How do I really feel about driving?


Photo by Mia Park

In 2003 Eric Paul Erickson interviewed me for the Chicago Tribune about my thoughts on bike advocacy and activism. At the time I said, “I think 10 years from now it just won’t make a lot of sense to own a car here.”

Unlike in, say, New York City, certainly Manhattan, car ownership was fairly practical in Chicago back then and it still is today. Although there are plenty of hassles involved, parking is still relatively plentiful, city fees are affordable and gas is currently less than $4 a gallon. Was my prediction unrealistic?

Although I haven’t owned a car since 2000 and for the most part I do just fine getting around Chicago on foot, by bike and on transit, nowadays I try not to be too narrow-minded about other people’s car ownership. Here at Grid Chicago we’re constantly writing posts about the virtues of sustainable transportation and the evils of unbridled car culture. Many of my friends are also car-free, even the ones who are raising families in the city.

But I try to keep an open mind about the fact that cars can be useful for a lot of things and many Chicagoans find them to be a necessary tool for urban life. I do believe there is such a thing as “appropriate” car use and ownership, even in the city. It’s possible to use driving as a mode that can be combined harmoniously with walking, biking and transit as another tool in your Swiss army knife of transportation options.

As it happens, my own experiences with auto ownership in Chicago were fairly disastrous. I lived here without a car for eight years, but in 1997 when a friend of my father offered to sell me his well-preserved gold Mercury Tracer station wagon for $800, I took him up on his offer.

I’ll admit, there were some fun aspects of car ownership in Chicago. I was living in Bridgeport and the time and took a job delivering food for various Hyde Park restaurants with the station wagon. After getting off work on Sundays it was common for me to meet up with friends at the Empty Bottle’s Deadly Dragon Sound System DJ night. Next we might drive up to Devon Street for a late-night Indian snack, after which I’d drop my friends off in Wicker Park and cruise back to the South Side. I enjoyed zooming around large swaths of the city on the nearly empty expressways at night.

But after I returned to bike messenger work a few months later I wasn’t using the car much and it was getting common for the station wagon to be ticketed or towed when I forgot to move it for street cleaning. So I sold the vehicle to my friend J. who used it for touring with his rock band. The following year on a hot summer’s night he called me and another friend, Mia, around midnight to come rescue him. We drove her car out to the Grand/Chicago/Sacramento intersection to find the Mercury flipped upside down in the middle of the intersection and J. largely unscathed. He told us another driver had run a red, smashed into the station wagon and then fled the scene. The Mercury was totaled.

A couple years later I bought an old Chevy Impala for $500 from a New York friend who drove it here on a visit. There were two major problems with this car. It had electrical problems that caused it to regularly stall out, twice requiring expensive towing on frigid winter nights. Also, my friend had neglected to tell me that he didn’t actually have the title to the car – a long story.

Finally, he offered to refund me some of my money if I would drop the car off at a junkyard. The day before I planned to junk the car, a friend and I drove it up to the Chicago Botanic Gardens. It stalled once or twice on the Edens and I was worried that a police officer would come over to help us and discover that I didn’t have the title. We made it to the botanic gardens and paid the steep parking fee, punishment for not taking the pleasant bike ride up the North Branch Trail to the gardens instead.

When we came back to the car at sundown I realized I’d locked the keys in the ignition. I tried to pry the sunroof up to fish for the keys with a long piece of bamboo, and of course the sunroof shattered. As we drove back to the city with a back seat full of broken glass, I was terrified that a cop would pull us over. The next day I found a junkyard that was willing to take the car without the title and paid me $50 – a great relief.

Since then I’ve enjoyed my car-free lifestyle, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of owning an automobile in the future. Although I generally get around fine without one, cars can be handy for road trips, picking up friends, transporting small children and seniors, and hauling band equipment across town. I do occasionally use I-GO car sharing for picking up furniture from Craigslist, large items from the home improvement store, or a keg of home brew donated by a friend for a party. Since there are I-GO vehicles parked a block from my house, it’s a bit more convenient than hitching up my bike trailer.

