Car-Free Lifestyles Are The Secret To Transit

There are a lot of modes of transportation. Save for walking and (hopefully!) cycling, they’re all pretty expensive. You’ve got your $676 million dollar freeway interchanges and your $20,000 Toyota Camries, and your $957 million dollar Green Lines and your $76/month Metropasses. Because it would be a hassle for everyone to own their own road to work and to the market, in western society we have historically and also more recently decided that transportation infrastructure is one of those things that we’ll all build and use together.

There are a lot of different financial arrangements for all the different modes of transportation in all the different jurisdictions of the world. In the United States, none of these arrangements–including roads–involve being completely sustained by user fees, and generally if you’re building any sort of system, it requires large, visible-from-orbit stacks of money from the general and other funds of local, state, and federal governments. (Why do transportation projects in the United States cost far more than in other developed countries? A mystery!)

Local Examples

Assuming that the status quo of expensive projects and scarce funding continues, we should weigh transportation projects carefully, especially major mass transit projects that, for the past couple decades, have been rolling out about decennially in the Twin Cities. Good ones, at least–it would probably be fair to say that the consensus on the Northstar Commuter Rail line is “oops” and while it may be politically too soon to say the same for the Red Line, that was also an “oops.” The Green and Blue Lines have been a success, even considering various political constraints that limited their potential a bit.

Transit Map

So we’ve got two local examples of wildly successful transit lines and two duds. Using our experiences with those and examples around the country and also a smattering of uncommon sense, how should we consider mass transit projects and their benefits, when considering where to site a once-in-a-decade line?

Benefits and the Best Benefit

Mass transit, as a mode, has a lot going for it. In addition to the “carries a lot of people efficiently” part, you’ll hear lots of other reasons to build mass transit and to build specific lines for specific reasons. Assuming we’re talking about rail, any given proposal’s benefits may include:

  • Economic Development/Redevelopment
  • Congestion Reduction/Mitigation
  • The Millennials
  • Air Quality Improvement
  • Less Un-sustainability
  • Reduced Dependence of Foreign Oil
  • Rail Bias

Is anything missing here? Yes, the most important one…

Enabling a Car-free Lifestyle

The highest and best use of transit is to enable a car-free lifestyle, because if you build transit to enable a car-free lifestyle for as many people as you can, you accomplish every single other item on that list. Building transit for the other goals on the list will not accomplish all the other goals on the list. It will also accomplish bonus goals, like improving the mobility of children, the elderly, the disabled, and other people unable to drive. It will also spare low-income people from the financial burden of car ownership.

Apollo 15 Lunar Rover (Source: NASA)

Apollo 15 Lunar Rover (Source: NASA)

(While he himself does not own one, the author is not explicitly anti-car. He took two different cars to and fro a cabin this past Memorial Day weekend. Cars have many practical and real uses, like buying a dresser or more than two tubs of cat litter. Notably, there are even three cars on the moon–bringing an entire light rail vehicle, track, ballast, catenary, etc. were ruled out due to cost and other considerations.)

But when we think about what makes our own transit lines successful and what we need to take into consideration in the future, the real success stories are places where people feel enabled to use transit as an lifestyle, not just a commute. Can tens of thousands of people walk up to your transit line and take it to a park, or a stadium, or a university, or a grocery store? Will a lot of people ride your train, running on fixed tracks at good headways with a conductor eating up most of your operating budget, at 2:00 PM on a Tuesday, or any Sunday in late winter? If so, your transit line will be very successful and a non-bad use of your limited resources.

A Local Action

And the reality is that this logic will preclude large stretches of the Twin Cities from landing any sort of large rail transit investment. Do we suppose, for example, that any significant amount of people will move to a market rate transit-oriented development in Minnetonka, Minnesota, and forgo car ownership? Seems unlikely!

Minnetonka & HopkinsNot that that restricts us to central city routes–above is the Minnetonka/Hopkins border. It is far more likely that someone would want to live car-free in Hopkins, a walkable town with a street grid and a grocery store and a movie theater and bars and restaurants, than in Minnetonka, which does not have these things. This is probably a good argument for ending the Green Line extension in Hopkins.

Does a city like Minnetonka or Eden Prairie have the potential to redevelop tens of acres of land around stations to be more like Hopkins? Sure, after decades and hundreds of millions of dollars of private sector investment. Take the local portion of that $500 million dollars you’ll save cutting the line off at Hopkins, and build rail in the Midtown Corridor, a line that many thousands of transit users (including thousands of new transit users) would use every day at all times for countless reasons. You will still get your transit-oriented development and associated new riders along the Midtown Corridor.

