Friday, December 13, 2013

Living an almost car-free life (and what does that have to do with the arts?)

I recently watched a video of a talk by Gabe Klein at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival about the new world of transportation planning. He is the head of transportation in Chicago, previously headed the transportation office in DC, and before that was a VP at ZipCar, and it got me thinking about the changing modes of transportation in my own life. In Philadelphia, I was one of many people who lived without owning a car, living downtown and walking to work and most places I needed to get to. Most places I could not get to on foot, I used mass transit, and very occasionally a taxi. When for work reasons I needed to get somewhere best reached by car I was able to draw on a Mayor's Office pool car, and for personal use when a car was needed I used ZipCar. I used a bicycle mostly for recreation but occasionally for transportation as well, at which time I did take advantage of and appreciate Philadelphia's relatively new bike lane program. As one of the nation's most walkable big cities, with one of the highest bicycle commuting rates, this was not all that unusual in Philly.

Now in Denver, we are living as a one-car family, which many folks here are astonished at, especially given that we have a two-year old. But Denver is a surprisingly urban city (and increasingly so) that is very easy to navigate without owning a car, depending on where you choose to live. Living in the city, only about 2 1/2 miles from downtown where my office is, I am able to commute to work most days using Denver's B-cycle bike-sharing program. For an $80/year membership I essentially get unlimited under-30-minute rides through the program. If I go over 30 minutes (which I have never done), I would pay $1 for the next 30 minutes. There are bike-share stations virtually everywhere I have ever have to get to. I wish the one near my house was a bit closer (it is about 5 blocks away) but that is nit-picking. Not only is this good for the environment (and our finances by avoiding the expense of a second car), it offers great regular exercise and promotes health and wellness. When time and weather allow, the distance is close enough that walking is actually also an option, especially since about a third of the trip can be accomplished via the free 16th Street Mall shuttle - another great Denver sustainable transportation asset. I have become in short order a major champion - and user - of bike sharing.

And when, like in Philadelphia, a car is needed, I now use Car2Go (which has been in Denver for about 6 months), which I find for me a better fit than ZipCar. Even though I still have my ZipCar membership I have yet to use it in Denver. With Car2Go you use and pay for the car ONE-WAY. If I bike to work, but then need a car in the middle of the day to get to a meeting, I use Car2Go, pick up a car near my office, drive to the meeting, park the car, and I am done. When the meeting is over, I can either pick up the nearest Car2Go (which might be the same one if nobody else has claimed it) or depending on the location could walk or use B-cycle to wherever my destination is. Or if it is the end of the day, my wife might pick me up in the car on her way home, though she works just a couple of blocks from where we live, so this generally only happens if she is out and about in the car anyway for work or errands). Some days I will actually use my own car for the day, but that is increasingly rare, and generally when I have several back-to-back destinations that are very far apart.

Because it is so different from the usual car sharing programs like ZipCar, here is how Car2Go works: You sign up for the program and register a payment method, then you get a plastic card that has a chip embedded that allows the cars to recognize you. You check an "app" you have downloaded, and it shows you where all the nearby cars are. (They are all the little Smart ForTwo cars; the company is owned by Daimler, which makes the cars...) You pick the most convenient car and it reserves it for you for up to 30-minutes. You walk to the car - which in the core of the city is rarely more than few blocks away, sometimes just a few feet. Cars can be parked for free in almost any legal City parking spot. When you get to the car you hold your card to the window-mounted reader, it recognizes you and unlocks the doors. After answering a few questions and putting in a code on a data screen (that also serves as a GPS system), you start the car and drive to your destination. When you get to your destination you park the car, log out, hold the card to the windshield reader, and you are done. The charge currently is $.38/minute. If your drive took 10 minutes, you are billed $3.80, 20 minutes - $7.60. If you want to make sure the same car is available when you are finished with your appointment, you can take the ignition key with you and lock the car without "checking out". You just get charged for the time the car is waiting for your return ($13.99/hour max).

It takes some planning and some thought, but frankly this multi-system approach to transportation - walking, bike-share, car-share and only an occasional personal car trip - is very doable. And this is not just for 20-30 year-olds, an age bracket I am long removed from. Though it is true that Millennials as a generation are statistically much less enamored of our American car culture and are using alternative transportation, and living in cities where this lifestyle works best, at increasingly high rates.

An image from Philadelphia's artist-designed bike rack competition
So what does all this have to do with the arts? We must ensure that our programs and facilities are accessible to patrons using alternative modes of transportation! Are there enough bike racks at your theatre, museum or other type of cultural facility? Are there sufficient bike-sharing stations? If necessary could you sponsor the installation of more racks, a bike corral, or additional bike sharing capacity? Can you work to ensure Car2Go availability (or even taxi or Uber availability) when people leave the theatre or other evening event? Could you organize car-pooling from neighborhoods where there are many audience members, perhaps creating a matching area on your website? In Philadelphia we worked to launch an artist-designed bike rack program to add bike rack capacity while also adding to the city's public art collection and at least one of the arts was sponsored by a museum, and placed there to accommodate more bicycle transported visitors. Planning for easy use of alternative transportation should be a key part of cultural institution planning, and community availability of multiple transportation options should be part of your communications strategy as well. If your facility is largely accessible only by car, in a world where more and more people (and, yes, especially younger people) don't own cars you are adding yet another major roadblock to your efforts to expand your audiences. So don't just think about how to add a new parking lot or garage, think about how to facilitate those NOT driving their own car, and make it as easy as possible for them. You will help build younger audiences, and you might even get me too!