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Motorless in the Motor City: What I learned from six months in Detroit without a car

Cyclist on Grand Blvd.

New FAST bus service

Pedestrian on Gratiot Avenue

QLine streetcar on Woodward Avenue

On my bookshelf sits a collection of Detroit city poetry published in 2001 that bears the memorable title "Abandon Automobile." Note that it's "abandon," not "abandoned." That's a verb there, not an adjective. It's open to interpretation, but I have come to think of that provocative title as a call to Detroiters—not literally to give up our cars, but to begin the ambitious, long-term process of de-throning them, of imaginatively abandoning our knee-jerk psychological, economic, and physical prioritization of them.

On one hand, those are close to fightin' words in these parts, where, it could be argued, we have grown accustomed to putting the interests of cars above the interests of the actual human beings that may—or may not—drive them.

And yet, looked at from 2018, "abandon automobile" feels prescient. Think of the developments we've seen since 2001, developments that, bit by bit, help soften the Motor City's hard, unfriendly edges by encouraging people to get out of their cars and move differently, more humanely, together: hundreds of miles of bike lanes (even protected ones!), the Dequindre Cut, the Riverwalk, road diets, Open Streets Detroit, DDOT improvements, the creation of an Office of Mobility Innovation. Or take the developments in just the last year alone: MoGo, the QLine, the announcement of the I-375 conversion, SMART's new FAST busses.

For those of us who long for a more human-scale city, one in which our neighborhoods aren't chopped apart by alienating expressways, eight-lane highways and obscenely long pedestrian bridges, one in which gaping parking lots don't scar and deaden the urban landscape, these initiatives give us something more than hope. They give us the opportunity to experience, in bits and pieces, a different Detroit—a dense, connected, balanced city in which car ownership is but one viable, reliable mobility option among many.

That reality, alas, is probably a long way off. But time, as they say, waits for no man, and I had the unexpected opportunity to experience car-less life in Detroit very recently. It was not by choice that my husband and I originally joined the approximately 25 percent of Detroit households without a motor vehicle. But after two back-to-back accidents in two weeks left us suddenly without the two cars we'd grown accustomed to, we made the decision to see what would happen if we just … didn't replace them. If, instead, we made the radical choice to use the other transportation options available to us. 

For six months, that's what we did. And the experience was, well, pretty profound. I decided to share some of the story here, not because it's representative of what that 25 percent of the population here goes through every day—it isn't—but because if we're ever going to achieve that different Detroit, we need to talk, openly and honestly, about the costs we pay for our over-automotive lifestyle. We also need to talk about the different options that are out there, and about the restorative possibilities of continuing, even in small ways, to abandon automobile. 

Before I dig in, I should give you a little context about my daily life, because in stories like these, demographics matter. Some pertinent info: my husband and I are white, childless, and able-bodied. We are not well-off; neither are we destitute. We have always had cars. Most important of all for this particular conversation, we live adjacent to downtown, in Lafayette Park, and we both work in the Cass Corridor neighborhood of Midtown. (Our daily commute is fewer than three miles.) 

So when we first seriously considered the notion of going car-less, it was a little crazy, but not that crazy. We had the privilege and the predisposition to make the decision, and to make it without much pressure—the same could not be said for people who have kids, a long commute to work, or a physical disability.

I want to ride my...

While I have been a car owner since about the time I got my driver's license, the truth is that I've been biased toward my bicycle for the past five years or so. I most frequently commute to work by bike, which I ride in spring, summer, fall, and often winter too. We lost our cars in May, so the effect on my daily commute was pretty non-existent; I was already biking just about every day. 

I can't say enough good things about bike commuting in greater downtown: it's relaxing, it's peaceful, it's decent exercise. On the way to work, it wakes you up, in this beautiful, natural way; on the ride home, it winds you down. And it's cheap! Once, a month or so after I had lost my car, I had to have a little work done on my bike; when I got the $12 bill from the repair shop, I think I laughed out loud. 

