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.


  1. > rather than spending it to try get drivers out of their cars.

    I would argue that, if possible, an all of the above option would be a better approach. I've heard people ask why they should pay more in taxes just so the homeless have more bus service. Not that I agree with them, but a commuter rail option would make transit more visible in the outlying areas, and may serve as a step toward better recognition of the deficiencies of downtown transit.

    Arguing for more buses, and only more buses, is self-defeating. If we want to improve transit for all, we need well-rounded systems. Buses that run on grids, with 15 minute headways or less, and dedicated lanes in congested areas. Trains to provide longer distance service, or at least service in areas where the ridership demands it. Better bicycle infrastructure to help connect the last mile of the transit grid. And, of course, building our streets on a more pedestrian level.

    1. There's definitely no argument for "more buses, and only more buses" here. An all-of-the-above option is obviously best, but let's face it, alternative transportation is not a high priority here in OKC, so available funds need to be allocated where a real difference can be made for those who really need it. In a city where our current bus system stops running at 7:00pm and doesn't run on Sundays (save for the 2 brand-new night routes, 23 and 11, which run late on weekdays but also have a very limited service area), it doesn't make sense for a commuter rail (connecting Norman and Edmond to OKC) for people who *already have the means to get around* to be our next step in transit expansion. Especially when we also still have such big gaps in our cycling infrastructure and so many miles of sidewalk that need to be built or repaired.

  2. I strongly agree with you that we need improved transit systems and sidewalks. It's going to be a tough fight however, for a city that has a tough time maintaining its own roads and bridges.

    One thing I would nitpick is the "~40,000 carless residents" bit...I'd imagine it wouldn't *quite* be as simple as a 2.5x multiplier, simply because if a household has two adults, they may be more likely to have a car to share. It probably is close to that number, but that might not stand up if this went to a newspaper editorial, or when addressing city council.

    1. Valid point about the household size. I did associate it with American Community Survey data where the average household size was 2.5, but the number of households is a more appropriate measure, which holds up with the comparisons to other municipalities in the region.

      Thanks for the comment!