Six weeks ago, city editor Stephen George gave up his car in an attempt to assess the changes involved — mental, physical, epistemological — in shaking loose from dependence on your car while still being able to get around Louisville. An unscientific study, yes, but here are the results.
Prologue: It had been exactly one month since I’d been behind the wheel of a car.
This was a matter of my own choosing, an attempt to assess the state of non-automotive transportation in Louisville, and the changes one must endure — mental, physical, epistemological — firsthand. I have long depended on my car, not entirely, but mostly. The rules: one month, absolutely no driving. Riding in cars is OK, but not if it supersedes bike or bus. The sanctimonious is unattractive, and being carless here is unoriginal at best, so the story would be: A serial driver examines how to integrate other ways, human-powered or public, of moving oneself amid the daily routine.
This should be stated: I am not asking you to sell your car. I am not asking city, state or federal representatives to give TARC — Transit Authority of the River City, the public bus service, and also, for the purposes of this story and the city lexicon, a verb — a budget to accommodate a sudden, raging increase in ridership when half a million Louisvillians read this story and decide at once to turn over their keys to someone more socially and environmentally responsible. I am not asking your wife to drive you around when you’re crabby and your legs hurt, or when the bus cruises by as you’re groggily approaching the stop with half a Gala apple dangling from your maw, thinking of ways to explain to your boss that he’s now fighting a two-front war against irresponsibility with you.
All I am asking is for your indulgence in the idea that driving a car less than three or five miles one-way is often unnecessary, and that with the millions of miles traveled by car every day in Louisville, a few less from each of the tens of thousands of drivers would help us immensely — air quality would improve, road repairs would diminish, money would be available for things like expanded bike lanes on major roadways, and your stress level would crest and recede as you felt the plague of speeding up to slow down bleed out of your psyche.
Bus, bike or walk. This was my small, comparatively easy, contribution. I don’t remember complaining much, or at all really, which is rare. Some friends seemed annoyed by it, but I tried not to flout it. Haranguing makes everyone but the offender sick. Largely I was on my own. As anybody getting around Louisville now without a car will tell you, it’s not that bad, especially if you’re a good planner.
And planning, of course, cannot account for everything. The experiment ended, I am assessing its results, sitting here trying to write something entertaining about it. I wanted to drive downtown to work for the first time in a month last Monday, and suddenly was awash in nostalgia for my 16.5th year, when I could drive that 1988 Volvo 240 for the first time solo.
I had a flat tire.
ONE: The Bike
I can’t tell you much other than the thing is a 12-speed with drop bars and super-thin tires. And it’s fast. It flies, actually, compared to the clunky mountain bikes I’ve been working the past decade or more. I can keep pace with cars on this thing, at least when they’re not doing 40 between stoplights. Impressive.
Jackie Green put this machine and me together a few weeks ago. It’s a 1988 Schwinn World, used but loved, a relatively uncomplicated model of efficiency. Jackie owns the Bike Depot, an eight-person outfit housed in a 125-year-old three-story with the ornate Italian-style façade typical of downtown Louisville, on Market Street slightly west of First. It’s a clean shop: the front is retail, with all manner of new mountain, road and BMX bikes, and the accessories you’d need to be serious about it. The back is spartan: a cramped repair shop with a 14-foot ceiling, its style a mixture of grayed plaster and bright, untreated wood affording the immediate utility of a bicycle garage, a row of inoperative bikes dangling from the west wall, a makeshift “upstairs” holding overstock to the east. In the back and out the door runs the messenger service Bike Couriers, also an in-house operation. The Depot has the undeniable charm of indie gentrification, which lives somewhere between the slick, unaffordable condos of profit lords and your modern urban squatting operation.
Jackie and I have become what you’d call professional friends — sharing a number of general interests, we gravitate toward one another at public meetings involving environmental issues, or meetings about transportation. If I’m on the left coast of environmentalism, Jackie is somewhere out to sea. He talks about “human power,” the idea that it is in our capacity as upright beings to move ourselves all places in our immediate lives without the assistance of fossil fuels. Once, we were talking passionately (nothing with Jackie lacks passion, I should add) about automobiles and America’s oil bent, and I suggested the mass marketing of electric cars as a possible solution. He scoffed.
“You’ve got to think outside of the box!”
“Well,” I bumbled, “it’s better than petro.”
“You think the solution is in those mountaintop-removing things?”
I hate being wrong.
Jackie, a 54-year-old husband and father of a young daughter, doesn’t apologize for being what some people would call radical. He gave up his car for the last time in 1999. Eight years before, Jackie was doing some heavy reading and research, learning loads about the emerging environmental issues that have become trendy now. He knew it was time for a significant change.