It isn't always peace and love, of course. You have to watch out for potholes and broken glass. And every once in a while, some jerk on four wheels will see fit to holler, honk, or speed up around you because he believes passionately—and, for the record, inaccurately—that you should be off his street and on the sidewalk. 

MoGo rental bikes

Halfway through my motorless adventure, protected bike lanes were rolled out on Cass, with bollards to separate bicyclists from motor vehicles. I came to love them so much that I adjusted my normal route just so I could use them more. They've made Cass into a little bike highway, a place where cyclists emphatically belong.

Once, after I had biked downtown for a meeting, I got a flat tire. I was trying to figure out how I'd get back to Midtown when I spied a nearby MoGo station. (That's Detroit's new bike share program, which, funnily enough, launched the same week we lost our cars.) It was terrific: I locked up my bike, quickly and easily rented a MoGo, and was back to work in no time.

Four-wheeled alternatives

For the first couple months we didn't have a car, my husband gamely joined me in biking to and from work. But once the season shifted and the mornings started getting darker and chillier, he decided that he'd rather take a Lyft to work most days. (I can respect the decision; cold bike rides in the dark are my idea of a good time, but not everyone's.) I joined him a few times, and in general, liked the experience. Lyft drivers tend to be really friendly, and by riding with them, you're supporting the local economy, driver by driver.

But while Lyft and Uber are reliable options, they're not all that cost effective if you're on a budget. One or two rides here and there don't add up to much, but over time, on a regular basis, the cost is not insignificant. We definitely saved a lot of money when we didn't have a car, but not by the huge margin we expected, and the biggest reason for that was definitely all those Lyft rides. (But hey—he's worth it.)

The game-changing four-wheeled option for us was Maven, a new-ish car sharing company that is owned by GM. It's like ZipCar, in that it's a short-term car rental service, but with no membership fee, no refuel costs, and a really reasonable hourly rate (usually $8-10). We heard about it because of a partnership between Maven and our apartment building which guarantees that three Maven vehicles (a hatchback, a sedan, and an SUV) are regularly parked nearby and available to us. (Currently, there are also Maven cars stationed downtown, in New Center, and near Belle Isle.)

A Maven car

We really like using Maven. We've used it for a couple day trips, once or twice to go grocery shopping, and to visit family in the 'burbs. The whole thing is managed via a smartphone app that is absurdly easy to use. And if you're a car person, it's a good option because you get to test out some new cars. (We felt pretty glamorous using "our" Mavens, loaded up with all kinds of fancy features that our dear, departed 1998 Volvo and 2005 Ford Focus definitely did not have.)

Going public

But what, some of you area no doubt wondering, about the QLine? I did, in fact, take the QLine home from work a handful of times in the weeks after it first opened. It was almost practical, but the truth is, as a means of transportation, the Qline is a little silly if your points of arrival and departure aren't on or very close to Woodward Avenue. Between waiting at the stop, gliding down Woodward, and then walking back to Lafayette Park from downtown, my total QLine travel time often ended up being close to an hour. (This to go fewer than three miles.)

I actually liked the experience of riding it, since the other passengers are usually in a good mood (they're excited to be downtown on the new streetcar, after all), but ultimately, as any salty Detroiter will tell you, the QLine suffers from the same fundamental problem as the People Mover: it's a project, with deeply limited functionality—not a system, which we need so badly.

You know what is a system? The Detroit Department of Transportation, aka DDOT. I will admit, and not proudly, that when I stepped onto a DDOT bus on a cold day in October, it was my first time doing so in the 11 years that I have lived in Detroit. This is such a problem, for so many reasons. 

Waiting for the bus at the downtown terminal

But board that DDOT bus I did, and I'll tell you something: it changed my life. I love DDOT. I love riding the bus. My route is the 80, a magical route called "Villages Direct" that picks me up a stone's throw from my apartment, jumps onto the expressway (I didn't even know buses did that!) and deposits me two blocks from work. The whole ride takes all of 12 minutes.

