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Car Free In New Orleans

New Orleans, 1960. Ralston Crawford

Have you ever woken up to the sound of an Aretha Franklin song?  That’s the best way I can describe this place.

I grew up in New Jersey. Sort of the “In Your Face” and “Leave Me Alone” capital of the country. New Orleans is the opposite of that. An open hand to my closed book. Maybe it’s what I need.

The first thing I do when I arrive is ride the streetcars. This is what it must of been like in the early 20th century in most U.S. cities. Luckily, New Orleans kept a few of their routes. I head to City Park. Larger than Central Park and even housing an amusement park, I find the New Orleans Museum of Art and discover Ralston Crawford, painter, photographer of everything New Orleans jazz, and all around artist. On the other end of the city and a few days later, I dig through the jazz archives at Tulane University and learn more about him. Methodical, analytic, and distant. But also an understated sentimentality. Sometimes understatement says enough.

I visit a few neighborhoods several people tell me to avoid.  Central City, home of many local musicians and the Ashe Cultural Arts Center, is a short walk from the St. Charles street car. There are abandoned buildings and empty lots, but also lots of rehabs in progress.

I take the #11 bus along Magazine Street. There’s a Whole Foods housed in an old trolley barn and tons of local shops spanning miles. Further down the road, there’s Audobon Park. Double Gallery style rowhomes line the eastern side of the park. Some kids park their bikes out front without locking them and wave hello to me. I begin noticing how many bikes are left either unlocked, or locked with flimsy combination wires. Having lived in Baltimore for 4 years, this makes me itchy, but maybe cyclists here have a bit more peace of mind than we do.

Eventually, I tour the French Quarter, Canal Street and Esplanade Ave. The first thing I notice is how a little infrastructure can build a lot of character. Decorative lamp poles and medians with mature trees completely change the feel of a street. Even rougher streets like Rampart maintain a certain dignity with a combination of medians, tear drop lamp poles, and ornate cast aluminum balcony railings.  These little things make a statement. A city that refuses to be defined by poverty and natural disasters. Even in the face of hardship, there’s still time and space for the good things in life.

I rent a bike on my third day in town to expand my range. I decide to head east. The St. Claude Ave. bridge is harrowing – I have a choice between an incomplete, 3′ wide walkway, or a 13′ traffic lane with sharrows and 55mph traffic. I choose the latter and hope for the best. Honesty, I’ve biked on all kinds of roads, and this takes the cake in the “risking your life” category. I can’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment after I cross the bridge.

On a bike tour of the Lower 9th Ward, I stumble on the House of Dance & Feathers on Tupelo Street. Set up in the home of author Ronald Lewis, the collection spans Mardi Gras Indian culture and media records of Katrina and the city’s recovery. Mr. Lewis retired from the Regional Transit Authority in 2002 and has spent the last 10 years dedicating his life to rebuilding his neighborhood.

Mr. Lewis is kind enough to speak with me for an hour about New Orleans. I mention that even on the roughest, most deserted streets, I never feel unsafe – at least during the day. Neighborhoods were clean and there’s a sense of community. He says New Orleans has a long history of neighborhood ownership, which helps. Residents know they’re all in it together and everyone has to pull their weight.  This is a source of pride passed down through generations.

After my visit, I ride deeper into the Lower 9th, through the local streets. There are abandoned lots and vacant homes, especially north of Claiborne,  but colorful, recently renovated bungalows dot the landscape, too. Mr. Lewis recommends a visit to the Steamboat Houses in the Holy Cross neighborhood.  I laugh at the majestic Japanese architecture in a place already saturated with so many cultural influences. I walk my bike up the Mississippi River Levee.  I’m standing on top of the very structure holding back the Mississippi and look out over the water. Over the city.  I get the sense that I’ve been here before.

I still have time left. More days to go.  I’ll see what else I find.



Why I Still Won’t Give In And Get A Car

This is pretty much your future if you go car free.

It’s been awhile since I’ve written something about the original premise of my blog: living without a car.  On the other hand, it’s kind of a miracle this site hasn’t turned into a collection of nutso posts about “101 Varieties of Boiled Eggs” or “Understanding your Neighborhood Cricket”.  Before I bring it all back home, I’m giving a shoutout to my friend Victor who is cycling across (well, more like around) Europe for the next few months.  Read about his journeys here. He’s also the guy who helped bring you the latest, greatest Baltimore Bike Map which will go public next month.

Despite recent issues with MTA customer service and a former car free-er who will now go back in the cage, I’m still doing it. Why? Because.

