Blog: Carless Commuters

We all know our love affair with the automobile is dysfunctional. Sure, the relationship has been fun, convenient and, admittedly, necessary at times. But it's also been destructive, on oh-so many levels. From poor urban planning, to pollution to energy consumption to, well, anti-social behavior, the car brings with it a whole host of pathologies we've closed our eyes to for too long.

And don't get us started on SUVs and Hummers.

Look, we're not saying people should go cold turkey. Heck, we're not even saying that everyone should jump into a Prius. We're just saying there are options. Healthier options. For both our community and ourselves.

Ann Arbor's getDowntown program agrees. Each year they issue a Commuter Challenge, daring local businesses in the city's downtown to get their employees to hike, bike, bus or carpool their way to work for the entire month of May. For some it's a month of experimentation. For others, it changes the entire way they get to and from work.

Concentrate has invited a few of this year's participants to share their commuting experiences and offer up their thoughts on why Ann Arborites should consider alternative forms of transportation and what the city can do to make things easier for those who choose something other than the horseless carriage as their transportation of choice.

Carless Commuters - Most Recent Posts:

Post 4: Nancy Shore - The Commuter Challenge: What's the Point?

Nancy has been the getDowntown Program Director since 2007. She has an MSW in Community Organizing from the U-M.  She does her two-mile commute by bike, bus, and foot.

Sure, the Commuter Challenge sounds fun.  Sure, you could win a prize.  But is that the only reason we have the Commuter Challenge?  Of course not.  The bottom line is that we at getDowntown are trying to get people to change their behavior.  We're trying to get someone who is thinking about biking, walking, busing, carpooling etc. to actually do it.  That's the goal.  And that's the point.

We use the Commuter Challenge as a vehicle (pun intended) for changing behavior because it has several elements that actually compel people to act. 
First, the Challenge is time limited.  If we celebrated Halloween every single day, it wouldn't be as fun.  The fact that the Commuter Challenge only happens in May gives people a reason to break out of their normal habits. 

Second, the Challenge has prizes, but not big ones.  We are trying to give people the little incentive they need to consider trying a sustainable commute (say free ice cream or a gift card) but not enough incentive that the prize is the only reason they are participating.  This way, while someone might have started to carpool because of the potential for a prize, the residual benefits (cost savings, less stress, etc.) will often start to overshadow that initial perk.  And that's what we hope will happen.  If you just need a reason to pull your bike out of the garage, and the Challenge gives you that reason, and then you lose 10 pounds because you started commuting by bike, well that's fantastic! 

Third, the Challenge is a friendly competition.  And if you're like me, you like competition.  And if all of your co-workers are participating in the Challenge, but you haven't yet committed, their participation might just give you the boost you need to try it, too.

Fourth, the Challenge is all about people.  We've got Ambassadors who are out there promoting the Challenge to their friends and co-workers.  These Ambassadors are sharing their stories, they're blogging for us, and they're showing that lots of different people use a sustainable commute to get to work.  This helps us demonstrate that sustainable commuting is for everyone, from the architect who lives in South Lyon to the IT guy who lives downtown.  You can see all of our Ambassadors here.

Finally, the Challenge is a great way to change behavior because it gives you tons of feedback.  We've got stats for people who like to see how many calories they've burned.  We've got stats for people who want to see CO2 reduced.  We've got stats for total miles.  This kind of feedback is really compelling for people who can then see the actual difference their commuting behavior makes.

So does the Commuter Challenge actually change commuting behavior? Or is this just a chance for people who already walk and bike to work to pat themselves on the back? 

The first way to answer the success question is by looking at Commuter Challenge participants.  When people sign up to participate in the Commuter Challenge, they provide information about how they typically get to work.  This allows us to get a snapshot of commuting behavior of participants before the Challenge begins.  It also lets us see if the people who participate in the Challenge are just people who already do sustainable transportation or if they are people who are currently driving alone and could potentially try a sustainable commute for the first time.

In 2007, 869 participants and 75 organizations participated in the Commuter Challenge.  28% of Challenge participants said they typically drive alone.  That means that most of the people that year were already biking, busing, walking, etc. before the Challenge.

