Peter Hickman's last car was a shared yellow Chrysler Town & Country station wagon with a leaky gas tank and a beer-can patch over the muffler. That was in 1984 and Hickman, a resident of Bayou St. John, hasn't owned a car since, even when he lived in Los Angeles. Whether he's going to work downtown or out to Coconut Beach for a volleyball tournament, he's on a bike. "I'm a nervous car driver," Hickman says. "It's a huge, massive, powerful object most people take for granted."
Michael Smith hasn't owned a car in five years. He gets around town by bicycle, foot and streetcar. To visit family in Alexandria, he hops the Greyhound. It's easier to live without a car in Mid-City, he says, than it was during his college days at Rice University: "In Houston, the biggest problem for me was having only two bars within biking distance of my house."
Sara Hoffman has never owned a car. "It's a balance, a conscious choice I made," she says. Hoffman moved to New Orleans two years ago and gets everywhere in the city by bicycle and her own two feet. "I love biking everywhere. It's a ton of fun," she says, adding that environmentalism also figures heavily in her decision.
Smith, Hickman and Hoffman are just three New Orleanians who are carless by choice, and all say they're happy about their decision. None of them have any plans to change — but living "carfree" in New Orleans isn't the same as carefree. It's a lifestyle with a good number of sacrifices, but those who have embraced it say it's a tradeoff they're willing to make.
"Americans are broad-minded people. They'll accept the fact that a person can be an alcoholic, a dope fiend, a wife beater, and even a newspaperman, but if a man doesn't drive, there is something wrong with him."
— Art Buchwald
When it comes to going carfree, New Orleans occupies an urban middle ground. It's not San Francisco or New York, with well-used and -established public transport — but neither is it Las Vegas or Los Angeles, cities designed more for four wheels than two legs. In fact, New Orleans has some attributes that make the thought of not driving awfully tempting. The city is flat, ideal for biking and walking. Tucked between a lake and a river, it's relatively compact. Louisiana has the highest auto insurance rates in the country, and Forbes.com recently rated it the eighth-worst state for drivers. (Only eighth? One wonders if Forbes knew about New Orleans' Godzilla-sized potholes — or the fact that new residents have to pay sales tax all over again when they register a vehicle in the state.)
But the disadvantages in going carfree are significant. Variations in neighborhood density mean your ZIP code has a lot to do with whether you can live without a car. (For a French Quarter studio resident, a car would be a nuisance; for an eastern New Orleans family with kids, a necessity.) A disparity in neighborhood services means some people have to drive for miles to reach a supermarket or regular medical care. Many streets are dilapidated. Public transit in New Orleans ranges from barely adequate to nonexistent. Car-sharing programs like Zipcar, which is in 14 metro regions across the country, haven't made it here yet. (The closest thing New Orleans has is WeCar, a car-sharing company owned by Enterprise Rent-a-Car, which only has cars available for students, faculty and staff at Loyola and Tulane universities.)
And, of course, there's New Orleans' bedeviling weather — malarial heat and humidity in the summer, surprise monsoons any time of the year and the annual threat of having to get out of the way of a hurricane, quickly. A post-Katrina study of New Orleans found more than 20,000 households had no car, and of those, the majority — by more than a 10-to-one margin — were black households. Going without a car, it seems, can be either a luxury or a threat to your life, depending on race, class and income status.
Tammy Strobel, author of the e-book Simply Car-free: How to Pedal Toward Financial Freedom and a Healthier Life, would fall in the luxury category. She and her partner, residents of Portland, Ore., gave up both their cars. "At first it was kind of hard; we couldn't just hop in the car and go to Lake Tahoe," Strobel says, but living in a transit capital like Portland makes the transition easier. "The bike infrastructure is fantastic," Strobel says, "and we have good public transport. We're very lucky, we're able-bodied and healthy."
"I'm not the only person in the world who rides a bike!"
"Yeah, everyone rides a bike — when they're f—ing six."
— Steve Carell and Seth Rogen in the 2005 film The 40-Year-Old Virgin
New Orleanians obviously face greater challenges, but those who are fed up with life behind the wheel are in good company nationally. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the American romance with the automobile is still strong, but it may be waning. In 2005, the number of cars outstripped the number of licensed drivers for the first time in history (204 million vehicles, 191 million drivers). However, a Pew Research poll conducted the following year found people may be driving more, but they're enjoying it less. A 1991 Gallup survey found 79 percent of respondents said they liked driving, with those who liked driving "a great deal" at 29 percent; by 2006, the numbers were down to 69 percent and 20 percent respectively.
