Living car-free or car-lite in Austin has gotten a lot easier

I’ve lived in Austin for about 8 years, all of that time car-free. When I first moved moved here, I was frankly crazy to do so. I did all sorts of things without a car: dragging mattresses from one apartment to another in West Campus, walking miles because buses weren’t running–or just because. My whole life was planned around living without a car. One reason I lived in coops was so I could choose chores that didn’t require a car. Once I had to do my own grocery shopping, I would regularly take my jumbo grocery cart 50 minutes on the #3 bus up to Costco north, filled it up with groceries (stuffing the rest in my backpack), then take the bus back. I had at least 3 friends with whom I had mutual relationships of calling up and asking each other to use CapMetro’s trip planner for them.

It was actually a fun life for a 20-something, like playing a video game on hard mode. My friends and I spent a lot of time coming up with creative ways to move ourselves and our stuff. Other people had stories of getting drunk and winding up with the police; we had stories of police officers picking us up from walking along 2222, because he just didn’t think we looked very safe.  (He was probably right.) But it was hard. One time, picking up something from Craigslist, I got off the bus in a part of town I didn’t know well, headed the wrong way down the Ben White Blvd frontage road in the 100-degree heat, and got seriously desperate with cars whizzing by at 50MPH and no pedestrian-friendly businesses to pop into before a friend figured out where I was over the phone and set me on the right path. Under the best of conditions, getting any errands done in the summer was exhausting. Calling up a taxi company to get to the hospital and being told that nobody is available for an hour is the kind of experience that makes you question your choices in life.

In part because of recent political debates (legalization of Uber/Lyft,  lowering parking requirements for small apartments and ADUs), I’ve been reflecting on these experiences. Today, I still live car-free but it is considerably less crazy than it used to be. In part, this is because I’m no longer silly enough to think it’s a good idea for me to gather up some friends and carry a chaise lounge through West Campus at 10PM. But in part, it’s because the city and the world is just much more friendly to living without a car today than it was just a few years ago.  Here’s my list of ways my life is easier without a car now than it used to be, in no particular order:

  • Smartphones make it much, much harder to get lost.  My flirtation with heat stroke along Ben White would never happen today: if I were confused, I’d simply check the map on my phone.
  • Smartphones make trip planning much more flexible.  I used to have “last bus” times memorized for a wide variety of buses to make sure I could get home on time–and still got stranded occasionally when I would forget that it was Sunday. Today, I can easily just ask Google Maps or the CapMetro app to figure out the best way for me to take a bus home.
  • Sidewalks are getting more widespread and larger throughout the city, especially in the places I walk most.  Last month the city added a sidewalk in front of Vince Young grill, and a bike lane on 3rd Street.  Along my daily commute, at least a couple patches of missing sidewalk have been filled in that used to force me to cross a street or share a lane with cars–not very safe on foot!
  • Grocery delivery is a million times better.  Between Burpy, Instacart, and Amazon subscriptions, 90%+ of my groceries are delivered.  What would have taken me 3+ hours, heavy lifting, dangerous walking along pedestrian-hostile stroads with 80 lbs of grocery in tow is now done with a button click online.
  • Prepared food delivery is much easier.  Between GrubHub and Favor, pretty much anything can be delivered.
  • Density has brought more local food retail. In the two most recent neighborhoods I have lived in (West Campus and downtown), there has been a big jump in residential and commercial density. There’s a far broader quantity and variety of stores within walking distance of me, whether it’s convenience stores like Royal Blue or the dozen corner stores in West Campus, or tons of restaurants.
  • The food truck revolution. Not only is there more brick-and-mortar, but there are multiple food truck courts within walking distance of me, bringing even more variety of food. It used to be that buildingless parcels would be worse-than-useless to a pedestrian, filled in as surface parking lots. Now, many of those parking lots are being filled with very useful, tasty food.
  • Bcycle has only been in Austin for a few months, but you already see them everywhere. I’m not super confident enough on a bike to make this my main form of commuting, but they’re very convenient when I need them.
  • Uber / Lyft.  Uber and Lyft have been operating for the last few months. Most of my life doesn’t require a car, but since Uber and Lyft have started up, I am far more confident that if I suddenly needed a ride, I could find one.

Obviously, some items on this list are downtown- and campus-centric. People living in lower density places are unlikely to see a wide variety of stores within walking distance of them, for example.  I have the luck of a good job within a 1.5-mile walk of my home. For many people in Austin, it would be, well, crazy for them to live without a car. But these changes are real and more and more people will find that living car-free or car-lite is a good choice for them.

4 thoughts on “Living car-free or car-lite in Austin has gotten a lot easier

    1. Hi Terry!

      Some of the things Austin could do are just continuing the trends in this article: bike lanes, sidewalks, VMU downtown and near campus, etc. GPS tracking of all buses (like the 801 and 803 currently have) will probably help. There might be some room for “delivery zones” downtown–10 minute parking spaces for delivery vehicles.

      But the biggest thing, I think, would be to allow more people to live and work in the places that are already walkable. The example I keep coming back to is the Northwest district downtown. It has a lot of major attractions: walkability to rest of downtown, an elementary school, two colleges (ACC/UT). But there are severe zoning limits on the number of people who can live or work there. Bringing a new zoning district there could provide thousands of more homes and workplaces for people to be in walkable distance of.

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