Nine weeks ago, I lost my fancy hybrid street/trail bike to one of San Francisco’s plentiful bicycle thieves. Seven weeks ago, in preparation for a big move east, I sold my car. Now I’m settling into a new apartment in Cambridge, MA, and for the first time in my adult life, I don’t own a set of wheels.
It’s a strange feeling—both disorienting, since it takes a little longer to figure out how to go places, and liberating, since I no longer need to pay for gas or worry about where to park my car or lock my bike. At the moment, I have no plans to buy a new car, and I’m not even sure if I’ll get a new bike. Thanks to the Boston area’s extensive public transportation system and its dense vehicle-sharing network, I don’t really need them.
If I want to go a short distance and the weather is cooperating, I can grab a Hubway bike. If I need to go all the way across town or it’s wet out, I can take an MBTA train or bus, rent a Zipcar, find someone on Ridejoy who’s going my way, or call Uber or Lyft or even a regular old taxi.
In Boston and other metropolises, growing numbers of urbanites have the same expanding list of options. It seems inevitable that the big cities of the mid-21st century—the ones that aren’t underwater, anyway—will have fewer cars spewing less carbon dioxide. It’s exciting to live in one of the places where this future is being modeled and tested.
Here’s a little glimpse into the life of a bike- and car-sharing convert. Last week, I had to pick up a package at a FedEx facility in an industrial section of South Boston. I grabbed a bike from the Hubway station one block from my apartment. Using the bicycle lanes along Boston’s Greenway to zoom past the gridlock, I reached a branch library in South Boston, where there’s another Hubway station, in just 28 minutes. (On Hubway, knowing where you’re going to dock your bike at the end of a trip is key. For $85 per year—or just $25 in my case, thanks to a subsidy from my employer—Hubway members get unlimited use of the bikes, but extra charges pile up for trips over 30 minutes.)
From the library it was a short walk to FedEx, then another short walk to a Hubway station on Drydock Avenue in Boston’s seaport “Innovation District.” Another 23 minutes of biking took me to the Bunker Hill Mall shopping center in Charlestown, where I stopped at Whole Foods to stock up on dinner provisions. One more quick jaunt from Charlestown back to Cambridge over the Prison Point Bridge and I was home.
What makes a system like Hubway, San Francisco’s Bay Area Bike Share, or New York’s Citi Bike a nice alternative to owning a bike, in my mind, is the ability to dock your bike and forget about it. When you need to go somewhere, another bike will be there. The eternal war between bike owners and bike thieves is moot.
A couple of days later, I wanted to go to Ikea in Stoughton, MA, about 22 miles south of Cambridge, to pick up some patio furniture for my new place. There’s a Zipcar lot just a 10-minute walk from my building, so I fired up the Zipcar app on my iPhone, reserved a Ford Escape, and got down to Ikea and back in just three hours. Rental fee: $32.
Yes, I confess to being a spoiled, smartphone-toting urbanite who shops at Ikea and Whole Foods. I’m even lucky enough to have three equally convenient options for commuting to work: a 25-minute walk, a 15-minute Hubway ride, or a 10-minute shuttle bus ride. My point is that with accelerating re-urbanization—the undoing of the automobile-enabled sprawl that caused so much social and environmental damage in the 20th century—there will be more and more people like me who find that owning a car isn’t the necessity it once was.
Why deal with car payments, insurance, maintenance, and fuel costs when you can leave all of that to Zipcar (now a division of Avis) or one of its competitors, like Daimler’s Car2go, BMW’s DriveNow, or the San Francisco non-profit City CarShare? When you buy your own car, you’re paying for all the time when the vehicle is sitting idle in a garage or parking spot. With car sharing, you only pay for what you use. The American Automobile Association estimates that the average cost of owning a car in the U.S. is $9,100 per year. Even if you were a very heavy Zipcar user—renting several times each week and a couple of weekends per month—you would be hard-pressed to spend a third as much.
I suspect the real test of my resolve to stay carless will come when I want to go somewhere that’s hard to access by bike or public transit, like the fantastical World’s End park in Hingham, MA; when I want to take a spontaneous weekend trip; or after I adopt a new dog. Zipcar’s costs for extended reservations can mount up almost as quickly as those of conventional rental car companies, and pets can only ride inside carriers. (Sorry, Buster: no more sticking your head out the window with your sloppy tongue flailing in the wind.) I also have trouble imagining how a couple with young children could manage without a car.
But while unlimited mobility has been a part of the American dream at least since the days of the Ford Model A Roadster in the 1920s and 1930s, the dreamers never envisioned a country with 254 million passenger vehicles—roughly one for every citizen over the age of 16. About one-third of all greenhouse gases released in the U.S. come from vehicles, so accepting the idea that fewer people will own cars in the future is one obvious step toward reducing emissions.
Even in Los Angeles, the city that practically invented sprawl and smog, there are signs of progress toward a future with mixed transit modes. You wouldn’t know it from looking at the clogged freeways, but some 10 to 20 percent of all trips in L.A. are by bus or rail. Dense new housing developments are being built near transit stations. Bike lanes painted green are appearing along major arteries, and bikes are allowed on trains and buses.
Mobile technology is working in our favor here. Vehicle-sharing systems like Hubway and Zipcar are vastly more convenient because of the existence of mobile apps that let you quickly find out where cars or bikes are available and, in Zipcar’s case, make or extend a reservation.
Automotive technology, too, is advancing. Batteries for electric cars are rapidly falling in cost; it’s now conceivable that by 2030, a majority of the cars on the road will be electric. Semi-autonomous vehicles like those being prototyped at Google, Bosch, Daimler, BMW, Ford, GM, and other companies are expected to reduce traffic deaths and increase the capacity of existing highway networks by packing more cars onto the roads safely. Self-driving cars might also encourage more ride-sharing, lessen the need for parking infrastructure, make roads safer for bikers and pedestrians, and have all sorts of other salutary effects.
In short, there are many reasons to be optimistic that developments in transportation technology will lead to more convenient lifestyles and cleaner, smarter cities. I didn’t expect to be so happy about giving up my car, or to learn that bike sharing around Boston is such a breeze. Maybe more consumers are in for similar discoveries.
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This is my 293rd and final Friday column for Xconomy. After seven years working with the finest crew in the tech-journalism business, I’ve taken a new job as acting director of Knight Science Journalism at MIT.
This 31-year-old program brings mid-career science and technology journalists to MIT—where I did my own graduate work—for a year of study, immersion, and retooling. We’ll soon expand the program to study and improve the ways journalists, educators, and other communicators interact with the public around the big science and technology and issues of the day, including global warming and transportation.
No other opportunity could have torn me away from Xconomy, which continues to break new ground in its hyperlocal approach to understanding the business of innovation and the lives of technology entrepreneurs. But I’m staying on as a contributing editor, so I won’t say farewell. I’ll just say: see you in the bike lane.
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