Thursday, September 15, 2016

Car Free vs. Commute Free

I've been thoroughly enjoying reading about Fiona's adventures after she and her family decided to move so they could ditch their commute and live a more walk-able lifestyle.

It got me to thinking...

Over the years I've read a lot of blogs, articles and what not on the idea of becoming "car free." Meanwhile, Denver's been undergoing an incredible growth boom, and the topic of public transportation looms large here, as the city grapples with the influx of new people, and the limitations of our automobile based infrastructure.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think public transportation is critically important, and I have nothing but the utmost admiration for people willing to take on the challenge of living entirely car free.

But the thing is, commuting is still commuting, no matter how you get from point A to point B. And if you have to spend as much (if not more) time commuting via public transportation than you did in a car (which, unfortunately, is often the case) then I'm not sure you've really gained all that much, other than greenie bragging rights.

Sometimes I wonder if, with all the frenzied efforts to find better ways to move people around, we aren't missing the bigger picture here. To me the natural question is: why do we need to move so many people so many miles on a daily basis anyhow?

Obviously, the answer to that question is somewhat complex, and way beyond the scope of a simple blog post. But for the moment, let's put aside the "why" and just look at the reality of the situation.

The average one-way commute in the US is 25.4 minutes - that works out to about 4 and a quarter hours per week or nearly 9 solid days (as in 24 hour days) per year! To add insult to injury, the average American spends around $2600/year on commuting costs.

To put that number into perspective, consider this: the average American has less than $1000 in savings! So think about it, if the average American could find a way to ditch their commute, and simply pocketed the money they would otherwise have spent on commuting costs, they could more than triple their savings over the course of a year, plus they'd get 9 days of their lives back!

The thing that gets to me about this situation is how much people take commuting for granted... like it's just the way it is, and always will be. But the thing is, there was a time in the not too distant past, when our society didn't work that way.

Now, CatMan and I are fans of old movies, and not long ago we watched a Cary Grant classic called Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House.

The movie was made in 1948 and it's basically a light-hearted romantic comedy about an ad executive and his wife who decide to move their family from their cramped NYC apartment to a beautiful home in Connecticut. And while the intent of the film is certainly not to make any sort of societal statement, it inadvertently serves as a glimpse into the beginnings of the flight to the suburbs that ensued shortly after WWII.

The story begins with the couple waking up and suffering through their morning routine - tripping over each other in the bathroom, no room for storage, yadda, yadda, yadda.

They end up buying an old farm house, which turns out to be uninhabitable, so they tear it down and set about constructing the perfect home. There are a series of humorous mishaps as anything and everything that can go wrong does, but they all end up happy as clams at the end in their beautiful, spacious new home.

Of course, they also end up mortgaged to the hilt, and exchanging a somewhat civilized lifestyle for one that I consider to be barbaric. Back in the "cramped" apartment, our protagonist got up at 7:30 in the morning, had breakfast with his family and then walked to his office. But now that he has his "dream house" he has no choice but to to get up at 5am to catch the 6:15 train into the city every day! It's hard for me to see how this is an improvement!

Honestly, I had a difficult time watching the film. I mean, it's cute and funny and all... and it's hard not to like Cary Grant & Myrna Loy, but I just couldn't escape the sensation that I was somehow witnessing the genesis of societal doom.

There MUST be a better way! And I truly believe that there is.

You see, Fiona's quest for a commute-free life is actually not a new idea for me. Waaaaay back in the 1970's my dad & stepmom did the same thing. They rented out their house, and moved across town so they could live just a few blocks from the hospital where they both worked.

Dad's "new" house was actually nearly 100 years old, as was the neighborhood where it was located. So besides being able to walk to work every day, they also enjoyed many long lost benefits of the pre-automobile world, like having a corner grocery store. I have many fond memories of my step-mom handing me a few dollars and sending me down to the end of the block to pick up a few missing ingredients for dinner.

This isn't the store in their neighborhood, but it's about the same size & looks very similar
You know, in many ways, growing up in a divorced family totally sucks. But there are also some real benefits, and one of them is that you sorta get to have two different families. And in my case at least, that allowed me to experience two completely different sets of lifestyle choices.

Over the years I watched as my mother's daily commute grew longer and longer... partially because her office kept moving further away to newer and groovier office parks, and partially because every year the traffic got worse.

