive for private investment (can’t put a money-generating toll on a bike lane, can you?), and if there are significant federal spending cuts, that leaves us with potentially no funding for transit, biking, or walking projects.

Not sure what that means going forward, but just one more thing to think about.


Smile, You’re A Self-Driving Car

One of the questions I get as a planning student interested in transportation is “what do you think of self-driving cars?”

I haven’t fully thought out whether I’m for/against self-driving cars. I think any over-reliance on the automobile is problematic, and I wonder at what point we’ll reach the tipping point of adoption where we’ll see wider benefits (e.g., less storage needed for traditional cars). I also think that the proponents of self-driving cars should consider equity and who exactly will reap the touted benefits.

One concern that I do have from a pedestrian safety perspective is how would pedestrians be able to discern whether or not a car was aware of their presence?

As Adele Peters describes in this Co.Exist article, you know the dance: 1) You approach a crosswalk. 2) An oncoming car seems to slow down (“wow, might they possibly be obeying the law and letting me cross?” you wonder). 3) Then the driver gives a wave or head nod and you know that it’s okay to walk in front of them and they’ve seen you. 4) The car comes to a full stop and you safely enter and exit the crosswalk. You might even give them a friendly wave in return (“thanks for not running me over, neighbor!”).

But with a self-driving car…how will this work? In a brilliant answer to this problem, Semcon, a Swedish engineering firm, has developed a “smiling car” concept to communicate with pedestrians. Watch below:

Isn’t that cool?

Semcon notes that at this point, it’s just a concept. There need to be international standards for how self-driving cars communicate with their surroundings.

Photo Journal: Pedestrian Experience of Asheville

Opportunity to provide input on Chapel Hill’s Mobility and Connectivity Plan

Chapel Hill is currently developing a Mobility and Connectivity Plan which should be completed in 2017. According to their website:

Do you walk, bike, run and wheel around Chapel Hill? The Town of Chapel Hill wants your input in developing a Mobility and Connectivity Plan that will recommend connections to significant destinations, close gaps in walkability, and encourage healthier and more active behavior in residents and visitors. The study will be an overall network exercise, looking at bicycle, pedestrian, and greenway connectivity.

There are plenty of opportunities to provide your input on what the priorities for the plan should be:

  • Take their short survey.
  • Join me tonight, Tuesday September 6th, for a drop-in public input session between 4pm and 7pm (you can drop in any time and stay as long as you like) at the Chapel Hill Public Library Meeting Room A.
  • Add your comments to the interactive wiki map.

Hope to see some of you tonight at the input session!

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.


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

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