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St. Louis Needs a Car Sharing Program

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I’ve been enjoying my recent lack of car ownership but I am far from car-free, for example I catch rides with friends at times. This is a good thing, it forces some car pooling where we all might take single occupancy vehicles otherwise. I’ve had a meeting on the east side with a combination of my scooter, light rail, bus and walking — quite enjoyable. But I tell you, I’ve gotten soaked before and right now it is scorching hot outside. Just try to find a public drinking fountain these days.

There have been times where I wanted to go beyond where my scooter and transit would take me — not necessarily long distance but just in busy areas where transit is not convenient. For these times it would be nice to have access to a car maybe just for an hour or two. This is where car sharing (wiki) comes in the picture.

From local co-ops to national companies like Flexcar and Zipcar, car sharing is becoming increasingly popular across North America. It allows people to not own a car but have access to one those times they need it. Locally people have been working on car sharing for some time, trying to get funding to support the cars when not in use. The community benefits are great — people spend less money on car ownership so they have it for other things such as housing, food, or even entertainment. With more people owning fewer cars, less space is dedicated to the storage of cars — mostly sitting idle all day.

At right, a Toyota Corolla from Flexcar near transit in downtown San Diego. 


First Time in 25 Years, I Don’t Own A Car!

I bought my first car, a horrible ’74-1/2 Mustang II, when I was 15 years old. I couldn’t drive it yet but we had plenty-o-parking — our suburban driveway could hold up to nine vehicles with two more in the garage. We never had that many cars at a time but you get the point. Since then I’ve owned a whole series of cars — once having three at one time.

For the first time in my adult life I can say “I don’t own a car.” More importantly, cars no longer own me. This is not to say I will ban cars from my life because I know that not to be true, I will ride with friends and I will even rent a car now and then. And yes, come winter, I may break down and buy a car to get me through the really cold weather.

The longest journey begins with a single step, not with a turn of the ignition key.
Edward Abbey

For years now I had been bicycling and, since September 2005, using my trusty Honda motor scooter to get around in town, all while still owning and using a car. The car was always there when I needed it or just didn’t feel like getting out the scooter or bicycle — that quick trip to the store or some other errand. Even when I’d have a car break down I’d routinely get a loaner from the dealer or pick up a rental. I was never long without a car.

On May 7th I parked my car at a friend’s house while I was going to be on my 5-day trip through rural Kansas & Iowa. The next day I walked a few blocks to catch the bus and then caught MetroLink to the airport. Even on that trip I didn’t drive — my friend Rich rented the vehicle and drove the entire time. Aside from me not being a good passenger (although I am learning to be), I’ve really enjoyed not driving.

Upon return I left my car at my friend’s place so I’d not be tempted to drive it — I had to see for myself if I could manage, and I did. In the time since I have relied on my scooter to get me where I needed to go — I mostly stay in the city or inner ring suburbs. Those of you locally know we’ve had some pretty good downpours of late and I can say I did not escape the wrath from above — I got drenched a couple of times. The world did not come to an end when I got wet or adjusted my schedule around some bad weather, I dealt with it.

A few days ago I thankfully handed over my car keys to the new owner and on the 4th I celebrated another type of freedom. Some long awaited financial freedom — I’d been making car payments since the Fall of 2000 on three different vehicles (VW, Audi and Scion). I’d had periods before that of payments and unplanned repair bills.

In the 3 years since I left my well-paying 9-5 job my income has dropped considerably while my personal happiness has increased dramatically. The old joke has to do with going to work to pay for the car while needing the car to get to work — a never ending cycle. The car has brought us an unmatched level of personal mobility yet the costs give some less freedom than they like. The freedom of the car had, for me, turned into the trap of the car.

Driving a brand new car feels like driving around in an open billfold with the dollars flapping by your ears as they fly out the window.
– Grey Livingston

I did the math on what I’d probably spent in the last 24 years that I have owned a car — well over $120,000 and I have zip to show for it. That is really depressing when you stop and think about it. I could be nearly debt free, including my mortgage, with that kinda cash.

