Philadelphians ditch cars for bikes, SEPTA and walking

Posted: June 27, 2011

CHARLIE GILL marveled at his golden bronze glow. "Look how tan I am!" he said. "If I had a car, this would just be on my left forearm."

About a month ago, Gill, 27, moved from Berwyn to Fitler Square to get his English degree at Penn. Along with Berwyn's rolling green hills and a big back yard, Gill left something else behind in the 'burbs: his 2001 Toyota Camry.

In Berwyn, the car was a necessary evil. He needed it to get groceries, to see friends, for his frequent sojourns to Philly. "I spent at least 45 minutes in a car every day," Gill said. "You can't do anything without driving in the suburbs. At all."

But when he moved, Gill soon came to believe that the trouble of owning a vehicle outweighed its utility. Between the cost of gas and insurance, not to mention the everyday hassles of searching for parking or worrying about dings, dents and break-ins, he realized that having a car in the city was, simply, "a pain in the ass."

The city has long had something of a fickle relationship with automobiles - not surprising, considering that the core of the city was laid out more than two centuries before Gottlieb Daimler stuck an engine in a stagecoach.

And now, thanks to a still shaky economy, rising gas prices and a newfound appreciation of Philly's walkable (and bikable) streets, living without a car is an increasingly attractive option - something a lot of residents have figured out. Nearly a third of all households in the city don't have a vehicle, according to the Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey. At the same time, only about 60 percent of city residents get to their jobs via an automobile, according to census data, a figure that is lower than for all but a few other cities. A quarter of Philadelphians commute via public transit, and nearly 9 percent walk to work - figures that are among the highest in the country.

"A lot of people are [living without a car], whether it's convenient or not," said Alex Doty, the executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. "You can certainly get along fine without one. There are neighborhoods where it's more convenient not to have a car, and it's certainly cheaper."

To be sure, not all of those people have chosen to live a carless lifestyle; a sizable number of Philly residents simply can't afford an automobile. Even so, in Houston and Phoenix, both of which are comparable to Philadelphia in population and demographics, only 1 percent of households go without.

Our ability to live without needing a car for every activity is an important plus for the city, especially considering that Philadelphia is among the most expensive places in the country to own a car. Besides the everyday costs associated with car ownership everywhere - gas, maintenance, parking - Philly car owners are also burdened with the third-highest car insurance rates in the nation, behind only New Orleans and Detroit, with an average annual premium of $3,469, according to Runzheimer International, a firm that handles business travel and employee relocation.

The high cost of owning a car here is of particular concern to young adults, who now make up more than a quarter of the city's population. According to a national study conducted in 2010 by car-sharing service Zipcar, 80 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds said it can be difficult to afford a car in the current economy.

Doty offers testament to the economic benefits of living in Philly sans car. He credits his decision to ditch his car when he moved to town from Massachusetts 18 years ago with allowing him to save enough money for the down payment on his West Philly house.

"I rent cars a lot and I still spend less on rental than car owners do on insurance," said Doty, who lives carless even with two kids. "It's just about where you want to spend your transportation dollars."

Penn's legacy

Thank William Penn and his boys for making carless living an option in the first place. The city's layout, with a relatively straightforward grid of small blocks, is so old that's it's now progressive again, one of the chief reasons that living without a car in Philly isn't just possible for a lot of people, it's preferable - how the city was meant to be experienced.

"Philadelphia's development follows very closely with the development of transportation," said David Bartelt, a professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University. "It started as a place with people walking around, or with a horse if you were rich. I think we do better with the balance of public transit and automobiles when needed. We have a competitive advantage for people who move to the city because everything is in reach."

While pedestrians have benefitted from the city's layout since the days when dudes wore powdered wigs, another group of non-drivers has more recently taken advantage of the city's retro planning: bicyclists. According to a study released in May by the Bicycle Coalition, Philadelphia has seen a 151 percent increase in bicycle commuting over the last decade; today, the city claims twice as many bicycle commuters per capita as any other big urban area in the country. In parts of Center City and South Philly, more than 5 percent of residents bike to work, ranking those neighborhoods among the top 25 in the country for bicycle commuting.