“I had to ween myself, just do basically the same thing you’re doing,” he told me recently. “I took two weeks off from the car, I took a month off from the car, then I just got rid of it.”
His wife, an avid cyclist who actually rode the day she gave birth to their daughter 21 months ago, uses a car here and there, mostly during the winter. She has been an essential cog in the machinery of the Bike Depot, he said. Jackie represents a part of my own thinking I would like to see more active, which is one of the reasons he’s the first person I called when I took on this assignment.
There were some ridiculous things about the bike, idiosyncrasies of its former owner that I could do without. Russ Hisle, the shop manager, went through my specs and tweaked the bike. He removed hideous half-moon reflectors laced into the spokes on both wheels. He angled the bars to better fit my long torso and arms. He got rid of the “suicide brakes” — the poorly-designed top-handle brakes on a drop-bar system that substitute pulling the front-set handles, thereby introducing a slight gap in your brakes’ responsiveness and, as the name implies, significantly threatening your safety. Suicide brakes are not typically included on new bikes.
Hisle and I chatted while he made the adjustments, about a 20-minute process. A longtime rider, the 44-year-old is fulfilling a desire he’s always had to manage a bike shop. He met Jackie through www.kycyclist.org, a Web site, message board and e-mail service geared toward building the cycling community here. By February, the Dayton, Ohio native and former John Deere mechanic was managing the repair shop. He’s about to move to Louisville from Greensburg, about 80 miles south of here. He’s been commuting every day, and looks forward to selling one of the cars he and his wife keep.
“For the first time in 20 years, I’m going into work and looking forward to it,” he told me.
The cycling community in Louisville, particularly road biking, is both broad and the beneficiary of extensive official support. The most visible organization is the Louisville Bicycle Club, which has been around since 1897 — Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908. It is around 1,000-strong and organizes more than 800 rides a year. There is the Kentucky Mountain Bike Association. The Louisville Landsharks is a local triathlon group.
Louisville’s Recumbent Riders Group is home to those who prefer the supine leisure of recumbent bikes. CART — the Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation — is a biking advocate. Safe Streets Louisville, Jackie’s baby, concerns itself with the larger goal of coalescing a bike- and pedestrian-friendly city. There is also Bicycling For Louisville, with its understated headquarters in the basement of the steadfastly Victorian Diocesan Building, across the hall from a church ministry. It’s a non-profit that does typical non-profit work: pushing its central focus through advocacy, research and community outreach.
Mayor Jerry Abramson has most assuredly been swayed by the temptress that is cycling, though he tends to talk about it mostly in terms of recreation, not as a primary mode of transportation. Since the first-ever Louisville Bike Summit, in February 2005, Abramson has overseen the creation of an official cycling task force; a massive expansion of bike paths (for road biking) that run a loop through a number of city parks, including along the Ohio River and a soon-to-be-completed trace through Rubbertown; a proposal to add bike lanes on every newly paved roadway in the city; and the Mayor’s Healthy Hometown Hike and Bike, which typically draws more than 1,000 people. This year’s is Monday, May 28 — Memorial Day.
In March, Abramson gave the keynote address at the National Bike Summit, at Meridian Suites in Washington, D.C., touting his cycling initiatives in Louisville, which have been substantial, as a “smart” model for cities with little money to spend on such things.
“Even more important, what I realized riding as an adult in my hometown was the intimate connection you feel to neighborhoods and neighbors as you bike through a community,” he said during the speech. “You don’t just smell the roses and the forsythia, you smell the barbeque, see vegetable and flower gardens, hear music. You make eye contact with folks on front porches and other people on bikes. It may sound corny, but as someone who loves his city, there is magic in the way a community feels on a bicycle. It brings people together.”
He’s right: In a car, you are insulated from your surroundings, and people constitute a large percentage of that. According to my own moderately unscientific but nonetheless reliable case study, you are likely to be slightly more aggressive, perhaps more frustrated, and less willing to strike up a conversation for no other reason than it’s awkward yelling at people through car windows. Especially when they are rolled up.
TWO: The Bus
Last month, on Earth Day, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a 127-point plan for making NYC more “green;” the paramount provision would charge drivers $8 a day to operate cars in Manhattan.
Gas prices may jump into the $4 range nationwide this summer. Pay to play.
Most big cities, and every “progressive” or forward-thinking city in the world, have rail-based public transit. In New York, D.C. or Chicago, as in a number of other less critically packed burgs around the world, the trains and buses will take you anywhere you need to go with minimal stress and hassle.
