Carless in Cambridge: Bike & Car Sharing and the Future of Traffic

Nine weeks ago, I lost my fancy hybrid street/trail bike to one of San Francisco’s plentiful bicycle thieves. Seven weeks ago, in preparation for a big move east, I sold my car. Now I’m settling into a new apartment in Cambridge, MA, and for the first time in my adult life, I don’t own a set of wheels.

It’s a strange feeling—both disorienting, since it takes a little longer to figure out how to go places, and liberating, since I no longer need to pay for gas or worry about where to park my car or lock my bike. At the moment, I have no plans to buy a new car, and I’m not even sure if I’ll get a new bike. Thanks to the Boston area’s extensive public transportation system and its dense vehicle-sharing network, I don’t really need them.

If I want to go a short distance and the weather is cooperating, I can grab a Hubway bike. If I need to go all the way across town or it’s wet out, I can take an MBTA train or bus, rent a Zipcar, find someone on Ridejoy who’s going my way, or call Uber or Lyft or even a regular old taxi.

In Boston and other metropolises, growing numbers of urbanites have the same expanding list of options. It seems inevitable that the big cities of the mid-21st century—the ones that aren’t underwater, anyway—will have fewer cars spewing less carbon dioxide. It’s exciting to live in one of the places where this future is being modeled and tested.

Here’s a little glimpse into the life of a bike- and car-sharing convert. Last week, I had to pick up a package at a FedEx facility in an industrial section of South Boston. I grabbed a bike from the Hubway station one block from my apartment. Using the bicycle lanes along Boston’s Greenway to zoom past the gridlock, I reached a branch library in South Boston, where there’s another Hubway station, in just 28 minutes. (On Hubway, knowing where you’re going to dock your bike at the end of a trip is key. For $85 per year—or just $25 in my case, thanks to a subsidy from my employer—Hubway members get unlimited use of the bikes, but extra charges pile up for trips over 30 minutes.)

From the library it was a short walk to FedEx, then another short walk to a Hubway station on Drydock Avenue in Boston’s seaport “Innovation District.” Another 23 minutes of biking took me to the Bunker Hill Mall shopping center in Charlestown, where I stopped at Whole Foods to stock up on dinner provisions. One more quick jaunt from Charlestown back to Cambridge over the Prison Point Bridge and I was home.

What makes a system like Hubway, San Francisco’s Bay Area Bike Share, or New York’s Citi Bike a nice alternative to owning a bike, in my mind, is the ability to dock your bike and forget about it. When you need to go somewhere, another bike will be there. The eternal war between bike owners and bike thieves is moot.

A couple of days later, I wanted to go to Ikea in Stoughton, MA, about 22 miles south of Cambridge, to pick up some patio furniture for my new place. There’s a Zipcar lot just a 10-minute walk from my building, so I fired up the Zipcar app on my iPhone, reserved a Ford Escape, and got down to Ikea and back in just three hours. Rental fee: $32.

Yes, I confess to being a spoiled, smartphone-toting urbanite who shops at Ikea and Whole Foods. I’m even lucky enough to have three equally convenient options for commuting to work: a 25-minute walk, a 15-minute Hubway ride, or a 10-minute shuttle bus ride. My point is that with accelerating re-urbanization—the undoing of the automobile-enabled sprawl that caused so much social and environmental damage in the 20th century—there will be more and more people like me who find that owning a car isn’t the necessity it once was.

Why deal with car payments, insurance, maintenance, and fuel costs when you can leave all of that to Zipcar (now a division of Avis) or one of its competitors, like Daimler’s Car2go, BMW’s DriveNow, or the San Francisco non-profit City CarShare? When you buy your own car, you’re paying for all the time when the vehicle is sitting idle in a garage or parking spot. With car sharing, you only pay for what you use. The American Automobile Association estimates that the average cost of owning a car in the U.S. is … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • Billiam

    Get a bike. The MTBA (as you will learn) is not good option. Hubway closes up during the winter. When the weather is the worst (or even just bad) Boston traffic grinds to a halt (the first snowfall of the year is always the worst – triple/quadruple/or worse the commute time. For short trips in bad weather, a bike will get it done faster, easier and be less stressful. If you get a bike, watch out for MBTA bus drivers – they are the biggest threat to cyclists (there is a reason that they kill a good % of all cyclists killed – and it is not road time – cabbies kill far fewer).

  • http://www.m-ecosystem.com Mark Lowenstein

    Wade- Great piece. I had two bikes stolen this summer in Boston. One at the Back Bay commuter rail station. My mistake: not using a U-Lock.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Sorry to hear that, Mark. My mistake was locking my bike to a pole that (I realized too late) had nothing attached at the top, like a street sign or something. It was a very tall pole, but somehow the thief was able to lift the bike over the top of it. This occurred in broad daylight on Third Street in San Francisco, right outside the lobby of the St. Regis Hotel.

