This week’s Life on the Island: Driving less!

So this week’s column (it came out in the Alameda Journal on Tuesday) is about my family’s experiment with living without a car. An interesting—and surprising—side effect of this approach to getting around (we’re on day 35 of the challenge) is that instead of making the Island seem bigger and harder to navigate (as I expected) it’s actually making it seem smaller. Trips that I had in my mind that I needed a car for—like going to South Shore, or Park Street or various friends’ houses—I find are quite quick and easy to make by bike or by foot. And often, once I get over the hump of getting my bike out of the garage, making sure I have my lock, and getting the kids all helmeted up, the trips are more pleasant than they used to be by car.

Past “Life on the Island” columns
August 25, 2008: Lessons learning on vacation
August 4, 2008: Leaf blowers, no!
July 29, 2008: Backyard wells and conserving water
July 22, 2008: Out and about on a home-town date
July 15, 2008: Changes in school leadership offers new opportunities
July 8, 2008: Getting an education in civics
July 1, 2008: Soaking up life on the Bay
June 24, 2008: Alamedans get back to basics to save environment
June 17, 2008: Fear can limit the joys of childhood
June 10, 2008: Never underestimate the power of one
June 3, 2008: Paying the price to have good schools
May 27, 2008: A civil rights issue in our time
May 20, 2008: What’s cooking in the hot weather?
May 12, 2008: When a man needs a cave
May 5, 2008: Enjoying that small-town feel
April 28, 2008: Support of tax teaches lesson
April 21, 2008: New garage can be a good habit
April 14, 2008: When the earth shakes, duck
April 7, 2008: Snails, ants, lice and light brown apple moths


  • http://www.actionalameda.org David Howard

    In her Sept. 2 column in the Alameda Journal, Eve Pearlman gives away the lie in when she wrote “If you tell a New Yorker you’re going car free, they don’t bat an eye. Theirs is a city of subways, taxis and buses.” We’ve talked about folks like Eve Pearlman and the Transportation Commission trying to turn Alameda into “Manhattan” but it’s clear that isn’t very far from the truth at all. The goal of these people is to fully urbanize Alameda, because they simply don’t believe in the idea of suburban living. Take Peter Calthorpe and his proposals for Alameda Point – at roughly twice the density of what exists here today, they are not consistent with the existing suburb that is Alameda. In fact, one of his reference points for the highest-density proposal is the Marina District of San Francisco. Calthorpe is well-known as an avowed anti-suburbanist. But the low crime rate, safe neighborhoods, minimal congestion, open space and other suburban benefits is what drew my family, and countless others, to Alameda in the first place. For whatever the reasons, Calthorpe, his followers and folks like Ms. Pearlman prefer an urban lifestyle over a suburban one, and that’s fine. The problem is that they are trying to force urban life onto suburban Alameda in the face of objections from a plurality of current residents.

    According to the census bureau, 55% of New York workers commuted by subway or bus in 2005. The second rated “transit” city was Washington D.C. at 38%, or seventeen percentage points behind New York, and San Francisco was third, at 33% or twenty-two percentage points behind New York. Alameda transit usage is around 17% Alameda has no subways, no realistic plans for high-frequency rail service and the PRT is a pipe dream. I mean really, is the not-yet-operating system at Heathrow Airport truly a proxy or reference point for a system to serve an island residential community? Can we really expect transit usage in Alameda on the order of even San Francisco’s usage rate, never mind New York’s, without introducing big city problems such as the loss of open space, increased violent crime, and less-safe neighborhoods? (Remember that at the August 27th town hall meeting, Peter Calthorpe tried to sell the contaminated Seaplane Lagoon as “open space” for the high density residential development looking over it. Perhaps he’ll join some of us for a game of baseball on the lagoon, or perhaps some frisbee.) And congestion for those for whom transit doesn’t get them to work each morning? If mass transit reduces auto congestion, then New York’s and San Francisco’s streets should be free of cars and automobile congestion, right? But of course they aren’t. Even New York’s relatively astronomical transit usage hasn’t eliminated the automobile nor auto congestion in that city.

    High-mileage, low-emission hybrid automobiles are here today, and the mass market electric car is not far behind – see Tesla Motors. Their 2008 Roadster promises 256 MPG and operating costs of less than 2 cents per mile. Their well-publicized strategy is to introduce cars in the high-end sports car segment, and work down to the mass market from there. The automobile provides un-paralleled personal liberty at low cost. The Brookings Institute has done a study that shows that low-income people do better when given access to a car – consider Hurricane Katrina victims left behind to weather the storm, literally, for one example. And counter to the claim that auto-centric suburban life makes residents anonymous to each other, the recent Wedgewood block party, and my own experiences with my neighbors – frequent BBQs, Neighborhood Watch, generally looking out for one another and their homes etc. – on my block prove that it does not. When are we more anonymous than when standing on a packed BART or MUNI train trying to avoid eye contact with strangers while keeping one hand securely on our wallet to counter pickpockets? And there’s nothing more anonymous and monotonous than floor after floor of perfectly identical apartment doors in a high-rise residential building. Suburban life is a legitimate way of life, one that many people in this country choose, contrary to what the New Urbanists and neo-traditionalists like Calthorpe would have us believe. The associate environmental costs tied to auto use in the suburbs is being mitigated. It’s un-realistic and domineering to force urbanization onto those who prefer a suburban lifestyle.