In 2008, 1,481 participants and 114 organizations participated in the Challenge.  And the percentage of participants who said they typically drive alone increased to 40%.  So that means that last year almost half of the people who participated in the Challenge were not already frequently doing a sustainable commute.  I see that as a sign of progress because the whole point is to try to get people who aren't already doing a sustainable commute to at least try one and see if it works for them.  We continue to try to promote the Commuter Challenge as an event that is not just for zealots, but for "newbies". 

Another way to judge the success of the Commuter Challenge is by looking at evaluation data.  After the May 2008 Commuter Challenge, the getDowntown Program surveyed Commuter Challenge participants to see if the Challenge actually changed their commuting behavior.  Of the 325 people who responded to the survey (out of 1,481 participants), 53% said the Commuter Challenge changed their commuting behavior in some way.  In addition, 24% of the survey respondents had rarely or never used sustainable transportation before the Commuter Challenge.  These are exciting stats for me because it shows that we are continuing to reach people who have never tried to bike, bus or walk before. 

I've also followed up with Commuter Challenge participants after the Challenge to see if these behavior changes have continued in subsequent months.  To read some of the Commuter Challenge Success stories, go to the getDowntown Blog.

To me, it's the stories that really show the importance of the Commuter Challenge.  There are people who participate in the Challenge and tell me that it changed their life.  There are people who participate in the Challenge and are now aware of all of the ways they can now get to work.  That's a significant accomplishment in my book.

But I'm not going to kid myself.  I know that there are other reasons why people choose to use (or not use) sustainable transportation.  The higher gas prices go, the easier my job will become.  When (and if) we get Commuter Rail here, that's also going to make a huge difference.  There are too many people right now that don't really have a good commuting option besides driving their cars.  The Commuter Challenge isn't going to change that.  However, the more people I can get to at least look at their options, the better hope we have of demonstrating that people care about sustainable transportation in our community.  And that's really important.

So what about the bigger picture?  In terms of the Commuter Challenge, I see this as one important tool in my toolbox.  The Challenge gives me insight into the importance of sustainable commuting for people in this area, especially among those knowledge worker types.  Organizations like Thomson Reuters and Google are huge participants in the Challenge. 
But it's not the only tool.  The Challenge is one way for me to get people to try something new.  And once people try it, they might find they actually like it.  It also serves as an advocacy tool.  If people are actually using a form of sustainable transportation they might understand why we need to improve it.  Without having people even ride the bus, how can we show them the value of making it better?

Beyond the Challenge, I hope to continue to engage local businesses in taking advantage of all of their transportation options.  I hope to continue to advocate for more and better options.  My job certainly doesn't end with the Commuter Challenge.  It's really just the beginning.  

Post 3: Lynne Fremont

Lynne Fremont lives in Ypsilanti and commutes to downtown Ann Arbor. Sometimes she drives, sometimes she takes the bus, sometimes she telecommutes. She is the technical support person for Above the Treeline, which is a business intelligence tool for bookstores and publishers.

Richer, Drunker, Smarter, and More Relaxed!

I work in downtown Ann Arbor but I live in Ypsilanti. That presents me with a daily problem. How can I get to work and yet still afford my lavish lifestyle? How can I survive a Michigan winter when I loathe driving in snow? How can I find time to read all the books on my shelves? How can I have beers after work without risking running afoul of the law? It turns out that the answer is easy thanks to getDowntown and my employer who have teamed up to give me my very own shiny GoPass!  (which also gets me a discount on my morning coffee at Sweetwaters...helloooo GoPass!)

To be honest, I don't ride the bus every day. As it happens I enjoy driving my car, my beautiful 13 year old rusting green Jetta. The thing about driving an older car, however, is that it likes to take overnight trips to the mechanic. The only reason I can keep such an old car is because I can get to work without it. People don't often consider how valuable a good public transportation system is if they don't ride it every day but they should. Even newer cars break down now and then and taking the bus to work is a good plan B, especially in a single car household. I don't have to buy a new car which saves me thousands of dollars even if I never ride the bus.

Also, not buying a new car saves the environment because no resources need to be used building me a new one. Yup, that's right. Even if I never rode the bus or telecommuted, just having alternative commutes available saves me thousands of dollars and the environment. What a deal.