It’s Pretty Simple

The above is just one recent and relevant example. Maybe its limited geographic appeal is an obstacle, but building bad lines which become political fodder for people who are opposed to the entire idea of transit is also not a good plan. Have you ever had Northstar’s operating subsidy thrown back at you by a transit opponent who knows the numbers? It really screws up the whole flow of your argument.

Thinking about the whole universe of transportation costs for governments and individuals, it makes sense to locate billion-plus dollar transit investments in places that will enable tens of thousands of users to skip the thousands of dollars associated with the upfront and ongoing cost of car ownership. If your transit project is planned with the transportation goal of, not even eliminating, but merely shortening the car trips of ten thousand or so downtown commuters who otherwise require a car to buy a stick of gum on a Saturday, then your transit project is a bad idea.

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.

71 thoughts on “Car-Free Lifestyles Are The Secret To Transit

  1. Steven Prince


    Couple rail development with land use surrounding stops that provide dense-enough housing with localized services (dry cleaner, grocery, bakery, clinic, schools) within walking distance, then you have a model based on removing constraints from transit use that allows people to give up their cars. The plans to build park-and-ride lots adjacent to the Green Line stops shows how far off the tracks rail planning is in this region.

  2. Ben

    The more I read from the more I wonder about the demographics of the authors and readership. Mainly age range, marital status and number of children.

    I understand that some may view a car free life as a sort of freedom but my hypothesis is that pertains to certain demographics in certain seasons of life. However I would see it as a huge loss of freedom. Unable to leave town for vacation or go see a family member or flee the zombie apocalypse. Not to mention if my kid gets sick at school and needs to be picked up right away.

    I Amy not against being green, recycling, efficiently using our resources but it needs to be done as effectively as practical. You have a good point regarding user fees for roads and sustainability vs rail and user fees. We also need to consider how goods and services, including emergency services get around, on roads.

    If the proposal is to build rail in the areas where the density makes sense, great. It is when the plans are to roll it out to areas like Brooklyn Park through a lightly populated area of town where even the people who are for it stand up at city meetings and say the route is wrong for the community that gets me wondering why and become anti rail. And the government officials just reply that the route is the route and there is no room for conversation. This leaves citizens with one option, which is to leave town since the Met Council is not resomsible to the people which it is suposed to represent.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I don’t think the point is that cars are bad, but that transit should be designed around a walk-up land use rather than a drive-up-and-park land use.

    2. Matty LangMatty Lang

      My family (Gen Xers with 1 child) live without car ownership and, as Nick points out, that doesn’t mean we never use a car. We have an Hour Car membership, a Car2Go membership, and we have traditional car rental options for longer trips if needed. So, there’s really nothing we are shut out of by not owning a car.

      In fact, I’m in production of a new Youtube series that’s all about living without car ownership. My goal is to share my experience with people like you who don’t think it’s an option for them and/or can’t imagine themselves living a car-free lifestyle. The show will probably be posted here and I hope you check it out. It will be launching by the end of summer.

    3. Ben

      Your example of a sick kid is illustrative of the bigger problem. You’re assuming your work and home are not proximal to your school, when in fact they should be.

      1. Monte Castleman

        Maybe the should be. But how realistic is this for most people if you don’t live in a small town? Confine your job search to only jobs near your house? Make sure they house you buy is near elementary, middle, and high schools? Take a huge financial hit and huge disruption by selling your house and buying another one every time you switch jobs or your kids switch schools?

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          Living in Minneapolis, I can attest that it’s actually quite easy to confine any job searches to close-in or transit accessible employers. That’s part of why I chose to live in Minneapolis rather than a distant suburb.

          1. Wayne

            I’ll second that. I don’t even bother looking at jobs that u can’t reach by transit and there are PLENTY of opportunities still.

            1. Ben

              When I put together a pros and cons list for a potential job, a downtown location is a con. But isn’t the point of America to be diverse? Those of us who want to live in a dense area can and those of us don’t, don’t have to.

              1. Wayne

                Then why did we build a country where having a car is a requirement in nearly every city? You’ve got yours, now give us something too

                1. Monte Castleman

                  So what do you want to be done differently?

                  Per the comments, there’s already quite a few people living car-free in Minneapolis.

                  The first and second light rail lines are almost entirely in the cities. Minneapolis is trying to get the Nicollet streetcar built, but it’s not the suburbs problem if Minneapolis show no real interest in getting any other streetcar lines built.

                  Unless it’s the core downtown area, it’s the city residents that are having a fit every time something with density is proposed, not some omnipotent planner from Medina.

                  1. Wayne

                    So a handful of internet comments on a fairly urbanist-leaning blog means that living car-free is totally feasible not only in the twin cities but everywhere? Good logic there. Acendotes != data.