  • Just too much fun. Sometimes cycling down St. Paul Street in the spring feels like flying. Or at least on a long runway about to take off.
  • Health. Did I mention I used to be overweight before I sold my car? For real. Incidental exercise and lifestyle changes helped me get in shape more than going to the gym 5 days a week.  I feel healthier too.  Just like cool, respectable people aren’t meant to watch episodes of The Office when it went dumb and slapstick after season 5,  bodies aren’t meant to be caged up in a car for hours a day.
  • Psychological stuff, like in the brain.  It’s funny how much more anxious I was when I had a car. I attribute part of it to spending less time and money on bullshit. No buying gas. No sending checks to vampire insurance conglomerates. No leaving happy hours early because I parked in the police chief’s spot (kidding!).  No twitchy, grinning mechanic telling me I need to replace the flux capacitor on my hyperdrive unit. Not having a car somehow makes you more free in the important ways.
  • It makes you bad ass. Raining? I used to cry when it rained.  Now I’m like a duck.  Or something.  The water just rolls off my back. Cold? Hot? Hail? Volcanoes?  Whatever. I can take it. Being outside more makes you better able to deal with the outside.
  • Serendipity. Last night as I got off the train from DC, I decided to take the #3 back downtown to pick up my bike.  Worn out and beaten down from a full day of educational funtivities, hoola hoop tournaments, and hopscotch (yes, for me. I don’t have kids) my demeanor was akin to an old man trying to bring back soup at a deli (credit: G. Constanza).   Some little 3 year old girl noticed this, deemed it unacceptable, and made a rambling series of funny faces until I broke and started laughing.

Little Girl:1  Me: 0. Peace.


One Year Car Free

These guys used to rock.

It’s been one year since I sold my car and began this experiment. Setting out on my expedition, my goals were to experience Baltimore outside the confines of 1000 pounds of metal, educate myself on the issues and barriers of living without a car in the U.S., and sculpt my body into the likeness of a Roman God.

I’ve accomplished all three. Let me break it down for you.

  • The first week: There is nothing to eat in the house. The nearest supermarket is 7 blocks away. I go outside to start my car and the cold reality of being without one slaps me in the face. Hard. Because I am 15 pounds overweight, I wobble the 7 blocks to pick up some noodle salad. My feet hurt and I complain to my girl. I consider buying back the car I just sold for $2,000 more than I just sold it for.
  • The second and third week: It’s July 2010. Heat wave, and not the dry kind. Between sweating on a bus and sweating on a bike, I begin taking my bike to work. 5 miles round trip. It’s a mountain bike on city streets with tires that could fit on an F150. Sort of like driving a tank on an Indie Car track. I learn a new meaning of the word “sweat”. This is when shit got real.
  • The end of the first month: I learn that the Metro and Light Rail systems actually go places. Some of these places are useful. I also learn the delicate intricacies of eye contact protocol on MTA. The hard way.
  • The second month: Druid Hill Park has a lake and actual grass?  The places I was afraid to go to from reading “the news” don’t seem that bad when I begin riding my bike there.
  • The fourth month: It becomes painfully clear that, decades ago, the people who designed some of these city streets I walk and bike on every day never actually walked or biked on these streets. I also begin to snub my nose at people who call themselves “car free” but who bum rides off of their friends all the time.  I begin refusing rides. Even from the cute girls.  Have I become Arthur Rimbaud?
  • The fifth and sixth months: Where before a 1 mile bike ride would have me kneeling over and weeping on the side of the road, now I can make my commute without batting an eyelash. Or something.  I also get lean. 15lbs gone and then some. I become an aerodynamic bat out of hell with a taste for bad metaphors and peanut butter sandwiches.
  • The seventh month: It gets cold and dark. I question being car free, my existence, and the nature of the human soul.  Also, what ever happened to Soul Asylum?
  • The eight month: As long as I dress like I’m base jumping off of K2, cycling in the winter isn’t that bad.
  • The ninth month: I buy a new street bike. My cycling range increases dramatically.  My muscles also grow, as I begin a new workout program.
  • The tenth month:  Cars now seem like an overkill. That lady driving around the Safeway parking lot in the truck designed for hunting wild African elephants. I laugh at her.
  • The eleventh month: If my calculations are correct, so far I’ve saved $5,000 by getting rid of my car. This should be enough for at least 2 nights in Vegas.
  • The twelfth month:  The thought of living in a place which would require me to own a car ever again gives me chills.  Imagine being beholden to a 2,000 pound piece of metal which sucks 15% of your income every month, makes you pudgy, and does bad things to the environment. On the other hand, those new vintage Challengers look badass, don’t they?