As it happens, I do engage in alternative commutes such as telecommuting and riding the bus. There are few things I hate more than driving in the snow and as this winter has proved, there are lots of snowy mornings for me to face. Sometimes I telecommute on snowy days which is nice once in a while. There is a luxury to working in one's pajamas while drinking hot cocoa and watching it snow outside. But  I miss my wonderful co-workers which leaves one option. The bus. 

My very favorite moment this winter occurred while I was riding the bus home from work on a snowy afternoon. The roads were terrible. At one point during a turn, the bus slid just ever so slightly and all I could think as I looked out of the bus window at the poor saps in cars was: “HA! THESE ROADS ARE NOT MY PROBLEM...SUCKERS!!!” I have spent a lot of time on the bus in the winter and I am constantly amazed at how well the AATA drivers handle things. I don't think I have heard a single one of them swear or curse or anything. It is much more peaceful than the utterances I make when I find myself driving on snowy roads. 

I am looking forward to Curb-Your-Car month even though there won't be snowy days in May (I hope). This year, I am planning on getting my bike out of the basement and trying something new. I know that there is no way that I would ever get up early enough to ride my bike to work in the morning but AATA has lovely bike racks which will allow me to arrive at work  all fresh and non-stinky. Then in the evening after work, I can ride my bike home. AATA might end up solving my “When can I find time to exercise?” problem. The best part is that if I wimp out, I can catch the bus the rest of the way home. 

Alternative commutes are good for everyone working downtown. You can save money. You can have that second beer if you're not the one driving home. You can read more books. You don't have to drive in snow. In short, you can be richer, drunker, smarter, and more relaxed. It can't get better than that!

Post 2: Conan Smith

Conan Smith is Executive Director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance and a Washtenaw County Commissioner representing Ann Arbor.  When he’s not out looking for galoshes or a new set of headphones, he can be found sipping chai at one of his many new mobile office locations.

Rain in February. Of course.

Why? Clearly because I was not carrying an umbrella or wearing a waterproof jacket! Seriously. When has it ever rained in February in Michigan?

Not that I would have noticed, I guess. For the last 21 February’s if the weather even threatened inclemency I rarely had further to go than from porch to driveway. Like many Michigan natives, I had Matchboxes at three, go-carts at 10 and was securely ensconced in a (fill in Pontiac-Jeep-Chrysler-Ford-Dodge) by 16. February travel prep mostly consisted of gloves (hat, if I had to see Mom on the way out the door) and enough unleaded to make it down the street.

Not much changed in the intervening two decades. The cars got better. Gas got more expensive (then less, then more, then less again). Michigan built more roads – a lot more. And everyone I knew got one car, then another. All pretty normal.

So, there I was, at 36, walking home from work in a cold rain. Voluntarily. What happened to me?! Crisis of conscience? Broken pedal foot?

Actually, I chalk it up to an attack of karma.

In mid-December I taunted one of my staff members who was hesitant to drive to Lansing in the snow to pick up a package. To prove my temerity I volunteered to take her place. I drove up early on a Saturday, had a great breakfast with a friend, got the package and totaled my Jeep on the way home. Ice patch, doncha know.

A poignant reminder that a car is an asset whose value depreciates with time and use, my insurance company offered me less than I owed on the vehicle. To balance the budget, I decided to try a Morgan Spurlock-esque 30 days without a car. I’m now on day 98 of a pretty cool adventure.

When my wife, Rebekah, and I decided not to replace that car, I was fortunate to have had a change in my work situation that allowed me greater flexibility. My day-job at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance went mobile in January, making telecommuting not just an option, but essential. I also became chair of the Ways & Means Committee at the Washtenaw County Commission, meaning most of my work for that job would focus on being downtown. We are fortunate to live in the Old West Side of Ann Arbor, I figured I could get away with renting a car whenever I needed it and left it at that.

I discovered I needed a broader perspective almost immediately. One morning in January I had a meeting near Briarwood. No problem, right? There must be bus routes that pass that spot. I’d not ridden the bus in Ann Arbor in ages, so I had no idea about the schedules or fares. I figured it would take me about 10 minutes to walk to the bus station and another 10 minutes to get to my meeting. I actually left my house early giving 10 minutes to spare so I could get a route map and tokens.

Good plan. Poorly executed.