                    I live car free and it’s a struggle because everywhere I go, even in the denser ‘urban’ parts of town the primary concern of all of the infrastructure is moving cars. Pedestrians are an afterthought at best. Narrow sidewalks, constant curb cuts, blocked crosswalks, no enforcement of any sort of offense that negatively impacts pedestrians … yeah it’s really a great life. After living somewhere like Boston this place is utter garbage for a pedestrian.

                    You’re talking about transit as if Minneapolis can magically just tax itself to build something, but we know that they have to go through the bureaucratic and suburban-stacked met council to get anything done with that and everything turns into some kind of a bargaining game to appease the suburbanites. The entire city of Minneapolis is one big concession to suburban concerns–highways cutting through it, wide streets designed to funnel suburban commuters to their jobs or shops and restaurants, heavily commute-centric transit system (and transit planning priorities) with little regard to local users going somewhere other than to work (and only to work downtown really).

                    I won’t excuse the NIMBYs who throw a fit whenever something dense is proposed, I hate them quite a bit. I think they’ve gotten used to the idea of Minneapolis as some kind of suburban hybrid and rather than just move to the suburbs (where they clearly belong if they’re opposed to density IN THE CENTER CITY), they try to keep everything the same and stifle any chance this place has to become a walkable urban area that can compete with the coasts.

                    1. Monte Castleman

                      You don’t have a car. Other’s don’t have a car. Therefore it must be “feasible” (if not “easy”) in Minneapolis. And I never said “Twin Cities”. (Unless this is another case of urbanists trying to impose their will on the surburbs). You said “You’ve got what you want, give us something”. We’ve got what we want- cars and stroads and freeways and big back yards, and want to keep it that way. It’s fine with me if you want to tax me to pay for more buses or trains or whatever you want. I’m part of society and I can afford it, just don’t try to take away what I have out here (to the point that the market isn’t already trying to do so. Having a large lot in Bloomington means I’ve been hassled by developers wanting to knock down my house and build McMansions.

                    2. Wayne

                      And I’m fine with turning your suburban reaches into auto-centric wastelands if that’s what people really want (and will actually start paying for instead of relying heavily on socialized subsidies).

                      But people insist on the same kind of roads and infrastructure in the city where it doesn’t belong. They made all the suburbs look the same and then frowned when the city that was built before it didn’t match. Where to put their cars? Why are these old roads so darn narrow? The solution they decided on was to tear everything down and try to make the city look like the burbs in order to ‘compete’ with it. Even long after most people ostensibly realized they shouldn’t be the same, the infrastructure people still haven’t gotten the memo. Things like Lake&Lagoon in uptown or 1st and E Hennepin in old st Anthony absolutely do not fit with the walkable urban nature of those areas, but everyone seems powerless to change it because some traffic engineer said the world would end if you narrowed the street and calmed traffic. The county cares only about moving suburban commuters into downtown on the roads it ‘owns’ and won’t let anyone possibly do anything to impede that purpose.

                      Basically the end result is that people in the city get stuck with crappy auto infrastructure to support everyone in the suburbs coming into town where there’s no room for it. We suffer so you can drive here, but you don’t suffer so we can walk down the streets we actually live on. That’s my point.

                    3. Rosa

                      wait, hassled how? Like they call you up offering large sums of money, that kind of hassle?

                1. Monte Castleman

                  Yes, pretty much that kind of hassle. I have absolutely zero desire to move. At that time my parents owned the house so they would have sold and myself and my sister would have had to move. I have a feeling that their maximum price wouldn’t be a life changing amount after getting nailed with capital gains tax, closing costs on a new place, moving expenses, and such. Refuse to sell and we’d end up with townhouse balconies overlooking my back yard or something.

        2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          You bring up a huge disadvantage of home ownership: being less economically mobile. Fixed buying/selling fees (or the potential loss of equity) make moving for a job not palatable for many. The reality is that many home owners do in fact up and move for a job (or for no reason other than a bigger/nicer home) all the time. Anyway, policies that promote home ownership miss the societal negatives

          Besides, you’re speaking in the current situation, while advocates of land use/transportation structural changes have the long view. With the right policies/investments, 50 years from now more people and jobs would be walk/bike-able, centrally located, and/or served by transit. A family could make the decision to own 0, 1, or 2 cars with better job/amenity access than today.

        3. Wayne

          Maybe we should stop subsidizing people making poor choices where they buy a house? Or demand actual places to exist with adequate housing that checks all those boxes instead of chicken scratch streets and cookie cutter houses built to maximize profit for the builder with little regard given to the location or infrastructure present.

