Carfree by choice

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enkerli:

From a few years ago, but it might make me blog about carfreedom, again.

Originally posted on Speedbird:

When I was up in Umeä last year for the Spring IxD Summit, I happened to spot a book called Carfree Cities lying on a drafting table in the school’s vehicle design program, which shares space with the interaction design faculty. Well, you know me: I ordered it from Amazon on the spot, and found it waiting for me at home in Helsinki a few days later. (I should note my delight at the fact that it was a vehicle design program where I encountered the book, lying there like the proudly-flaunted samizdat of a despised minority party. I’d, myself, be so much happier if the planet’s design faculties decided en masse to teach Mobility Design instead.)

It’s a dead giveaway from the title, but what I appreciate about Carfree Cities is that its author, JH Crawford, is willing to think about the relationship between mobility and urban…

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Carboundedness and Carfreedom

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Yesterday, I posted the following status update on my main social media accounts (especially on Twitter and Facebook):

(Enkerli) cherishes carfreedom and a carfree lifestyle. / apprécie le fait de vivre sans voiture.

This update prompted one reply on Twitter and started a whole conversation on Facebook. Needless to say, I’m quite happy with the results.

Most reactions from my friends and contacts on Tw and Fb were in agreement with me, often providing some more specific support for the concept of carfreedom. One commenter, a childhood friend with whom I’ve reconnected in the past two years, has offered another perspective. While I’m grateful for all comments, I focus on this friend’s counterarguments in the interest of a thoughtful conversation.

This friend began with a comment about the near-impossibility of living without a car when you have children. Though my soulmate and I have yet to bring babies into this World, I have given carfree parenthood a fair bit of thought. I can’t tell for sure that it’ll be easy for us to be carfree parents but I know (and know of) enough carfree parents to think that it’s doable. Because carfree living and children are so important, for me, the possibility of raising children without being bound to a car is an important issue. We may end up using carsharing networks like Communauto or Zipcar. I don’t necessarily want us to be carless. But I do hope we can be carfree.

The one thing I found most problematic (or, at least, annoying) is when people tell me: “you’ll see that you’ll need a car at that point.” My friendly commenter didn’t use such a statement and, even just for that, I’m grateful.

This same friend then asked for some examples of what I started to call “carboundedness.” In what ways are people tied to their cars?
This is the focus of this blogpost.

Now, to be clear, those people I call “carbound” are a small subset of the overall driving population. I’m thinking about people who’ll take their car to go one block from their homes. Those people who need a car in their lives, couldn’t imagine life without a car, and live their lives based on what they can do with their cars. Not that it’s necessarily “their fault.” There are some contexts in which cars are just unavoidable. In fact, that’s what I’m thinking about as the core of “carboundedness”: the dominance of “car culture.” The contexts which make car ownership something akin to an “absolute necessity.” As a social scientist, I don’t perceive car ownership to be one of the basic human needs. And I think that my life “proves” that it’s possible to live happily without a car.

Not everyone who has a car is so tied to her/his car as not to be so free. But I’d say “carboundedness” isn’t so rare, in North America. It tends to be less frequent in and around large cities. I’d also guess that it’s somewhat less prominent in Qc than in other parts of the continent (including Acadia). But I’ve seen enough of it to be thinking about the implications.

So, some examples of carboundedness from the perspective of carfreedom.

My friend mentioned my homebrewing activities in another comment and beer does provide me with a first example. See, sampling beer is part of my lifestyle. I can easily go to a pub to get a couple of beer samples and leave after a few minutes. On occasion, I’ll do some pub-hopping or even a full-fledged pubcrawl. While I don’t worry about the consequences of drinking too much, I usually don’t drink much and I often know exactly when to stop. So I enjoy my sampling session while it lasts. The main constraint is that I won’t do it if I have to work afterwards. For instance, I won’t drink a drop of alcohol before grading. And I’ll limit my alcohol intake radically if I have to teach the following morning. In this sense, my work does put a limit on something I enjoy doing. I accept that wholeheartedly because I’m passionate about my work, but it does represent a constraint.

