Car-less in Seattle

May 31, 2013

“Walking is a simple and useful thing, and such a pleasure, too.”
— Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time

Lately I’ve been preoccupied with the idea of walking because upon my return from vacation, my car was stolen from in front of my house.  Thankfully, it has been recovered, but during the two weeks it was missing, I was contemplating how to have an enjoyable summer if I were restricted to using my feet and public transportation to get around.  This would have been doable with rather minimal actual hardship because I live right in a city with a good bus system and relatively safe streets.  I have a bus pass, so I could get to work and a few grocery stores by bus.  I live three miles from my workplace and several grocery stores and coffee shops, so I could also get along by walking much of the time as well.  I could also dust off my bike.

The biggest sacrifice would be giving up out-of-town drives and hikes, which I like to do in the summer.  I resolved that, if my car was not found, I would hold off replacing it and explore using a car sharing program for my longer distance drives.  Seattle has Car2Go and ZipCar options.

Walkable City by Jeff Speck

Walkable City by Jeff Speck

During the days I was car-less, I happened to check out a library book called Walkable City:  How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck.  He looks at walkability from an urban planning perspective, and I found much of the book fascinating.  For example, I learned that my personal interest in walking is not unusual for my age group, baby boomer empty nesters.  But another age group, the millennials, who grew up watching Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex in the City, also aspire to live in cities with a vibrant pedestrian culture.

Speck distinguishes between ‘useful’ walking and ‘recreational’ walking.  For a city to be seen as pedestrian friendly, one must be able to incorporate walking into one’s daily routines, such as picking up dry cleaning or groceries, stopping at the library, or visiting a coffee shop or bookstore.  Speck points out that when you choose to go car-less, you support local businesses more.  And because city-dwellers can drive less, their environmental imprint is usually much smaller than those who live in the suburbs or the country.

Speck speaks about safety for pedestrians and bikers, citing studies that show the safest sidewalks are protected from moving cars by a line of parked cars.  “Few sidewalks without parking entice walking . . .”  Paradoxically, “the safest roads are those that feel the least safe, demanding more attention from drivers.”

And not all green spaces are the most appealing landscapes for walkers, who want visual interest (such as shop fronts and street vendors) and spaces that give a sense of enclosure (such as porches, arcades, awnings and colonnades).

Now that I do have my car back, I still want to make a real effort to drive it less.  I like the idea of living in a ‘walkable’ city, one with a cool pedestrian and bike culture.  I look forward to the day when Seattle adopts a bike-share program, because that is something that I would likely use.  My nephew helped to implement such a program in NYC this past week.

I will be thinking more about car-free life because of another challenge that faces me right now.  My Israeli niece is visiting the U.S. for two months, and she wants to travel by public transportation to several of our national parks.  Is this even possible?  I look back on my travels in Europe and marvel at how easy it is to get around there.  How I wish the United States had a similar infrastructure for traveling conveniently by train or bus.  Will my niece be able to realize her dream vacation in the United States?  I guess we will be finding out.

Zebra striped bicycle on a canal in Amsterdam

Zebra striped bicycle on a canal in Amsterdam

I am totally in love with the bike culture in the Netherlands.  It’s impressive.  EVERYONE bikes.  Older people, parents toting children (1, 2 or 3 on a single bike!), shoppers, men in business suits, women in high heels.  In Amsterdam, the bike lanes are more than twice as wide as the pedestrian sidewalks where you often have to walk single file.  And the Netherlands has an excellent system of paved paths between towns and cities.  I wish we could do half so well here in America.

Parked bikes, Haarlem

Parked bikes, Haarlem

Getting ready to leave the Grote Market with her purchases

Getting ready to leave the Grote Market with her purchases

Shopping at the market by bike

Shopping at the market by bike

Bike loaded with shopping

Bike loaded with shopping

Mother and daughter biking along a canal in Haarlem

Mother and daughter biking along a canal in Haarlem

Classy rider with heels

Classy rider with heels

Bikes parked along a narrow residential street in Haarlem

Bikes parked along a narrow residential street in Haarlem

My sister called this the latest version of the "covered wagon."

My sister called this the latest version of the “covered wagon.”

Double-decker bike parking near the train station in Delft

Double-decker bike parking near the train station in Delft

Dad with kids

Dad with kids

At the Delft flower market

At the Delft flower market

Innovative carrying solutions

Innovative carrying solutions

This older woman gave a graceful hop onto her bike -- you could tell she had executed this movement thousands of times in her life.

This older woman gave a graceful hop onto her bike — you could tell she had executed this movement thousands of times in her life.

Weekend bikers aon a trail near Zaanse Schaans (example of trail between towns)

Weekend bikers on a trail near Zaanse Schaans (example of trail between towns)

Decorative bike guard on a canal in Amsterdam

Decorative bike guard on a canal in Amsterdam