By the time I was in high school, my mom had to leave for work before 7 in the morning, and didn't get home until after 7 in the evening. I'm sure some of that was due to working long hours, but at least 2 of those hours were spent commuting... every. single. day.

And somehow, it was like the whole pace of life at my dad & stepmom's house, was just completely different than it was at home with my mom. I mean, my dad & stepmom took a walk to the local park after dinner every night. They knew every single neighbor on the block - they still do, in fact, as they still live there 40 years later. Meanwhile, the only neighbors we knew in our suburban sub-division were the families of my school friends. It's like my dad & stepmom actually inhabited the neighborhood where they lived, while we simply "camped" in ours between other activities.

Our neighborhood wasn't actually this bad, but you get the idea
In my current home, I've almost had the experience both ways. When I first moved here, I was still working loooong hours at the music school. which, while it was only 8 miles away, was in a totally different neighborhood. In those days it felt a lot like our house in the suburbs. I got up, left for work, worked all day, ran errands on my way home, fell asleep, and did it all over again the next day. I usually did my shopping & banking & whatnot in the neighborhood where I worked, because it was just easier to run over on my lunch/dinner break than it was to deal with those sorts of things "after hours."

Then, I quit my job and started "working" from home, and everything changed. I suddenly realized that I had virtually everything I needed within easy walking/biking distance, and I actually started to live in my own neighborhood. It's hard to describe how different it feels, but these days I feel grounded and connected here. I know most of the people (and all of the dogs) on the block, the mailman waves to me when he sees me out on my bike, and I just feel like I have a genuine investment in what happens here, more so than I ever did before.

Anyhow, this post is getting really long, and I'm not entirely sure what conclusion to draw or what point I'm trying to make. I just can't help but think that we, as a society, might all be better served if we focused a little bit less on finding new and better ways to shuttle people in and out of our cities, and a little more on creating a society where commuting is unnecessary in the first place.

So if anyone out there is considering a lifestyle change, and you're trying to decide between going car free and going commute free, I highly recommend the latter. It will change everything for the better.

What do you think? Have you ever lived without a car or without a commute? I'd love to hear about your experiences and thoughts on this whole topic.


  1. Thanks Cat, I really enjoyed this post. I'm hoping (in the distant future!) to build my home out of the small city I live in, so that I can have a bit of land. But on that side, I also plan on being self employed and working from home. So the only "commute" I'll have is to visit my parents whenever I feel like it.

    I currently commute to college in the next city over, which takes about 45 minutes, and frankly if this wasn't my last year, I don't know if I'd be able to stick it much longer. However it's cheaper for me to do this than live there. I guess we have to weigh up all the factors.

    1. That sounds like a wonderful plan! And I think a temporary commute is a totally different thing than an every day for the rest of your life commute! :-)

  2. I have a car free commute (I walk to work) but I still have a car, as a lot of my leisure activities are not accessible by public transport and therefore require driving- we drive to the forest to run with the dog and I drive to the stables to ride, for example.
    A walking commute is great because there is no traffic and I get exercise! I wouldn't want a drive commute any more.

    1. That's pretty much how I use my car too. As with most things, I don't think the technology itself (in this case automobiles) is bad, I just think it's how we use it that gets us into trouble. I track my mileage on the car just for the sake of curiosity, and I'm only at 400 miles for the year so-far. If everyone's usage was in that range, the whole car/traffic/emissions thing would become a complete non-issue.

    2. We do way more miles than that (my bf has a 30 min drive to work)...but I like being free of the stress of worrying about car breakdowns or traffic jams on the way to work!

  3. This is a great illustration of how damaging a long commute can be, and not just to your finances. My lucky wife walks a few steps to work in our town. I traded driving to work (20 minutes) for biking or taking a bus (50 minutes). It does add one hour of commuting, but it saves a lot of dollars that I can save and put into ending this whole “work” thing sooner anyway, and I enjoy these commutes more than the driving.

    But yes, my wife can see her office from our house. Living that close makes it so much easier if someone needs to be at home during the day for any reason. Today I just heard of a woman in my office who is moving with her husband’s job 1.5 hours away and is going to commute. We’ll see how long that lasts.