During those years, traffic also has gotten worse in New Orleans. A January study of "America's 75 Worst Commutes" by the website The Daily Beast named the I-10/Baton Rouge corridor as No. 13 and the I-10/New Orleans corridor as No. 27, both of which averaged 93 hours of bottleneck congestion. But any metric of transportation satisfaction in New Orleans is difficult to determine due to Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods, which knocked out streetcar service for several years and severely reduced the bus system.
Most of the carfree people we spoke to for this article would like to use the RTA, but they don't see it as a serious option.
Renia Ehrenfeucht lives in the Irish Channel and commutes to her job at the University of New Orleans by bike, a ride that takes 40 minutes each way. On the occasions she's taken the bus, the commute was more like two hours. "I would like to rely on the bus," Ehrenfeucht says, "but it's just not reliable."
Lizzy Caston, a part-time Lower Garden District resident without a car, spends lots of time on planes — she owns a house in Portland and spends time with family in Cleveland, two cities she says have much better public transportation. She's particularly irritated the Crescent City hasn't found a better way to get people to and from Louis Armstrong International Airport; in both Portland and Cleveland, she can hop on a light rail train for about $2. In New Orleans, it's a $33 taxi fare each way, and she doesn't see the Jefferson Parish airport bus as a solution. But public transportation in New Orleans still frustrates Caston. Recently, she says, while waiting nearly an hour for a streetcar downtown, she and other exasperated riders gave up and began forming impromptu cab carpools to get Uptown. ("And then three streetcars came," she says. "All in a row.")
"New Orleans has got to figure this out," Caston says.
Stefan Marks, director of planning and scheduling for the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA), says bus ridership is projected to be more than 71 percent lower than it was in 2004, one year before Katrina — but the amount of bus service is also 65 percent lower. Still, ridership saw a bump between 2009 and 2010, showing there's demand for the service, even with New Orleans' smaller population. Meanwhile, in testimony at city budget hearings earlier this month, RTA CEO Justin Augustine told the City Council that the state of Louisiana earmarks less than 1 percent of its budget for public transport.
If you don't have a car and you're walkin'
(Oh, yes, son, I'm talkin' to you)
If you live at home with your mama
(Oh, yes, son, I'm talkin' to you) ...
No, I don't want no scrub:
A scrub is a guy that can't get no love from me
Hangin' out the passenger side of his best friend's ride
Tryin' to holla at me
— TLC, "No Scrubs"
Being carfree outside a city like New York still has a public relations problem. In America, a driver's license or learner's permit is still a rite of passage, the automotive equivalent of a bar mitzvah or quinceañera. It bestows not just age, but privilege and responsibility, not to mention status. (I loved my first car — a powder-blue, four-cylinder Mustang — but it didn't have the cool factor of my friends' rides: Marc's midnight-blue Harley-Davidson motorcycle and Eddie's Camaro, which was canary-yellow with black upholstery.) Of course, automotive status doesn't stop with the teen years. In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan identified the car as "an article of dress without which we feel uncertain, unclad, and incomplete," and 50 years later, it's still true. You are what you drive, says Madison Avenue, whether it's a brawny Hokie Gajan-endorsed pickup truck or Al Copeland's famous Lamborghini. Being environmentally minded means you drive a hybrid. No car at all? To some, you might as well have an "L" stamped on your forehead. ("The only reason I keep my driver's license current," Hickman says, "is because airports and polling places seem to think you're not a U.S. citizen if you don't have a license or have one that is expired.")
For much of the 20th century, the American automobile in popular culture represented freedom and possibility — and sex. (Think Bruce Springsteen, yearning to party in a "pink Cadillac," or Aretha Franklin praising the tightness of a man's pants before taking him for a ride on her "freeway of love.") But perception and reality are two different things. Easy Rider's Peter Fonda never flew off his chopper when he hit a New Orleans pothole, and Thelma and Louise never sat at a dead stop in Causeway Boulevard traffic, breathing exhaust fumes in their blue T-Bird convertible.
Still, that's nothing compared to the eunuch image of nondrivers in mainstream American movies: Pee-wee Herman, Napoleon Dynamite and especially man-child Andy Stitzer, Steve Carell's title character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, whose lack of testicularity is symbolized by the fact he ... yep ... doesn't drive.
