A Car Free Life

Cleveland Magazine writer Andy Netzel drives an average of 2,000 miles a month despite living only a mile and a half from work. He's addicted to his car, but agreed to part with his keys for a month to see if he could make it without his Toyota Yaris.
I know that I shouldn’t — that I have no right to, really —but I hate you.

Just looking at your gas-guzzling beasts driving the public roads is enough to make my stomach turn. Motorists. The word just sounds dirty.

It took a few weeks into my month of being car-free, but I understand now. I am addicted to automobiles. Not in the way enthusiasts lift open hoods and admire the fine craftsmanship of hardworking men like my grandfather, who worked for both Ford and Chevy, but the freedom to just get in and get wherever the hell I want to go.

In an average month I drive 2,000 miles. On Jan. 1, I quit my car cold turkey, handing over my keys so that I had no chance to cheat. With all the talk of how we’re ruining the environment, with an impending recession and the rising cost of fossil fuels, going car-free seems like the fix-all solution for a young, single guy like me. Of course, this would be easier in a public-transit-friendly place such as New York, with its vast subway and ubiquitous buses, but Cleveland has the Rapid and buses of its own that I’ve ignored almost entirely for all my life.

Having never had a major vice, one that truly shaped and controlled my life, I’ve never had to be an ex-anything. But now I recognize that I’m an addict, and I’m the worst kind. I’m the alcoholic who preaches sobriety in front of the bar. I’m the ex-smoker who scolds those with cigarettes hanging from their lips. I’m the former gambler who implores his buddies to forget about the point spread and just enjoy the game.

You, motorist, are ruining community, urban design, Cleveland and the world’s environment as a whole, as you ride through the open highways with the wind swirling through your hair (God, I miss that breeze) able to head to any spot on the map on a moment’s notice just to see what’s there (what’s in Belden anyway?) and able to be spontaneous (when is the last time I saw my Cincy friends?).

... Ahem.

Don’t hand me back my keys. I’m not ready yet.

* * *

My New Year’s Eve plans are bolstered with the “ding” of a received e-mail. I hope to spend the holiday in Kent at a good friend’s house. Solid plans, right?

The problem, I learn, is that no buses are really running back into Cuyahoga County on New Year’s Day. (I haven’t really thought through this whole giving-up-my-car thing.)

So I put a plea on Craigslist under the “Ride Share” category, hoping to rely on the kindness of a stranger who might want to save a few bucks on gas. Giving up your car is sooo, like, you know, environmentally conscious, I figure there has to be some kind of unwashed hippie who would let me sit in the back of his Volkswagen bus running on completely organic vegetable oil, or whatever.

So I open this response — the only one I receive — and discover that the cost of this ride is a little too steep.

The offer, from someone named “Fred Kotex,” is an indecent proposal.

Needless to say, I watch the ball drop in West Park instead after only two bus transfers. (It’s the 81 to the 55X to the 86 — and I know what that means by the time I get there.)

Vowing to live the month of January without my car seemed like a great idea until now. This is going to suck.

* * *

On Jan. 1, the first day I am officially forbidden to drive, I have an interview in Ohio City with Ryan McKenzie, the owner of car-sharing company City Wheels and the author of “Car-free in Cleveland,” a guidebook to the city’s public transportation and biking laws, which people who drive cars never learned and, therefore, completely ignore.

But it is an official holiday, and the buses are running on a different schedule. I miss my ride. Snow has started to fall — 6 to 9 inches are predicted by day’s end.

My first thought: I should just take my car. I’m less than 12 hours into this experiment, and already I almost cheated. But I think Ryan might catch me. So I hop on my bike and pedal there from Tremont. At the Abbey Avenue bridge, a previously unnoticed, wicked crosswind turns my winter coat into a sail, pushing me back toward Tremont and almost toppling my two-wheeled Gold Eagle hoop-d bicycle (with affixed milk crate).

I arrive out of breath, sweaty and tardy. Ryan cuts me off before I say anything: “Don’t apologize. I expected you to be late.”

He gives me some books, pamphlets and advice: I am crazy for trying this experiment in January, when many car-free Clevelanders pedal slowly around used car lots in moments of weakness.

“Access to a car is the great equalizer,” he says. “It takes care of everything. It’s your climate-controlled privacy box. It’s your time machine. You go whenever you want and have a reasonable expectation of within five minutes when you’ll arrive some place. You have your music with you and the capability to carry as much as you want. You can be completely spontaneous about changing plans.”

Remember, I wanted to do this. I thought it would be fun and challenging. But listening to him, I’m dreading this.

“Living without a car is a great thing from a community standpoint,” he consoles. “Sometimes you’re ready for that interaction, sometimes you’re not. Sometimes you have to deal with shady people, but it usually turns out OK.”

Turns out, a car-free existence can save you an average of $500 a month on gas, car payments, repairs, etc.

Ryan looks at my bare, red knuckles and down coat. He has a few suggestions until I get through the book he gave me: Pay attention to the weather and dress for it. Always lock up your bike, which should have fenders and be easily accessible. Plan trips well in advance. Carry bus schedules with you. Build a relationship with an individual taxi driver, who knows you and who you can count on. Don’t rely on the bus being right on time. If minutes count, then take the previous bus.

Ryan also runs a car-sharing business, where you can rent a car by the hour. That helps some people live without the expense of owning a car. He says it’s akin to “the patch” for smokers.

I sign up as soon as I get home.

* * *

The first few trips on the bus are so gratifying. Pulling that cord and stepping off relatively near my intended destination feels like a victory.

It doesn’t matter if the bus is late. It doesn’t matter if it took twice as long to get there. The system is beatable.     It’s possible to get somewhere without driving.