I've started reading magazines. Listening to podcasts. I've seen my corner of the city from a whole new point of view. I've gotten closer with one of my neighbors, a woman from Germany whom I've run into at the bus stop three times now and who said to me once, with such passion, "I want a public life in Detroit!" I do too, damn it, and DDOT is a great way to have it.

I think that when you were born and raised in the suburbs, as I was, you come out with this idea that the people who ride DDOT are mostly drunk or on drugs and out to get you. OK, maybe if you don't think that, then you feel it, on some level. But guess what? They're just other people riding the bus. The idea that they're anything else, of course, is fundamentally racist and deeply classist—and points to some of our region's most monstrous flaws, including a pair of absurd and damaging un-truths that we've somehow come to believe here: that busses are for the poor, and the poor are bad.

Longtime DDOT users will tell you that the system has undergone significant improvements in the last couple of years, and I don't doubt it (the new busses are beautiful), but I would be lying if I painted a picture of a flawless system. About 80 percent of the time, my bus was right on time or a minute or two late. 15 percent, it's more like 10 minutes late. That last 5 percent? Well, let me tell you about how cold my toes got a few weeks ago when it just never showed up. 

Is this acceptable? Not really. The 25 percent of Detroiters without a car deserve better. And yet I ride anyway, and I would encourage others to do so too, because when it's good, it's great; because in Detroit, we do what we have to and hope for better things; and because, let's face it, no transportation option is without its costs. (Is waiting for a late bus worse than driving in rush hour? I'd say it's better.) 

DDOT bus rides cost $1.50, and you can easily plan your route using Google Maps or the smartphone app Transit. Nervous about your first ride? That's normal. Transportation Riders United, a local advocacy group, has you covered with this handy how-to.

Ways to get from here to there

Going from having a car to not having one, the biggest change is a necessary reduction of your everyday footprint. We spent, for instance, considerably less time in the suburbs during that six month period. (When every car trip has an acute cost associated with it, you choose your social commitments very carefully.)

When we had out-of-town guests, we mostly went to places we could get to by foot. We did most of our grocery shopping in Eastern Market or our neighborhood grocery store (and learned, incidentally, that one or two small shopping trips a week actually suit our needs better than going to Meijer once a month and loading up our cart like we're a suburban family—a weird, wasteful habit we didn't even realize we had.) 

In the end, we liked that smaller footprint. We even came to like having reduced options. We spent more time together, in our apartment and in our neighborhood. We felt more like part of a community, less cooped up, alone, in our little mode of personal conveyance. When we rented a Maven and ventured out, it felt special, like we were taking a trip. It sounds silly to say, but we felt more urban, which, after all, is how we want to feel; that's why we live in a big city.

But this big city is still, for better or worse, Car City, and with winter coming on full force, we at last decided that it was time to re-join the ranks of the automotive class. Yes, we got a car. But, significantly, just the one. That, we figured out, is more than we need. 

What was really surprising to us, near the end of our motorless interlude, was the realization that we didn't have to get a car to survive the winter. We knew that, given our footprint, our good fortune, and all that we had learned, we could continue to make it work, as so many do here. In the end, not without some reluctance, we chose to have the extra convenience, knowing that our costs would go up. That, once again, we'd have to deal with gas stations and oil changes and flat tires, with costly surprise repairs and the country's highest car insurance rates

But we also made the decision knowing that we'd been changed by our experience. We'd gained some things, in our loss. Our habits are different. We drive less now. We still tend to opt for small, neighborhood grocery shopping trips. I still take the bus to work three or four times a week, and come spring, I'm looking forward to resuming those peaceful morning bike rides together.

Small steps, sure—but, I think, in the right direction.

All photos by the author. 

Read more articles by Matthew Piper.

Matthew Piper is a writer and photographer covering art, architecture, and sustainable development in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @matthewsaurus and on Instagram @matthewjpiper. Find more of his work at matthewjpiper.com.
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