Of late, the cost of graduate tuition at St. Louis University was conflicting with car ownership (payments, insurance, etc…), something had to give. Getting a masters’ degree, I decided, was more important than retaining a car. My ego would simply have to deal with society’s view of me not owning a car — I frankly don’t care if someone thinks less of me for not owning a car.

Americans are broad-minded people. They’ll accept the fact that a person can be an alcoholic, a dope fiend, a wife beater, and even a newspaperman, but if a man doesn’t drive, there is something wrong with him.
Art Buchwald

As I indicated above, I was making some good money in the past that I am not now. However, my real estate and consulting business is picking up quite a bit of late — more on that next week. The point is I am not going to do things I don’t like to earn money to pay for things society thinks I must have, I want to do the work that makes me happy. I’ll be the first to admit that a good bit of my personal ego has been wrapped up in the car I drove and I have sadly passed judgement on others about their car choice or even worse, a lack of a car.

A car is costly and should not be mandatory for functioning in our society. I had long thought that you had to live in Manhattan to be car-free but that is just not the case, the last two months of personal testing have proven that to me.

Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.
Lewis Mumford

It will not be my intention here to guilt owners of cars (SUVs yes). I already know many couples that have managed to go from two cars down to one — I hope that my sharing future experiences will encourage others to reduce car ownership and/or total miles driven. Not everyone can or should take the journey that I am embarking on — we must all do what is right for ourselves. For me, this was a good time to go car-free.

Mumford is right, let’s build our cities for lovers and friends, not the damned car.


Madison County Transit Offers Free Rides, $10 Youth Summer Pass

The folks over at Madison County Transit (MCT) are trying to entice people to ride transit by offering free rides, a try it before you buy it sort of program.  From the press release:

With warm weather fast approaching, Madison County Transit (MCT) is gearing up for its annual Summer Youth Pass program by inviting Madison County youth and their parents to a free ride on a MCT bus from five separate locations throughout the county. These events, which will officially kick-off the Summer Youth Pass season will take place on Saturday May 5 and Saturday May 12:

  • Edwardsville Station: May 5, 2007 at 9:30 a.m.
  • Wood River Station: May 5, 2007 at 11:30 a.m.
  • Collinsville Station: May 12, 2007 at 9:00 a.m.
  • Granite City Station: May 12, 2007 at 11:00 a.m.
  • Alton Square: May 12, 2007 at 1:00 p.m.

Seems like an interesting way to get more riders.  MCT is a bus-only system servicing cities in Madison County and connecting into East St. Louis and Downtown St. Louis.  For more detail see the full press release.


San Diego Spring Break: Urbanist Gone Wild

This week I am vacationing in sunny San Diego for Spring break from graduate courses at Saint Louis University. But I am never fully on break, yesterday I checked out a number of areas of the region and thought I’d share a few with you.

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Above is an on-street motorcycle/scooter parking area in downtown San Diego. So while those on cars must pay $6 to park in the lot behind, those with more reasonable modes of transit were able to park for free. Really small and light scooters, such as my Honda Metropolitan, would still be vulnerable to theft if left in the above area not locked up. Still, this is a highly effective use of space.
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Adjacent to a major trolley line is a small parking lot with a Flexcar, allowing members easy access to a car for those times they need one.

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San Diego’s trolley system has some interesting differences with say Portland’s streetcar.  In reality, technology these days is developing and blending so quickly the differences between streetcar, trolley, tram and light rail and getting muddied. In the downtown area the trolley acted pretty much like a streetcar, stopping every 4 blocks or so.  However, as I took a suburban line toward Mexico the distance between stations could be measured in miles and the trolley acted more like a regional light rail system.
Above is a trolley with 3-4 cars at their 5th Avenue station.  The first thing you will notice is no raised platform.  The very front door includes a ramp for those needing wheelchair access.  In the extreme left of the image you will see a regular door open with a couple of steps and a final step slides out when the door opens.  Given how the wheelchair requirement is handled as a special case, the remainder of the system is pretty simple.  I did notice people boarding with bicycles or child strollers having difficulty.  Someone with physical disabilities but not in a wheelchair would also have issues with this set up.
Like St. Louis’ lightrail system, this operates on a honor system basis so their are no gates.  Just buy your ticket and board.  Unlike St. Louis, however, you must pay more for the greater distance you are traveling on the system.