It took 15 minutes to get to the bus station and, fortunately, I arrived just as my bus was headed out (the next one was 30 minutes later). The kind soul at the driver's wheel gave me a moment to scrounge in my bag for change since I'd only brought a $20 for tokens. I came up short. A woman I'd never met and haven't seen since gave me a dime to balance out my fare. I made my meeting on time, had breakfast and was ready to bus back home. 

Now, remember it was January. And cold. I was bundled up well and it was a clear day, but I'm not used to standing around waiting for anything really, let alone a bus. I'd grabbed a route guide on the bus and saw that the next bus wouldn't be around for 15 minutes. So, I decided to start walking the route and would catch the bus at one of the other stops. Bad move. In between stops the bus blew by me. Curses! I'd keep walking, since it would be a good 20-30 minutes before the next bus. Same thing, whoosh! I'd missed another. Three and half miles later, I was home, sweaty and determined to learn busing better!

It turns out that there are three really excellent tools available for bussing in Ann Arbor. Google Maps is damn near essential. Routing by destination, the program gives you waking times as well as which bus you need to catch. It takes seconds to create a map.

Then, a sanity-saving perk from AATA is their Mobile Ride Guide, which allows you to track your bus’s location in real time from your phone. You can figure out with near certainty how far away the next bus is and how long you need to wait. Lifesavers.

If you are fortunate enough to work in the downtown area, you might find your employer participates in the Go Pass program. For an amazingly reasonable price, businesses can provide free bus passes for their employees, saving that precious downtown parking spot for customers and ending the crazy search for loose change by newbie bus riders!

I'd been paying somewhere between $580 and $730 a month for transportation (oh, fickle OPEC) when I had a car, including gas, service and insurance.  Nowadays, I end up renting a car about 8 days a month. American Express provides rental insurance when I use their card, so my typical output for a trip is around $45 with gas.

For kicking it around town you can use the U’s Zip Car system, which has recently been enhanced through a Chamber of Commerce / DDA partnership. I haven't done this yet, myself, but early reports have certainly peaked my interest. I've got a Go Pass. I had some initial out-the-door expenses, like a backpack so I didn’t wear out my arm, but overall, I'll save around $3,500 this year.

There are still some substantive challenges, of course. It's tough to get to Chelsea, Ypsi or anywhere outside of the county. I have to book about an hour to get from my house to Hogback Road, which sometimes feels like lost time.  Getting to the airport is either annoying or expensive – or both. You can catch one of a handful of buses for $30 roundtrip, but the schedule is awful. You can get a $65 roundtrip taxi. Or, if you’re like me and do a lot of in-and-out day trips, or overnights, it is frequently more cost effective to just rent a car, drive it 20 miles and park it for the day. Ridiculous. We really need a commuter rail system!

I've become a proud (sometimes arrogantly proud) carless commuter. It works extraordinarily well for me, but that's not going to be the case for everyone until we beef up the options. We’ve got to have broader and more frequent local bus service, and those intercity connections are essential. It would be great to extend the Go Pass program county wide, or just let the bus be free. Frankly, I'd happily put a few more tax dollars on the table for that latter option.

As for that karma with the car... well, a long time ago, I must have done something good because I found myself singing in the rain, even if it was in February. I did decide to buy an umbrella, though. Just another tool in the belt of a happy urban commuter.

Post 1: Jeff Gaynor

Jeff Gaynor has been a teacher for 30+ years, 25 of them in Ann Arbor Public Schools. He began when he was 28 years old and after 20 years of teaching at Elementary, he is now in his 11th year at Clague Middle School. He has given presentations at state Social Studies, Technology and Math teacher conferences.

When Jeff was 18 years oild, two years after his family moved from the city of Detroit to a suburb, he vowed to try to live his life so he didn’t have to own a car. He wanted no part of urban sprawl, neighborhoods without sidewalks, traveling alone in expensive two-ton oversized vehicles that ate gas and killed 50,000 people a year in this country alone.

For the last 8 years, Jeff's family has hosted high school exchange students from ten countries: Germany, Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Switzerland, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, China and Mongolia. Having been to three of these countries, he has his sights set on the remaining seven.