When a carbound person meets me (or anybody else) for beer, it becomes a whole event. If these people are responsible and they’re the ones doing the driving, they control their intake as radically as when I have to teach the following morning. They also make sure they wait at least an hour after the last drink. And the moment they’re having a beer isn’t as free and casual as when they’re in their homes or when there’s a dedicated driver. In other words, they’re “in control” for external reasons. I cherish being “in control” but I prefer it to be for personal reasons.

If these carbound people aren’t driving, they tend to drink more than they usually would because they enjoy the opportunity to drink more. My sense is that they measure their freedom based on how they get home. Something similar happens to me if I have lots of constraints from work for a significant period of time. It’s not beer that I really miss when I can’t have it. It’s the freedom to choose when I can have it. It’s still easy to be in control. But the control comes partly from external reasons.

If some carbound people aren’t responsible, they might drink and drive. But I don’t see drunk driving as appropriate behaviour.

Carbound people technically could spend only a little time at the pub and only drink a little bit. But it’s not what happens, usually. Because of the importance of their cars in their lives, they conceive of alcohol in a way that is quite different from responsible drinking.

Now, because my friend was talking about children, the relationships between parenthood and alcohol seem relevant. One might say that responsible parents don’t go to pubs. Thing is, I’ve known enough responsible parents who do go to pubs and, in some cases, they even bring their children along. I might even say that being exposed at an early age to people who were drinking has helped me gain a balanced perspective on responsible drinking.

In North America, especially among English-speakers, there’s a tendency to perceive alcohol consumption in a rather negative way. Though it may be allowed to bring young children to a restaurant where alcohol is served, these parents will refrain from drinking any alcohol in front of their children. Some of the same people do drink rather large quantities of alcohol but never in front of their children. For a large number of reasons exposed by Ruth Engs and others, some of these children end up binge drinking as soon as they leave their parents’ homes. There may not be any causal relationship between this attitude toward alcohol and carboundedness, but they do go together quite frequently.

Then, there’s the set of choices people make. There are people who wouldn’t live downtown because traffic is too heavy or because parking space is too difficult to find. I perceive this as a limiting. There might be other reasons why these people don’t want to live in certain places. But my observation is that a number of people think about where they live based on their cars. I’ve lived in places which were quite hostile to pedestrians and my perspective on these places is connected to my pedestrian lifestyle. I’d argue that the same happens with carbound people.

My carfree lifestyle is connected to my attitude toward freedom in other ways. When I move to a different place, I freely explore the city or town as much as I can. I go everywhere I can, which tends to be just about anywhere. And, since I’ve moved several times to places which are quite different from one another, local exploration has been a not-so-insignificant part of my life.

Moreover, I did notice that, rather frequently, I get to know a place more quickly by foot and public transit than drivers do, if they never leave their cars behind. Not that drivers can’t explore the place. But they often don’t, partly because it can get rather complicated to bring their car around.

Not only do I have no reason to think about one-way streets and parking space but I can also cross parks, walk down alleys, stop whenever I feel like it, take my time to look at different things, and get the feel of a place by the way it sounds, smells, looks…

A related point is that my perspective on those places where I’ve lived is quite different from that of a carbound person. I’d argue that I get to inhabit a city in a deeper sense than someone who feels the need to drive anywhere. Though it may sound like I’m saying my perspective is somehow better than that of a carbound person, I mostly mean to say that it’s a different experience and that it’s one about which I care. Some people don’t want to have a deep experience of the place where they live, and that’s perfectly fine with me. There’s something about a “drive-by” or “drive-through” lifestyle which can be quite enticing. It’s just not the kind of life I want to lead.

Though I call myself a “pedestrian,” much of my carfreedom has to do with using public transit. As I’m carfree, I usually use public transit quite a bit, depending on where I live. Because I use public transit a lot, I value buspasses.

Now, a buspass, for me, is freedom-inducing. Once in a while, I’ll use my buspass to go somewhere different, just because I can. Of course, I could do something similar with a car and there are places I can’t easily reach by bus. But driving around aimlessly can be costly and it’s much easier to get lost (without a GPS). Some of the drivers I know do occasionally drive for the fun of it and I can easily relate to that. Though I’m a bit sad about the implications for the environment, I respect their choice. These drivers aren’t necessarily carbound since they choose what to do with their cars.

