Car Free in Columbus – Part 3: The Challenges
Being car free in Columbus isn’t easy. We’ve heard that fact acknowledged in part one and part two of our series featuring local residents who get around the city exclusively by bike and bus and foot and other forms of alternative transportation.
Today we talk again with those residents about the details of their specific challenges that they’ve faced and what they’ve done to overcome those hurdles. Their ideas are shared below.
Ten years ago, you couldn’t catch a COTA bus beyond 9pm on weeknights, and on Sundays the service stopped at 6pm. Chase McCants of Clintonville remembers that scenario well.
“I remember back in 2003, my freshman year, I went to see RENT at the Palace Theater and was stranded Downtown because the bus stopped running,” he recalls. “You had to own a car in order to get around Columbus, but you don’t see those troubles today. COTA has done a lot of work to make buses run more frequently and to far more destinations.”
Today, major COTA routes run until Midnight on weekdays and 9pm on Sundays. The #21 Night Owl service also runs along High Street from Clintonville to Downtown from 7pm to 3am every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.
“The recent increase in alternative transportation options in our central business district and surrounding neighborhoods makes it much easier for households to make the lifestyle choice to give up one car, or even go car free,” says Lisa Knapp, Public and Media Relations Manager at COTA. “Having a variety of transportation options available like COTA, car2go and CoGo allow people to make a decision about their mode of travel each time they need to go somewhere. And the CBUS, COTA’s new Downtown circulator, adds another convenient option to this list of alternate choices available in our city, and a free one at that.”
Many of our interviewees stated that their reliance on COTA is much higher during the winter months when riding a bike or walking is out of the question. McCants says that his first option during nice weather is always his motorcycle, but COTA works as a nice substitute for inner-city destinations.
“During the winter, I couldn’t just up and go somewhere — if my friends text me for a drink at Hampton’s, I knew it would take 30 or 40 minutes to get there if there wasn’t a car2go available,” he says. “Even before I sold my car, I mostly hung out in places that are accessible. Still, Grandview is a great example of inaccessibility because car2go’s Home Area ends at Olentangy River Road and I’d have to take two buses in order to get there. Polaris is completely out of the question.”
Fellow car free Clintonville resident Esther Dwyer agrees that some areas of Columbus are more accessible than others, and has to plan her trips accordingly.
“It is hard to get out of the city,” she says. “My family lives in Granville and, while it’s a nice ride out there, I often don’t have the extra time to commute that far. It’s similarly difficult to get East to West in Columbus. I’m voluntarily car-free and it works well for my current lifestyle, but it would be far more challenging for those living East of 71 or West of 315 without cars. There are many who are not voluntarily car-free and our current infrastructure does not provide easy access to some essential resources in these areas, such as healthy food or sufficient opportunities for education and work.”
According to data collected through an on-board survey in 2013, 61% of COTA riders reported having no car in their household. Many of those riders are described as “riding by necessity” though and not “riding by choice”.
Carrisa Baker recently relocated from Dublin to Grandview Heights when she got rid of her car, and thinks that all suburbs need to step up their game when it comes to providing better options.
“The best way to get more people to go car-free would be the acceptance by the municipalities to allow car2go and also to work on public transportation in the suburbs,” she says. “When I lived in Dublin there was no way for me to be able to do this, but helping to increase busing and other transportations and making it affordable for those people to come Downtown without driving their own car would help.”
She says that the restrictive access to areas like Polaris and Easton prevents her from attending events in those areas too often. She estimates that her travel costs by car2go, Lyft or Uber would cost her over $50 for a round-trip, so she chooses to find other options closer to home.
Oulanje Regan of Schumacher Place agrees that if she owned a car, it would make certain things much easier.
“I go to a salon in Whitehall, and it’s not too far to ride, but I’m not going to pay someone to flat iron my hair, only to sweat it out on the bike ride back home,” she explains. “COTA covers a good part of the metro area, but outside of High Street, I usually can’t get a direct bus to get to where I need to go. So with the transfer, and with limited route schedules, it can take 45 minutes or more to get someplace by bus that would be a 15 minute trip by car. Time is valuable, and I’ve considered getting a car for this reason.”
Still, Regan has managed sans car for four years now, and says that the weather in Columbus is not as big of a challenge as many make it out to be.
“With the exception of this past winter, which was miserable, our winters in Ohio are typically pretty mild,” she says. “On the colder days I just throw on my wool long johns, and I’m fine. I don’t think there are more than a couple of weeks over the winter when the roads are slick with snow or ice. If the road is dry, it’s fine to ride.”
Safety is a big factor for many people, beyond just unfavorable weather conditions. Elizabeth Pritchard of German Village walks everywhere and makes sure to keep her wits about her.
“People driving don’t always pay attention to people crossing the street,” she says. “Surprisingly enough, after almost four years walking to Downtown I have never came across anyone who wanted to mug me or anything even more serious.”
Matt Locke of Clintonville has encountered more serious safety issues while commuting by bike.
“I have been hit twice, once by a car and once by a door, and I continue to ride daily,” he says. “It’s going to take physical impairment to keep me off my bike.”
Locke says that his biggest challenges with bike commuting are not infrastructure based. He says that he feels that painted sharrows help drivers and bikers to get along more patiently in mixed traffic, and that drivers are often more courteous in areas where bike traffic is most common.
“If you’re going to bike in Columbus please do a few things — ride predictably, use hand signals, point, use lights when its dark, be aware, don’t bike with headphones on, and don’t be afraid to take the entire lane,” he says. “For the most part, if you’re visible, you will be in good shape.”
When it comes to being dedicated to being car free in general, Locke says that dedication is actually the hardest part itself.
“I teetered back and forth for a while until I made the commitment, but honestly, when I had a car I rarely rode my bike for easy trips — I was much more likely to hop in the car, which was really unnecessary,” he explains. “One of my biggest barriers at first was laundry. I didn’t have on-site laundry so I had to load up the panniers and tote them to the laundromat a mile and a half away. But I made it work.”
Similarly, Steve DAoust felt challenged by grocery shopping since there are few options within walking distance in his neighborhood of Olde Towne East.
“If I use the bus to shop, I can only carry about five bags at any given time,” he says. “If I need to go to Walmart, I have to take three buses and it could take about 90 minutes to get there and 90 minutes to get back. If I use car2go I can do so much more, but an average shopping trip runs me about $20-30 each trip.”
Regardless of the various challenges, most everyone we’ve interviewed agrees that being car free has gotten easier in recent years. Between the continued expansion of COTA’s service hours and route extensions, the introduction of new transit-sharing services and the added walkability that comes with ongoing neighborhood development initiatives, Columbus is growing into a city that can accommodate those who choose to forego car ownership.
Tomorrow we wrap up this four part series with an installment that looks toward the future of carlessness and explores ideas on what else needs to be done to improvement conditions for others who want to choose to be car free.