Before I get into this column about how the coronavirus pandemic and a car crash combined to push me to try shedding my personal vehicle dependence, I want to remind you that I, like you, am also in the future enjoying the infinite wisdom of hindsight.
A few weeks ago, my friend and housemate asked an innocuous question: “What are you doing tonight?”
My answer, which might as well be automated these days and uttered while cozy and sprawled on the couch watching “New Girl” for the eighth time this year: “Nothing.”
We drove to Snohomish for a brewery visit, which turned into us being sideswiped after passing the intersection of Second Street and Maple Avenue. A driver in a Dodge pickup turned against the red light, then hit my car’s rear passenger side.
Physics ruled that bout. The truck’s mass cratered my compact commuter car’s rear passenger quarter.
This wasn’t an essential trip. Thankfully, the impact didn’t injure anyone, but I apologize to the county’s health care workers. If any of us was hurt, we would have increased the risk to ourselves and the people working at emergency rooms and urgent care clinics, all for a few pint glasses.
The slow, seemingly minor collision ended up totaling my car, according to the other driver’s insurance company claims specialist.
I’m required to have access to a vehicle for my job. So now I have a five-year-old updated version of what I was driving and new monthly expenses of about $240 — 40% of Congress’ proposed one-time stimulus payment.
Considering I, like thousands of others in Snohomish County and the entire Herald newsroom, am working and earning less, it is not a welcome cost. The new-old car is a bit more fuel efficient, but I’d have to drive it for decades to see that savings cover the price tag, fuel, insurance and maintenance.
All of this has led me to a self-evaluation that climate change experts and active transportation advocates have urged people to conclude for years: It is time to break up with my personal vehicle dependency.
Advice for how to do that includes driving less by using public transit, carpools, and efficient trips, as well as biking or walking.
When I was a teen, I longed to drive and for the freedom it would bring. I drove thousands of miles in my first car, a rust-red 1988 Subaru GL wagon, then thousands more in a 1995 Subaru Legacy sedan, and still thousands more in the 2001 Nissan Sentra.
That’s a lot of gasoline burned, greenhouse gases belched, money practically torched and time spent grinding my teeth in traffic.
Of course, it’s not all bad. There were car trips to cabins and camping, music festivals and weddings, seeing family and friends, and lots of drives for work.
In more subtle ways, it’s hundreds of short trips to the grocery store, to the bar, to visit friends, to get dinner. Many and probably most of which I could have reached by bike, bus or walking.
In 2019, The New York Times reported that even a 10% reduction, or about 1,350 fewer miles per year, would be significant if every American driver did it. That goal is considered realistic by eliminating short trips.
That’s my first benchmark. Instead of firing up the car to go four blocks to the grocery store once every other week, I aim to bike or walk, even if it means weekly trips.
“It’s those short trips that really matter in terms of pollution,” said Kristin Kinnamon of Marysville.
She’s the president of Sharing Wheels Community Bike Shop in Everett and a regular bike and bus commuter. When she goes grocery shopping, she pedals there and back and puts her purchases in bags attached to her bike.
“I buy whatever I need, I bring big, giant panniers in,” she said. “I have bread sticking out of my front bag.”
Driving less is the top advice for individuals to help improve air pollution and stem climate change, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It’s also the Washington State Department of Ecology’s first recommendation for reducing car pollution. Fewer drives mean less traffic congestion and air pollution.
“The biggest thing from our perspective is greenhouse gas emissions,” said Ecology spokesperson Andrew Wineke, of which transportation (personal vehicle use) accounts for about 45% in Washington.
Bike commuting has been a lifestyle for Tyler Rourke, a member of Everett’s Transportation Advisory Commission and an active transportation advocate. He has pedaled his bike to work and most other ventures that don’t require a bunch of equipment, like taking his children to sports or martial arts classes, for decades.
Maybe you’ve seen his family and him on their cargo bike with the children in the bin, or on the dual-tandem bikes with the kids pedaling from the back seats. They’ve biked around Everett, on the Centennial Trail and even on Lopez Island for a camping trip in October.
Ditching a car sprang from necessity. Rourke first started cycling for his commutes as a cash-strapped college student.
“I needed to eat food and pay rent,” he said. “That kind of forced me into giving (driving) up.”
I’m privileged by the luxury of choice. I have an income and assets like a car and a bike to get around at my discretion. Lots of people have to commute because they can’t afford to live where they work.
Working from home is another luxury that will help me avoid driving. But if and when we’re called back to the office, I intend on either biking there or taking Everett Transit. (Surprise! This was news to my editors.)
I’ll lose time by taking the bus or biking, which is a common concern for people in ditching their personal vehicle.
But it’s important to think about the non-car options as active transportation, Kinnamon and Rourke said. I also will get a short walk or bike ride in, which is helpful for a little heart rate elevation and cardio exercise.
“People often don’t factor in that I’m getting my activity in as part of my commute,” Kinnamon said.
Community Transit started getting buses with USB charging ports in 2018. Today, there are 76 buses with them, and another 16 are scheduled to join the fleet next year.
Other car trip reduction advice: Plan your car-based errands and do them in one loop. I’m going to treat it with this maxim: If it isn’t urgent and my first choice is to drive, I’ll either take a bus or delay that trip until there are four destinations I would reach by car. The exception: outdoor recreation.
One longtime barrier for me to bike and bus somewhere, aside from the presumed inconvenience of it, is the embarrassment of fumbling with a bus’ front bike rack. But Community Transit published a video on YouTube eight years ago showing how to use them as well as the roll-up bike racks inside Swift buses.
For others interested in bike and bus commutes, Community Transit spokesperson Nashika Stanbro said to try it once a week, or once a month. If you bike to work (and get sweaty, like me), pack a change of clothes or plan around days with presentations and meetings.
“Think about the places where you can make a change, and make that change,” Stanbro said.
The Snohomish County transit agency also offers van pool and commute trip reduction programs. The latter is available to employees at companies with 100 or more workers in Bothell and across the county who commute at least 16 days each quarter without driving a car. Over 50 workplaces use the commute trip reduction program.
For new transit riders, Stanbro recommends getting an ORCA card, which can be used at several transit options across the Puget Sound area, including Sound Transit. It works like a charge card, and users can put monthly payments into it or fund it as needed by phone, online or in-person at Albertsons, QFC and Safeway stores across the county. The $5 card fee is waived through February.
Once I start biking or walking instead of taking a car, Rourke said, he hopes I’ll notice the lack of infrastructure that encourages people to use active transportation.
Bike lanes aren’t yet a spiderweb network in Everett, which is where I live and where most of my daily trips will be.
The sales jump that Snohomish County bicycle shops saw this year should mean more people are riding in their communities. More people noticing barriers or hazards and telling their local leaders in city, county or state government, could improve those conditions for generations to come.
“We have to start getting out of our cars. I feel like I’m the only one in Everett,” he said. “At this point, the people out there making change and doing this are taking risk.”
I’m just one person with enough incentives and privilege to commit to driving less. But Kinnamon, Rourke and others are hopeful there are more out there like me who will try to bike, bus and walk more.
Follow along as I try to check in every six weeks on mistakes I make and lessons I learn becoming more active in how I get around this year.
Hopefully, the hindsight from this endeavor will be more favorable than my ill-fated trip to Snohomish.
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Correction: An earlier version gave the wrong date when the ORCA card’s $5 fee is waived.