If I ever do find myself taking care of small children, it may be especially tempting to buy an automobile. Having one car, used sparingly, in a household, might make sense in this situation. However, I’d rather invest a few thousand dollars in a Dutch-style “bakfiets” cargo bike to cart the kids around instead.

But the fact is, almost ten years after I made my prediction, car ownership is still reasonably attractive here and probably still will be in 2013. Aside from Rahm Emanuel’s recent move to tax drivers who park downtown on weekdays, there haven’t been many steps taken to discourage driving here.

But probably one reason why our city still hasn’t reached New York levels of traffic congestion and parking hassles is the rise in the number of people who choose not to bring cars into Chicago and use sustainable transportation instead. And with the city’s recent efforts to promote pedestrian safety and cycling, especially the upcoming 100 miles of protected bicycle lanes and 3,000-vehicle public bike share system, as well as new bus rapid transit pilots, sustainable transportation is bound to become a lot more popular in the coming years.

Maybe I spoke too soon when I said that by 2013 it wouldn’t be practical to own a car in Chicago. But I do believe that after these new measures are implemented it’s going to make even more sense to do the lion’s share of your travel on foot, bike and transit.

Published by

John Greenfield

John has lived in Chicago since 1989 and has worked a number of bicycle jobs, from messenger to mechanic to managing the Chicago Department of Transportation's bicycle parking program, arranging the installation of over 3,700 bike racks. He writes regularly for Time Out Chicago, Newcity, Momentum and Urban Velo magazines and works at Boulevard Bikes in Logan Square.

17 thoughts on “How do I really feel about driving?”

  1. Besides safer infrastructur for bicylists and the forthcoming bike share system, other factors in the next few years that would make me and others consider ditching car ownership for good include: Increased number of vehicles/locations of the car share services; addition of “weekend trip” options for car share members; development of point-to-point car sharing instead of round trip only; addition of scooter sharing to Chicago’s bike share system; and addition of electric car sharing to Chicago’s bike share system.

    1. Point-to-point car sharing would be great. For example, last weekend I
      needed to move my music gear from Logan Square to Rogers Park for a gig.
      If I checked out my local I-GO car for the whole time I was out it
      probably would have been more expensive than just renting from Hertz for
      the day. With point-to-point I could have checked out a car in Logan,
      driven to the venue and dropped off my gear, returned the car at an I-GO
      location in Rogers Park and walked a couple blocks to the gig,
      reversing the process on the way home, and it probably would be cheaper
      than cab fare.

      1. I think it would be an interesting exercise for you (and for all of us reading this) to calculate the costs of this trip in:
        1. Existing I-GO model (they do have daily rates, and it’s cheaper at certain hours)
        2. Hertz rental (don’t forget you have to purchase insurance unless you have your own, and you have to fill it with gas on your own)
        3. Taxi

        1. I-Go tops out at $78 a day with the first 150 miles free.  After that you pay I think 40 cents per mile.  Gas and insurance is included though.  They charge extra on the weekend.

          Car rental.  Prices for this vary quite a bit.  My last car rental from Enterprise was $17 a day, but I had to pay some fees and insurance per day plus gas.  For three days it was actually $93 plus $33 in insurance through priceline.  I also spent about $50 on gas.  For about $176 total.  A bit cheaper than I-Go and the $78 is per weekday, its more on the weekends. 

          Taxi, not sure, but round trip to Rogers Park from Logan Square is probably the cheapest of the three options.

          Somehow traditional car rental agencies are cheaper than Igo even though they presumably have higher operating costs.  I’m curious as to why this is.

          1. for the traditional rental companies, more of their business is weekday than weekend, so they tend to have excess capacity on the weekends and give it away cheap on priceline

  2. Point-to-point car sharing would be great. For example, last weekend I needed to move my music gear from Logan Square to Rogers Park for a gig. If I checked out my local I-GO car for the whole time I was out it probably would have been more expensive than just renting from Hertz for the day. With point-to-point I could have checked out a car in Logan, driven to the venue and dropped off my gear, returned the car at an I-GO location in Rogers Park and walked a couple blocks to the gig, reversing the process on the way home, and it probably would be cheaper than cab fare.