The city is working to make those commutes easier. Two new north-south bike lanes on 10th and 13th streets will soon complement the existing east-west bike lanes along Spruce and Pine streets. A third new bike lane on Fairmount Avenue from Broad Street to Pennsylvania Avenue is slated to be added later this month. For its part, SEPTA is working on making the combined bike-and-mass-transit trip easier to pull off. Every bus and trolley in the fleet carries a rack that can hold two bikes.

Born to bike

Andrea Mules is one of those people, with tatted-up arms and perfectly sculpted calves, who could make the boys from "Breaking Away" weep with her biking skills. Mules, 28, doesn't use a car occasionally. She's car-free all the time. That includes vacations, where she eschews four-wheeled transportation for the two-wheeled kind, biking out to places such as the Pine Barrens when she needs to get away. A Philadelphia resident since 2005, Mules is a staunch environmentalist and die-hard biking enthusiast, who said that she's committed to "not putting more crap in the environment."

When it came to moving from West Philly to Point Breeze, she and her boyfriend, Kasy Zook, decided not to rent a van or a truck. Instead, they hooked 6-by-2-foot bike trailers to their rides and managed to move all of Mules' possessions, including furniture and a bed.

"We definitely get a lot of weird looks because we're fixing up our home and we take our 6-foot trailer to the Home Depot in South Philly," Mules said about her strange mode of moving. "We get a lot of compliments from construction workers, and our neighbors are used to us being these crazy bike people."

Our much-maligned transit system is also key to living a carless existence in Philly. And while we may complain about late buses or how it seems like the Rapture will come before we get smart cards to replace tokens, it turns out that SEPTA isn't as bad as we might imagine it to be.

Dick Voith, senior vice president and principle at transportation consulting firm Econsult, rides mass-transit systems around the country. Comparatively, SEPTA is doing very well, with prices lower than many other cities for similar service, he said. That's partly because SEPTA tends to focus on getting passengers from Point A to Point B, rather than frills and comfort. "It's a minimalist system in terms of passenger amenities," said Voith, who served on SEPTA's board from 1992 to 2000. "It's really good for getting one place to another but not good about being uplifting and inspiring."

Voith's view is backed up by the American Public Transportation Association's Transit Savings Report, a study that calculates how much money can be saved by ditching a car and using public transportation in various cities. In the study, SEPTA actually fared rather well. The report found that local riders who get rid of their cars save an estimated $11,684 a year, the sixth-best savings figure in the nation.

Car-free poster guy

If ever there were a man perfectly suited to make the case against car ownership in Philly, it would have to be Ralph Branch. Indeed, it can sometimes seem like Branch, 51, is a mutant bred by SEPTA and the bike lobby to make us all feel bad about our carbon footprint. Though he's lived his whole life in Philadelphia, he's never owned a car, and for the last 18 years, he's driven a bus for SEPTA. Every day for the last eight years, rain or shine, blizzard or heat wave, the West Philadelphian has also biked to work. "I just never saw the need to [own a car]. You can just get around so easily on mass transit," Branch said. "It's more fun out in the open."

Still, even Branch recognizes that living car-free in Philly isn't without its hitches, especially in farther-flung neighborhoods that were developed around the same time as the proliferation of cars, and where public transportation isn't particularly convenient and access to certain goods and services - grocery stores, for one - is difficult without a car.

For those with the funds, however, not owning a car in Philadelphia doesn't necessarily mean not having access to one. The city is home to two car-sharing programs that allow people to rent a car for a few hours at a time. PhillyCarShare now counts 12,000 residential members. Zip Car, the other car-sharing service, said it does not keep numbers for Philadelphia alone.

In a 2009 member survey, PhillyCarShare found that 25 percent of its members got rid of their cars because of the availability of car sharing. Similarly, 7 percent of members said that they considered buying a car but ultimately decided against it due to the car-share program.

Beverly Coleman, assistant vice president for Community Relations and Economic Development at Temple, is one of those car-sharers. Coleman has lived in Washington Square West for 15 years. She owned a car when she lived in Wynnefield, but when the car died - as cars are wont to do - she decided not to buy another one.

While she doesn't plan to move soon, Coleman said that the ability to live carless would be a deciding factor in her next neighborhood.

"As I long I stay within an accessible neighborhood," Coleman said. "I don't plan on buying a car again."

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