But today's young adults don't necessarily buy the line that not driving is uncool. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 31 percent of 16-year-olds had a driver's license in 2008. In 1994, it was 42 percent. Earlier this month, MSNBC reported the auto industry has taken notice, going into production on car lines specifically targeted to younger people, with low entry-level prices, good gas mileage and high-tech gadgetry. In the report, George Peterson, head of the automotive market research firm AutoPacific, concluded that teens and twentysomethings "are not as engaged with cars and trucks as Gen X or Boomers before them" — which seems to indicate today's nondrivers aren't particularly worried about ending up a 40-year-old virgin.
"'Normal' is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it."
— Ellen DeGeneres
Going carless has one tangible benefit that has nothing to do with green ideals and everything to do with greenbacks. The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics says car ownership is the second-largest household expense in the U.S., about the amount the average family spends on food and health care combined.
Amy George-Hirons and her husband, Bud Hirons, had their Subaru wagon flood out on Broadway Street during one of last summer's torrential rains. (They'd gone through a used Jeep and a used Saturn in recent years.) But they haven't replaced the Subaru — for reasons more frugal than environmental. "We don't care to carry a car note," she says. "I don't want to spend my money on interest." The Hirons walk to work at Tulane University, ride their bikes to the Saturday farmers market in the CBD and take the municipal Freret Street bus to the French Quarter. After going carfree, they noticed one immediate change: a $250 per month uptick in the family bank account.
Strobel, the Portland writer, says her household income increased by $600 per month after giving up two cars. And when Caston first moved to town, she found herself at the end of one month with more than $200 in taxi receipts. "I showed them to my accountant," she says, "and he told me it was still more inexpensive than keeping a car in New Orleans."
Some carfree people have jiggered transportation solutions that may seem superhuman (if not super-inconvenient) to car owners. Hoffman has a friend in Orleans Parish who's figured out the best way to the Target store in Metairie's Clearview Mall via public transportation. And when Hickman found himself with an errand that could only be fulfilled at a crafts shop near Lafreniere Park in Jefferson Parish, he rode there through miles of heavy Veterans Memorial Boulevard auto traffic. "It can be inconvenient," he says. "When you don't have a car, going to Jefferson Parish is a road trip."
And nearly everyone we spoke to for this story confessed they depend on friends with cars at some point. Smith's girlfriend has a car, but he says he tries not to rely on her. Nevertheless, "if I wanted to go out to the West Bank, it would take hours to plan and ride." Ehrenfeucht says she's fortunate to have "friends who are willing to lend me cars," and uses car-rental agencies when she needs them.
"That license in your wallet? That's not an ordinary piece of paper, that is a driver's license, and it's not only a driver's license, it's an automobile license, and it's not only an automobile license — it's a license to live, a license to be free, a license to go wherever, whenever and with whomever you choose."
— Corey Feldman in the 1988 film License to Drive
While the RTA may be adding more lines in 2011, plans for the Lafitte Greenway project (connecting the French Quarter and the lake) are underway, and groundbreaking is set on a new Loyola Avenue streetcar line, carfree New Orleanians are still trying to cobble together solutions that work for them. While Hoffman is a happy "bike evangelist," the Hirons family is saving their money for what George-Hirons says will be "a crappy used car" — "Toward the end of December, it might not be so fun to bike around town." Caston, whose job keeps her traveling around the city all day, is throwing in the towel: She's getting a car.
Hickman, who has outfitted his bike with enough gear to carry volleyball equipment through the streets and take glass to Jefferson Parish for recycling, says car drivers are missing out. "When pedaling one is often able to smell the tantalizing aroma of food that is being prepared in people's homes, one can hear the music that is emanating from the homes of New Orleans' diverse population, and one can simply see people relaxing on their porches and wave to them," he writes in an email. "A bicyclist, in short, is immersed in the community rather than being whisked through it inside a metal box, and a bicyclist can easily stop or change course to participate in some neighborhood gathering rather than bypassing it unnoticed."
Then there's Ehrenfeucht, who says she "perpetually considers" getting a car for the first time in her life, but still hasn't felt the need to do it, even after a college stint in Los Angeles, where she used a bike, the bus and the L.A. subway to get around the sprawling metropolis. "I've never had car trouble and car expenses; it's just the way I live," she says. "Not ever having had a car, I don't romanticize it."
The author has lived in New Orleans without a car for more than a decade, getting around on foot, by streetcar, by rental car and through the kindness of some longsuffering friends with wheeled benefits.