I’ve started turning down most ride offers. When a kind soul gives me a lift, I want to cuss at the idiots on  the road. Even as a passenger, driving is kind of a pain in the butt.

I look forward to full bus shelters. The conversation is never really rich. We’re only friends until the 9X or the 14 or 23 shows up, but those few moments are real.

Still not taking Ryan’s advice about dressing properly, I find myself shivering outside one evening. A woman with half a cup of coffee comes up to me, and we start to talk. Her name is Gayle, and she lives in a halfway house. She tells me to drink the rest of her coffee. I refuse, but she says she bought it to get warm, and now she is, so I should drink the rest. I’m appreciative, but when the bus comes, she disappears, never asking me for anything. We haven’t seen each other again.|

* * *

On the bus, I see a sign that makes me laugh.

It proudly announces that the RTA was named the best public transit system in North America for 2007. This has to be a new award — a contest that other cities didn’t enter, right? It turns out, this award was previously won by New York, Washington, San Francisco and Toronto — places I expect you could get around without a car. But Cleveland?

Come on.

“It’s a Cleveland thing,” says Joe Calabrese, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. “People in Cleveland don’t think a lot of what we have is great. We’re not perfect, but neither is any other public transit system in the country.”

At least the RTA is willing to acknowledge the other riders who have the same reaction. On the Rapid and some of the buses, there are signs announcing the award, and in parentheses it reads: “No, really.”

* * *

A family of four boards a tiny bus at the Steelyard Commons Wal-Mart. They fill half the 807 Community Circulator with groceries. They had lost their car, and this is their first time grocery shopping without it. They hadn’t thought about how to get the bags home.

But nobody minds. We just squeeze a little closer.

Over the month of January, I don’t let bus travel limit me. The monthly bus pass hangs around my neck, an un-chic fashion accessory. I visit my folks in Mentor and meet a friend for a movie in Westlake. (Heck, I may have traveled 2,000 miles on the bus and Rapid.)

One of the big reasons friends tell me they don’t ride the bus is the creepy people that use public transit. But in all this time, I only see one dude who I would classify as “creepy.” Heading out toward University Circle (on the No. 6), he rants and lectures and screams incoherently before leaving the bus, still rambling.

Surprisingly enough, the undercrust of Cleveland doesn’t appear to make up the percentage of ridership I suspected. Instead, I see normal, everyday Clevelanders. During commuting hours, five people on my street regularly take the bus downtown. The bus is filled with professional types, dressed better than me in my rumpled slacks. In Cleveland proper, one in eight people use RTA to get to work, according to the latest Census estimates.

I tell Calabrese about my surprise at the lack of smelly, nasty creeps on his buses and Rapid cars. He looks me up and down, then smiles. “The question is, do they think you’re one of those creepy people?”

Fair point.

* * *

It’s a Thursday night, and musician Kristine Jackson finishes playing an incredible night of blues at the Parkview Nite Club.

A friend met me there for drinks, and after she leaves, I head for the bus stop. My belly is full of Conway’s Irish Ale, keeping me warm despite the cold wind. I arrive at the bus stop two minutes too late and must wait quite a while for a bus ... or to get mugged.

Thankfully the bus driver shows up first, and while her face shows worry that my intoxication might be cause for a problem, it is exactly the reason I don’t mind the hour it takes me to get home.

* * *

A few weeks in, I’ve really stopped thinking about the bus as an inconvenience. I still haven’t used City Wheels. The things I dreaded have all turned out to not be a big deal:
  • Lugging groceries: I bought canvas bags from the grocery store. Two hold a week’s worth of food for a single guy like me.
  • Not knowing when to pull the string: In the beginning, I asked the drivers for help. Since then, I check a map beforehand so I know what big streets to look for as triggers.
  • Not being able to get anywhere: Most places are on a bus line or within walking distance of one.
  • Winding up in bad neighborhoods: Nobody messes with me, and passing through some of the neighborhoods reminds me that as a society we’re probably more afraid of places than we need to be.
  • Honestly, most of Cleveland is not that scary.
  • Creepy people: Just me.

    * * *

    On Feb. 1, I retrieve my car keys from colleague Erick Trickey. (I asked him to stow them — and the spare set — when I saw how tempted I was to cheat.) The Yaris starts with the first crank, surprising me. I had my roommate on alert that I’d probably need a jump.

    Taking off from my driveway, I try to figure out where I should drive. I think about heading to the Arabica on Detroit. Later that night, I plan to get dinner at the adjacent My Friends restaurant, then go bowling with friends. But as I get to the edge of my neighborhood, I turn around. It just doesn’t seem right.

    Sure, taking the bus out to Mentor isn’t practical, but driving to West 116th Street is a waste.

    I put the car in park, grab my bowling bag and walk to the bus stop.

    * * *

    A strange side effect has come with bus riding.

    I’m shoveling my walk after every snow. I am talking to more neighbors. I’m shopping locally — not within 5 miles, but within walking distance. Why not pay the 30 cents extra for a gallon of milk and help keep that corner store in my neighborhood around?

    I even attend a block meeting, wanting to hear how I could make where I live better.

    My car has kept me so detached from the world around me. What I thought was giving me freedom was really giving me an excuse to ignore my surroundings.

    Going completely car-free is not something everyone could do, not even me, realistically. As a reporter, most months it would be a waste of company time to take the bus over driving to an interview, but not always. I could deal with downgrading to a beater, and do a month’s worth of driving each year.

    So I’m sold. Hopefully not all of you are: 
    FOR SALE: 2007 TOYOTA YARIS HATCHBACK. Bayou Blue. Automatic. 24k miles. Well-maintained, mostly highway miles. One owner. $10k. Call daytime. (216) 377-3709.

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