The event which prompted me to send an update about carfreedom was quite trivial. As I was walking across the parking lot of the métro station close to where I live, I was asked by a minivan driver if, by any choice, I might not be going to get my car. This happens to me rather frequently and it means that people are looking for an empty parking space. This time around, my response was that I’m much freer than that, as I don’t have a car («J’suis bien plus libre que ça! J’ai pas de voiture!»). Sure, it may sound overstated, obtuse, smug, etc. But it was fitting, in the moment. The driver in this case seemed to have a thoughtful attitude and I needed to have a bit of fun. A standup comic my soulmate and I saw perform, during the Just for Laughs festival, was talking about teasing such drivers by faking getting into cars and then take the bus. I wouldn’t do that. But I still like to have fun.

I do feel free, in my daily life, and part of this has to do with being a “compulsive” pedestrian.

Speaking of “compulsion”…

Some elements of carboundedness may sound like an “addiction” to driving. But the concept of “addiction” can be tricky, especially for those of us who don’t have a strong background in psychology. Still, the “-boundedness” described here is similar to what we commonly mean by “addiction.” Or “being a slave to.” And it’s much trickier than “car culture” in general.

For personal reasons, the addiction about which I tend to think the most is smoking. Sure, there are people who only smoke when they want to smoke. These are smokers who can control their desire for nicotine. But that’s not so typical of most smokers. There’s probably a lot to be said about “addiction-prone personalities,” especially from a psychologist’s perspective. But I’m thinking about these issues from a social perspective which may or may not relate to psychological issues.

The thing about smoking is that it’s often “justified” by those who do it. There’s a social discourse on smoking which often seems to have more to do with advertising than with people’s genuine feelings. The reason smokers feel the need to “justify” their habits and behaviours is clearly social. Partly because one person’s smoke impinges on the freedom of non-smokers, there’s a broad conversation about reasons to smoke or not to smoke. There’s also a lot of talk about the meaning of “tolerance.” As I have a difficult time “tolerating” smoke for physiological reasons yet always try to maintain a tolerant attitude to any behaviour, my perspective is quite specific. I do perceive most smokers as being dependant on nicotine and I do which they would stop smoking, for my own health. But I also respect their choices.

To go back to carboundness… I’m not really against it. And I don’t want to have a negative attitude toward those people I perceive as being “carbound.” I’m mostly trying to put forth my perspective as a “compulsive pedestrian.”

Obviously, this blog’s title is a joke. I don’t really have a “compulsion” to walk. Although…

I can readily admit that my pedestrian lifestyle is also restrictive. In my case, I specifically make choices related to the possibility to live happily as a pedestrian. I do cut myself off from a carcentric lifestyle. And the fact that I don’t drive does imply some constraints on a few things I like to do. In other words, though I tend to think that all of these choices I’m making are “free,” I can agree with someone (likely a sociologist) who’d say that these choices are (at least partly) “conditioned.”

As I’m preparing to teach sociology, I think about conditioning a fair deal. Contrary to most anthropologists, sociologists have this habit of arguing that freedom is an illusion, that individuals often have no choice in most matters, that social life is constraining, that there’s a strong cultural determinism involved in human behaviour. Maybe I’m internalizing this discourse in order to take my role as a sociology teacher. But I’m also an advocate of critical thinking and my course will even be focused on critical thought. So, as I’m thinking about freedom, diverse perspectives offer themselves and I choose to take them one at a time. Kind of like a “thought experiment” or like “playing devil’s advocate.”

It’s fairly easy to take a pro-car approach, especially when considering a mainstream North American lifestyle.

Of course, carless people like myself can be limited in what we can do, in a given social context. But that notion is already so mainstream as to be considered “common sense.” The association between cars and freedom is so strong, in North American popular culture, that it doesn’t seem like most people take the time to think about the reverse: freedom afforded pedestrians. My statement about carbound people was meant to be thought-provoking, if not provocative.

