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Car-Free in Hartford

Kerri Provost

December 04, 2009

I have consistently heard that people need cars in Hartford. The lack of grocery stores in downtown is one reason cited for this claim. The lack of public transportation is also evidenced. Recently, in discussions about the Plan of Conservation and Development, this car ďneedĒ as been brought up as reason for why young urban professionals are hesitant to move downtown or come into the city for entertainment.

I live in one of Hartfordís neighborhoods. By someoneís definition, I am a young professional, though I despise that term. I do not have children. I am able-bodied, though have never been the type of person to ďexercise.Ē

Since early October, I have been without a car. I have not starved to death, nor have I taken to wandering the streets naked (youíre welcome!).

Here is an explanation for how I have been able to meet my various needs and wants while living in Hartford without a car.

1. Food

Despite what anyone might tell you, there is food within city limits. By walking two minutes from home, I can get to a deli, chicken joint, tavern, and chain pub. There is also a gas station convenience store. Being a vegetarian, the chicken place does me no good, but I mention it because it is there. A five minute walk would bring me to two bodegas and a C-Town. Itís not top-of-the-line dining, but if I am being lazy or not feeling well, I can still, fairly effortlessly, get something to eat. Walking for ten minutes will get me to two Subways, a pizza hut, two more chicken restaurants, two more gas station convenience stores, a Burger King, Ichiban, Tisane, Monte Alban, an Ethiopian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, the Half Door, and Braza. Thatís if I head North and West. If I head South, there are dozens of places along Park Street, like OíPorto, Lenaís, and Barca.

It is too expensive to dine out all the time, so sometimes I force myself to choke down my own culinary creations. This requires buying unprocessed food. For about a third of the year, there is a farmersí market operating within the ten-minute walk zone. There are others a little further away that I pass: the Farmersí Market at Billings Forge operates year-round now. Last week I dropped in to see what they were selling at the Studio on Broad Street. It was right before Thanksgiving. There were pies, potatoes, breads, muffins, cheeses, other types of produce, and even soap. The regional market runs year round, though it is less convenient for me to get to by foot or bike.

Within four miles of home there is a Stop & Shop (actually, there are two), Shaws, Whole Foods and Whole Foods Market, Waldbaums, Crown Supermarket, C-Town (five minute walk), and a Save-a-Lot. The Trader Joeís is within the five mile range. Each of those markets is on a bus line. Since I am shopping for just me, itís easy to fit more than a weekís worth of groceries on my bike. Actually, Iím buying for three. Sometimes I need to also get cat food and litter.

There are also times when a friend who is going about his errands will ask me if I need him to pick up anything. Why donít more people do this? I do not con him into doing all of my grocery shopping for me (thatís just asking for years of bad karma), but there is not much inconvenience involved when asking for some juice or garlic from someone who would be passing by my place on the way back from the store.

At any rate, I have had no trouble feeding myself.

2. Clothing

This excuse for keeping a car kind of amazes me. How much clothing does one person need? Iím sure that anyone who helps me move will be asking that same question. But seriously, if someone (again, Iím referring to the single adult who is probably finished experiencing growth spurts) ďneedsĒ to buy clothing more than twice a year, she might need to reevaluate her priorities. It does not seem valued anymore for people to plan ahead. My sense of time is based on the college school year. Generally, if I am thinking of clothes shopping, it is timed with the beginning of the Fall and Spring semesters. Or, for others, it would make sense to shop seasonally. Even for shopaholics who thrive on the retail experience, it is not exactly an arduous journey to get to most shopping centers in North central Connecticut. True fashionistas, by the way, know that the thing to do would be to walk or bike to Union Station and hop on a train or bus to New York City.

Within five miles of home there is a major shopping mall, as well as numerous strip malls, a Salvation Army thrift store, Blue Back Square, West Hartford Center, and numerous shops within Hartford.

One of the benefits of taking the bus, riding a bike, or walking, is that the amount of stuff that can be schlepped is somewhat limited. This means that I spend more time thinking about every purchase. Since not being able to just lug everything in a car, I have nearly eliminated junk food from my purchases at grocery stores. I feel less tempted to pick up an extra pair of shoes while out.

