As I make the transition to full-time writer for Inside of Knoxville, our family is making a number of changes. One of the biggest is in the area of transportation. With the exception of a couple of years in which our household actually had three drivers, we’ve been a two-driver, two-car family since sometime in the early 1980s. Given the places we lived and worked during those years, it seemed essential.
During those years we lived in south Knoxville and a couple of different places in west Knoxville. I worked anywhere from 15 to 35 miles from home, but never closer. Urban Woman worked closer to home, but never in the same direction and a dozen or more miles most of those years. Additionally, any errand from our home seemed to require a car.
But now things have changed. It started when we moved to the city almost five years ago. For the first time, we could walk to a post office and a city office to renew our driver’s license and car tags. We could walk to restaurants and a automated teller and more. Over the years we’ve been able to expand what we buy to include some of our clothing, art, gifts, some foods and other essentials which, in the past, would have required a car. Errands requiring a car tended increasingly to go undone or included in our commutes to work. While I didn’t exactly move to the city to reduce or stop driving, it was a byproduct we both liked tremendously.
Still, work persisted. Moving downtown actually increased my commuting distance to work up to twenty-six miles, one way. Urban Woman’s commute was initially unchanged at just over ten miles one way. That’s 360 miles to work each week and neither of us was inclined to commute that many miles any way other than by car. I admire people who face those distances on a bicycle – particularly with poor biking infrastructure in so many places. Walking, obviously, wasn’t an option for us. Then Urban Woman changed work sites and now drives just 4.7 miles each way to work, cutting her commuting distance in half. Since June 2, my commuting distance has changed from 26 miles each way to, well, nothing, reducing our total weekly commuting miles from 360 when we moved downtown, to 94. Quite a change.
It seemed to offer an opportunity to make changes in our transportation lifestyle. Owning a car is expensive even if you purchase inexpensive, fuel efficient, used cars, which we did. One estimate I found put the cost of driving an SUV at 76 cents a mile, a sedan at 60 cents a mile and biking at 10 cents a mile. Whatever the precise cost, each automobile requires insurance, maintenance, repairs and gasoline. In an urban context it also involves parking expense, making car ownership more expensive in the city. Of course, there are also environmental distinctions between automobiles and walking or biking. So, we decided to reduce our car ownership from two to one.
That leaves me on foot unless I take Urban Woman to work in order to keep the car for my use during the day, which isn’t that hard to do. There’s also the automotive back-up of the zipcar. Additionally, I need to learn to take greater advantage of buses and trolley’s, which I intend to do. One proposed change to trolley routes, which will be voted on this week will give me access to a grocery store (Publix) via Trolley from downtown. That helps. Still, I’ve got a pretty limited range on foot.
I’ve also been interested in expanding the geographic range covered by my blog. I’ve dipped into areas of north, south and east Knoxville which are close to downtown, but it takes me a long time to walk to those places, so my coverage has been sparse. How to expand my range in the absence of an automobile? The answer seemed obvious: a bicycle.
I’d only thought about a bicycle in passing, but found one when looking into a story about Kickstand. A bicycle would greatly expand my area for reporting about the city, but also would potentially alter my ability to do errands outside the immediate downtown area. I looked at the older-style Trek, road it, had Shaft look at it – and bought it for $150. It’s cheaper than my last vehicle and it opens a lot of possibilities I’m giving up by moving to one automobile.
I haven’t ridden a bicycle in over thirty years and even then it was mostly on the campus at the University of Florida. I’ve never ridden on busy streets. I’ve never really carried groceries. I don’t know local greenways. I really don’t know the laws that cover bicycles. I’d never owned a helmet, but bought one from Tennessee Valley Bikes on my way home with my new purchase. So, I’m new to this and so over the coming weeks and months I’ll be learning things many of you have known for a long time. That’s pretty consistent with many other topics I’ve covered on this blog.
I’ve already started learning. With Shaft’s guidance I road from downtown to Earthfare on my first trip (four miles total, three on greenways). On that little trip I learned that stopping completely at a stop sign isn’t always the safest thing for a bicycle to do – something I never expected. I learned that eight miles is the outer limit of my current physical capacity. I learned that I need an attached water bottle, that carrying something in one hand and trying to steer a bike isn’t so safe, that I’m a nervous rider at this point and that’s not so safe.
I’ve also started reading and I’ve learned how far behind other parts of the world the US ranks in bicycle ridership. I’ve learned that it’s improving, but it is still extremely low. Only .6 percent of people in the US ride a bicycle to work. This represents a sixty percent increase over the last decade. Portland, Oregon has the best rate of bicycle commuting among large US cities at just over 6%. Contrast that with the most bike-friendly country in the world, the Netherlands, where 30% of the population regularly bikes to work and another 40% sometimes bike to work.
Wikipedia defines bicycle commuting as riding a bike to work. That doesn’t really cover commuting to other destinations and it seems to me it should. A trip which doesn’t use a car is a trip that doesn’t pollute or cost the rider money, so running an errand on a bicycle should be included. According to the Sierra Club, “If Americans made one 4-mile round-trip by bike instead of car each week, we’d burn nearly 2 billion fewer gallons of gas annually. At $3.64 a gallon, that’s a savings of $6.6 billion.”
So, watch this space for more about bicycle culture in our city as well as my learning experiences going forward. We’ll take a look at some of that later this week. Meanwhile, I’m open to any advice as I undertake this new urban venture and I have a 2004 Prius with 200 K available if you are interested. Email me at KnoxvilleUrbanGuy@gmail.com.