Carf-ree Day 2014 has come and passed. Did you replace your car trip? I did, and by switching to a combination of bicycle/Dinky/NJ Transit train/bus/walking, I managed to save a full gallon of gas. Lifting a gallon of milk from the refrigerator for comparison, I was simultaneously proud of my achievement, and horrified that I really burn this much fossil fuel on my regular commute every single day. What makes me particularly glum is that, like many New Jerseyans, driving a car seems like the only practical way for me to get to work. Here are 5 things I learned on #carfree day:
1. Only the Lonely.
On September 21, hundreds of people from Princeton went to New York to protest about climate change. But on September 22, I got the impression that there was no almost no local support for World Car-free Day. Did Princeton’s Council Members even know that Car-free Day was happening? What about our Mercer County Freeholders? If they did, they were certainly being quiet about it, because there were no events to encourage people to take part. Hardly anybody I know had even heard about it.
2. Friends in Walkable, Transit-Served Places Are Wondering What the Fuss is About.
I posted to Facebook that I was going car-free on September 22 as a direct response to global warming. Immediately, I got comments from friends in Chicago and Melbourne, Australia saying things like “I go car-free every day, do I get a medal?” and “I don’t even own a car!” What seems like a big deal in New Jersey is everyday living in places that are well-served by transit and where people have the option of living close to where they work. The lesson is clear- exhorting people to leave their car at home, or guilt-tripping them about climate change, or offering token prizes- all these things are a total waste of time. People go car-free because they live in a place where it is convenient to go car-free. If we plan and build places where it’s easy for people to live car-free, car-free living will inevitably happen.
3. In New Jersey, it Costs a Lot to Save a Gallon of Gas.
It cost me $14.75 to take transit to work on #Carfree Day. A gallon of gas is $3. On that measure, it’s a no-brainer to drive. But owning a car costs on average $8,800 a year according to statistics from the AAA, who factor in the cost of insurance, depreciation and maintenance. That is $24 a day- meaning that transit is technically still cheaper for me. But the really big cost is time. Taking transit for a round-trip meant replacing a 45 minute car commute with a 1hr, 30 minute commute. That adds up to an extra hour and a half per day traveling. (No part of the trip was longer than 15 minutes, meaning it was hard to get productive work done at any point.) Time is the key reason why people don’t take transit. In a survey of 12,000 urban residents, travel time was the #1 consideration for choosing how they got to work….environmental impact scored dead last.
4. Ditching the Car Brings Unexpected Benefits
Although the time cost of going car free is basically insurmountable for me, I noticed distinct advantages to not driving. I arrived at work less stressed than if I had driven in Jersey’s notorious traffic. And riding my bike to the Dinky station gave me much-needed exercise. In general, car commuting is a major public health challenge, contributing to obesity, and- what is much less well appreciated- mental health challenges. Research indicates that car commuting directly correlates with depression, a reduced social support network, and even marital breakdown. Our car commuting habit is literally killing us. And yet public policy is still largely predicated on single passenger vehicles. In Princeton, 78.6% of people get to work by driving alone.
5. Not Many People Ride the Dinky These Days.
If you want space to stretch out, your Princeton Dinky Train is the place to go. During rush hour on Carfree day, a beautiful fall day when you might expect transit ridership to be high, only one car of the little train was open for business. The other was closed. And in the one car that was open, there were so many seats free that each passenger could take an entire bay to him or herself. Arguably, this is because Princeton University is running a shuttle bus that directly competes with the Dinky train- the Tiger PAWW– but realistically, we have to ask why so few commuters see value in riding the Dinky in 2014. What it would take to modernize the service so that it could be an attractive alternative for people trying to get to work without using a car?
What would it take for you to ditch the car in favor of a car-free commute? Do you think it’s realistic in New Jersey in 2014? How can we make it easier for people to live car-free, if transit would require higher taxes? Have your say in the comments section below.