But letís just say that there is a cold snap and I can not bear to bundle up to get to West Farms. Then what? Well, there is this magical series of tubes that enables shopaholics to engage in their addiction without ever leaving home. The lack of car has not hindered my access to Etsy, Amazon, or any number of other online shopping sites.

3. Work

Although some of the work I do can be done at home, I need to be present most of the time. I have been doing online tutoring for the past few years on the weekend. Two days of the week I can sit in my pajamas while working. Monday through Friday I do work that requires face-to-face interaction. Though I have the ability to occasionally set up work-from-home days on MWF, I avoid overdoing that.

Both of my workplaces are 2.5 miles from home. In one direction, the terrain is fairly level and the traffic speed is reduced. There is an indoor bike rack at that job, which is located in a corner of the lobby which would otherwise be ďdead space.Ē Itís near security. When I drove, I had to walk for two-to-three blocks from the parking lot. My other job is uphill, which was an obstacle to me at first. The easy commute was one I walked often before I had no car. This uphill one, not so much. Because one of the streets in this section of town is faster and lacks a bike lane, I use the sidewalk (which almost never has pedestrians on it) for that stretch, which is also the uphill. One day, when I am stronger and faster, I hope to ride out on the street. When I arrive at the job, I can bring the bike right into my office if I want to, but I usually lock it right outside the building. Because itís quite easily the most beat up bicycle on campus, I am not terribly concerned about its safety.

I do not change or shower when I get to work. Why? Because I am not that kind of cyclist. I do not deck myself out in spandex because I am not racing. Iím a dawdler in most things that I do. My alarm is set early so that I can move at my own pace in the morning. I leave my house much earlier than necessary so that I am not forcing myself to move at breakneck speeds to get to work on time. There is an extra stick of deodorant in my office just in case I happen to break a sweat. I am fortunate to have the type of professional job that does not require me to wear a costume to work. I can wear jeans. I can wear skirts or slacks. Although I have not done this yet, if I had to wear something fancy that I was worried would get messed up during commute, I would just change when I got to my destination. Itís really not that big of a deal, and anyway, itís not like Iím wasting time at the gas pump or sitting in traffic.

4. Social Life/ Night Life

Before anyone asks, my mother knows about this, and even she is not concerned about my safety. She would be the first to panic.

I have ridden my bike, in Hartford, at 2:30 in the morning.

I had to.

Every other week I have a commitment to host a radio show on WWUH. This show happens to be from 0300 to 0600. The bus does not run at that time and I can not justify paying a taxi to take me somewhere when I can get my own self there. The first night that I biked out around 2 in the morning, I was a little nervous. If I got jumped, then plenty of people would be ready to make ďI told you soĒ type comments. What I have been banking on is the knowledge that too many people in our society are fast food-and-passive entertainment-dependent. I psych myself up with the belief that I can probably outrun or out-bike people who live off of Mickey Dís and Cheetos.

Hartford is quiet in the middle of the night. There are a few cars. The ratio of police-to-civilians-outside is much higher than during the daytime.

Beyond this commitment, I like to enjoy arts in the city. I like to hang out with friends. Not wanting to burden folks, I rarely ask for a ride somewhere. The beauty of Hartfordís size, though, is that if I am exhausted, sore, or if thereís a torrential rain storm, itís generally not asking too much to beg a ride home from someone heading in that direction.

Here are some of the places that I have biked to for socializing/arts/entertainment: Real Art Ways, Wadsworth Atheneum, Red Rock Tavern, and the library. Three of the four mentioned have bike racks, and nobody at the Red Rock has ever complained about bikes being locked to the fence out front. Last night, for instance, I biked to the first Thursday cocktail event at the Wadsworth Atheneum. The Wadsworth has decent sized lockers inside, which is helpful for storing bike helmets and other assorted items one does not feel like carrying around while balancing a beverage and snacks. I wore a dress with sandals to this. There were no worries about where I might find parking. If the rack at the Wadsworth happened to be filled (it wasnít), I could try the rack at neighboring City Hall, or the one at the library, which is on the other side of City Hall. Didnít have to worry myself over whether or not I could park in a certain spot because it was a Thursday or after a certain time, or whether or not Iíd have to pay to park. Not so complicated.

