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Book Review; How to Live Well Without Owning a Car

When I went car-free in the first half of 2007 I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into (see post). Sure, I had owned the scooter for a while but I still had my car for shopping trips and other errands. One of my first purchases after going car-free was the book by former St. Louisan, Chris Balish, titled How to Live Well Without Owning a Car: Save Money, Breath Easier and Get More Mileage out of Life.

Balish’s book is not a preachy save the planet from doom type of book. Instead, it is a personal finance book, showing the reader how to save thousands of dollars each year simply by not owning a car. Instead of focusing on the environmental impacts of cars he narrows in on the toll car ownership can take on personal finances and how it often dictates much about your lifestyle. Balish argues, convincingly, that you can get rid of the car and improve your standard of living. Having lived it now for six months, he is so right.

Balish acknowledges that car-free living is not for everyone. The outside salesperson or carpenter that hauls many heavy tools around, likely needs a car. For many others, however, Balish lays out all the issues he faced when going car-free while living in St. Louis and later in Los Angeles. Throughout the book are personal testimonies from people from North America that are also car-free.

He is quick to point out that car-free does not mean you will never rent or ride in a vehicle ever again. Car-free, to Balish, is about not owning a car. Car-lite applies to say the family that reduces their ownership of cars (from 3 to 2, from 2 to 1), basically owning less cars than you have licensed drivers.

The book is full of great tips to help you plan your new life without a car. Rather than having transportation at the ready as with a car, going car-free requires doing some planning ahead, changing buying patterns and potentially changing the location of where you live and/or work.

The notion of place, where you live or work, is where the book falls short. When Balish lived in St. Louis he lived in the Central West End which afforded him many opportunities to walk to local stores as well as access to bus and light rail mass transit. Had Balish lived in say O’Fallon (Missouri or Illinois, doesn’t really matter) he would have had a difficult time being car-free. Chapter 9, ‘Should You Move Closer to Work?’, suggests that moving to within 2-3 miles of work will “change your life.” Well, that heavily depends upon the context of where you work. Someone might live behind the Galleria and work at the Hanley Industrial Court only a few miles away but getting back and forth between the two was a challenge even before the reconstruction of highway 40.

This is not to say that suburbs are bad and the inner core city is good. For example, a person that works in say Webster Groves or Ferguson and works nearby could likely function quite well without a car. With all the basic services within walking distance to adjacent residential neighborhoods (which are connected via a good network of streets) a person could live well without owning a car.

When Balish does a 2nd edition I’d like to see him have a chapter on things to look for when deciding where to live. Does the area have good sidewalks and curb cuts (for pushing the baby stroller)? How far away is the nearest market (not necessarily a ‘supermarket’, just market)? In the book he does devote a good amount of ink to suggesting that you look for local churches, schools, dry cleaners and so on when going car free. If someone doesn’t live in such an environment, they need to know what to look for and what to avoid. He does suggest locating near a transit stop when possible.

Balish breaks the chapters up into four basic sections: 1) Why you’re better off not owning a car, 2) getting to work without a car, 3) non-work transportation and 4) living well without a car. It is within this framework that Balish basically covers all the issues that a person will face going car free — from basics to getting to and from work, to handling social functions to dating.

Again, the book isn’t remotely preachy except that car ownership costs more than we all think — often twice the price paid for a vehicle after 5 years of ownership. The $25,000 car will likely run you about fifty grand after five years. Balish does the math for you showing how if you invested that same money instead you could save money for a kid’s education, a down payment on a house or retirement.

Another area the book falls short is with respect to families. He, like me, is single and therefore says a family can be car-free but he doesn’t really offer tips on the best types of strollers or other items a car-free family might need. The volume of toys, diaper bags and other items being toted around in a car for junior now is amazing. Without the SUV to permit the relatively easy transport of such items, parents would need to think on a smaller scale of what items do they need for a particular outing.
However, Balish does suggest that families consider going from two cars to one — shifting schedules and making other changes to permit eliminating one of the cars. I know many couples in the St. Louis area that have only a single car.

