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Living car-free in the Bay Area

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  • 1/7 Oakland Tribune
    Published Sunday, January 7, 2007, by the Oakland Tribune Living car free OK, so you may not want to give up your car, but here in the Bay Area, you can sure
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 9 9:28 AM
      Published Sunday, January 7, 2007, by the Oakland Tribune

      Living car free

      OK, so you may not want to give up your car, but here in the Bay
      Area, you can sure use it a lot less

      By Chad Jones
      Staff Writer

      Time to come out of the closet -- or maybe I should say garage.

      I've lived in the Bay Area for more than 16 years, and I don't own
      a car.

      I had one when I moved here, but within a couple of months, the
      expense -- not to mention the traffic and the parking hassles --
      overwhelmed me, and I quickly sold the four-wheeled beast.

      Since then, it's been me and BART and CalTrain and AC Transit and
      Golden Gate Transit and, when absolutely necessary, the neighborhood
      car rental place.

      Living car free is not, unfortunately, for everyone. If you have kids
      to cart around or a job that requires a major commute, chances are
      you have to keep driving.

      But for many residents of the Bay Area, there's simply no excuse for
      not using public transportation more. Or carpooling more. Or riding
      your bike or walking whenever possible.

      As we slip into this new year, maybe it's time to make a resolution
      that is larger than yourself. Sure, you could exercise more and eat
      better. Boring. Or you could make a real difference and drive less.
      That helps your neighbors and the planet.

      I don't think there's anyone within a large radius of where you are
      right now who would disagree with the notion that there are simply
      too many cars on the road here, in this exceptionally lovely corner
      of the world we call home.

      It is possible -- and I can testify to this -- to live well without
      owning a car.

      If you don't believe me, ask Chris Balish, 39, author of "How to Live
      Well Without Owning a Car" <http://www.livecarfree.com>, published
      last fall by Berkeley's Ten Speed Press.

      About four years ago, before Balish wrote the book, he was an award-
      winning TV personality in the Midwest and host of the daytime talk
      show "Show Me St. Louis." He was successful and had the $36,000 SUV
      to show for it.

      He drove everywhere: to the gym, to the grocery store, to the dry
      cleaner and -- at least twice a week -- to the gas station.

      When the fuel bills started to get out of hand, Balish decided to
      sell the SUV and buy a more fuel-efficient car. But he sold the SUV
      much more quickly than he had anticipated and found himself, almost
      accidentally, without a car.

      "When I watched my car being driven away, I had a huge panic attack,"
      Balish says. "I thought, 'What am I going to do without a car? I'm
      going to starve to death because I won't be able to get to the
      grocery store. I'll end up a hermit who doesn't ever see his friends,
      and I'll die in my apartment alone.'"

      Then Balish calmed down and looked at things logistically. He rode
      public transit for the first time and found it to be reliable and
      efficient and -- bonus! -- he could read the entire morning newspaper
      on his way to work.

      "This image people have of the bus being for poor people is
      ridiculous," Balish says. "Everybody rides the bus, especially in the
      last year when gas prices skyrocketed. You see everybody on the bus,
      including bankers and lawyers. There are people who think the bus is
      dirty or unsafe, but I can show you statistics that reveal mass
      transit is 80 times safer than riding in a car. If you're scared
      about being accosted on a bus, why aren't you just as scared of being
      killed in a fiery car crash?"

      As he got into this whole living car-free thing, Balish found there
      were certain errands he could take care of online -- like ordering
      stamps, banking, renting DVDs or getting groceries delivered -- and
      then something really amazing happened.

      "My social life actually improved after I got rid of my car," Balish
      says. "When I had a car and needed something, I jumped in the car
      alone, shopped alone, drove home alone. But without a car, those same
      kinds of errands became group activities. I ended up spending more
      time with my friends, not less."

      The biggest shock of all, however, was on Balish's wallet.

      Without the monthly expenses of owning a car -- most notably gas,
      maintenance and monthly car and insurance payments -- his bank
      account was $800 fatter than usual.

      Driving to work, working to drive

      The financial impact of living car free is something Balish
      emphasizes heavily in his book.