  • @cmirabile

    Wade: you buried the headline here, which is that WWWade is returning to Boston. Welcome back!

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Thanks Christopher! It’s great to be back.

  • testcase6

    When cars hit bikes, the result is very bad for the cyclist. This has to do with the physics of the situation: cars are faster and weigh more. Why would anyone ever ride a bike in Boston? Are you willing to give up your personal health and maybe your life for the “green” movement? Anyway, I wonder how cities are not liable for the increase in accidents given that they have painted all the new bike lanes which don’t offer any additional safety to cyclists. Doesn’t the law say cyclists have a legal right to use the full lane? I have a lot of questions. Wade: I hope will will pursue these issues in future discussions.

    • pipetodevnull

      I believe that most of your questions can be answered in one word: infrastructure. Different modes of transportation require different considerations (and yes, sometimes they compete), but the US could certainly do a much better job. There is cause for hope and motivation for investment.
      I don’t know why you put green in quotes. Don’t we all depend on the health and sustainability of our shared environment? And “give up your life”? Seems extraordinarily dire. Riding a bike burns fat and saves money. Driving a car burns money and makes fat.

    • dave

      This is common sentiment, and it comes up often.

      The same could be said about cars hitting pedestrians, should we remove walking from our cities and go entirely to a car-based infrastructure? Would every single pedestrian, cyclist, and public transit rider in a car actually make anything better for anyone?

      Let’s look at it another way. in a Car v Cyclist or Car v Pedestrian issue or even Car v Car road rage, Cars (the people in them) are the one inflicting the damage to humans and to property. Shouldn’t we be doing something about the cars? Is your convenience worth the danger to the greater public? A school yard bully is running around hitting smaller children, do we tell the smaller children they shouldn’t be in the way because the bully is bigger? Because that’s what’s happening here.

      Of course it’s unrealistic for cars to go away completely, nor is anyone saying that, and sure environment and health play a factor but this isn’t necessarily about being “green”. All these transportation alternatives and this article and people advocate for improve the city for people that just want to get from point a to point b with the least hassle (and maybe save a few bucks along the way). Next time you’re in traffic in an urban center, do you really want more cars in your way? Maybe me going a mile down the road to get a coffee I don’t need to drive, maybe to get to NYC, I’ll take the Train instead, in those situations driving is getting in the way of my convenience. But when I’m visiting my parents in the suburbs for Thanksgiving, I’m definitely driving.

      But you’re asking specifically about bikes and safety and I may have wandered a bit. Here’s the rub, bicycles are statistically safer than cars, in Boston and anywhere else. the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that in 2011 “pedalcycles” accounted for 2% of traffic fatalities in the US. Since launching a bike share in NYC, Citibike has logged over 23 Million trips, 0 fatalities. In fact, since the launch of the first bike share in the US in 2007 in Tulsa, OK to today, with 35 bike share programs operating in the country, there have been 0 fatalities. In contrast, between 2007 and 2012 there have been over 211 Thousand motor vehicle deaths. Your perception is not in line with reality. Your perception actually speaks more to your own confidence in your ability to navigate traffic on a bike projected on to the general public, which advocates understand. Painted bike lanes are a first step, physically separated and protected bike lanes are the next, maybe then we’ll see you on a bike for that 1mi trip to the coffee shop. But for now, we need to use what we’ve got.

      In the end, everything is potentially dangerous: you can choke on a hotdog at a baseball game, you can sprain your ankle playing soccer. I would say, going to the beach is a more deadly activity due to a risks of: water-born bacteria, animal attacks, lightening strikes, skin cancer, etc… but somehow we deem it safe enough for millions of people to go every year. Yet, a method of transportation with a 2% fatality rate relative to other forms of transportation is too dangerous?

  • Benjamin Williams

    My husband and I found that day trips are quite manageable using the commuter rail system and Amtrak, which together service a huge portion of the region. Porter Square or North Station are both super accessible from Cambridge.

  • http://www.dailygrommet.com Jules Pieri

    Wade, I’m going through a similar honeymoon phase (which I hope lasts) with the transport options from my new apartment. I decided to go carless for a three day weekend just to see if the same options you mention would work for me. Hubway really won out and I immediately bought an annual membership. I am really enamored with the service…which was of little relevance to me when I lived in the suburbs. I should have taken the time to learn the system just for my workdays, but I did not. It’s when handling a commute is an option that it becomes really special.

    BUT…I agree with Christopher…the real “lead’ of this story is your return to Boston! I am so glad you are back.

    • http://www.xconomy.com/san-francisco Wade Roush

      Thanks Jules! I am really glad to be back. And I’m glad you like Hubway as much as I do. You should bike over to my place soon!