Is it Possible to Live Car-Free in Seattle?
If you’re heading to Capitol Hill any time of the day or night—maybe to eat at one of the too-many-to-count restaurants in this vibrant neighborhood—you might think twice about driving your car. Parking is famously difficult to find, and it gets pricey fast.
The scarcity and expense of parking in the neighborhood were two reasons that Colin Petkus, 24, decided to try the car-free lifestyle. For about a year, the recent college grad commuted from his Capitol Hill apartment to his job at a Redmond social service agency—but not with his car.
“I took a bus to work and left my car parked in Redmond,” Petkus explains. “I needed it for work to see my clients, but I didn’t want to pay the toll on the 520 bridge. And parking a car on Capitol Hill is so insane. Even if driving got me home faster, it would have taken me 45 minutes to find a parking spot.” He also didn’t like the idea of paying $150 a month to rent a parking space.
So when he recently switched jobs to a downtown employer with no car requirement, owning a vehicle no longer made sense. He happily sold it and now bikes or walks to work. A longtime recreational cyclist, he’s outfitted one of his bikes to easily carry groceries and other gear.
Petkus says he misses a car when he wants to head out of town for a hike or other getaway, but friends or his parents, who live nearby, are usually willing to provide rides. He sometimes uses Zipcar for work, but has yet to use a car-sharing service for personal reasons. “The weird thing for me is that I have friends who make a lot less money than me, but still have a car. They think I can’t afford a car and feel bad for me.” But, he says, thinking about his decision: “I really didn’t view my car as freeing me. I viewed it as chaining me down.” Without a car, he feels lighter and less encumbered. (Photo: Apps such as OneBusAway (developed at UW) track buses in real-time to reduce the frustration of not knowing exactly when your bus will arrive)
What Petkus is doing isn’t exactly revolutionary. In fact, he’s smack in the middle of a well-documented millennial trend. A number of recent studies have confirmed what anecdotal evidence was already pointing to: Millennials—generally those born after 1980 who are now in their 20s and early 30s—don’t share the same love affair with the car as previous generations.
As a group, they’re slower to begin driving a car and even slower to buy one. One study found that fewer than half of American teens apply for a driver’s license when they qualify for one. Another study found that the number of young people driving decreased by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009. And buying a car? Only 27 percent of adults ages 21–34 bought cars in 2010, down from 38 percent in 1985. And it’s not just millennials who are moving away from cars. Car sales overall are down, and so are total miles driven. According to one report, total miles driven in the U.S. peaked in 2004.
There’s plenty of debate among social scientists about whether this is a permanent shift in transportation habits or one driven by economics, age and—in Seattle, at least—traffic congestion. While that debate rages nationally, it’s clear that in Seattle we’re embracing other ways of getting around. According to recent figures from the U.S. Census, bike commuting in Seattle is up by 152 percent since 2000, and walking by 56 percent. Peter Hahn, former director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, says that Seattle is one of just five cities in the country where the majority of workers either take public transit, carpool, walk or bike. The other cities are Washington, D.C., Boston, New York and San Francisco.
Carla Saulter, 41, isn’t a millennial, but she is among those finding other ways to get to the office and elsewhere. A program manager at a Seattle nonprofit that advocates for transportation choice, she gave up her car about a decade ago. “After being away from Seattle for a while, I returned, and there was so much traffic,” she says. “I realized when sitting in traffic with everyone else that I was part of the problem.” Well ahead of the current wave of people going car-free, Saulter started documenting her life as a bus rider in 2006, on a blog called Bus Chick (buschick.com).
She has been without a car for so long, she has trouble remembering the lifestyle accommodations she’s made over the years.
“You start thinking differently,” says Saulter, who became a mother since giving up her car. She and her husband, Adam Edwards—who has never owned a car—are parents of Rosa, 6, and Quincy, 4.
“When you have a car, you have a different attitude about going places. You just go whenever you feel like it, even if it doesn’t make sense. The car, because it’s there, you use it, ” Saulter says.
She isn’t anti-car. When the couple does need a car—for instance, to take the kids to a birthday party across the lake on a weekend, to get home after a late-night event or to transport the whole family to a Cannon Beach vacation—they use Zipcar and taxis.
Saulter, who lives in the Central Area, chose the location because her work, the kids’ school, services such as a library and community center, and good bus service are nearby. (Not all neighborhoods are equal when it comes to car-free convenience, see below.)
Car-free convenience, based on easy walking access to Metro and Sound Transit stops (weighted 21%), grocery stores (18%), public and private K–12 schools, universities and community colleges (10%), Seattle parks (10%), coffee shops (8%), libraries (5%), community centers (3%), as well as density of bike lanes and dedicated trails (14%) and sidewalks (11%). Some of the best neighborhoods for living without a car include downtown, Capitol Hill and the University District. Some of the most challenging are along the edges of the city, including Magnolia, Laurelhurst and Arbor Heights in West Seattle. Sources: King County, City of Seattle, ESRI. Map by Andrew Smyth
Living without a car may seem like it has a lot of inconveniences. She ticks them off: weather, bus frequency and always living by a schedule. But Saulter sees upsides, too—and not just from the money she saves by not owning a car. There’s her intimate knowledge of her neighborhood, the community of people she meets while walking and on the bus, and the physical exercise. Her kids have benefited from that, too. “When my son was 2, he could walk two miles. My kids don’t think anything of it.”