    1. It must be a real challenge when you're balancing two different careers and commutes. A bike commute sounds like it could actually be fun though - at the very least you'd kill 2 birds with one stone so to speak and get your daily exercise while you're commuting. Could be a drag during bad weather though!

  4. At my last job, I took the subway, which I hated. $75 per month and I still had to drive to the station. Now I drive. My parking is paid for. I get back and extra half hour or more to my day -- even though I sit in traffic.

    For me, it's a quality of life thing. I paid full fare for the subway and folks who paid half (or school kids who paid nothing) behaved poorly. IMO, if cities want to promote mass transit, they have to make it palatable enough for people to give up their cars.

    I can't shop near work. But I can more easily shop on the way home. I've also had an orthopedic set-back which means a handicap tag for the near future, hence a parking spot next to the office. I wouldn't be able to continue a train commute.

    And that's the crux of public transportation. Until it becomes cheaper, more convenient than as well as more pleasurable than driving, no one is going to flock to it.

    Am I a kill-joy or what????

    1. "Until it becomes cheaper, more convenient than as well as more pleasurable than driving, no one is going to flock to it." Bingo!

      This is my beef with the environmental movement in general. The focus always seems to be on making oneself miserable for the sake of the "greater good" - but the world just doesn't work that way.

      That's why I'm always searching for the "sweet spot" where what's better for the planet is better for me too - alas, those spots are often few and far between, but for me at least, working from home is one of them.

  5. One thing I liked about Spain was how easy it was to get everywhere. In Barcelona, the mass transportation system was great. Even during the strike, when our hotel clerk explained that we might have to wait up to 15 minutes! (Ha ha, only our very best bus routes here have service that frequently and only during rush hour!) And in Granada, you could walk everywhere (though it was super hot).

    They make an effort to have one of those grocery stores every block or two. And there's also a plaza or park of some kind every block or two. And several other things. But in the US, we most zone everything being separate, I guess with the idea that your house is quieter and safer that way.

    I've been car-free. The worst part was parties--I could get there on a bus, but had to ask friends for rides home. And they wouldn't let me pay them! And bringing laundry on the bus was a little weird--I hid my unmentionables under a towel!

    Now (a couple of decades later), half my friends live somewhere not even accessible by bus, some of them in other cities altogether.

    I did take a bus to work for 20 years. At first it was good. Later the service got worse and worse (I'm guessing that demand was reduced as more dorms were built and more high-rise apartments were built near campus). By the end it was a 45- to 60-minute commute each way. To go 3.5 miles! (Yes, I should have ridden a bike, but I really enjoyed reading during my commute).

    Now that I'm retired: no commute! And they're building more stuff nearby, partly because they decided to zone things in a more European way in the new developments where the airport used to be. So now I can walk to several places I really like (the library, some restaurants, Target and Home Depot, my favorite grocery store, UPS (to recycle packing materials), a gym, and a Little Free Library I found. But I still want a car because I like to visit friends, a different gym (longish story), two other grocery stores, a movie theater, the wildflower center, the now further-away airport, and the outlet stores, not to mention my parents (four hours away) and mini-vacations. Also, I like having a two-car household in case one car breaks down or we want to go to different places. I've learned that I value my locational independence even more than my financial independence, so I do pay for the privilege.

    1. I totally agree about Europe. It's like a completely different planet in terms of walk-ability and public transportation. Everyone walks or takes the train/bus because it's cheaper, easier and more convenient than driving. Imagine that!

      Denver has also been experimenting with a more European design as well - "new urbanism" they call it. It's very encouraging because the places where they've tried it have all been roaring successes. Ultimately, I think that's what it's gonna take, because you just can't expect people to work against their own interests.

      I don't think we'll ever get to the place where commuting goes away completely, but I do think that through a combination of technology (telecommuting etc) and better urban design, we can make vast improvements over the status quo.

  6. Very interesting post, Cat. I can't imagine not having a car at my disposal even if it wasn't required for me commuting to work. As I have always lived in the suburbs, I have driven to work but the furthest I most I ever had to drive was maybe a 20 minute commute. The idea of living in an urban center and walking to work or riding a train appeals to me but without actually ever having to do it...what do I know??? Maybe I would hate urban living.

    While I might enjoy the idea of not having the expense of a personal vehicle, I seem to struggle when my car is even in the shop for a day.

