Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Carless By Choice - Owning Up To Our Privilege

We all know that great things happen in Oklahoma City when the citizens rally together for a cause; let's make that magic happen for public transit!

Whenever John and I tell someone that we don't have a car, we're always quick to add that we're carless by choice. While this distinction doesn't feel very important to us, there is a palpable expectation for us to explain ourselves, that simply not having a car is not enough. 

It bothers me a lot. It bothers me that we are expected to explain why we don't own a car. It bothers me that we feel the need to tell people that it's a choice - don't worry, we're not poor, it seems to say. Why does it matter? If we couldn't afford a car, how would that change the way that our message is received?

Not long after we started this blog, we appeared in a segment on a local news channel. The cameraman came to meet us and took footage of us in our apartment, doing things like fake-making-dinner and fake-setting-the-table, then we went outside to the bus terminal to get some footage there: us waiting on a bench, us stepping onto the bus. We were pretty conspicuous since we were being followed by a cameraman, and one of the people waiting at the transit center finally asked why we were being filmed. 

"They don't own a car!" the cameraman answered. "And they write a blog about it!" He used the same tone of voice he would have used if he was saying that we came up with a really novel and useful invention.

Everyone around us suddenly looked like "Are you shitting me?" I have never felt so awkward in my life. We were surrounded by people who didn't own a car, and yet here we were, being put on the news for it. The only difference between us and most of the other people at the transit center that day was that we choose not to own a car. 

This graph from a recent Embark survey illustrates the prevalence of carlessness among bus riders. (Click for full size)

If we were carless because we couldn't afford to own a car, would our blog have readers? Would we have as many Twitter followers? Would we get to be on the radio each week? Because there are plenty of people in our city who don't have a car and who rely on public transportation; we're not the only ones. We're not special or unique. It just happens to be a choice for us. 

While being carless by choice seems to make us more credible in many people's eyes, to me, it makes us less credible; we're not the ones who have to do this. We could always change our mind. Our voices are not the ones that need to be listened to. When we say we want the bus system to offer evening and Sunday service, it doesn't mean the difference between us being able to get to a job or not. If there's no bus that gets to where we need to go at night, we can take an Uber. Plenty of people in OKC don't have that choice, or maybe they do have that choice, but it presents an undue financial hardship. Not everyone can afford frequent taxi or Uber rides. 

Another graph from the recent Embark survey illustrates how the majority of riders can't afford a car or other expensive transportation. (Click for full size)

I guess I'm uncomfortable because we're the de facto voice for a group for which we shouldn't be the ones to speak. Why is it not enough that 7% of people in Oklahoma City - or over 15,000 households - live without a car? Almost 3/4 of bus riders do not have access to a car, and many of them live below the poverty line. Why is that not enough motivation for our city to expand our public transit system for those who need it? There are many people in our city who have no other viable way to get to their jobs or grocery stores or doctors or parks. That fact, in and of itself, should be reason enough to provide adequate public transit. It shouldn't take middle-class millenials like us who want to take the bus to and from a bar on Friday night to get people behind this idea. 

Don't get me wrong: I think that public transit is a good thing for everyone, not just the people for whom it is a necessity. It is a valuable service for cities to provide no matter what the reasons are that people use it. What I find unsettling is that many people don't find the fact that there are people who desperately need this service a compelling enough reason to provide it, or provide it enough. It is great that we have Embark here in Oklahoma City, and they've been making positive changes where possible. The new nighttime routes (23 and 11) are the most recent example of how Embark has expanded service based on demand. Embark, however, can only do so much on its own. The people of the city have to get behind public transit in order to urge the city to support it, too. We all know that great things happen in Oklahoma City when the citizens rally together for a cause; let's make that magic happen for public transit.

Make sure to catch our weekly segment on KOSU on Thursday mornings! Tune in tomorrow at 91.7 FM or listen online at Follow us on Twitter at @CarlessInOKC for reminders to tune in. Make sure to tweet and tell us what you think!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What Does Carlessness Really Look Like in OKC?

Click to Enlarge

We've been carless for more than a year now, and we'll be making a post reflecting on our findings soon. But we've never done a post with real information about others in the city who live without a car. Here's the bigger picture:

More than 15,000 households in the Oklahoma City area do not own a motor vehicle, the vast majority of whom have no say in the matter due to financial constraints. We've talked about the high cost of car ownership, and though we can afford to buy a car, we're part of a small minority in Oklahoma City who choose not to own a car. And we live in downtown, ZIP 73102. We live next door to the transit center, and until very recently had two car-sharing locations within a short walking distance (RIP Timecar). Without these locations we came to realize that despite not owning a car, we were still quite dependent on the car-sharing service to get around the city. Car-sharing is probably too expensive for the average carless person in the city, especially compared to the bus, so now we're back to a place where we don't have access to any motor vehicles other than the bus, taxis, and ride-sharing (Uber/Lyft). 

How did he even get here? How would it make you feel to know that your safety is such a low priority?

For the carless people that live in areas away from downtown or don't work close to home, the situation is worse than for someone in downtown. Sidewalk infrastructure is missing, there's probably no bike infrastructure, and most of the buses stop running at 7:00pm. Oklahoma City, despite the enthusiasm behind our 'Renaissance', is no closer to enabling the quality of life afforded to people with cars for those without than it ever really has been. We missed the bus back to downtown while grocery shopping the other night, and had no way of getting home other than calling Uber. Someone who doesn't have a smartphone or money wouldn't have had the same option -- what would they have done? Walked nearly 10 miles in the freezing cold after dark on roads without sidewalks in order to get home? This is not fair. It's not good enough.

If you look at the map at the top of the post you can see the ZIP codes with the highest percentage of carlessness. Unsurprisingly, 73102 (downtown) has the highest percentage at 25.1% of households. The next two ZIP codes, while technically inner-city, do not have nearly the level of convenience afforded to those living in the downtown area. ZIP codes 73117 and 73111 have 24% and 21.1% of households without access to a motor vehicle, respectively. Poverty levels in these two ZIP codes hover around 40%, so purchasing a vehicle is not an option, and therefore they are dependent on alternative forms of transportation to get around. What this leads to is a negative feedback loop with regard to both social and geographic mobility. 

Think about that number, 15,000 households without access to a vehicle. With an average household size of 2.5 people, that's nearly 40,000 people. Imagine if 2/3 of the people living in Moore didn't have access to a car, and that's what you have. We have a small city of people within Oklahoma City that are incapable of reaching the standard of living afforded to people with cars. That's more people than live in Yukon, twice as many than the population of Mustang, or half of Edmond. But, because the population of Oklahoma City is so large, it's easy to dismiss a measly 7% of the population. 

A classic example of underperforming pedestrian infrastructure. This is at 16th, Classen, and Western.
We have to find ways to improve access to transportation for this segment of the population. They are limited in their job opportunities, their access to healthy foods, their access to physical activity opportunities, civic engagement, and more. When I hear talk about commuter rail to connect Edmond and Norman to Oklahoma City, all I can think of is how the vast amount of money it would take to accomplish that would be much better spent serving the people who don't have access to transportation already, rather than spending it to try get drivers out of their cars. Right now we have 3 modes of transportation that are underperforming: pedestrian infrastructure, bicycle infrastructure, and public transit. Why would we add another mode that is likely to only serve the interests of people with access to the one mode of transportation that actually works well here? We need to stand together to say that a city that only works for people with cars is not good enough. We need to help those in need of help.