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Carless in Sacramento (by choice)

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  • 9/17 Sacramento Bee
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 18, 2006
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      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
      his car.

      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,"
      says Bassin.

      For whatever reason, the car-free lifestyle does appear to be
      catching on.

      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
      prices.

      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
      driving life.

      "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
      at night.

      "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
      different."

      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
      basis.

      "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
      car culture.

      "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
      maintenance.

      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
      chubert@...
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