Carless in Seattle: How it feels to ditch it and get there other ways
The proliferation of options to the automobile begs us to ask: How easy — and expensive — is it to be carless in Seattle these days?
John Lok / The Seattle Times
Special to The Seattle Times
“WARNING! PLEASE adapt your driving style!”
When you see those words, you might be mid-lurch in a car2go smart car, oscillating between over-braking and over-accelerating, and altogether undistressed over the duress on the transmission.
Because it’s not your car.
That’s one of the peculiar side effects of car-sharing services like car2go, the name for those wondrously small, blue-and-white capsules on wheels. While car2go pitches its program as environmentally friendly, you have the perverse incentive to zig and zag as fast as you like through the cambered streets of Seattle. Breeze through a yellow, ford a puddle, overtake a plodding driver, all in the race against time.
You pay for the minutes you use, so use them maniacally. Once you’ve parked and locked the keys inside, you walk away relieved of any responsibility.
Car2go is just one in an influx of new transportation services available to people who need to get from here to there. The proliferation of options begs us to ask: How easy — and expensive — is it to be carless in Seattle these days?
We decided to test some theories with a little race.
In the twilight of a clear, cold day, seven of us met in Ballard, each assigned a method of transportation: the usual suspects of car, bus, bike and taxi, plus car2go and the ride services Lyft and uberX.
The plan: Each racer would maneuver through rush-hour traffic to a destination I wouldn’t reveal until the start, one that would require navigating Seattle’s defining obstacles — bridges, hills and frustratingly few east-west corridors — to test how these transportation options did against one another. The rules: Don’t be reckless and don’t cheat.
As the light dimmed and the cold set in, I revealed our destination: a Capitol Hill bar on 15th Avenue, about 5 miles as the crow flies from our Ballard starting point. The clock would stop when each contestant entered the bar, the chill would retreat with a pint and some pizza.
As we set out, the biker was shivery, the first-time Lyft rider uncertain, the taxi taker cocksure after having seen two empty cabs roll by earlier. The bus rider was resigned to his role as the tortoise, without expectation that he’d beat the hares in private vehicles. I hoped to lead the pack in my geriatric Subaru.
The race was on.
John Lok / The Seattle Times
WHAT WE HEARD FROM YOU
We asked you to tell us about your transportation habits — what works for you and what doesn’t. Three hundred of you answered our survey. Here are some of the themes we saw repeated in many of your answers:
• The majority of you identified as being multimodal, using cars, public transportation, bikes, ferries, cab and other ride services, often in conjunction with one another.
• You walk! We (duh!) didn’t include walking as a transportation mode, yet many of you added it as a write-in option. Walk Score ranked Seattle as the eighth most walkable city in the U.S. (Bellevue didn’t do as well).
• Many car owners already use them sparingly, and for specific uses: visiting family, getting out of town, hauling a big load from Costco or Home Depot.
• Kids change the equation. Parents, sans kids, will bike or bus, but switch to cars when children are along for the ride.
• Not surprisingly, many of you in the suburbs have no option but to drive. Public transportation takes too long and is too clunky with transfers, and ride services would be prohibitively expensive or are unavailable.
• We didn’t have any carpoolers in our group. If you’re a carpooler, we’d love to hear from you. Email email@example.com.
A MUCH MORE important race began more than half a century earlier, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower, pushing to connect the country with a network of superhighways, signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, guaranteeing 90 percent of freeway funding in federal aid.
Joining the queue of eager states, Washington got federal approval for a Tacoma-Seattle-Everett interstate highway that would bisect the city of Seattle, razing a wide swath of homes and businesses and demolishing much of the Republican Hill Climb, a stately pedestrian stairway that connected the Eastlake and Capitol Hill neighborhoods. Except for a vocal group of people who lived on First Hill just east of downtown, most Seattleites seemed untroubled by the idea of a freeway splitting the city in half.
In 1965, the grand opening of Interstate 5 from Everett to Seattle was celebrated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Northeast 145th Street, which HistoryLink.org reports was also the scene of the highway’s first car accident that same afternoon. (A “lady driver” was involved.) Four years later, I-5 connected Canada to Oregon.
Thus began the multi-vehicle era, as car ownership became more convenient, more fun and more ingrained in the culture. In 1960, only 2.5 percent of households nationwide owned three or more vehicles; by 1970, 5.5 percent of households did.
Fast forward to present day: Nearly 20 percent of households in King County own three or more vehicles, according to U.S. Census estimates.
But, the mystique of car ownership is losing its spell on baby boomers, who are driving less as they get older; on millennials, who have eschewed getting their driver’s licenses; and on city-dwellers, who are a smartphone tap away from a car rental or cab reservation.
While taxi cabs and car shares have visible fares, the cost of car ownership is opaque by fragmentation: a gasoline bill here, an insurance bill there, a cracked windshield last year. But added up, a car is astonishingly expensive.
AAA tallies the average cost of owning and operating a new sedan at $8,876 a year. And SUVs? A whopping $11,039 per year. Those weighty price tags factor in routine maintenance, tires, fuel, insurance, interest payments and depreciation based on driving 15,000 miles a year for five years.