          1. David Greene

            Ok, so we did the responsible thing and bought a house probably in the very best place you can buy a house for a car-free lifestyle. And sure enough, we basically only use the car for commuting to work and the occasional trip to Stillwater or other such unique places.

            But now some people here want to remove all the houses from our neighborhood. I like homeownership for a variety of reasons. Shouldn’t we keep a variety of housing available in these holier-than-thou walkable places?

            I’m not asking to preserve the status quo forever or even for the next week. But even a modest ask of keeping some SFH in the area is met with absolute derision by some.

            It’s not surprising people would react negatively to the idea of limiting investments only to some other person’s notion of the ideal.

            1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              “Ok, so we did the responsible thing and bought a house probably in the very best place you can buy a house for a car-free lifestyle.”

              If you’re using the car to commute to work – the single most frequent transportation need – you didn’t buy a house in the best place for car-free lifestyle (or maybe subsequent work changes messed it up for you or something).

              “Shouldn’t we keep a variety of housing available in these holier-than-thou walkable places?”

              Who is “we?” When you say you want to “keep” someone else’s property the way it is, you know that what you’re doing is restricting what someone else can do with their property, right? Why do you get to do that?

              “But even a modest ask of keeping some SFH in the area is met with absolute derision by some.”

              Hm. Really? I don’t think I’ve seen anyone argue that you can’t keep your house if you want to. Or that your neighbor can’t keep hers if she wants to.

              “It’s not surprising people would react negatively to the idea of limiting investments only to some other person’s notion of the ideal.”

              No, it isn’t.

              1. David Greene

                We have zoning that restricts what can happen. Of course individual property owners should be able to do what they want as allowed by zoning.

                Zoning (or some better system) is what I’m talking about.

                People most definitely have argued that it’s selfish and immoral for me and my neighbors to want to keep living in our houses. I mean, some people are absolutely rabidly against the notion of keeping the current R2B zoning and allowing variances/spot upzoning/exceptions for projects on a case-by-case basis.

                1. Peter Bajurny

                  You can’t really be “for” affordable housing and “against” making it possible to build anything by right.

                  The big guys aren’t going to buy a single lot and put up a fourplex, it’s the little guys. And the little guys aren’t going to bother if they can’t do it by right, because it costs money to even ask for those variances.

                  1. David Greene

                    That’s a fair point which is why I said “or something better” with respect to zoning. You and I agree a lot about changes needed to our zoning code. I fully support making it easier to build fourplexes and the like on small lots and would absolutely support rezoning the enire Wedge that allows the kind of traditional structures that exist today. As you’ve pointed out, we literally can’t build stuff like that anymore due to our zoning code. Ithink it would make the Wedge markedly more healthy if that were to happen.

                    Even better if those fourplexes include community-facing and -interactive features like porches, courtyards, etc. I think that’s probably easier to do for a single-lot project than a large half-block project.

                    1. Steven Prince

                      David, With the exception of the buildings on the corner of 24th and Dupont and 27th and Dupont (which have non-conforming commercial), can you please point to buildings in the Wedge that present zoning would not allow to be rebuilt?

                      There are plenty of single family homes and duplexes in the Wedge (over 100) that are zoned R6, but I cannot think of apartment buildings zoned R2B. I am not including duplexes on standard lots that were big enough for duplexes in the past but now require 10,000 foot lots, I am asking abut multi-family buildings.

                      I admit it has been a while since I looked at a zoning map at that fine a scale in the Wedge.

                      The Wedge neighborhood zoning plan would have allowed almost all present land-uses to be duplicated, but the City never considered it.

                    2. Peter Bajurny

                      Well I’m guessing that David would prefer swaths of the Wedge be downzoned to R2B, but the regardless the general point is that all over the city there are buildings in R1 and R2 that couldn’t be built today.

                    3. Steven Prince

                      Its interesting the fixation this site seems to have with the Wedge, especially when claiming zoning issues in other parts of the City are the same in the Wedge.

                      Saying exisitng apartment buildings are zoned R2b “all over the City” does not respond to my challenge to identify specific addresses in the Wedge. The Wedge, which has the opposite zoning issue – over a hundred single family and duplexes are zoned for tear-down. Be careful what you wish for “all over the City,” expereince in the Wedge shows it takes decades of disinvestment before the economics favor tear-down. But zoning single-family and duplexes for R6 apartments will result in significant disinvestment in the existing housing stock.

                      Check the definition of multifamily in the zoning (and building) codes, I do not think duplexes are included.

                    4. David Greene

                      For some reason there’s no reply button under Steven’s comment so I’m replying here.

                      I wasn’t meaning literally rebuilding what exists today. I mean zoning the neighborhood so that duplex, triplexes, etc. can be built anywhere. Historically that’s what happened.