    Where I live there are very limited options for public transportation. There are city buses that run limited routes but that is it. NO trains or subways.

    BTW...the cat driving picture is so cute.

    1. I consider my car to be a "luxury item." I could certainly live without it, but it would be quite inconvenient in many ways, so I choose to keep it.

      But I live in an older neighborhood, so there are commercial districts scattered about everywhere - it makes the lure of the car much less than it would be if I lived out in the suburbs somewhere.

      But as I said in my reply to Deb above, I really don't think that our reliance on cars will change unless and until we embrace a different system for laying out our neighborhoods.

  7. I'm all for walking everywhere. That's certainly how I grew up. We walked to school, church, the grocery store, and my parents walked to their jobs. The longest commute I've ever had has been 40 minutes. And most of that time was sitting on a bus waiting to get across the Mississippi River in New Orleans. I don't know how people do the 1 hour or longer commutes, but long commutes are the norm around here. Now my job is about 10 minutes away.

    The problem with many jobs is if you lived nearby for a close commute, it's usually expensive to live, and crowded.

    You were smart to know what you wanted and to figure out a way to do it by working at home. Not everyone has been able to do that.

    Not sure what my point is either in this rambling except commuting is sometimes a necessary evil and it will take a big change in the way our jobs and homes are situated to make any difference.

    1. I agree, it's a complicated situation. Denver's undergoing a huge building boom at the moment because there's a housing shortage, but the rents close to downtown are just unbelievable. We're talking $2k or more for the monthly rent on a small one bedroom apartment! Meanwhile, there are places in some of Colorado's smaller cities where you can buy a decent home for under $100K.

      Obviously I live by a different set of guiding principles than the average American, but I just have to question whether those downtown-type jobs are really worth it in the long run. It just seems like people sacrifice so much in terms of quality of life. Can a career really be so fulfilling that it's worth giving up the rest of your life for?

  8. Eek! I hadn't logged into my feed reader for two days...then I logged in to find this discussion!

    Ironically, the reason I haven't been online is we've had so many late nights at work that we were just saying what a killer this week would have been if we still had a commute to/from work.

    We've had 5 weeks in a row with late-night events several nights per week (concerts, Parent Teacher Nights and events our 12 year old has been in.) It would just have crushed us if we still had the driving on top of that.

    It is so true that it's a different pace and type of life without using the car so much. I still haven't solved the issue though of kids' sports and events that seem to be all over town :(

    1. See now, I don't think you should even worry about the kids' events all over town. I mean, it would be nice if you could find a way not to have to drive to them, but ultimately it's probably one of those things that would make your life more stressful rather than less. You can't single-handedly re-design the society after all.

      Unless, of course, your son decided that his life would be more fulfilling with fewer commitments. I don't think I'd want to foist a decision like that upon a child, but as an over-achieving kid myself, I would have been grateful if my parents had given me a clear message that my value as a human being would not have been in any way diminished had I chosen to do less.

  9. It floored me to read that statistic about the commute being 9 days per year! That's time and money that would pay for an annual holiday.

    1. I know, right? It's kinda like spending $5/day on a schmancy cup of coffee - seems like no big deal, but when you add it all up you realize that it's a HUGE deal!

  10. Such an important distinction, because they're addressing different problems. One is simply tackling the mode of transportation, the other is talking about the need for transportation at all (or, I guess, the radius).

    As a work at home employee, I definitely feel what you're talking about. But I'm in the minority.

    I sympathize with those who go the car free route because of two things. One, most people still have to work, and they have to go into an office. Compound that with the fact that you can't always work at the same place for a decade or more, and it's hard to really implement the "live close to where you work" strategy...unless you commit to renting.

    That's the main takeaway I have from your post: while you're working in your career, renting really ought to be the default. It allows you to be flexible, move to where your job is, and really dig into that community.

    1. Ha! Now that's an interesting take, and certainly not one I would have thought of. I guess I'm just very far removed from the whole corporate career mentality. But I think you're right that for many people living close to where they work is simply not practical, and there are limited ways that an individual can remedy that situation on their own.