When you approach a stopped trolley the doors do not open.  You press a button on the side of the vehicle to activate the door.  Similarly, from the inside when you reach a stop you press a button to open the door you wish to exit.

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I took the above picture while riding their trolley, showing a large area of downtown that has been rebuilt at a high-density residential neighborhood. Being adjacent to their CBD with easy transit access to other areas makes this a desirable place to live. However, I understand developers in other parts of downtown have gone too far and they have a glut of condos, more so in high rises.

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This is just around the corner from the prior picture. In the foreground you can see the track and the yellow “stand behind” line. Here the street width was divided up to allow a single flow of one-way traffic with on-street parking on one side.

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A few blocks away two new buildings surround the existing trolley line. The building on the left is a good 20+ floors while the one on the right is more like 8 floors. Again, cars and rail transit don’t mix here but by creating a narrow space it works well.

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I took San Diego’s Blue Line trolley all the way to the Mexican border. The building in the background on the right is the customs office for those crossing the border on foot or bicycle.

To get to dowtown I took a city bus while runs along a major street just a block from my friend’s house.  I noticed they have several brands/models of bus but most are what we will have eventually, a “low-floor” bus pretty much like those used in our region by Madison County Transit.  In these buses the floor is very low and when the bus stops it lets out some air on the suspension system and the floor is pretty well even with the curb height.  This makes boarding & unboard much easier and faster.  At the rear of the bus you get an area that steps up a bit above the rear axel.  Like the trolley system, you pay more depending upon where you are going.

I’ve got lots more to see while in San Diego including a couple of grocery stores with underground or rooftop parking.


Mississippi River Bridge: Last Option is the Best Option

A proposed new bridge across the Mississippi River is back in the news of late. Missouri and Illinois still cannot agree on how to pay for the bridge “now estimated to cost between $999 million and $1.76 billion.” (P-D 2/1/07). Call me a synic but if they are estimating such a range I’m going to go with the high end or better when the final bill is paid. In no way do I believe that it would come in under a billion. I’m going to go with $1.5 billion.

So we have several choices: the big highway bridge, a more cost-effective “coupler” built near the existing King Bridge and lastly we have a proposal to fix some of the existing interchanges, a new I-64 interchange in Illinois and redo parts of Illinois Route 3. The feds have already earmarked $239 million for the bridge project — money that presumably can go for this work. Interestingly, these little third option strategies are all items that need to be done anyway. I say stop wasting time on the bridge debate and get to work on fixing the areas that need fixing. Get the bottleneck areas resolved. Is this too short term and not the long-range planning I prefer we do? Perhaps.

I still question the “need” for a new bridge, especially one costing over a billion dollars to construct. Keep in mind that the old McKinley bridge will be reopening for traffic (including cyclists) in September connecting just north of downtown to Illinois Route 3 to Granite City and Madison County. This combined with the King Bridge and Eads Bridge into downtown can handle considerable local traffic. The new bridge as proposed will, in my view, simply shift sprawl from the Western edge of our region (St. Charles County) to the far Eastern edge of the region. Proponents say this will help re-center the City of St. Louis within the region. I suppose that is true, but so would curbing the sprawl through various Smart Growth measures employed by other regions. A billion or so would do wonders in the region for curbing sprawl and building more localized transit.

Frankly, if someone wants to buy a big house way out in Illinois and doesn’t like the traffic on I-64 they have several choices. One, move closer so the drive is not so long. They can get off the highway and take local streets that will get them across the river on other bridges besides the Poplar Street Bridge (aka the PSB). They can utilize the excellent MetroLink light rail system that serves a good portion of St. Clair County in Illinois or bus service to the city from Madison County Transit. Perhaps Illinois with its substantial transportation funding could help out Madison County by helping fund their proposed MetroLink extension.

This bridge, if finally built will not grow our region. It will simply shift suburban sprawl around a bit — a zero sum gain for the region. And simply put, the more lanes you build the more volume will increase putting you right back where you started at some point. As we’ve seen in the past, the city will remain a pass-through. Let’s fix the areas that need fixing and then work on moving people & jobs closer to the center — both in Illinois and Missouri.