So, if I have one bit of wisdom after my year without a car, it is this: Don’t spit while you’re cycling, because no matter how cool you think you look, you’ll always get a dabble of saliva on your shoulder.

Stay tuned for my next blog, “Shoe Free Baltimore”, where, you guessed it; I’ll be going without shoes in an effort to experience the urban lifestyle just as the cavemen did hundreds of years ago.

Having a Car In The City Is A Pain In The Ass

Badass Johnny Cash commenting on the parking situation in Baltimore.

This guy I read about in the Baltimore Sun had his car towed from the Federal Hill Library parking lot.  He was with his disabled mother and infant daughter, which is probably why it made news. Granted, he probably should have known how the system works (if a space is too good to be true, then it probably is), and tow truck drivers will jump you like starved sharks going after raw seal meat if your fender even encroaches on a restricted space. $300 bucks for an hour of parking and the privilege of visiting the awesome impound lot. I’m pretty sure they have complimentary coffee there to make it worth your while.

And people get so crazy over their parking spaces in neighborhoods.  Yelling at each other and making themselves and other people miserable fighting over an 8x20ft piece of asphalt.   Then the parking tickets. I accumulated about 15 after living here for only 2 years when I had a car. After awhile I started to wallpaper my refrigerator with them. Then if you want to go shopping or out to eat but don’t want to drive to the county, parking is expensive downtown and you may get your windows busted in transitional areas like Station North (JH knows what I’m sayin).  Oh yea, my car got keyed and broken into on several occasions.  Plus insurance is expensive in the city and the whole tag/plate/registration DMV BS is an afternoon from hell.  Man I loved the road trips out of town on a whim but keeping a car here just sucked.

But it’s not all roses going car free in the winter.  Now my face freezes when I’m on my bike and I’m surrounded by The Plague as people cough all around me on the bus, but I can take it.   With the money I save by not owning a car, I can take an around-the-world vacation in 2012. I’ve been using Zipcar more frequently as the weather gets colder, and once the Green Line of the Charm City Circulator starts up I’ll have another commuting option.

So my point is this;  the ticket officers, tow companies, and petty criminals are vultures eying up your car every time you leave it unattended in Baltimore. To you, it’s your transportation and status symbol. To them, it’s a sweet little goody they can make a buck off of.  I’ll gladly take some cold weather in exchange for never having to stare into the cold eyes of a tow truck driver or take a car to the repair shop again.

**Check out what Hoboken is doing about their screwed up parking situation.

On Not Living The American Dream

Dante's 10th Layer.

This Washington Post article and this piece got me thinking about the “American Dream” again.  I no longer own a car. I do not own a house.  Since I sold my car in June, trips take a bit more planning, but I feel a strange peace without the prospect of gas/insurance/repair expenses looming on the horizon. As far as a home, I rent a rowhouse the size of which would make most people who live in a detached single family house laugh.

The fact that I can bike or take a bus to work and not sit in 40 minutes of traffic makes me more content than a bigger home ever could.  But this wasn’t a concept I was brought up with. It came from actually living in places where the only means of getting anywhere was to drive. When the car was in the shop, a massive rescheduling of my life occurred which involved friends, family and neighbors taking me where I needed to go – not to mention the hassles of getting to and from the repair shop and the hostage situation where the mechanic tells you some bullshit about your flux capacitor needing a new solenoid hyperdrive.

My point is that our traditional metrics of success are outdated. They frame ideas about contentment around material goods.  Lifetime employment at a single employer is a thing of the past. New opportunities or a sudden layoff may require you to relocate across the globe with a few months notice. Your car, once thought of as a beacon of freedom and possibilities, is now recognized as riddled with negative health, safety and environmental externalities. Other things, like having a park around the corner, a tight-knit, social neighborhood, a shorter commute, or a grocery store within walking distance have more power to improve my life than a 4th bedroom ever could. The average 100 hours a year spent commuting (Baltimore has one of the highest rates of “extreme commuting” of more than 90 minutes each way) could be better spent even if you just tied your shoe laces over and over again during the time it took you to drive.

Baltimore lost 400,000 people in half a century.  Some of these people left for the American Dream. I’m willing to bet a subset of this population found the dream somewhat empty.  Selling Baltimore as a place where one could be free of car ownership would offset our huge property tax burden for owners. Renters, on the other hand, would find the city way more affordable than the suburbs. Being free from the steel chains of cars, both renters and owners wouldn’t have to deal with nightmare parking situations in places like Federal Hill and Canton.