      I guess I'm thinking bigger... and in a more dream-like fantasy sort of a way. Like... since most jobs these days are performed on a computer or telephone, what is the actual benefit of putting people in an office in the first place? Couldn't more companies explore things like telecommuting, or flex schedules where people's office/meeting time is restricted to a few days per week?

      Or, for big companies... maybe it would make more sense to have workers scattered in hubs throughout a metro area so people could work close to their homes rather than giant centralized offices.

      And what about exploring the old idea of company sponsored housing... meaning you get a job with xyz company and nearby housing is part of your compensation package. I realize there have been some problems with that sort of thing historically, but I think it's an idea that's at least worth exploring.

      I realize none of this is the sort of thing that we, as individuals have the power to make happen... but a girl can dream, right? :-)

    2. I love the dreamer in you!

      I telecommute and can say definitively that it's not for everyone. Some of my coworkers need an asskicking machine tied to their backs to get any work done. No way would they produce if they were working from home.

      But for the self motivated, they seem to get more done at home, away from the distractions of the others in the office. Different strokes, I guess.

    3. Good point. There are definitely a lot of distractions working from home. But I think I saw something once about telework centers - like office buildings where companies just rent a number of cubicles for their employees. Maybe that's a better solution than working from home - still provides the structure of an office setting, but they can be located closer to where people live. Still dreaming... :-)

  11. I always wonder where so many people need to fly to each day. Have you been to an airport lately or counted how many planes are in the air each day? Where are they flying to, it blows me away.

    I grew up in what was called the 3rd largest city in PA, the entire city was seven miles wide. How's that for a small city? ;-) The thing about Erie was that it had been settled early on in our country's history so the city was divided up by nationality. If you weren't from Erie you would know which part of town you were in by the stores and restaurants in that neighborhood. Each neighborhood (which was any where from 4 blocks to maybe a dozen). You feasibly could manage to get and do everything you wanted and never leave your neighborhood. This was almost true even as late as the 80s with a few exceptions. By the early 80s if you wanted your shoes resoled there was only one shop left in the entire town but even that was just over 2 miles from our home.

    I think the first thing we need to do is remove the zoning restrictions on mixing light business and residential. Think of the number of little shops that could be run out of homes in suburbia (converted garage to shop?) which would also help to reconnect people in the community. By changing the zoning to allow for small businesses from the home it would give people who didn't have the money to rent retail space in a dying town the opportunity to take a chance to work from home. It might be enough to then encourage other businesses to come back. What a difference life is today from my youth. I never would have imagined a small town with no basic services.

    As for the long commutes, I did that for a short while and hated it. I loved to drive but wanted to drive for pleasure not for commuting. I agree public transportation is important for now and then but having to commute even using subway would not be my idea of a good time.

    1. True confessions here, I haven't been on a plane or in an airport for 23 years! I sorta feel like I'm living on a different planet in terms of how I view air travel. People these day seem to regard it as an every day sort of thing - like they think nothing of jumping on a plane for a weekend getaway. I've even known some people who actually commuted by plane! It's mind boggling!

      Anyhow, I think you're right on with the zoning stuff. Because we really don't have livable neighborhoods like used to exist. Denver is slowly making moves in that direction, though it's not without controversy. People get sooo upset about changes that allow mixed use or apartment buildings to be constructed in their neighborhoods, but honestly, I think it's the only way.

      My dad's neighborhood is actually one of the ones that's been really impacted. His house is geographically very close to downtown, but the area was always separated from the city center by both the South Platte river and the railroad tracks... and later the interstate. But the city decided to make changes and built a series of pedestrian bridges to link the neighborhood to downtown and public transportation. They also changed zoning in the area to allow mixed us as well as apartments. It's really amazing how quickly things have changed.

      There are bumps in the road, of course - some of the architecture leaves a bit to be desired, and there is the inevitable loss of the original "character" of the neighborhood. But honestly, neighborhoods always change, and there are always gonna be trade offs. But I think we have to try different things and accept that it's not going to make everybody happy, because we simply cannot continue to build cities that are built for cars instead of people.

    2. Couldn't agree more. Most of the complaints around here about mixed use neighborhoods is the increase in traffic or lack of parking. I look out at my driveway and have to laugh because I have a drive that can hold six large SUVs and I don't own a car while the neighbors in most cases don't have a place to park a car. Not that I have the space at the moment to run a business out of my house but still.