      He notes that the day you buy a car, it loses 20 percent of its value
      and continues to depreciate by 10 to 15 percent each year you own it.
      Then you have to pay back the money you borrowed to buy the car plus
      interest and pay for continued maintenance and gas.

      "Most Americans are blowing all their money on cars," Balish says.
      "And if they're like me, they don't even realize the extent of the

      Living without a car, Balish began to see how buying a car and owning
      a car are two different expenses. He was directed to
      <http://www.edmunds.com>, which calculates what's called the True
      Cost to Own (TCO) figure for specific years and makes of cars that
      takes into account depreciation, financing, insurance, taxes and
      fees, fuel, maintenance and repairs.

      In the book, Balish uses a 2005 Ford Explorer XLS as an example.
      The sticker price is about $22,132, but the TCO over five years is
      actually more than $44,000. Another example he gives is for a used
      2001 Toyota Camry LE V6, purchased for $12,251. The TCO is $26,411.

      "Before I realized the full financial gain of not owning a car,"
      Balish says, "I would feel the lure of car ownership beckon every
      time I saw a sexy sports car on the road or in a commercial. For
      most of my life, I've seen 30 car commercials a day. They add up and
      definitely affect your psyche. It was tough to get through that first
      month -- I'm an American! I have to have a car! -- but then I saw the
      savings, and I got over that pretty quickly."

      Balish says he is living debt-free now and saves about 50 percent of
      his income.

      A conscious choice

      Balish may have fallen into a car-free lifestyle by accident, but he
      stayed that way by choice.

      Last spring, Balish moved from Missouri to Los Angeles to pursue
      greater adventures in television. And yes, Balish is living car
      free in L.A., the center of the car-owning, car-loving universe.

      "Before I moved, I looked at a number of different communities
      because I knew there were certain things I wanted walkable access to,
      and I knew I needed good bus line access to get me places I knew I
      might have auditions."

      Balish settled on Santa Monica and began making the rounds to find
      a job and promote his book.

      "I had an interview with NPR, got online, looked up the bus route,
      printed out a PDF of the map and found that the bus dropped me of
      eight-tenths of a mile from my destination. I rode my bike the rest
      of the way," Balish says.

      Unless he's going someplace specifically to talk about his book and
      his chosen lifestyle, Balish says people assume that if you show up
      someplace looking put together, you drove there.

      "If they don't ask, I don't bring it up," he says. "If they do ask,
      I admit I'm car free in L.A. If they ask how I'd get to work, I tell
      them, 'I wrote the book on it.'"

      Even Balish's family has given in to his car-free thinking. Balish's
      mom and dad are retired and living in Connecticut. Up until a few
      years ago, they had two cars on a fixed income.

      "I convinced them they were wasting $700 to $800 a month," Balish
      says. "And my mom's response was, 'But we've always had two cars.'
      I sat them down and walked them through the costs. They had no idea
      what owning a car really costs. So now they have one car, and with
      the money they're saving, they visit their grandchildren and go on

      Car-free families

      As an energetic bachelor, Balish zips around on his bike and buses
      and belongs to a car-sharing group that he uses about once a month
      for heavy-duty errands (like shopping at Costco).

      For a working parent, especially one with small children, living car
      free is a much trickier proposition -- but not an impossible one.

      "When I have kids, I'm totally doing it car free," Balish says. "The
      thing about living car free is this: if you've owned and used cars
      all your life, you rely on them every day. To live without a car
      requires lifestyle re-engineering. You have to purposely plan where
      you live and how you're going to get around."

      Balish plans to get married and have kids, and he promises a 100
      percent effort at living car-free.

      "If you plan in advance what amenities are required for kids --
      pediatrician's office, hospital, schools and all that -- and choose
      to live where all that's accessible, living car free is a very
      realistic goal."

      While being interviewed on a radio call-in show recently, Balish
      encountered an angry caller who said, "You ought to have your head
      examined. You can't live in this country without a car."