Obviously, Louisville doesn’t have a train system. No light rail, subway, anything of that nature. In fact, our regional transportation planning authority, KIPDA, took light rail out of its long-range plan last year, mostly because none of our federal representatives — starting with former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup — could ever muster the courage or will to tap into the federal dollars marked for transit projects. (Rep. John Yarmuth told me in a February interview that he is interested in reopening the light rail discussion that stopped abruptly a few years ago, after TARC had proposed specific rail lines and the project seemed to be moving steadily forward).
City leaders are so locked into the collective hump of the Ohio River Bridges Project that virtually everything else seems to be off the table until we blow $4 billion on roadways that will be finished when gas is, I don’t know, $6 a gallon.
Jim King, D-10, and other Metro Council members said earlier this year they want to bring a serious light rail discussion back in vogue. King, chair of the Council’s Democratic caucus, explained in March: “We need to move people in and out of our city’s core and the automobile is not the answer. A metro connector that moves people between downtown and our airport, university, Churchill Downs, KFEC, etc., is a potential solution and the time is now to address it. Our city needs to go ‘green.’”
He’s right on two fronts: jumping on the “green” trend is something Louisville has actually done over the past few years. But the comment about moving people to and from the city core — the rapidly redeveloping and gentrifying downtown — hints at a large-scale urban planning strategy that implements transit as a core urban value, alongside condos and coffee shops. It is an integration Louisville has plainly failed to make, or even attempt.
In Portland, Ore. — one of the nation’s most bike- and transit-friendly cities — you can ride the bus downtown for free. Here you can catch a trolley downtown for a quarter, still a fine deal. And TARC’s ridership has never been higher. The increase aligns with a national trend: A recent report by the American Public Transportation Association said Americans are using public transit (all forms) more now than any time since the 1950s, when cars were markedly less ubiquitous.
Over the course of the month, I rode TARC nearly as often as my bike. The stop is about seven minutes from my house, walking. It takes me straight to Fourth and Muhammad Ali, about
two blocks from LEO.
It is the essence of commuting simplicity. The route is not particularly crowded, at least between 8:45 and about 10 a.m. It comes from the east and through the Highlands, goes along the edge of Germantown (where I board) and through downtown to Shawnee Park. I watched hundreds of single-occupancy vehicles cruise by the bus stop at Barret and Ellison every morning.
While I used that route most often, I took others, including a couple late-afternoon runs to meet a source who lives just off Broadway at 37th Street. Those rides down Broadway — and a subsequent experiment that took me to the East End, where buses run with much less frequency or detail — taught me a lot about TARC and its primary ridership.
I have long suspected that many people in Louisville are afraid to TARC it. The reasons may vary: The bus will be late, you will miss the bus, the bus is for poor people, black people and criminals, and so on. This is unfounded, absurd. While the bus can be late, and even absent (that happened to me three times), a rolling slum it is not.
The first trip to 37th Street I stand near the front, as the vessel is stuffed to the doors with people. I’m reading a printout of a Michael Pollan article from that week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine about junk food, being a perfectly private liberal elitist, quietly taken by the fact that I am the only white person. Lost in reverie, I fail to anticipate the driver’s sudden stop. In a second I am nearly on top of the young man next to me, who has been listening to headphones and paying little attention to me or anyone else. I apologize uncomfortably; he stares hard. I am sorry. I am a consummate advocate of personal space, I want to say. This thing is crowded, and I should’ve been holding the rail. I mean no harm.
Instead I stand there silently, my hand now wrapped around the greasy metal bar above my head. On the balls of my feet I shift my weight with the subtle flexes of the bus’s hydraulics, acutely aware of impending stops, which occur at just about every block between Fourth and 37th streets. This is TARC’s primary constituency, an idea fleshed out by the routes, frequency and critical mass of the buses that traverse West Louisville.
Both episodes of TARC-based West Louisville travel — the second time I was one of four white riders, and the bus was somehow more crowded — disturbed me. Not because I was alone in my race (personally, that was refreshing), but in the way such a thing outlines racial inequity in Louisville. There are two basic modes of examining racial disparity in a city: housing and public transportation. A cursory look at either will reveal in full relief that the city is profoundly divided, and the socioeconomics play highly in whites’ favor, like most of the United States. Nationwide, African Americans are roughly six times as likely to use public transit as whites.
African Americans and Latinos comprise 54 percent of national public ridership. This is, of course, all tied into poverty and how that relates to race — public transit reveals a symptom of a much larger problem.