As with so many things, the ideal is a balance. In this case, the equilibrium point between carboundedness and exclusive pedestrianism would be to have easy access to a vehicle and still not let this access dominate our lives. There are even ads, these days, about a family owning a minivan or SUV and choosing not to use it. Though it sounds quite strange in an ad (“buy this expensive vehicle so you can refrain from using it”), it does relate to the concept of carfreedom about which I’ve been thinking. The car-owners in that ad are somehow carfree since their car isn’t a constraint on them. That’s making abstraction of such practical issues as the cost of driver’s insurance or the need for a place to leave the vehicle for significant periods of time. But, as abstractions go, this one seems fairly appropriate. At least, these are people who may perceive the World as not designed exclusively for cars.

As is usually the case when I blog, I still have many things to say. But they’ll have to wait for other occasions. Hopefully, I’ll get comments on this post in the meantime. Thoughtful comments are a very efficient method of thinking critically. I may sound forceful, at times, but I mostly want to think with diverse people about the implications of carfreedom.

PHP #1: Austin, TX (USA)

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As the city where I currently live, Austin makes sense as the topic for a post about my carfree life. I’ve blogged somewhat extensively about Austin and even mentioned both its transit system and its opportunities for pedestrian living on my main blog. Furthermore, carfree living has been a topic of discussion, here in town, and it’s quite likely that my motivation to start this blog was tied to my life in Austin.

Problem is, I consider Austin to be a pedestrian-hostile place (PHP). 

Austin is the capital of Texas and a college town: four universities, including the main campus of the University of Texas (about 50,000 students). Both the city itself (about 700,000) and the metropolitan area (about 1,5 million) are about half the size of those for Boston or Montreal. But unlike Boston and Montreal, Austin is not a pedestrian-friendly city.

This is all subjective but I do feel rather strongly about this. And, though I’m a bit afraid of the backlash, I feel it’s important for me to say a few things about pedestrian life in Austin.

I’ll try to emphasize the positives as I go along.

First, the transit system.

Capital Metro does have a lot of qualities.

  • Bus drivers are remarkably friendly and polite. They’re attentive to passengers, drive smoothly most of the time, and seem reliable.
  • Many busses have bicycle racks in the front.
  • All busses accommodate wheelchairs.
  • Persons with disabilities have free buss passes with RFID.
  • CapMetro’s fares are hard to beat. All personnel and students at the University of Texas travel for free. For other adults, a single trip is 50¢, a day pass is 1$, and a monthly pass is only 10$.
  • The system has a good number of free routes including campus and downtown shuttles.
  • The downtown and campus areas are well-served with a number of routes converging in front of the Capitol building (on Congress Avenue).
  • In most densely-populated areas, there are bus stops at every street corner.
  • CapMetro’s current plans to add long-range transit in the near future sounds rather neat. The MetroRail will even have Wi-Fi connections abroad.
  • The bus fleet has vehicles of different sizes, making the service rather flexible and probably increasing fuel efficiency.
  • Even on small busses, there is almost always enough seats for the usual number of  passengers.
  • The transit system’s current maketing campaign/content seems appropriate. At least, it seems appropriate to me. And I really wish I could get an iPod touch.
  • There are some interesting options to get bus schedules or plan bus trips. For instance, it’s apparently possible to get transit information through SMS. The online trip planner is relatively easy to use. Google Transit has data for Austin
  • The Destinations schedule book is rather comprehensive. It was free until the end of last year and is only 1$ now. It can also be downloaded by sections as PDF files.
  • A proportion of passengers are quite representative of Austin’s eccentricity. ;-)

All of this is really nice. I was pretty enthusiastic about Capital Metro, originally.

