Blog: Carless Commuters

A few brave souls are going carless as part of getDowntown's Commuter Challenge. And so Concentrate has invited them to share their commuting experiences and offer up their thoughts on why Ann Arborites should consider alternative forms of transportation. Check the blog all week for their posts.

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…