Carless in Sacramento (by choice)
- Published Sunday, September 17, 2006, by the Sacramento Bee
Carless in Sacramento
Could you live without an automobile? Meet folks who are getting
around just fine
By Cynthia Hubert
Bee Staff Writer
Elia Bassin is 24 years old, gainfully employed -- and carless.
It's not that Bassin can't afford to drive. On the contrary, he
figures he's better off financially and otherwise because he ditched
High gas prices and insurance payments. Suffocating traffic.
Competitive parking. None of these things faze Bassin, because for
the past year he has traveled almost exclusively by bicycle, with
assists from the city bus, light rail and Amtrak.
"For me, it's the most liberating thing ever," says Bassin, a
Sacramento County planner who lives in midtown, just a couple of
miles from his office. "Even if driving a car is faster, it's far
more aggravating than cycling or walking. I would rather spend twice
as much time getting somewhere by bike than sit in traffic. And I'm
definitely saving a lot of money."
People who choose not to drive may once have been considered
freakish, but today "it's becoming kind of a cool thing to do,"
For whatever reason, the car-free lifestyle does appear to be
There are car-free magazines, car-free chat rooms and car-free
networks. The car-free crowd has its own Web sites, newsletters and
clubs. A new book, "How To Live Well Without Owning a Car" (Ten
Speed Press, $12.95, 216 pages), is getting national attention.
Every day, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 6 million
American adults commute to and from work without stepping into a
car. In a recent Gallup poll, about half of Americans said they have
cut back significantly on the amount they drive because of gas
Living without a car in Sacramento is obviously more challenging
than in places such as San Francisco or New York, which are designed
for walking and commuting by public transit. But believe it or not,
people are going carless every day in the capital city.
According to the Census Bureau, about 9 percent of Sacramento
residents commute without benefit of a car. That places the city in
fifth place among California's larger burgs, behind San Francisco,
Oakland, Santa Ana and Long Beach.
The key to living well sans car, Bassin says, is having a home or
apartment near work, restaurants, grocery stores and recreational
areas. For him and many others, midtown and downtown are good fits.
Bassin does have a motorcycle, which he uses for trips such as an
upcoming doctor's appointment in Roseville. "It gets about 65 miles
per gallon," he notes.
"My new life goal," Bassin says, "is to never again own a car."
Erin Reschke plans to stay car-free for a while, too, at least as
long as she's living in Sacramento.
For Reschke, the moment of truth came when she crashed her Pontiac
Grand Prix about six months ago. She lives and works in midtown and
is concerned about the environment and the nation's dependence on
oil, so she decided it was the perfect time to stop driving. "My
life really hasn't changed at all," she says.
Reschke, who is 24 and teaches bike safety courses, uses a special
carrier to haul groceries and other heavy items. Her employer, an
architectural firm, provides secure parking for her bike and even
gives her a $50 monthly incentive for not bringing a car to work.
"I had so many hassles with my car: having to move it for street
cleaning, finding a place to park, all of the fees and expenses,"
she says. "All of those hassles are gone."
Reschke says she's not sure why more people don't abandon the
"Hardly anyone I know really enjoys owning a car," she says. "But
they're just not confident enough to let it go."
Owen Howlett hasn't let it go completely, but he's close. Call
him "car lite."
On weekdays, Howlett, who is 32 and lives near the UC Davis Medical
Center off Stockton Boulevard, rides his bike to work at a research
firm in Fair Oaks. But he also has a silver Volkswagen Beetle that
he uses for errands and recreation.
"I'm not doing this to make any kind of political statement," says
Howlett. "I just see riding my bike to work as the best and most
pleasurable option for me. Why would you want to go to work in a
car? You get no exercise, you're spending a whole lot of money and
you're polluting the air."
If the weather is particularly foul, he confesses, he takes the
Beetle. But most days he's content with riding to work in shorts and
a T-shirt, then changing into office clothing.
"When I cycle to work, I get to see things along the way that I
wouldn't get to see otherwise," he says. "This morning I saw a doe
and a fawn, and I was able to stop and check them out."
Even a suburbanite can survive without driving. Charles McCann is
living proof of it.
It helps that McCann, 30, lives three miles from his job at Intel in
Folsom, and within walking distance of favorite eateries and pubs,
as well as the bike trail, the library and a light rail stop. "It's
all about location, location, location," he says.
When he wants to join friends for dinner in Sacramento, he hops on
the light rail train. The train also takes him to a bus stop that
will deliver him to the airport. But he has to find other ways of
getting home in the evenings, since light rail to Folsom doesn't run
"I get a lot of questions," McCann says of his car-free
choice. "'How do you date? How do you get to work? Don't you really
wish you had a car?'
"In this country we've been conditioned to the idea of driving
everywhere. But living without a car is not that hard. It's just
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend
about 17 percent of their annual income on car ownership and
operating expenses. Without a vehicle, McCann figures he's saving
$650 to $700 per month, allowing him to clear his debt, put the
maximum amount in his 401(k) plan and go out to eat on a regular
"That's great motivation," he says.
Chris Balish also gets by without a car. And if he can do it, it's
fair to say that almost anyone can.
After all, Balish, author of the book about living the car-free
life, lives without an automobile in Los Angeles, the epicenter of
"I get all over the greater L.A. area by combining biking and public
transit," he says. His main motivation? He figures he's saving more
than $10,000 per year in car payments, insurance, gas and
After four years of life without a car, "I'm 100 percent free of
debt," he brags. A broadcast journalist, Balish has saved so much
money that he's taking a couple of years off to work on books and to
travel. Cycling has kept him physically fit, and he feels good about
doing his share to curb air pollution and traffic congestion.
Commuting by train or bus also is less stressful and more
productive, he says, as he can read or work while he rides.
Granted, Balish is a healthy, 30-something single guy without
children. He acknowledges that the car-free lifestyle is more
challenging for parents with young kids, disabled people and folks
whose livelihoods depend on driving, such as salespeople with far-
flung territories to cover.
The key to navigating Los Angeles without a car? Balish lives close
to transit hubs, plans ahead for trips to places such as the Staples
Center, museums and Dodger Stadium, and does his errands and
shopping close to home. Dating is often a picnic on the beach or a
bike ride. For weekend trips, Balish occasionally rents cars, and
once in a while he imposes on friends to take him places that are
not easily accessible by bike or public transit.
"It definitely takes a little longer for me to get around than it
did when I had a car," he says, "and in the early days, before I
figured things out, I did get stranded a few times." Naturally, he
gets sweaty when he cycles, and he sometimes has to carry a change
of clothes. Once, he arrived at an important interview soaking wet
after getting caught in a rainstorm.
"There's a learning curve and you're going to make mistakes," says
Balish, who stopped driving when he lived in St. Louis and sold his
gas-guzzling SUV. "But when you consider all of the benefits, it's
definitely worth it."
The Bee's Cynthia Hubert can be reached at (916) 321-1082 or