Yet…

  • The entire transit system is focused on getting people to and from downtown. This means that it’s nearly impossible to go from one neighborhood to another without going through the downtown area.
  • Even some parts of downtown Austin are difficult to reach solely by bus because most routes go North-South and few routes cover the distance East-West. The walking distance downtown isn’t that much of a problem but the scarcity of busses in different parts of downtown does decrease the reliance on busses for compulsive pedestrians.
  • Schedules are simply unreliable. The online schedules have been inaccurate on enough occasions to make me quite weary of them. I even missed some busses because they reached the stops in advance of the official schedule.
  • Schedules are rarely available at bus stops or aboard busses. Those schedules which are posted at a few bus stops are confusing, imprecise, and inaccurate.
  • The overall system map is rather confusing. Several routes have two different numbers, making it difficult to remember which route goes where. Some routes have variable configurations: either they fork at some point (which is well-documented but still confusing) or they skip some stops at different times during the day.
  • While the frequency of some routes is rather appropriate, several schedules are quite unpredictable without the use of the official schedule information. In other words, at very few spots is it possible to simply assume that a bus will come after a reasonable interval because several routes run at irregular intervals.
  • Several bus routes overlap significantly and their schedules are often close together. While it might be nice for some people to avoid switching busses to go downtown, it makes the overall system quite inefficient.
  • Many bus stops have no installation (like roofs or even benches) and I’m not sure that there are actual bus stations anywhere. Unlike cold weather cities like Montreal, Austin’s weather may not require specific accommodation (although, air-conditioned shelters would be very valuable during the summer, AFAICT). Bus stations would make the experience of waiting for a bus much easier to endure which, in turn, would go a long way to increase Austinites’ evaluation of the transit system.
  • Several important areas around town are simply not accessible by bus. What is especially surprising is that there is no bus going to Dell‘s International Headquarters in Round Rock. Granted, the distance from downtown Austin to Round Rock is rather long and Round Rock isn’t officially part of Austin. But Dell is a very important employer in Austin and a significant number of Austinites are connected to that company.

Despite these lower points, I would still say that Capital Metro does increase Austin’s pedestrian-friendliness.

Also a factor of pedestrian-friendliness in Austin is the prominence of “greenbelts” throughout the city. If Austin’s reputation as a “green” city is deserved at all, it probably has something to do with these parks and other largely undeveloped public spaces. Austin’s greenbelts do make life easier for pedestrians as they decrease the need to get of the city for a breath of fresh air. Plus, they probably contribute significantly to air quality. But those advantages aren’t exclusive to pedestrians and my guess is that there are many more carpeople driving (!) to these greenbelts than pedestrians frequenting them.

Bridges on Austin’s Colorado river are very pedestrian-friendly and it is quite easy to cross from different points of South Austin (where I live) to different points of the downtown area. This one was actually a concern of mine before I came and I was greatly relieved to see how easy and fun it is to cross the river. There’s even a very wide pedestrian bridge with a large number of benches. Unfortunately, that bridge is separated from the downtown area by one of the most pedestrian-hostile areas I’ve seen.

Another dimension of Austin’s pedestrian-friendliness is that there are some central parts of town where diverse activities are happening on a very regular basis. For instance, Sixth Street is known for its bar scene and South Congress (or “SoCo,” as some people call it) is a rather trendy spot. What’s more, those two parts of town are within walking distance of one another. Makes for a cool nightlife which is quite pedestrian-friendly if you happen to live nearby.

But Austin still remains, in my mind, a pedestrian-hostile city.

Different individuals (including pedestrian-friendly ones) have said on several occasions that my wife and I would need to get a car, at some point. This was usually said as a warning and several of these people have been kind enough to give us rides and help us adapt to the city despite our carlessness. It still seems clear to a large number of people that it’s almost impossible to live in Austin for an extended period of time without a car.

I don’t disagree with these people. They might well be right, but I still tried to make it work. Since we arrived in Austin (mid-December), a number of things have indeed been difficult to do without a car and we did end up getting help from friends who own cars on several occasions. But, overall, our pedestrian lifestyle hasn’t been horrible. At least, IMHO. Things may change during the summer but, due to unforeseen circumstances, I won’t be able to experience an Austin summer myself.

This may sound somewhat contradictory. I claim that Austin is pedestrian-hostile yet I have been able to live in Austin without a car for a number of months. To me, there’s a clear difference between a pedestrian-friendly city (like Fredericton or Lausanne) and “the possibility for certain individuals to live a relatively pleasant carfree life in a given city.” I maintain that it is possible for certain compulsive pedestrians like me to survive in Austin (or in almost any other city). I also observe several dimensions which make Austin a difficult city in which to live a carfree lifestyle.