                      I’d love to see more one or two-lot apartment buildings such as the existing historic apartment buildings. An example would be the apartments along 28th next to The Beat. As far as I can tell that’s nearly impossible to do now almost everywhere in the city.

                      I am also specifically ralking about duplexes that sit on lots too small to build duplexes today.

                      I’m puzzled by your statement that duplexes aren’t multi-family.

                    5. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                      “But zoning single-family and duplexes for R6 apartments will result in significant disinvestment in the existing housing stock.”

                      I’m not follow what the causal mechanism is or could be here? Why would zoning that permits greater density cause disinvestment in the existing housing stock?

                    6. Steven Prince

                      If you own an property that is zoned R6, but has a duplex, the zoning is telling you the highest and best use is an apartment building. The most rational thing to do is minimize what you spend on the building, maximize your income, and wait for an opportunity to raze the duplex for an apartment building. Probably after 20 years of depreciation.

                      The redevelopment at 2320 Colfax is a good example of this. In that case disinvestment over the years was part of the argument for tearing down the existing structure which had “outlived its economic usefulness” because of deferred maintenance. The same argument has been used over the years for other buildings in the Wedge on Aldrich and 24th Street.

                    7. David Greene

                      Actually I would not prefer downzoning to R2B. That’s too restrictive. We should zone it to allow the kind of small-scale development that we used to do. I’m also ok with largish apartments, just not *everywhere*.

      2. Ben

        Actually when I am not traveling for work, I work from home. My son goes to school out of district but is still close to home. My wife works from home sometimes too and also travels for work. She also is in the office weekly in St Paul. When finding the right mix of quality school, quality neighborhood, and quality job, it is not always possible for one to live close to all. Not to mention if my wife or I change jobs, it is not always feasible to move and yank our son out of a good school which he likes and has made wonderful friends. There are some things which are hard to put a price on. So maybe in a perfect world the “shoulds” can win out, but last I checked we are far from a perfect world.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          A connected idea would be transit allowing two-car families to move to one car. I know many people, married and with kids, who manage with one car because they have access to transit and live in a walkable neighborhood. That’s quite freeing for a younger family.

          1. Evan RobertsEvan

            My hypothesis is that there’s more potential for this 2-1 car household transition in the Twin Cities than 1-0. A lot of families have that second car for one adult’s job, and really not much else besides.

          2. Ed Kohler

            I’m one of these families. Family of 4 with one car. I can shuttle both my kids to daycare and playgrounds on my bike. I use Car2Go and NiceRide quite a bit, often in conjunction with transit.

            MetroTransit also offers options for the “sick kid” scenario, though it’s probably a rare enough situation where taking an Uber SUV each time it happens would be a convenient option that’s cheaper than owning a second car.

          3. Jeff

            Add me to that list, Bill. We are a family of 5, kids range from 1-6 and we get by just fine on one car. I either bike into work or take the train (before the Green Line began operation I would often drive in colder/snowier days during the winter). There might come a day when we’ll need a second car to get the kids everywhere they need to be, but so far we have no need for a second car.

          4. Damien

            Hey that’s me, too! 2 adults, 2 kids and a dog with 1 car, some bikes, and the 5 bus one block away from home. Works pretty well.

          5. GlowBoy

            Another 4-person, 1-car family here. We sold our second car when we moved here from Portland. Despite living in the Diamond Lake area, twice as far from the downtown core as we were before, we drive much less because we are closer to schools, groceries and retail (for the latter it is proving beneficial to be near Richfield). It does help that I’m working from home now, but I hardly ever drove to work before.

            I won’t claim as much hardly-take-the-car-out virtue as some of the others here. We certainly do use it more than just for emergencies, lumber runs and roadtrips, but I never drive it alone – only if I’ve got the kids with me. For solo trips I always use bikes and/or transit, occasionally augmented by Car2go to get closer to a transit line and avoid a transfer. (I would use transit even more if it were significantly faster than cycling — which the #5, #14, #23 and #46 buses near my neighborhood are NOT– although if I happen to be going to/from downtown at rush hour I certainly do enjoy the Express #552/#553).

            I agree with Evan and others that the potential for 2-to-1 reduction is large, and largely ignored. Remember, a family ditching 1 car saves just as much as an individual going car-free. As a (sort of) aside, it’s interesting that the carsharing companies have forgotten this. When we originally joined Carsharing Portland in the late 90s, they pretty much marketed equally to no-car and 2-to-1 people. But their subsequent brandings (first Flexcar, then Zipcar) have focused almost exclusively on the non-car owners, and seem only dimly aware that people like us exist.