  3. The only downside to point-to-point sharing is that there’s no guarantee a shared car will be there again when you’re ready to go home. (This is also a problem for bike sharing.)

    Another concept that hasn’t hit Chicago yet is peer-to-peer car sharing, in which people rent out their cars by the hour during all the hours/days they’re not using it. If one of those companies, like Getaround, ever break into the Chicago market, I’d probably rent my car out, given that I drive it exactly 8 miles each week. Getaround would not induce me to get rid of my car — it would do the opposite — but at least I’d be helping others remain car-free, while making some money at the same time.

    1. A solution for that problem with bike sharing is having many bikes available and adjusting the dock size as needed. That’s not as easy with point-to-point car sharing because of space limitations. 

      I think peer-to-peer car sharing will work great even for people who own cars but need to borrow a larger one to pick up a new mattress or couch. 

  4. When I first moved back here from NH, I kept the car that I’d bought new when I first moved to NH.  That 1987 Honda Civic took care of my occasional errands and road trips until a few years ago, when it needed so much work that it no longer made financial sense to maintain it.  If I-Go had come to my neighborhood sooner, I probably would have dumped the car years earlier.  I was fortunate to have reasonably priced off-street parking, and my annual mileage was low.  By the time I donated the car, its stereo system was probably worth more than the car itself.

    Now that I’m living in Beverly, our household is car lite.  My husband has his car, which racks up most of its mileage on his commute.  We use public transit for shared trips when it’s feasible.  I use public transit, bike or walking for nearly all my solo trips, occasionally supplemented by I-Go or other car rental.

    A few days ago, I took a bike-CTA combo trip from Beverly to Edgebrook.  I put my bike on the 95th St. bus to connect with the red line, then connected to the blue line downtown, and rode my bike from the Jefferson Park station to my destination in Edgebrook.  On the return trip, I used the same route but rode my bike home from the 95th St. CTA station.  Thanks to good connections, my return trip was about an hour and a half.  With traffic congestion, my travel time probably would have been similar if I’d gone by car.  Instead, I had a fairly efficient trip that cost me a total of $4.75, gave me opportunities for interesting conversations on the train, added 8 miles of bike riding to my day, and spared me the stress that a driving trip would have caused.  I’ve made plenty of similar trips to Oak Park, Evanston and Forest Park.

    1. That’s a good calculation and a good use of combos. I do that as well.  Problem is, if you had two kids with you, you couldn’t do it.  And if they were over 11, that would triple your fare. 

      1. True.  It’s much more practical for 1 or 2 people than a whole family.  I can understand why many people with kids prefer a car to transport them longer distances.  What I *don’t* understand is why so many people drive to destinations that are less than 1.5 miles away in walkable and/or bikeable locations.

  5. I can see why people might want to drive a car sometimes.  What I can’t see is why anyone who doesn’t have a legitimate business-related purpose for it (band equipment as you mentioned, for example, or some types of sales) would want to OWN one.

    For my part, I can’t drive and don’t care.

    1. I didn’t have a driver’s license starting on my birthday last December to June of this year. Got it before I went to Utah where I’d probably be driving. And then I’ll probably have to drive somewhat in Arizona. 

    2. I think road trips and the need to transport other people might be valid reasons to own a car, although for me I could probably rent from Hertz for these occasions and, although it might seem expensive at the time, I might come out ahead compared to the cost of car ownership for the few times I’d really want to use a car. Even if I did own a car I’d probably still bike, walk and take transit everywhere.

      One idea I’ve been considering is setting up a car sharing system with my neighbors that would allow us to split the expenses of a car that we would each sign out for particular time slots. this would work better for me than I-GO since I wouldn’t have to pay by the hour for a car that’s parked outside the venue while I’m playing a concert, for example.

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