One such dimension has to do with traffic throughout of the city. It’s remarkably difficult and time-consuming for a pedestrian to cross a major street, in Austin. Granted, I’m a compulsive jaywalker so my perception is clearly biased. But I don’t expect Austin to be like Chicago, London, or Montreal in terms of being jaywalker-friendly. What I do expect is that crossing streets at a street light may be a relatively painless experience. In Austin, not only are the pedestrian lights remarkably infrequent and short in duration (especially given such broad streets), but they are surprisingly unsafe. Many drivers seem to pay no attention to these pedestrian lights. In fact, the (in)famous “right turn on red” (RTOR) principle is applied very aggressively, in Austin. Not only do drivers turn right at red lights without stopping or even slowing down but they do so in almost any circumstance, even when a pedestrian is crossing that street. Part of my reaction to this practice may come from the fact that I come from one of the few cities not allowing RTOR, but I’ve lived in other cities where RTOR was practiced more carefully. The stress level involved in street crossing in Austin is disproportionately high and plays a large role in making a pedestrian’s life quite unpleasant.

A very basic aspect of pedestrian-hostility, common to Austin and many pedestrian-hostile cities, is the lack of sidewalks. Sidewalks are present almost everywhere in the downtown and campus areas but some streets in residential and commercial areas are either devoid of sidewalks or only have sidewalks on one side. In some parts of town, there are even bus stops which aren’t connected to sidewalks. Not only is this problematic for compulsive pedestrians like me but it’s likely to be a major issue for people in wheelchairs or parents pushing strollers.

As is typical with urban sprawl, Austin’s commercial areas are mostly found on the periphery. There are some stores and restaurants downtown or in residential neighborhoods but the typical pedestrian still needs to travel a fair bit to do some of the simplest things. Not only are most stores situated in malls but those malls are scattered through a number of peripheral neighborhoods. While several malls are accessible by bus, it’s often very difficult to go from one mall to the other by foot.

The situation is alleviated somehow by the presence of a few convenience stores, but even those are rather scarce here. I’m probably biased because convenience stores are extremely common in Quebec. But the difficulty of a carfree lifestyle often comes from such details, however subjective they may seem.

Another dimension making Austin pedestrian-hostile, in my mind, is the fact that events and meetings organized by individuals typically don’t take into account the fact that some people may not have cars. Even some more formal events have elaborate indications for drivers yet have no information for pedestrians. While it’s not a deliberate practice of pedestrian exclusion, it seems representative of how marginal pedestrians are, in this city.

Several Austinites are trying to make the city more pedestrian-friendly. Plans are made to have more bicycle routes, to decrease the number of cars in certain parts of town, etc. Much of this happens through the city council yet many proposals are initiatives by grassroots movements in diverse communities around town. Clearly, there’s a will, by a certain proportion of the city’s population, to make Austin pedestrian-friendly.

But, to be perfectly honest, I recently reached a rather sad conclusion about Austin’s pedestrianism. I now think that some of the hopes are simply unrealistic. In fact, while I do think that Austin will become less pedestrian-hostile, my impression is that it can’t become a truly pedestrian-friendly city.

Sorry! :-(

Part of this reflection relates to a post on my main blog in which I talked about assessing the situation of Austin’s pedestrian improvements. Laura Tex‘s comment on that post was in fact the trigger for me to post something more elaborate about my perception of pedestrian life in Austin. I was (and still am) a bit weary of the backlash which may come from these statements but I guess I still need to go on the record about this.

First, as I was telling a friend this very morning, it seems that Austin’s pedestrian-hostility is in large part a problem of attitude. In other words, Austin is unlikely to become pedestrian-friendly because a pedestrian lifestyle doesn’t seem to be very mainstream in Austin. Not that carpeople are deliberately hostile toward pedestrians or that there’s actual intolerance shown to pedestrians. But a carfree lifestyle is rarely considered an option, in Austin.

Another set of reasons has to do with the city’s topography and demography. Austin is growing quite rapidly and, with this growth comes suburban sprawl. Can’t find it right now but I remember seeing an interactive map of Austin housing developments through time. While Austin is certainly not unique in terms of urban sprawl, the map seemed to imply that Austin may be affected particularly strongly or, at least, particularly quickly. My impression is that part of the reason behind this type of urban sprawl has to do with the way the city was designed. I’m no urban designer (unlike one of my brothers) but I perceive something about Austin’s design which would make it difficult to expand the downtown area itself. It might have to do with the State Capitol, the major highways on both sides of downtown, the surprisingly large streets, the centralized position (and relatively large size) of UT’s main campus, or some imponderables. But I just don’t see Austin as a whole suddenly becoming a haven of pedestrianism.