Integration in public transit — the idea of a shared, if relatively insignificant, purpose that occurs to every rider of the bus, head buried in book or consumed by headphones, carrying on a conversation with a neighbor or someone you’ve seen on the bus every morning for the past decade — is at hand. I wondered, scribbling notes on the 21 from downtown to home one recent afternoon, trying to pick up on a pair of disparate conversations between what seemed like two groups of old friends, if the prospect of rising gas prices and Americans’ protracted but looming shift away from the automobile will actually help us confront racial and economic imbalance.
I went back to reading my book.
THREE: The Difference
According to the Slate.com/Treehugger Green Challenge, I emit 9,888 pounds of CO2 per year. That’s less than half of the average American’s annual emissions (20,000 pounds). I used as my baseline my regular commuting habits, not this experiment. My personal exhaust is not low for a single reason but several interconnected ones, which hints at the real point of all this: I don’t drive much because I don’t need to. I chose to live both near my workplace and near an entertainment district that has virtually every bar, restaurant, bookshop, music store, and so forth that I could want. I own a modest-sized house with a back yard large enough for a substantial garden and more grass than I really care to maintain.
I am by no means outstanding in this regard, nor is this little experiment. These things are easy and fundamental. I’ve been following the experience of this guy in New York City, “No Impact Man,” who has taken his family (wife, one young child) on an extraordinary voyage to leave zero carbon imprint. They have recently dropped electricity in their apartment. They shop at flea markets and buy nothing new, so as to avoid introducing products that will invariably become some form of waste. They compost everything. Everything.
That is outstanding. Taking the bus and riding your bike is ordinary for thousands of people here and millions nationwide. For some, a car (and gas and insurance) is cost-prohibitive. For others, it’s a principled choice about promoting conservation and sustainability.
David Morse and Katie McBride live in the largely affluent Highlands. The pair moved here — Morse’s hometown — from Berkeley, Calif., in 2002. They gave up their cars one at a time, finally turning over their transportation needs to bikes and buses in 2005.
“When we lived in Berkeley, we weren’t ‘transit activists,’ at all,” Morse told me over afternoon coffee (McBride was there, too) a few weeks ago, his helmet and rain jacket on the floor behind her chair. “We were just riding our bikes.”
Both are heavily involved in the cycling scene. Though they’re excited by the prospect of Louisville becoming more bike-friendly, they have reservations about the way the city is adapting to cycling — Morse said, for instance, that bike lanes on major roadways encourage drivers to think of cyclists as separate from traffic, when in reality, bikes are another component of it. He and McBride “take the lane” when riding in traffic — they ride down the middle rather than near the gutter, so cars can’t whiz past and potentially run them off the road. After about three days of regular road biking, I also adopted this tactic. When you’re looking at taking on a 2-ton steel machine, you’d better be assertive with your space.
It is understandable that some people have to commute further than my 2.65 miles to work daily, or Jackie Green’s 3 miles from his Highlands home. Some must travel more extensively, often by plane. There are options to offset such things — buying carbon credits, for instance — although that appears (to me and a lot of others, including some national energy experts) to be the quintessential consumer shell game. But the idea that we should live so far away from where we conduct the rest of our daily experience — in short, the concept of suburbia — is based on an energy model that appears no longer workable in the long-term. Changing it is within our control.
That concept forms the basis of New Urbanism, a smart-growth movement that has become le dernier cri inside the last decade. Its central tenets are high-density housing (smaller houses, often condos or townhouses) surrounded by offices, entertainment and basic infrastructure, like a grocery store. Sustainability and the integration of a mode of transportation largely based on rail, bus or foot drive the trend.
You can see New Urbanism in Louisville. The Highlands and Crescent Hill are good examples of the movement’s organic roots. The city is attempting to mold Park DuValle — the mixed-use housing complex that replaced the Cotter and Lang public housing projects in Southwest Louisville — in a similar fashion by attracting businesses and services to the already-developed neighborhood. In the East End, Norton Commons is being built with these principals in mind.
At last week’s Metro Council meeting, a handful of Metro Youth Leaders were offered a chance to address the body. One, a young boy, quickly stepped to the microphone, gave a perfunctory glance around the room, and said it’s time the Council do something to improve public transportation. He spoke with an unexpected authority, saying routes should be expanded and more attention should be paid to maintenance and safety issues. Overall, he explained, it’s time to start getting this public transportation thing right.
As I scribbled notes about what he was saying, I surveyed the room: The doting, avuncular looks were all but gone. I’d say he left an impression; an imprint, if you will.
Stephen George kept a blog during his month without a car — find it by going to www.leoweekly.com and clicking the “Writers’ Blogs” button on the left side of the homepage. Contact the writer at [email protected]