            It would be good to remember that not only are young people moving back into the cities and filling up apartments in highly urbanized neighborhoods, but young families are also moving back into the more single-family oriented neighborhoods of the city as well. It is harder to justify frequent transit in these lower-density areas, but a lot of the newer residents are making a conscious choice versus somewhere that transit isn’t an option at all, and may be more open to riding transit. Especially if we can bring aBRT through more of these neighborhoods to make transit more attractive, there is a lot of potential.

            1. David Greene

              I would love to be able to take transit to work so I’ll ask the one-car family people here how they do it.

              I work days and my wife works nights. We want to avoid exorbitant daycare costs (the cost would totally overwhelm the savings from going to one car). That means I have to be home before my wife goes to work. Realistically it means I have to be home a couple hours before that so we at least get *some* time together during the day.

              That means commute time is a huge factor. I’m on a schedule where I can commute outside of peak traffic so I can get to work from Uptown to downtown St. Paul in 20-25 minutes. With the Green Line that means well over an hour. Even with the 94 it’s 45 minutes at best.

              Doubling commute time means a huge chunk of work time in the office lost. I already work 2-3 hours at home each day while our son sleeps. I can’t imagine how I would fit in another hour. I could do some work on the train but for various reasons (work security rules, lack of internet, etc.) it’s less efficient.

              There’s also the problem of work meetings. I have a regular meeting once a week at the end of my office day and taking transit after that means I would have much less time with my wife at home. Maybe that’s an ok tradeoff but it’s something to consider.

              I’d love to hear ideas about how to make the switch!

              1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                Well, the obvious option is to move to where one of you doesn’t have to drive to work.

                But if you don’t commute during peak times – as you don’t thanks to a non-traditional schedule – driving does get a lot more attractive.

                1. David Greene

                  If we moved to such a place (most likely Highland Park) we’d lose a LOT of amenities and would probably end up driving much more for errands and the like. That’s a bigger time-waster than a scheduled, predictable daily commute. It’s a trade-off.

                  The Midtown Line and/or enhanced bus on Lake St. and the A line has the potential to make using transit for my commute more possible. It would make my wife’s commute by transit nearly a certainty, if she can be assured her commute home at midnight will be safe (no way she’ll bike on the Greenway at that time, for example). But as always the devil’s in the details.

                  I’m all for car-free lifestyles but there are real practical challenges that have to be addressed and unfortunately for a lot of people the your answer is typical, “Well, I guess in your situation a car makes sense.” It’s an indication of how far was have to go,. infrastructure-wise.

                  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

                    David, just imagine if you had a one-seat rail ride to DT St. Paul. Such as if we had chosen 3C Alt 2 for Green Line. Or, second to that, if we interline future Midtown Corridor with future Riverview Corridor as one continuous service (via Blue Line from Lake Street to VA Medical Center).

                    1. David Greene

                      3C would be just as slow as the Green Line (it’s the same route downtown-to-downtown) today so I don’t see how that helps my commute time. Maybe there would be a small time savings over taking the bus downtown but I’m skeptical given that I’m traveling off-peak.

                      An inlined Midtown-Riverview would be outstanding! I’d totally fight for that. I don’t think it’ll realistically happen, unfortunately.

    4. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      I grew up in the suburbs and have a hard time imaging an entirely car-free life. Which might have something to do with why I own two cars, even if the one that is “mine” doesn’t get driven very often and the one that is my wife’s spends many days she’s working from home idle too.

      But one of the things I like about where we live, and any place we’d consider moving to, is having the option to not use my car for stuff that I personally find it unpleasant to use a car for — principally commuting, but more generally trying to get to things when everyone else is on the road.

      With the option to walk, bike or take transit, I can use my car(s) for things that are pleasant — a road trip vacation, visiting my parents at the lake, weekend trips to the MILs house — or things where its actually adds utility — buying furniture or other bulky items, visiting clients on occasion, making unscheduled quick trips.

      If you’re in a place that doesn’t have any other options, maybe your car looks essential. But once you have and use other options, it probably will look a lot less so.

    5. Dana DeMasterDanaD

      In the event of a zombie apocalypse available gasoline would run out pretty quickly. I’m not sure a car would be the solution that everyone thinks, except for it being a large metal object with locks to offer physical protection from zombies. In a more likely disaster scenario, such as environmental disaster or natural disaster, that requires a mass evacuation I think a bicycle would be the best transportation. Cars would be sitting stopped on every freeway out of town and my family could zip through on our cargo bike and then steal a car once we’ve passed the congestion.

      1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino Post author

        As an advanced hipster, I ironically own a shotgun just in case shit hits the fan. The tentative plan is to evacuate to my friends’ parents’ house in rural St. Louis Park, but if things go downhill really fast, we could probably hole up in my 20th floor apartment for a bit until the cavalry arrives.