There are housing developments downtown and it’s quite possible that a significant portion of the population will live downtown Austin at some point in the future. But the trend toward suburbs extending farther from downtown is unlikely to change. I associate part of this with the desire people have of living in houses instead of apartments. This desire has to do with both the passion for private ownership and a perception of comfort. I don’t perceive this pattern to change anytime soon, in Austin.

To go back to more positive notes, this time about Austin’s future…

While I don’t think Austin will become a pedestrian-friendly city in the near future, I clearly see possibilities for different neighborhoods to become pedestrian oases.

One model for this can be a mixed environment with both housing and services (restaurants, shops, cafés, offices). A bit like a “village in a city.” A “luxury” version of a development built on such a model opened fairly recently in Austin. Triangle Austin is a “mixed-use hub” based on principles of “traditional neighborhood design.” That development includes apartments, shops, restaurants, cafés, and public transportation. The City of Austin is currently pushing projects like The Triangle. “New Urbanism” has become the new buzzword in town. It’s quite possible that such development projects will make life easier for some compulsive pedestrians, especially if they happen to work in or within walking distance of the development where they live. As they are currently developed, these projects typically target an affluent crowd. A connection with (controversial) “gentrification” processes throughout North America could easily be made.

Austin does have neighborhoods which are already “community-friendly,” including some which are connected to Austin’s important Mexican communities. Some of these neighborhoods have the “village in a city” feel of the neighborhoods serving as the model for current urban design projects. In those neighborhoods, shops and homes are found side-by-side. I might be projecting but I imagine that neighbors frequent one another quite frequently. Though I haven’t seen many of them, children likely play outside in some of those neighborhoods. While these neighborhoods are as car-focused as any other part of Austin, my guess is that they would be a good basis for enhancing pedestrian-friendliness for people of any age, origin, or income level.

 

This post is probably long enough. For now, at least… ;-)

Pedestrian-Hostile Cities and Towns

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As promised, my list of least favorite cities and towns for carless living. Again, this is completely subjective. But, also, completely honest. The list goes in decreasing order of pedestrian-hostility (I’d say South Bend is more pedestrian-hostile than Austin). But that order is very approximate. I didn’t live in Indianapolis but the little time I’ve spent there convinced me that the city wasn’t meant for compulsive pedestrians.

I should be able to post some blog entries about all of these cities.

  1. South Bend
  2. Moncton
  3. Brockton
  4. (Indianapolis)
  5. Laval [Edit: Friday, April 11, 2008 5:32:21 PM]
  6. Austin

PFP #1: Fredericton, NB (Canada)

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First stop, Fredericton. Possibly my favourite Pedestrian-Friendly Place (PFP).

The provincial capital of New Brunswick (Canada’s bilingual province) and a university town.

I only lived there for about two months, back in the summer of 2003. But I loved it. Sure, part of the reason for my love affaire with Fredericton was that I was teaching summer courses (intersession) at UNB and had great fun doing it. But, most importantly, my carless lifestyle was very compatible with my situation, then.

Fredericton itself is a rather small town and I was living just outside the “downtown area” (which is centred around two streets).

Map of Alex\'s Pedestrian Fredericton

View Larger Map

That map shows the place where I used to live (‘H’), the campus area (‘C’), a few spots of interest in the downtown area (‘I’), and a supermarket (‘S’).

(Thanks in part to Delta Foxtrot for map embedding instructions. Although, I mostly relied on Google’s own instructions about static maps.)

From the house, I could walk anywhere. To the closest edge of downtown, it was about 700 meters (or 750 yards): less than half a mile! About 500 meters (or 550 yards) to the supermarket (Atlantic Superstore, which is a bit like Whole Foods in the United States). About 1 km (about 1000 yards) to one of my favourite pubs (called “MacPhail’s Taproom” at the time). About 1,5 km (or 1 mile) to the far edge of downtown.