    David Howard
    Alameda, CA

    P.S. Natural gas ranks second behind petroleum use in the United States – roughly 23% of our energy comes from natural gas. Six out of ten homes use natural gas for heat, and residences are the second biggest consumers of natural gas. Now that Ms. Pearlman has gotten rid of her petroleum-consuming automobiles, I wonder if she will also remove the natural-gas consuming furnace in her house as well? Maybe she will switch to a wood-fired fireplace to heat her home – wood is a renewable resource after all.

  • Eve

    Hi, David. I of course don’t want Alameda to be NYC! The point of my column was not to advocate for any particular transportation plan for Alameda, and it was not a rejection of Alameda’s semi-suburban lifestyle (if you’ve read any of my previous columns, you know I very much like it here), nor was I suggesting that everyone in Alameda could or should give up their cars (our family’s particular work/school/life circumstances make it seem at least possible…and we’re giving it a try). What the column was about is my family’s experiment with living without a car. And we are by no means alone in our quest to make smarter environmental choices. Looking around my community, neighbors and friends, I see all kinds of people trying to make choices about how they live in a way that will positively impact the planet for all of us. Some people are using florescent light bulbs, others are installing solar. People are wondering whether it makes more sense to use an old automobile that gets bad gas mileage or buy a new one with good gas mileage. The way I see it, there’s no enemy here, just people trying to make smart choices as we learn more and more about how our behavior impacts the earth. –Eve

  • http://laurendo.wordpress.com Lauren Do

    Hi Eve:

    I just wanted to add that while your column may have gone under appreciated in certain circles, I enjoyed it immensely. While we have not made the ultimate sacrifice, getting rid of our car, we did downsize to only one car about a year ago. While sometimes it’s tricky to manage the logistics, our family found that we haven’t suffered due to not having an automobile per adult. Plus it leaves more room in our garage for bikes and wagons.

    Looking forward to hearing how your family progresses on to days 36, 37, 38, etc…

  • john

    Transportation is a person by person choice and as mentioned, dependent on lifestyle. If you happen to be a stay-at-home mom, then its going to be a little easier to do without a car. Me and my Wife have also made personal choices about our transportation. We rent a house in Alameda and work on the Peninsula, which is a rather long commute. We do this because rent in Alameda is 1/2 that of Palo Alto. We commute together in a hybrid that gets around 50MPG. Thus we don’t pay bridge tolls either. On avg, we spend around $35 a week total on our transportation needs, which I consider to be very reasonable given the cost of gas.

    There are tips that I’d give to those who perhaps don’t have the advantage of having everything closer to their homes and have to commute.

    A: Leave for work early, and get off work early. Getting to work an hour early and leaving an hour early makes a huge difference. It only takes us 35 minutes to get to work, and around 45 to get home.

    B: Commute as a couple if possible. Even if you don’t have a hybrid, as we didn’t up until last year, a car getting 25-30MPG will be cheap in cost if you only use it as the single transport vehicle.

    C: Drive conservatively. No jack-rabbit starts or fast driving. We drive 60MPH the whole way. Typically, A Prius will get around 45MPG with normal 65-70MPH driving. They get much better economy at a slower, moderate speed.We get almost 52MPG.

    Other then that, we bicycle to the store, restaurants, library, and so on.The car usually just sits all weekend. Additionally, we like to travel a lot. For us, renting a car isn’t practical.

    As far as all that other stuff- “Alameda being turned into NYC”, and the Point, Well I’ve lived here for 7 years and I’m weary of the never-ending arguing over all the problems people seem to talk about here. Everyone talks about what a wonderful, home town feel, friendly place that Alameda is, yet they argue endlessly about who can build where, why we can’t build more housing for new homeowners, and about how bad the schools are doing. People genuinely don’t seem all that happy here.

    It doesn’t matter to me and my Wife anyway. Alameda is basically another gentrified overpriced town in the Bay Area and we are making plans to relocate to another state where young professionals don’t have to sell their first born child for a starter home.

  • Susan Davis

    Funny, I read Eve’s column and didn’t get any sense at all that she was advocating for a Manhattan-ization of our quaint island community. I thought she was simply writing about her family’s experience doing something a lot of us are thinking about: using fossil fuel-burning engines less.

    I haven’t gotten rid of my car, but I’m using it a lot, lot less than I used to. Walking and riding to shops, work meetings, and friends’ houses seems like a clear win-win situation to me: I’m getting exercise, I’m not polluting, I’m not contributing to traffic congestion, I’m saving on gas expenses, and I’m not emitting C02 into the atmosphere.

    The only downside so far is that when I arrive at meetings I sometimes have a slight sheen of sweat on my brow — but so far my colleagues have been tolerant!

  • Grace

    Hi Eve,

    I love your column a lot. I’m just curious how do you handle your grocery shopping without a car? Grocery bags are too heavy to carry by hand.:)

  • Eve

    Hi, Grace. I’m glad you liked the column! For groceries I have a bike trailer that I used to put my kids when they were younger, but now I’m using to haul things…like food (I fit six bags in it last weekend at Trader Joe’s). Someone also gave me one of those metal wire push carts that you’ve probably seen people using for groceries, and I’ll give it a try, too. Also, many neighbors have offered to let me tag along on their shopping trips (which I suspect I’ll take advantage when the rains come)…and I’ll of course make donations for gas to help cover their costs. –Eve

  • Grace

    Bike trailer, that’s a good idea! I may try it on my bike!