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 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.