The walk from the place where I was staying (corner Smythe and Charlotte) to the place where I was working (UNB campus) was about 3 km (or about 2 miles). To some car-people, it sounds like a long walk. But it was an especially fun walk. A significant part of the distance was covered through small streets. During that summer, there were flowers everywhere. The topography of the city was such that the whole thing was quite enjoyable (neither boring nor overly challenging).

In other words, most of the places where I was going on a regular basis were within a radius of about a mile. Even though I was living on the edge of the area defined by this radius, it was incredibly easy to walk around through my whole stay. I might have used city busses on occasion but I mostly used the bus to go to Moncton, where my wife was living at the time.

The riverside trail was lovely and, obviously, meant for pedestrians and bikers. There was even a pedestrian bridge crossing the river and that made for a nice little walk. I could (and did, on a few occasions) use that trail to go from home to campus. It was slightly longer but worth the detour.

Unlike many other North American cities, Fredericton had a good number of important services located downtown. Including an impressive number of restaurants, nice little cafés, a bus station (for intercity busses), a small mall, a post office, etc. Even a cobbler!

There was also a fantastic farmer’s market (open only on Saturdays), just outside the downtown area. Though it wasn’t necessarily a great place to buy produce, I’ve eaten some delicious food there, including samosas and German pastries. It was also a rather good place to buy seafood (I still dream about the scallops and mussels I bought there) and cheese.

Really remarkable for such a small town. Or, maybe, not remarkable at all for an old town but quite unique for the kind of place it was. As a university town, it was diverse and fun. It didn’t feel like a small town.

People’s attitudes toward pedestrians were quite friendly. People didn’t seem too puzzled by the fact that I didn’t have a car. I did need a ride to go to a friend’s place at some point but the ride was very graciously provided by a really nice couple. Walking down the Fredericton streets felt really safe.

 

Just thinking about my time there, in Fredericton, I get quite nostalgic. :-) Sure, I was lucky (few people live downtown). It was almost a dream come true, for a compulsive pedestrian. That is the main reason why the city remains in my mind.

 

What’s funny, in retrospect, is that Fredericton is the first place in which I’ve given serious thought to this kind of writing. Wasn’t thinking about blogs so much at the time but I wanted to submit a piece to a newspaper outside of New Brunswick. I wanted other people to know about what (at the time) I considered to be Atlantic Canada’s hidden gem.

Maybe this is my much delayed attempt to do just that! ;-)

Pedestrian-Friendly Cities and Towns

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Well, let’s start with this one: my personal, subjective, biased ranking of cities and towns which I have personally found to be at least somewhat conducive to a carless lifestyle. In other words, places where I felt good as a non-driver. 

Multiple factors involved such as the ease of getting between important spots by foot, people’s attitudes toward pedestrians, the quality of the transportation services, the perceived safety of the city, etc. My experience is often very specific and may not correspond at all to what others have experienced in those places. I’m open to discussion, obviously.

This ranking is very approximate but, for each of these places, I’ve had some rather positive things to say, as a pedestrian. In fact, my overall assessments of these places is quite positive and I have relatively little to complain about them, as a pedestrian. I guess I’ll flesh out details about each of them, later on.

Here goes. I didn’t live in either Paris, Geneva, or Chicago. But my assessment is rather positive overall.

  1. Fredericton, NB
  2. (Paris)
  3. Lausanne
  4. (Halifax) [Edit: Friday, April 11, 2008 1:25 PM]
  5. (Ann Arbor) [Edit: Friday, April 11, 2008 1:25 PM]
  6. Boston
  7. Northampton, MA
  8. Montreal
  9. (Geneva)
  10. Laval, Qc
  11. Bamako
  12. Nyon
  13. (Chicago)
  14. Bloomington, Indiana

 

Musings

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Been thinking about my lifelong compulsion quite a bit, recently. Including that night when I was stranded 14 miles from my place. Or when I’ve been planning my move back to Montreal. Or when I looked for electronics stores in town. Or when I saw signs of Austin’s pedestrian-hostility.

I’ve been posting on my main blog quite a bit but there’s a number of things I’d like to post here. So I guess this is a placeholder.

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