5. Out-of-town Travel

Sometimes I have to leave Hartford.

A friend who I had not seen in years and recently reconnected with was having a party in October. Since I did not want to flake out on her after all the efforts to get in touch again, I made it a priority to travel to Windsor to see her. Though sporadic since it was a Saturday, I was able to get bus service from downtown Hartford to the end of her street!

The most inconvenience that I have had so far was Thanksgiving. Normally, I am able to take an Express bus from Hartford to the town neighboring where my parents live. From there itís about a mile and a half that I can walk, or, like any good daughter would, insist they come pick me up. Technically, I could put my bicycle on the bus, but my parents are a mile up a steep hill thatís windy and somewhat narrow. It would not end well. In theory, though, this is all fairly simple to manage. I can walk a mile and a half like nothing now. But Thanksgiving, the day when it is basically mandatory for children to visit their parents, there was no express bus service. I can not bike this distance yet (itís 18 by highway, and I have no idea how long itíd be by bike route and back roads). This was the one time since early October that borrowing a car was basically necessary. Admittedly, there was another alternative, but I was not okay with it. I could have taken the express bus the day before, slept over, and then returned on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Some people are cool with this alternative, but it would have probably meant sleeping on one of my parentsí couches and waking up being licked to death by a Pug and a Chihuahua mix. Iím a cat person.

Perhaps next Thanksgiving, I can exercise yet another option: Zipcar. At this money-saving phase, Zipcar is too expensive for me, but I could envision using it at some point in the future. If itís just a rental to get over to my parentsí house, then it does not make sense, but if I were to combine this with errands like picking up large purchases from IKEA, doing holiday shopping in Northampton, or visiting all sorts of random peeps, then itís not so bad. Still, another thing that I have noticed about living in a city (versus in suburban or rural areas) is that people are far more willing to share their vehicles. Growing up in a rural area, the only people who ever borrowed cars were teenagers from their parents. Now, itís not uncommon for me to see neighbors and friends sharing.

Other Observations

That we have viable alternative transportation options is so far out of the consciousness of many people who can readily afford private motorized transportation. I will be the first to admit that while I could abstractly conceive of Hartford as a walkable or bikeable city, it was not until my own private transportation required extensive repairs (to ready it for sale) that I forced myself to see if this was true or not.

It has been a strange experience.

People either react with pity or with admiration when they learn that I have biked myself somewhere. I am not sure that either response is really appropriate. Itís not like I biked to work with my handlebars on fire. Once, I jokingly mentioned to my students that they should limit their essays to the specified page maximum because I had to haul these home on my bike. If anyone has ever wondered how to impress college students, itís this. Not a one can claim that I am not dedicated. After all, I had to put forth a little physical effort to get into the classroom to teach them.

I have also noticed that I have built up strength and endurance much more quickly than anticipated. Thereís still a long way for me to go in this department, but for someone whose exercise since college has been limited to sporadic beginner yoga classes and ambling a few blocks here and there, I am impressed with myself. There are leg and arm muscles where once there was just jiggle. I no longer feel like vomiting after biking up the hill on Albany Avenue. My energy level has increased. When I get to work after riding, I feel more alert than I did when driving. Thereís less dependence on caffeine.

When I drove, I had a lot of anxiety about it. Car accidents claim a lot of lives every year. People drive too fast for conditions, weave and pass on the right, and have road rage. Although in some respects, I am much more vulnerable when biking alongside motorized vehicles, I also have more easy bailout options. Itís not ideal, but I can hop up onto the sidewalk or lawn if I have to dodge something. Chances are pretty good that by doing so, I will not accidentally run over and kill a dog or small child.

Being car-free is not for everyone, yet in conversations, I have heard sentiments like ďIíd love to do that, except _____.Ē I hear a lot of excuses, some justified, some not so justified.