In January of 2008, my 1993 Ford Escort started making a very bad sound.  Sure enough, when I checked in with Firestone, to whom I had entrusted the care of my car for 15 years, Jerry told me the car’s fate in three words, "Donate it, now." The undercarriage was rusted out beyond repair.

To be honest, this was music to my ears. This car was the first one I had bought for my own use, and I had been telling family and friends for years that it would be my last. Now the test was on. Could I commit to going car free, and carry it off?  15 months later, the answer is still, "yes."

To be fair, my wife owns a car – her car, she tells me. Vickie is keeping me honest; she told me that if I asked to borrow her car too often, or ever had it when she wanted it, she’d buy a second family car. She does make exceptions and allows me to use it for family food shopping or driving our kids here and there. I borrow the car for my own use about once a month, to a concert when it’s raining, to my doctor’s office in Saline, or to an event in Detroit. Of course we have the car for family trips, around town or for a getaway, so we’re not martyring ourselves.

Also to be fair, I wasn’t totally dependent on my car when I had one. I would bike the half-hour to work (5.5 miles) 2-3 times a week and leave the car in the driveway.  But if the weather was bad, or I was tired, or running late, I’d get in the car. I was paying the insurance anyway. The alternative was forcing myself to get up early, and stay on schedule, and walking to and waiting for the bus, and transferring to another bus, hoping I wouldn’t miss the first bus or the connection, and paying the bus fare … both ways … and in the rain, or snow, or freezing cold.

But as it turns out, I gave up more hassles and costs, than I did conveniences. Hmm, do I miss the car payments? No.  The insurance payments?  No. Paying for gas and repairs? No, though I still stop in to say hi to the Firestone folk. Clearing snow off the car? No. Fighting traffic, early morning sun, bad weather, rude drivers? No, no, no, no. Giving rides to my teenagers when they could easily walk or bike or take the bus?  ("Sorry, honey, I’d love to, but I don’t have a car.") uh, no. How about what happens to the car when I park it somewhere. Not that, either.

I bike to work most days when the streets are dry. When not, I’m happy to be chauffeured by the AATA bus drivers. I have a 5-minute walk and wait from my home to the Packard bus stop, a 5 minute or less wait for a 2nd bus downtown, and a 5-minute walk from the bus to my classroom door at Clague School. Yes, the total time is 45 minutes – but 20 minutes is purely my own, to read, work on my commuter, talk to my fellow commuters, or um… close my eyes – something I try not to do when driving, myself. And Ann Arbor has such an excellent bus system, dependable, and with routes just about everywhere.

I am fortunate with my bike route to work. I ride through the Burns Park neighborhood, across Washtenaw to Devonshire in Ann Arbor Hills, across Geddes Road to Gallup Park where I always pause as I ride over the wooden bridge and look up and down the Huron River. Then along the multi-use path alongside Huron Parkway to Nixon, where I have a short stretch left with traffic. I also have an easy ride from work from work to downtown by way of Plymouth, where I do take to the sidewalk at times, and then back home along the Packard bike path.

Lest you think I am young and fit, you are guilty of believing one must be so to commute by bicycle. I am 58 years old, asthmatic, and just completed a yearlong series of cancer treatments, thankfully successful. I made it to St. Joe’s by bike or bus about 80% of the time, with an occasional ride from a friend at work if timing demanded it.

Speaking of asking friends for rides, this proved to be an unintended bonus.  While not trying to abuse this (I would not accept out of the way ride offers if it was just for convenience) it did provide times for socializing. I would often 'repay' the favor with a token (cookies, tea…) and sometimes with a concert ticket.  As no one in my family shares my taste in music, this worked well on many levels.

What if I need a car and my wife’s isn’t available? The good people at the Washtenaw Bicycling and Walking Coalition suggested Zip Car – and certainly that’s a great option; just one I haven't needed. Nor have I needed to call a cab, though having this option made my decision easier.   On the other hand, I have rented a car for full day and weekend use and the cost was minimal, compared to the money saved overall.

And finally, there’s the 15 minutes of fame. Besides being asked to blog here, or being a Get Downtown Bike and Bus Ambassador, and worksite leader for the Commuter Challenge each May, I also was interviewed on WEMU public radio () and on Homeless Dave’s Teeter Talk so if you’d like to know more…