      Balish laughs at the memory and says he responded with something
      along the lines of: "Car-free living is not for everybody, but for
      tens of millions of Americans who have a more enlightened view, it
      is very realistic. I'm not out to convert anybody. But there is a
      better way. Think about it this way: if more people go car free,
      there's less traffic, more parking, fewer traffic hassles and
      cheaper insurance. It seems to me car owners should be behind this

      Now to you

      Like Balish, I ride public transit -- BART and buses mostly --
      every day, and I can tell you that we live in an area blessed with
      efficient ways to get around. No, it's not perfect, and yes it can
      be frustrating, but there are plenty of us living here without cars,
      and we get to where we need to be.

      Maybe 2007 won't be the year you go car free, but Balish suggests
      you might try going car lite.

      Map out a public transit route to work and use it once or twice a
      week. Ride your bike to accomplish errands on a beautiful day and
      you get a twofer: exercise and failure to pollute.

      Next time you and your friends or family go to San Francisco, take
      BART or Caltrans and avoid high bridge tolls, parking meters and
      stand-still traffic.

      Balish says if he can live car free, anyone can.

      "I'm a normal, mainstream, average-Joe guy. I found a better way to
      live. People can replicate what I've done and improve their lives
      dramatically. Luck has nothing to do with it. I deliberately planned
      my life to facilitate a car-free lifestyle. The biggest obstacle for
      other people is getting over that 'There's no way I can do it'
      hurdle, but you can get over it, you really can."

      Planning a car-free lifestyle
      Living car free

      TO BEGIN YOUR JOURNEY toward a car-free lifestyle, here are some
      resources that might come in handy:

      * Read the first two chapters of Chris Balish's "How to Live Well
      Without Owning a Car" ($12.95, Ten Speed Press) at

      * Plan your Bay Area transit routes at http://www.transitinfo.org by
      entering a starting place and a destination. The site plans out your
      most efficient route and links you to any relevant sites.

      * For BART information, visit http://www.bart.gov or (510) 465-2278
      (Oakland/Berkeley/Orinda); (415) 989-2278 (San Francisco/Daly City);
      (650) 992-2278 (South San Francisco/San Bruno/San Mateo); (925) 676-
      2278 (Concord/WalnutCreek/Lafayette/Antioch/Pittsburg/Livermore);
      (510) 441-2278 (Hayward/San Leandro/Fremont/Union
      City/Dublin/Pleasanton); (510) 236-2278 (Richmond/El Cerrito).

      * AC Transit in the East Bay: http://www.actransit.org or 817-1717

      * SamTrans on the Peninsula: http://www.samtrans.org or (800) 660-

      * Caltrain from San Jose to San Francisco: http://www.caltrain.com
      or (800) 660-4287

      * Golden Gate Transit in the North Bay (including ferries):
      http://goldengate.org or (415) 921-5858.

      * MUNI in San Francisco: http://www.sfmuni.com or (415) 673-6864.

      * Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority in the South Bay:
      http://www.vta.org or (800) 894-9908.

      * On the phone or online, 5-1-1 or 511.org provides complete and
      continuously updated information on Bay Area transit.

      * Bay Area car-sharing groups include: Flexcar,
      http://www.flexcar.com or (408) 996-FLEX; and City Car Share,
      http://www.citycarshare.org or (415) 995-8588.

      * Other sites that might be helpful include: Commuter Choice,
      a government and business partnership designed to help with
      commuting challenges, <http://www.commuterchoice.com/sanfrancisco>;
      Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for cycling,
      walking and environmentally sensible transportation,
      <http://www.transalt.org>; Bicycle Commuter, a guide to practical
      biking in the Bay area, <http://www.bicyclecommuter.com>; and
      Craigslist, <http://www.craigslist.org>, which offers classifieds
      seeking and offering commuter ride share opportunities.

      E-mail Chad Jones at cjones@... or call (925) 416-4853.

      [BATN: See also:

      Americans shift slightly away from driving toward transit

      Contra Costa Times writer tries going car-less for a week

      Letter: Carless living way to go; how to encourage less driving

      Mountain View family trades cars for bikes, enjoys life more

      Carless in Sacramento (by choice)

      Poll: America's love affair with cars is skidding
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BATN/message/31675 ]
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