To me this is a great resource of easy to understand concepts about taking taxis, using transit, bicycling short distances and so on. The car is a wonderful tool that has given Americans mobility for years. As expenses rise and many now go into debate for 60 months or more to finance a car this mobility has turned into a requirement. Getting rid of the car does allow you live well as Balish describes and it gives you a new sense of freedom that no car can match. Highly recommended for anyone looking to be car-free, car-lite or perhaps just head that direction.


St. Louis Magazine Drops the Glitterati for Green in January Issue

jan-cover-smallWell, not really. The glitterati section is still there — you know people must be seen at all the social functions wearing just the right overpriced outfit. Still, the staff at St. Louis Magazine found time to put together an interesting green issue — their first.

The magazine is still on the same paper and most likely using the same inks as it has been, I see no indication of any recycled paper content or earth-friendly inks. An evaluation of the paper stock and printing methods they use would be a good idea! From “E: The Environmental Magazine” in 2001:

When it comes to promoting ecological destruction, toxic pollution and wastefulness on a large scale, it’s hard to beat the magazine industry. According to Coop America, nearly 95 percent of magazines print on paper with no recycled content, condemning 17 million trees to death by the saw each year.

But the trees cut to make paper are only the first environmental victims of magazine publishing. Turning those trees into pulp consumes enormous amounts of energy and water, and the bleaching process creates dioxin, a chemical the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called “the most potent carcinogen ever tested on laboratory animals”

Environmentalist say this colossal problem could be greatly reduced simply by switching from virgin to recycled paper. Government research agrees. The EPA has reported that substituting one ton of 100 percent recycled paper for virgin paper saves 17 trees, 4,100 kilowatt-hours of electricity, 7,000 gallons of water and produces 60 pounds less air pollution.

The above is why I don’t get the number of magazines I used to. Even if we recycle them when done the trees are still gone and the pollutants are in our environment. I applaud St. Louis Magazine for doing a green issue, but their future issues need to actually be environmentally green. However, all the photos of the people featured in the green section were taken without any artificial flash and thus didn’t use any electricity — certainly worth noting

But, let’s move past magazine production to the content of the January 2008 issue.

Editor Stephen Schekenberg, a prior client of mine, helps introduce the topic for the month:

At present there is an incredible amount of environmental action taking place throughout St. Louis. In this first “green” issue of the magazine, we celebrate the stars of the region’s environmental scene: architects and designers, college kids and politicians, entrepreneurs and citizens. It’s hard to say what’s been more inspiring — learning what these St. Louisans are doing or hearing the attitude they have while doing it. Yes, the world’s environmental concerns are serious and significant. But their tone — and, we hope, ours — is neither gloom-and-doom nor finger-wagging. I’ve been inspired by their positivity, and their hope. I hope you will be, too.

One of the articles is 20 Cool Ways to Help Stop Global Warming. The number one thing? Ride a scooter, of course! The entire list is well worth reading. They didn’t include using a clothesline to hang laundry, I guess it wasn’t cool enough.

They also do a nice photo spread on the EcoUrban modular home in South City. Besides the nice photos, they point out all the various green features of the home which, to the naked eye, are not always apparent.

The main article is the “Green Giants” — those that are “doing the most to sustain our city — and our planet.” I’m not going to give away their entire list — you’ll have to get the magazine to see that. I did want to point out a few. Among the ‘citizens’ are Eric & Mary Brende as “models for slow living.” Eric Brende, some of you may recall, was the author of “Better OFF: Flipping the Switch on Technology” which I reviewed in July 2005. Eric pedals people around town on his rickshaw and Mary makes wonderful soaps she sells at the Soulard Farmers’ Market. I’ve been honored to speak to have been a guest in their home and I stop and talk to Mary when I am at the market or I’ll chat with Eric when I see him out and about (assuming he doesn’t have any customers).

In the ‘advocates’ section we have J.B. Lester, publisher of the popular Healthy Planet monthly in our region. Early on I wrote a monthly column for the Healthy Planet and one of my dearests friends, Lois Brady, was their food & travel editor for many years. Jeff McIntire-Strassburg from greenoptions.com and sustainablog.org is on the list as is the host of KDHX’s Earthworms show, Jean Ponzi. Also on this list is, well, me!