What aboutÖ

Öwhen it rains? The best answer I read to this so far was on a blog I can not find a link to right now, but here it is: ďI get wet.Ē Sometimes I cuss a little if I did not realize it was going to rain. If prepared, I cover the seat with a plastic bag when itís parked, and then remove it so that I do not have a soaked rear. If not, I find a paper towel or rag to wipe the seat off with. Wearing gloves helps to keep the fingers from getting too cold. Putting lights on the bikes helps to be more visible. I try to keep my speed down so that I do not skid through intersections. There are puddles to avoid. If I had fenders on my bike, most of the misery would be reduced. Iím working on that. Basically, what I would suggest is that people not be freaked out about getting a little dirty, and if there is any possibility of rain or muddiness, avoid light colors.

Ösnow? Itís New England! I have little experience with biking in the snow. Some places sell studded tires to help get traction on ice. If it proves too difficult, I will walk or take the bus. Part of why I wanted to be in a city to begin with was because I abhor driving in snow and ice, and I wanted the option of alternative transportation to work so that I do not have to call out for being a wimp.

Öpeople with families? It gets trickier to manage getting several young children to come along on errands. Like I noted, even with youth discounts, hauling a family of four or five on the bus quickly becomes costly. One Canadian blogger shows how she hauls her baby around by bicycle. There are cyclists in this area who tote children around on the back of their bikes. More difficult? Probably. Impossible? Not for smaller families. Then again, I have seen pictures on gossip blogs of Brangelina toting and hauling several of their children. I donít know how many kids they have in all, so I can not say for sure if they can do this for the entire family.

Öbeing female? This has not been much of an issue for me yet. An issue for others, maybe, but not for me. I have gotten less gender-based harassment on a bicycle than I have while on foot. In my limited bus-riding experience, I have received no harassment.

Part of the battle is seeking out role models. There are a number of awesome female bike bloggers ó none that I am aware of in this area, sadly ó who show that itís possible to do things like ride in skirts, heels, and with huge, pregnant bellies. Being femme is not necessary, but it is an option. On the routes I take, I see far more male than female cyclists. I also see far more men than women walking. That should not deter anyone.

Öriding at night? Put reflectors on the bike and add some lights. I have ridden a few times at night without lights, and it was a little hairy because motorists really did not see me. Not advised. I have been told to wear brighter colors. If you ride at night, people will probably assume that you are crazy and just keep their distance.

Öbeing in sketchy areas? I have gone through some sketchy areas, at night no less, that others avoid while in cars with windows up and doors locked. They are places that I am familiar with. Itís not always comfortable, so I usually will ride a lot faster than I would in the day time. Would I ride around in an unfamiliar sketchy place by myself? No. Anyway, what is ďsketchyĒ to one person might seem perfectly comfortable and safe to someone else. I just read somewhere about how two females were ďstrandedĒ in downtown Hartford, and how they thought that they were asking to get mugged because they were wearing dresses in a dangerous area. I do not find downtown Hartford the least bit frightening, but there are some areas of the city that I will not go through at any time of day. I understand how to get where I need to go by using alternate routes.

Öhating spandex? Simple. Donít wear it. I have a few pairs of those trendy leggings that college-aged women tend to live in, and these are reserved for wearing under skirts and dresses when I ride. Otherwise, I wear jeans, corduroy pants, or regular slacks. I wear layers of long underwear, waffle shirts, sweaters, etc., but nothing special or specific to biking/walking/bus-riding. I have two jackets and coats which happen to be bright colors. I have one pair of bike gloves and a helmet. A friend tells me I might want a balaclava in the winter. Baklava might be better. What I am saying is that it is possible to avoid wearing (what I believe are) tacky, unfashionable cycling clothes.

Riding a bike, walking, or relying on public transit means thinking differently about how we live. It requires people to stop being so Type A. Sometimes, it means doing something unconventional or what might be perceived as risky. So far, I do not miss the car.

This post was inspired by a portion of a recent blog post on Urban Compass.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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