She also makes a compelling case when she flips the usual “cars are convenient” argument around. “There are many things about driving that are inconvenient—like looking for parking and sitting in traffic.” To this she adds the potential dangers of driving, the time it takes to fill the gas tank and take the car in for maintenance, and the overall expense. “We just accept these as part of life, but we don’t want to accept the downside to something like transit.”
After eight years of living without a car, Alan Durning, 49, says that he, too, thinks differently about getting around, and his life feels calmer and less hurried. “There’s probably a day every month when I wish I had a car. But most of the time, the difference in not having a car is that you do more planning. You can’t make a last-minute decision to head off somewhere. The curious result is that you often make better choices.”
Something of a car-free pioneer, Durning ditched his car back when most millennials were still being ferried by their parents to soccer practice and music lessons. Concern for the environment was his big motivation. (Photo: Easy access to transit, services and entertainment make Capitol Hill a good fit for
Executive director of Sightline, a Seattle-based environmental think tank, Durning got national attention in 2006 when he wrote a series for Sightline about his family’s decision to give up their car for a year. “It brought an enormous amount of media attention to my family. We were on CNN and in all the major local papers. The series I wrote for Sightline was reproduced all over the place. I think the idea was just a little bit ahead of the wave.” Today, he says, such an announcement “would get a shrug.”
It’s also much easier to be without a car in Seattle today than it was in 2006, he says. “I don’t think of my alternative to a car as one thing,” he reflects. “It’s a giant network of choices. And that network has grown dramatically in the last seven years. As that network gets thicker and more robust, it has become superior to owning my own car.” The pace of the network growth, he says, has picked up in recent years.
While bus routes are regularly on the budgetary chopping block, Seattle’s many transit projects—including the First Hill Streetcar (service expected to begin this year), and Link light rail expansions to the University District (service expected to begin in 2016), to Northgate (2021), to Lynnwood (late 2023) and over I-90 (2023)—will expand options for car-free travel. Meanwhile, the options for ride- and car-sharing are exploding with companies such as Car2go, Zipcar and Lyft, and services such as RelayRide, which lets you rent someone else’s car when they’re not using it. Apps such as OneBusAway, which gives real-time information on bus arrival, have changed the transit-riding experience. The city has pitched in with bike and walking route maps, more bike paths and improved pedestrian safety efforts. The ease of online shopping, including for groceries via services such as AmazonFresh, and ubiquity of smartphones, which make online shopping from virtually anywhere a reality, have made a difference, too.
“I’ve been promoting the environment and alternatives to the car since 1986, ” Durning says. “It feels like in the last decade things are finally coming together, especially in the center of our big cities.”
Of course, a car doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision. Sarah Bishop, 29, a millennial who lives in Ravenna, has had an on-again, off-again affair with a car. For two years after graduating from college, she got around via bus and bike. That lifestyle meshed with her environmental values and her pocketbook.
But then she landed a job for which she needed a car, so she borrowed her family’s car. “That job ended, and now I have a job close to where I live. I want to push myself back to the mind-set of not driving,” Bishop says.
There are some things she doesn’t like about not having a car—waiting at a bus stop late at night or spending an hour on the bus getting to a social engagement that would only take a few minutes by car. So she’s fine with driving, sometimes. Call her lifestyle car-lite, rather than car-free.
Interestingly, in a city that has become more and more bike-friendly, neither Bishop nor Carla Saulter uses a bike for transportation, both saying they don’t like riding in traffic. (They aren’t alone. Citing a variety of reasons they don’t ride to work, women constitute only 30 percent of the total number of Seattle bike commuters.)
Using cars occasionally, but mostly relying on other forms of transportation, seems to be what works for all of these Seattleites. Cars aren’t the enemy, but they also don’t have to be the first line of defense. Saulter puts it this way, when asked if she’d ever own a car again: “If we ever did, we would use it when it was useful. Not for every purpose. We have so many other tools in our tool kit for getting around.”
Handy apps and websites for car-free living
MapMyWalk (mapmywalk.com) lets you record and map your route.
OneBusAway (onebusaway.org) locates bus stops and tells you when the next buses are coming.
King County Metro (metro.kingcounty.gov/trip-planner) gets riders from here to there with a trip planner.
Seattle Department of Transportation (seattle.gov/waytogo) provides maps with walking and biking routes, and offers incentives to try alternate forms of transportation.
StepTrakLite (awaretechs.com) counts your steps like a pedometer.