In the ‘entrepreneurs’ section we have Patrick Horine & Jenny Ryan of the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market and, along with Maddie Earnest and Jason McClelland, also of Local Harvest Grocery. Jenny Ryan is a recent graduate of the Urban Planning program I am in at SLU, her final ‘capstone’ for the degree being about local/sustainable food and the Tower Grove Market was used as a case study.

Also in this section is Terry Winkelmann, a co-owner of Home Eco — the cool store on Macklind that sells all the goods a green person needs. From a great selection of books, to hemp jeans, to solar panels and yes, worm bins — they’ve got it or can get it for you.

Numerous architects and builders are mentioned including Marc Lopata from Sage Homebuilders and Jay Swoboda and Nate Forst from EcoUrban.

In the ‘civic forces’ section we have Citizens for Modern Transit led by my friend (and UrbanReviewSTL reader) Thomas Shrout. Nothing better than debating light rail vs. streetcars with Mr. Shrout! Also mentioned is the Gateway Green Alliance for their activism including getting signatures to have the state audit the City of St. Louis. I’ll be on a panel hosted by the Greens on February 6th. The topic will be transportation – mark those calendars.

And finally we have the scholars and educators section. Someone who is both a scholar and educator as well as a personal friend, and the director of the Urban Planning and Real Estate Development program (UPRED) at St. Louis University, is Dr. Sarah Coffin. Dr. Coffin is one of the main reasons I entered the program at SLU. We don’t always agree on things but she is excellent at ensuring all students get a chance to express their views on the wide range of material presented in her classes. An expert in brownfield development, land trusts and a variety of other topics, I’m glad Dr. Coffin is here in St. Louis. And yes, I have her for one of my three courses next Spring but trust me when I say that sucking up doesn’t fly with Dr. Coffin — participation and well researched and presented ideas are required!

Another feature article, by Stefene Russell, is called Luddite’s Delight. This is how “one writer survived a month of treading lightly on the earth.” This is really a great read as Stefene decides to go green for a month and takes her husband on the journey with her. After starting off the article about the environmental credentials of her family, Stefene turns to herself:

And me? I recycle. That’s about it. In my family, I am the eco-blasphemer. The loser. The kid who might as well have become a dope dealer or an Amway distributor. My husband grew up in the suburbs, in a subdivision he describes as “so cookie-cutter, all the houses developed the same crack in the dining-room ceiling.” He spent his summer days watching MacGyver in an air-conditioned house, two-fisting Twinkies and Kool-Aid. He still loves hot dogs, video games, long meandering drives, new things crackling under plastic shrink-wrap, drive-through pizza, heated car seats, long showers, movie popcorn, swimming pools and gadgets of every sort.

One of my favorite lines from the piece:

Even my father, after going on a 45-minute screed about the “political boondoggle of ethanol,” recoils after I inform him I’m going to ride the bus. “That sounds pretty exotic,” he says. “Don’t you have any college students who could do that for you?”

This tale of Pradas, transit, MacGyver and toilet paper is an excellent read and thankfully an extended version is available online.
If you go out and buy the magazine be sure to offer it to someone else when you are done. If you’d rather not buy a copy, head to your nearest public library to read it in the periodicals section.


MO Secretary of State Says St. Louis Has Nearly 7,000 Fewer People Than St. Louis Claims

November 27, 2007 Books 6 Comments

Per the Post-Dispatch Political Fix I read that Secretary of State Robin Carnahan unveiled the new Official Manual today, commonly called the “Blue Book” apparently regardless of the color of the cover.  So I am looking through the online version because I didn’t get one of the forty thousand printed versions.

The online version is broken down into many small PDF files and I was browsing the municipal one.  Therein is a handy list of all the municipalities and how they are classified by the state, such as a Village, a 4th level , a 3rd level or in the case of St. Louis, a Home Rule city (bottom of P887).  Hmmm, population estimates.  The blue book lists St. Louis’ 2006 estimated population at 347,181 — considerably less than the 353,837 as estimated by the city and accepted by the U.S. Census in April of this year (see prior post).  I’ll save you the math, that is 6,656 less people.  Ouch, that is almost 2%!