        1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

          My father, the smartest man in the universe, once told me that when the revolution comes to hoard bullets, not guns. Every corpse will have a gun, but no one will have bullets.

        2. Rebecca

          Can I just add that I love how any question of reducing dependency on private cars rather directly leads to arguments about the zombie apocalypse?

          Also, I hoard bikes instead of bullets. Imagine the barter value of a useful vehicle in a post-gas world?!

    6. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I’m 30, married with a 14 month old son. My wife and I both work. We own one van but rarely use it (excluding trips to visit the in-laws in Iowa, we’re on a <4,000 annual miles pace in the past 3 months which has included many trips to Home Depot for a big house project and visiting my family in Lakeville). I bike or bus to work in downtown St Paul (12 miles from home, the average American commute distance), and on days when the kid is sick or I need to leave early and transit is infrequent I take Car2Go. As a reference point, 80% of households in Hennepin County have 1 or 0 children, so my situation is well within the majority.

      We're well-off enough that owning a vehicle for occasional use is a luxury we're willing to pay for, but we could probably easily get by as Matty's family does, even with a few 5 hour jaunts to Iowa City a year. But "freedom" means many things to many people. By ditching a second car (not a junker but not a nice one) and reducing our main car use, we're saving over $5,000 a year in ownership/maintenance/ops costs (including spend on transit passes, bike gear, etc). That allowed freedom in how much we spent on our home. It allows freedom when we re-do our garage to spend less on a single stall.

      We can have both walkable/bikeable/transit-served places as well as emergency response and delivery of goods. They're 100% compatible. Minneapolis' average fire response time is 3:58, with 80% under 5 minutes. Lakeville (my hometown, similar to Brooklyn Park) only has 22% of responses in less than 6 minutes. I suspect a LRT line blocking a few left turns does less to increase response times than the disconnected nature of Brooklyn Park's street network.

    7. eric

      My wife and I have two kids and own a car but rarely use it. Most of our trips are done by foot, bike or transit. The car is a luxury, nice but not necessary. The point of the piece is that transit only makes sense if it enables a *potentially* car-free lifestyle. Where we live it does, and most of our friends with kids have only one car or none.

    8. Rosa

      There are a lot of people in Brooklyn Park who can’t really afford a car. Who use up their emergency savings or go into debt whenever the car breaks down. If you put rail (or better bus service) in, you’ll get more density and/or more money flowing into the households already there, which can only help the city.

      Car-free doesn’t work for a lot of families because of the infrastructure we have, but cars (or “one car for every working person”) don’t work for a lot of people, either. As a middle aged, married, parent, what works best for our family – and a lot of families we know – is one car we’re not daily dependent on. It’s a huge relief for our budget and our peace of mind to have one car instead of two, and to not be dependent daily on the one we have to keep our jobs.

  3. Steven Prince


    None of the examples you cite require owning a car. Our family had a 5 year-old and a newborn when I rode the express bus every day to downtown St. Paul. Metro Transit had a program that gave you two taxi vouchers to be used in emergencies, like picking up a sick kid or meeting someone at the ER. It worked just fine.

    There’s a reason car rental rates are higher on weekends in NYC, because its cheaper to rent a car to get out of town than to own one and pay to park it for the rest of the week. I concede that Hour Cars may not save you from the zombie apocalypse.

    We are not a car-free family, but we’ve raised two kids in Uptown owning only a single car that we often drive only once a week to run errands. Over the years transit, bikes, cabs and car rentals have worked fine and been much cheaper than owning a second car.

  4. Alex

    Why is there always someone who comments “Transit doesn’t fit *my* needs, therefore we shouldn’t invest in transit.”?

    1. Ben

      I say do it where it makes sense not just for a grab at some fed dollars. Involve the community, not tell them what is comming, seek input prior to setting the policy. In the private sector this is called voice of the customer and the company I work for will not spend dollar 1 until a solid voc plan is set. But our government leaders are focused on getting their budgets as big as possible since that is the primary resume builder for their sector.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        True, Fed dollars mess up our priorities — for transit *and* roads. I often wonder how different our cities would be if we didn’t have a multi-decade project to tear down double digit percentages of properties in cities, replace them with freeways to greenfield development, and with the Feds paying 90% of the cost. This disparity — the insanely large Fed match for roads and how it impacts decisionmaking — was the subject of my collegiate research.

  5. Scott

    A couple of great examples of how not owning a car doesn’t mean not using a car, Matty and Steven.