This all depends on employment location, though. As I’ve said before, keeping and attracting new jobs downtown and in our neighborhoods makes transit systems way more efficient.  Dense employment centers have huge transportation benefits as they are more accessible by rail, buses, and are walkable/bikeable from adjacent neighborhoods. Not to mention the creative benefits that come with having complimentary and/or diverse skill sets in one place (see “Clustering“). The diffusion of employment out to the counties was another hit the city took as it hemorrhaged people through the decades.

As Bob Dylan said, the old road is rapidly agin’.  And the American Dream is shifting to something less definable and material than a 4 bedroom house and an Oldsmobile.

Update: Author James Kunstler, though his acidic style grows tiresome, has a presentation on TED. I think the viewer comments below the video are more interesting than the presentation itself.

**Thanks for the Mobbie nomination in the Baltimore Sun!**

How to Become Car Free And Not Become Annoying

How the hell do you compete with this?

Most would-be agents of behavioral change frame their arguments on external effects with a bit of a self-righteous air. Environmentalists are the worst offenders; Deforestation reduces reduces bio-diversity and increases carbon in the atmosphere. Large corporations act with impunity in polluting our air and waterways. Cars are responsible for X number of cases of asthma. Arguments like these have been repeated ad nauseum.  Well meaning people spend a lot of time making other people think they care about how their behavior impacts the world. Some do care, but most don’t.  This is a politically incorrect thing to say at dinner parties, but this is a blog, not a dinner party. And I’ll be the first to admit I sold my car for personal benefit, not to save the planet.

In making arguments for behavioral change, the more we focus on personal benefits, the more the message resonates; How do you benefit from eating local food?  How do you benefit when polluters are regulated? How do you benefit from taking transit? Framing the argument in descriptive terms (If you do x, then y will happen), rather than prescriptive terms (You should really do this) makes an audience less defensive and more open to dialog. In general, you cannot change someone by trying to change them. But there is a small chance you can inspire someone to change by setting an example.  This is a Buddhist argument about the dangers of being attached to outcomes, but I think it fits here.

I’m trying to find a balance as well.  Promoting, in what my opinion, is a better lifestyle in living without a car, but avoiding the typical environmentalist arguments and self-righteousness.  It’s easy to fall into these traps, though.

While we’re on the topic of promotion, car companies collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising every year. Not only is the U.S. designed for cars, but there are non-stop messages everywhere telling us that owning a car is expected of us as a sort of rite of passage.  It’s not enough to have transit that runs flawlessly and great walking/biking routes. These modes have to be culturally accepted, without stigma, and create an emotional response just like car commercials do. Thinking of alternate modes as a product, and not just as a default choice for a dedicated few, may be a start. And getting “opinion makers”, as Malcolm Gladwell calls them in his book The Tipping Point, involved at a grass roots level may help in turning the tide.

Also, it would help if we could create transit advertising that looked like this. But maybe that’s too much to ask.

One Month Car Free in Baltimore

So I sold my car one month ago. I’m doing OK.  So far I’ve:

Blizzard, the Dog in Antarctica. If he can do it, so can you. (Note: this picture is 100 years old. He is probably dead by now) (Photo by Frank Hurley)

  • Lost some weight
  • Saved a bunch of money
  • Struck up conversations with people I ordinarily wouldn’t even make eye contact with in a car
  • Began to get a ground level perspective on walking/biking/transit in the city
  • Been called out by a homeless man for looking unkempt

What I thought would be impossible, like grocery shopping or dealing with this Amazon jungle weather, haven’t been big issues. I’m proud to say I’ve only bummed one ride (thanks!).  I also have not signed up for Zipcar (yet). I think driving for so long gave me a false sense that life without a car is a non-stop series of barriers. Not really, though. It is important to believe you can go further than you think you can go, and that in uncharted territory you can figure out a way forward. It also helps to have a map.

It’s not like I walked on the moon, but in a consumerist culture where everything points to the “freedom” of car ownership, the overwhelming auto-oriented design of most of the country’s  infrastructure, and the glorification of immediate gratification, it feels good not to be in the machine for now.

But will I still be car free when I use Zipcar? Environmentalists and purists will probably say no.  I say yes because, if not, I’ll have to change the name of my site.  Seriously though, because I’ll use Zipcar mostly for trips outside of the city and not part of my daily routine, I think it will serve as more of a recreational convenience than a crutch. I do kinda miss drives out to the country.

This isn’t an ideological crusade but rather a practical way to see if one can live without owning a car in Baltimore.  The answer is: Yes, but it depends where you work. More on this in a future post (I love these cliffhanger, Empire Strikes Back-esque endings).