Obviously the book is prepared at a given time and any changes afterwards really cannot be altered.  Still, St. Louis announced the revised population figures only two weeks after the April election.  Maybe they already had the municipal section done and were simply saving the newly elected reps for last?  Still, St. Louis has contested population figures for several years now so they really should have known.  Or does Missouri have their own census department that comes up with their own estimates?


Project for Public Spaces Focuses on Public Markets with Valuable Insights

The outstanding Project for Public Spaces continues to illustrate why they are the world leaders in creating quality public space — they understand fundamental relationships between humans and space. While we like to think we are unique in St. Louis the fact is human nature and how we perceive public space is similar throughout the world. Granted, some cultural differences do exist in the world — two men kissing each other on the cheek in Eastern Europe or the Middle East means something entirely different than on Castro Street in San Francisco. Regardless of cultural customs, what makes a good or bad space for human interaction is much the same.

Project for Public SpacesPPS divides their information into various areas of public space; parks, transportation, civic centers, downtowns, mixed-use
development, campuses, squares, waterfronts, and public markets. In each of these areas they’ve undertaken extensive research into what works and what does not work. Of course they continually monitor what is happening as demographics and technology change, recognizing that what may have not worked 20 years ago may work today, and vice versa. The lesson, continual evaluation.
The area of public markets is the topic for their September 2007 online newsletter. Note that I didn’t say “farmers’ market” as they don’t limit their markets to simply food — throughout the world much commerce takes place at public markets. These markets are a great form of low-overhead retailing.

In the St. Louis region the historic Soulard Market comes to mind as the most well known. As public spaces go, the Soulard Market is one of the best in the region. The diversity of shoppers, the various languages spoken, the vendors yelling out their specials, the decidedly non-uniform booths, and the shoppers negotiating the best prices all contribute to an experience you’ll not find in a big supermarket.

This month PPS’ newsletter included the following articles:

  • A Ripe Time for Local Food, four ways markets improve our communities by strengthening ties between urban and rural people.
  • What We Need to Learn from America’s Classic Markets, applying the lessons of Pike Place and other great markets.
  • Markets for All, how innovative markets serve the needs of low-income customers.
  • The Happy Shopper, why the most satisfying shopping experiences are more about social interaction than consumer acquisition.
  • Making the Case for Markets in Cold, Hard Cash; new tools and recent studies prove the positive impact of public markets on local economies.
  • Remarkable Market Anniversaries, historic markets around the U.S. are celebrating milestones this year.

All of the articles are easy reads and highly recommended for a good understanding of public markets. I’ve selected some paragraphs from each to peak your interest and present some key points:

To rebuild agricultural systems that can provide people with fresh, local food, we need to reverse the long deterioration of urban-rural connections. For years, the ties between urban consumers and nearby farmers–so strong before World War II–slackened and fell apart. Teeming market streets disappeared, farms were swallowed up by subdivisions, and the vital networks of market gardens that many cities once relied on shrank and fell into obscurity. City dwellers lost access to the freshest food and its inherent health benefits, and small producers in the countryside became an endangered species. At the same time, the social connections and sense of place fostered by local farmers markets slowly dissipated.

Believe it or not, America’s two most productive agricultural counties in the 1880s were Brooklyn and Queens. And all that produce didn’t just come from farmland untouched by urbanization. A lot of it was grown by city dwellers on garden plots, or “market gardens,” an important supplement to food shipped in from outlying farms.

“As more Asians and Latinos are immigrating to this country, they are bringing their own market traditions,” said PPS’s Steve Davies. “There is a great expansion of markets in diverse neighborhoods, where new arrivals are shaping the markets around their own cultures. Markets are places where all of these cultures, in fact, really come together.”

In addition to financial hurdles, indoor markets run the risk of appearing “Disneyfied,” Tumlin cautioned. “That’s true,” said Ron Binaghi of Stokes Farms. “That’s why some of the [Greenmarket] farmers are nervous about our moving into something more permanent. We don’t want to lose the special feeling of the outdoor market.”