    When you run the numbers, the savings of eliminating the car will easily fund a wide variety of car replacement technologies and strategies: bus fare, occasional taxis when it’s become too late, too cold, too rainy, or whatever. Now that car2go, and Hour Car are available a quick trip to the store for heavy groceries or a mega-run to Target is a lot easier. For long trips out of town, a rental of exactly what you need is sometimes even better than owning a car. If you need a big trick to haul your boat to a family reunion in Wisconsin, that’s what you rent for the week. Small car…small rental payment. Weird right…a boat, but no car. Go figure.

  6. UrbanDoofus

    Love this. I’ve lived a car free lifestyle 32 of my 33 years on this planet. Bought a car this day last year. Wish I could do it in this city, but it’s considerably more difficult than my previous train dense city. I choose to drive because I’ll take my 15 minute car commute over 40 minute bike commute, and hour+ bus commute.

    The one argument that always makes me laugh is the Millennials argument. Assuming the goal is to attract Millennials to the TC area, do we really think that Millennials will move here on the promise that more transit is up and coming? And then wait several years for us to get our shit together? Come on now city leaders, that’s BS. If you’re looking to rail as transit(and most people are), you’d have to wait until 2019(SW), or 2021 for Blue Line North extension. Sure, the Green Line areas will continue to grow, but it will be a few years. Hard sell. BRT would be a good sell, buuuut that’s coming around slowly too.

    1. Wayne

      Seriously I’m not sticking around here for another 10-20 years on the *hope* that they might finally build a poorly-routed transit line or two by then. I’m going somewhere else that’s already got a usable system going as soon as I can save up enough and advance just a little more in my career.

  7. UrbanDoofus

    Have to agree with those who says cars don’t equal freedom. I spent time on both coasts without a car, and even neighboring states. Living car free never stopped me from getting the hell out of dodge. If you work it right, you can land a rental car at 12-15 bucks a day. Add in a tank of gas and you might be under 100 bucks for the weekend.

    1. Monte Castleman

      I guess there’s no such thing as freedom without slavery. I’ll be a slave to oil changes, insurance, and maintenance in exchange for being able to step into my garage and go wherever I please, whether a mile to the bank, 15 miles to Walmart, or 500 to Chicago.

      1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

        To be fair, you’re also a slave to traffic…somewhat moreso than the transit commuters (who can at least do something on their mobile device while waiting in traffic) and MUCH moreso than the walkers or bike commuters…

        1. Rebecca

          I’d actually point out that there are multiple victims of private car drivers doing just that — something on their mobile device.

          Two other aspects of car slavery – Paying for a place to store your car at home and paying for a place to store your car when you go somewhere.

          1. Monte Castleman

            Don’t know about that. Even if I didn’t have a car I’d still make sure to buy a house with a garage as a place to store stuff and work out of the rain, and I try to avoid any place that charges for parking, there’s been months where I haven’t paid anything at all for parking.

  8. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino Post author

    Great comments all! But I would generally say that many miss the original point of the post–if you want to live somewhere that is fundamentally unfriendly to transit, that’s a separate issue, and you will require a car.

    What we’ve gotta do is build the transit we’re going to build to serve people who are going to use transit most effectively. Want to own a car? You can own a car. But if the transit down the street enables you to live without that car, we as a society have made a good choice, and you can continue to shoulder than burden for the reasons you have deemed worthy.

    There’s a whole separate conversation to be had about “well, buy a house closer to your job” and how that all plays out over 30 years in a region. There’s a post!

  9. Steven Prince

    One more thought about raising kids in an urban environment with good transit and bikable distances. It’s great for your kids.

    Both or our sons got almost everywhere by bike or bus once they were in 6th grade, it helps foster more independent and healthier kids. Our younger son walked to and from Lyndale School as a 5th grader (17 blocks) and in middle school rode his bike to a school in St. Louis Park (that he could get to faster by bike path than we could drive him with 394 traffic). Now that he is in HS the district gives him a bus card, between that and his bicycle the only time he gets in a car is for traveling soccer games. When the boys were younger coordinating with other parents (so they always had a buddy along) was the easy part, overcoming school resistance was always a bigger challenge.

    1. David Greene

      I’m totally down with this. My cousins who grew up in the city didn’t even learn to drive until they went to college. One of the reasons we want to raise a family in the city is that it provides more freedom for the kids.

  10. Emily Metcalfe

    One of my main reasons for recently moving into St. Paul (within walking distance of the Green Line) was for my kids. As they are approaching their middle school and high school years, I want them to be able to get around by walking/biking/transit rather than depending on a ride to go anywhere. To get at Nick’s main point, there have to be places to go that are walkable from transit for it to be useful — all the kinds of places that people go, such that a car free lifestyle is possible. Our family won’t be going car free probably ever, but with 6 of us, there are still lots of opportunities for car free trips.

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