      As for airplanes, I've ridden in three in my entire life. At fourteen I rode in a two seater plane for a few minutes as part of a air show. At 18 I had my first trip in a jet and then rode one six years ago to come home after attending my son's wedding in Arizona (I drove out with family so it was only a one way trip) The two-seater was fun but the rest- not my cup of tea.

    3. Oh, the parking! We just had a big battle over that issue in the city council - whether developers should be allowed to build micro apartments without also building a parking facility. Alas, parking won. Apparently it's just beyond their ability to imagine that people could want to live there without owning a car! Sigh.

  12. This is an exceptionally well thought-out post. I live in a rural area of Eastern Ontario, and as a nurse commute on my days of work 35 minutes to a community hospital. I arrange my life so that I drive as little as possible; all errands are done once a month in Ottawa. I hate driving! I stay home all other days, but I know that when I retire (hopefully in 2 years when I turn 60) that I will need to get out just to socialize and not turn into a hermit! In the past (long past) rural folks had large families, were never alone at home due to extended familial connections. Small one room school houses existed which were in walking distance. Grocery stores, farm supply stores, post offices (all that was needed back then) were within an easy horse and buggy commute. Today the big box stores have stripped the neighbourhoods of character, and have caused commuting to be part of our psyche. Suburbs have created the desire for "bigger is better". Are we better for the evolution of how things have occurred? I don't think so. We've lost a lot in the process: a slower pace, interaction with "real" people, an ability to interact with the environment (seeing nature), getting exercise, and not constantly being "connected".

    1. It's very interesting/disheartening to hear that rural areas have been impacted as well as urban and suburban one. Sigh. I applaud you for grouping all of your errands into one trip per month, and I'm in awe of the organization that must require! I'm grateful that I've got 2 grocery stores within walking distance because I seem to be incapable of efficient shopping!

      Here in Colorado I've known a lot of people who wanted a slower paced life so they moved up to the mountains. Unfortunately, most of them don't make it more than a year or two before moving back, because the reality is that the end up spending most of their lives sitting in a car! Going to the grocery store becomes an expedition (especially in the winter) and the isolation really starts to get to them.

      CatMan and I keep tossing around the idea of moving to the mountains at some point when he finally gets around to retiring (he's turning 70 in a few months, and while he works from home, the company he works for seems to be pretty dependent on him.) Anyhow, when we browse houses online, he's always drawn to the ones out in the middle of nowhere, and I always look at the ones in the center of a small mountain town. It's probably a moot point because the chances of us ever getting motivated enough to actually do it seem slim at the moment, but if we do, some serious discussions would need to take place! :-)

    2. I'm blown away Cat. When you talk about your bike trips and the miles you and CatMan ride I had no idea he was so close to 70 year of age. He's a fantastic example of not letting age stop you from doing what you love.

    3. Ha! CatMan is AMAZING! He's almost 70 plus he has a neurological/chronic pain condition that would sideline most people - but the man can ride me into the ground! Seriously, it takes everything I have just to keep in visual contact with him... and usually at least once per ride (more when there are hills) he has to stop and wait for me to catch up!

  13. I always love your thoughts and perspective, Cat. I used to commute every day from Washington Park to the Tech Center. When I first started, it only took me 20 minutes one way. Ten years later, it was nearly an hour one way due to increased traffic. The stress was so challenging to manage, and one of the reasons I resolved to work from home. But I love the picture you painted of the neighborhood where your dad and stepmom loved. How nice to be able to walk everywhere, and enjoy such a real sense of community. Thanks, as always, for so richly exploring a thought-provoking topic.
    P.S. Have you watched the movie The Money Pit?

    1. OY! I shudder to think how much time my mother's old commute would take these days - Lakewood to the Tech Center.

      I did see The Money Pit years ago, but I didn't like it as much as the original - it was a tad bit too campy for me with the whole house falling down around them and everything. Although... it does feel that way sometimes! :-)


I welcome your thoughts so please leave me a comment and I promise I will respond.

On older posts I've had to enable comment moderation to prevent spammers, so don't worry if your comment doesn't show up right away - unless you're just commenting for the sake of embedding a link, in which case I really wish you wouldn't waste your time or mine because I'll just delete it.

Thanks, and have a fabulous day!