The experience of a market is far more important to its success than any issues involving permanence or structure. In all the market surveys Project for Public Spaces has done around the world, the question “what do you like best about this market?” is always answered the same–it is the “experience” that attracts. The “3 Ps”–people, products and personality, plus that deeper sense of equality and reassurance–are what draw customers. Snazzy designs rarely register beyond a blip of a response.

Markets must not become so regulated or precious that their life and spontaneity are squeezed out. They must stay unfettered by convention and remain, as D. H. Lawrence said in his essay Mornings in Mexico, a “babel and a hubbub”, a place “to buy and to sell but above all to commingle”.

Another method to make markets more accessible is to bring them closer to customers. That’s what a Toronto organization called FoodShare accomplished by setting up small produce stands called “Good Food Markets” in low-income neighborhoods throughout the city. “Most of the farmers markets [in Toronto] are based in middle- and upper-income communities,” said Angela ElzingaCheng of FoodShare, adding that the cost of traveling across town to get fresh food is “very expensive for low-income communities.” To reduce those costs, FoodShare launched the first Good Food Markets in 2005. That summer there were two locations. This year there are twelve.

One time-proven way to gauge the effect of a market is to conduct an economic impact study, which gauges the positive influence on local communities in quantifiable terms. Comprehensive economic impact analysis, however, is expensive and beyond the means of most public markets. PPS asked Econsult to create a typology of public markets which takes into account their diversity and the diversity of the communities they serve. SEED is a web-based tool that provides a straightforward mechanism for collecting data about farmers markets from customer surveys and counts, and then uses the data to estimate direct and indirect economic impacts using a standard “multiplier” — that is, the potential indirect and induced expenditures of specific public markets. The website also provides useful information about economic impact studies.

When shopping is separated from the broader fun of hanging out in friendly, lively places, it becomes a hollow experience. It’s like a dinner party with plenty of food, but no conversation. Most malls minimize public space where folks can comfortably gather because they don’t want to distract us from the business of making purchases. It’s emblematic of the single-use zoning approach to life, where we live in one place, work in another, shop somewhere else and play in an entirely different spot, with none of them really offering us that joyful, biologically-fulfilling sense of being where the action is.

One article takes a good look at how a market in Lynn Massachusetts let’s low-income customers know they accept food stamps — signs were simply not enough. Their solution was creative and effective:

The Lynn Farmers Market responded by promoting the use of Electronic Balance Transfer (EBT), a form of food stamp distribution that works like a debit card. Customers swipe their EBT cards at the market and the price is deducted from their food stamp account. Last summer, Dimond and the Food Project launched a two-pronged strategy: adding a financial incentive for customers to pay using EBT, and marketing EBT at every opportunity.

The incentive, made possible by a small grant from a state-wide anti-hunger organization called Project Bread, gave customers one dollar of additional produce for every dollar they spent in EBT, up to $5.00. For example, if a customer spent $2.50 in EBT, they received $2.50 in additional produce. If they spent $10.00, they got $5.00 of extra produce.

Customers get more mouth-watering produce when they pay with EBT. “That type of promotion got the word of mouth going better than anything we’d tried before,” said Dimond.

The next step was to make sure everyone knew about the EBT promotion. Instead of relying on signs or banners, Food Project volunteers informed every customer that EBT was available, whether they were eligible to use it or not. That helped lessen any stigma associated with EBT, said Dimond.

“It got the word out, and it normalized EBT as a form of payment,” she noted. “A lot more people got the message.” As a result of the promotion, EBT sales grew steadily, eventually exceeding $200 per week.

This summer, the Food Project offered the dollar-for-dollar incentive earlier in the season. When August rolled around, they stopped giving out extra produce with EBT purchases. The timing was by design, because it enabled the Food Project to see if the promotion’s momentum would carry over once the financial incentive was off the table.

Sure enough, even without the lure of free produce, EBT sales have averaged $150 per week, compared to $35 per week at the start of the season. This year, the market’s total EBT sales have already exceeded last year’s tally, and there are still six weeks left in the season.

The Lynn Market accomplished several things with their strategy. First, they made sure customers knew they could buy quality food with their EBT cards. Second, and I think this is very important, they reduced any stigma that may have been associated with using an EBT card at the market, making low-income customers feel welcomed. And lastly after accomplishing their goal of letting customers know that EBT was accepted they eliminated the extra incentive so that it didn’t become a default entitlement.

Much of the talk this week has been about national retailers downtown which is certainly welcomed. But it is the local markets in our city/region that give me hope for the future. It has proven impossible for me to visit the Soulard, Tower Grove or Old North markets without seeing someone I know. To the casual observer, the Tower Grove market is simply some tents on a patch of asphalt. While technically true, the sum is without a doubt greater than the parts. Trying to replicate the dynamic through fancy architectural or planning theory could never be as successful. Certainly physical surroundings are important, a Southtown Center market in the parking lot would not have the same feel.

However, I’ve been to the big Hillcrest market in San Diego which is simply a collection of market tents on a temporarily blocked street and adjacent parking lot for a state office building. The alignment of the tents and throngs of shoppers transform a normally bland area into something special. A few hours later the market is over and the area returns to a rather drab normal level until the following week. The 3 P’s mentioned above come together — “people, products and personality.”

And of course I have some photos to share. First up, the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto:


Above, the large building houses two levels of market stalls.


Inside the shopper is greeted with a large variety of choices — everything from produce, to cheese to wild octopus!


The market spills across the street in a brutal 60s building. The people and activity give the building life and character it lacks on its own.


Still more booths are adjacent to both buildings in the form of tents, great for those vendors that don’t want long-term leases inside.

Back in St. Louis we have the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market, now it its second year:


Above, bike & trailer sit patiently amid all the hubub of the market in the background.


Local merchant, Home Eco, gives a talk on green building adjacent to the market.


The market activity can be seen through the building as a band begins to set up. The interactive fountain is momentarily empty except for me (I couldn’t resist — why should the youngsters have all the fun?).


Earlier this year, in much hotter weather, the 2-section interactive fountain was as popular as the market.


The market in Old North St. Louis is still in its infancy but with increasing demand.  A massive undertaking is the project to remove the failed mall concept and return 14th street to an actual street.  Work has already begun in earnest on nine buildings in the immediate blocks around the dormant outdoor mall.  Next year the next phase of the project will center on 14th and the buildings fronting the street which has been closed to traffic for 30 years.  This market will play in important role in the re-population and local economy of Old North.

Again, check out PPS’ September 2007 online newsletter for great information on markets.


Property on Virginia Illustrates Mixed Uses, Evolution of Buildings

Buildings are hardly static and the property at 5411 Virginia in South St. Louis is a perfect example. What was once a 1-story structure grew over the years into a 15,000+ complex that includes a storefront, an office, an apartment, a garage and lots of open space. Over the years this property has been an early gas station, a bowling alley, a dance hall, a fried pies stand, a tavern and, most recently, a large-scale costume shop.


Preservation of buildings usual involves looking at a “period of significance” architecturally or historically. When originally built the complex was much smaller than today but we know from records, like the above, that the dance hall portion of the building on the 2nd floor was in place by March 1935.


The modern storefront may date to the 1930s as well.

The terrazzo entry clearly identifies the use as a bowling alley. The wood floor remains as well as some of the markings but the gutters have been filled in with wood and the manual pin equipment has long been removed.


The 5,000sf upstairs ballroom is a more “raw” space as the current owners removed the old plaster ceiling when they purchased the building back in the 90s. The space was used occasionally for parties, weather permitting (this floor is not air conditioned).

St. Louis is full of equally interesting buildings that, over time, have changed and evolved — sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. They are always fascinating. A great book on the subject of buildings is How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand.

As you might expect by this point, I do have an other motive for this post.

At my previous real estate company I had this listing and when I left the listing stayed there, I’m on good terms with the company & seller so all is good. In the MLS the listing still shows as “pending” but a backup is requested. I know a bit more than this but it is inappropriate for me to share details.Let’s just say if you or someone you know might be interested in such a property get on the phone and call your agent, me or the folks at Schaller Realty. The listing price is $199,900. Click here to view the listing detail (w/additional photos & contact info). And for full disclosure, yes I will receive a referral fee upon closing of this property.