Using AAA’s sedan estimates, that’s about $25 every day — before parking. (To preserve our dignity and that of our readers, we won’t mention parking infractions or driving citations.)
Add perhaps one of the most understated — and least understood — costs of commuting: the minutes, or hours, we spend fuming in gridlock. Nearly 1 in 6 King County workers spends 45 minutes or more commuting to work one way; that drops to 1 in 8 in Seattle.
But, let’s stop and acknowledge an economic truth: Longer commutes aren’t often by choice. The real-estate-agent proverb of “drive until you qualify” is what sends sticker-stricken homebuyers to the suburbs, where commutes are justified by more affordable houses.
Just remember, for life in the ’burbs, you’ll likely want to factor in the cost of a car. Better make that three.
John Lok / The Seattle Times
John Lok / The Seattle Times
AS IT BECOMES easier to go car-free in cities, urbanites have sped to the growing fleet of alternatives: light rail, the RapidRide bus, Uber’s luxury black cars.
Some changes have elicited squawking. The arrival of ride-service companies pitted the traditional taxi industry against the app-savvy newcomers — uberX, Lyft and Sidecar — who drive passengers in their private vehicles without the expense and safety of city regulation.
For those unwilling to give up the freedom of driving, a Zipcar or car2go membership will make you a part-time car owner, with part-time access, as I soon found out.
“Thank you for calling car2go. Please continue to hold for the next available agent.”
Those are words you never want to hear in an emergency.
In those frightening moments, a car is arguably one of the best insurance policies you can hold — a guarantee of mobility, which, when en route to urgent care or elderly parents, can be synonymous with sanity.
At this moment, on hold with car2go, I should confess it was no emergency: I had forgotten my pin number, got booted out of the system, and was now gloomily standing in the rain, looking into the car I had just exited and noticing that my umbrella had magnificently puddled the passenger seat. I was also terrified someone else would come and whisk away “my” car2go.
Seattle has the fastest-growing population of car2go users in the U.S. Since its launch here in late 2012, car2go has grown its smart-car fleet to 500, expanded its geographic footprint from Haller Lake to Beacon Hill and registered more than 43,000 Seattle members.
The demand for car2go
Screenshots of the South Lake Union, Belltown and downtown neighborhoods in the car2go app. At left is just before 2 p.m. on May 2; at right is after 5 p.m. the same day.
For those unfamiliar with how car2go works, a quick primer: Members must pay a nominal one-time fee and pass a driving-record check, after which they can rent any available car2go for a one-way trip. Check the app on your smartphone to find the nearest car and you’re off. With Seattle rates, a 15-minute trip costs about $7, which includes 17 percent in taxes; an hour is capped at $15 plus tax.
Drivers can park car2gos for free on most city streets without regard to posted time limits or payment. But, longer rentals or drives to the suburbs can siphon your savings faster than a gas-guzzling Hummer.
The crux of using car2go is finding an available vehicle. The irregular flows of one-way commuters can cause a crush of cars in one neighborhood, leaving another neighborhood barren. Cars can be reserved 30 minutes in advance but, at peak hours, every other experienced user is trying to do the same.
(By comparison, Zipcar allows reservations further in advance, but a car must be returned to its designated parking lot, requiring a round trip.)
An early riser, I thought I’d be able to work the car2go system to my advantage. I expected to find car2go users who’d routinely park in the same spot every evening, from where I could poach their vehicles in the morning. But, invariably, I was foiled. The number of vehicles in my neighborhood never fit a pattern that I could game. When I moved vehicles closer to me late at night, they would be gone by sunrise — a testament to car2go’s runaway popularity.
John Lok / The Seattle Times
DEMOGRAPHICS AND technology are aligning for change.
Smartphones upended the taxicab industry, as it became easier to ping a new cab service than to stand in the street, waving and whistling.
Apps like OneBusAway have made bus travel more predictable. King County Metro Transit alone served about 24 million more trips in 2013 than it did in 2003.
Biking, too, is on a healthy rise, though not all of us have the stamina for hills, rain and traffic — much less the ability to pawn off kid pickup or grocery shopping on someone else.
Meanwhile, for car owners, curbside parking on busy streets remains an exercise in blind faith that a spot will open up. The costly alternative is to pay up for a parking lot or garage. After decades as the only horse in the race, the car is seeing competition.
Still, it’s challenging to think that taking a taxicab to the grocery store could be less expensive than driving one’s own car.
But let’s work out the math, this time with a used vehicle. Using Seattle’s car du jour, a 2008 Subaru Outback, would cost more than $35,000 over the next five years, according to the website Edmunds.com.
That works out to nearly $20 a day, the cost of about five miles in a Seattle-area taxi or just a little more than the hourly maximum in a car2go. A monthly bus pass, at Metro’s peak rate from the suburbs, costs $108, about one-fifth the price of our all-wheel-drive darling.
For many of us, the convenience of one car might well be worth it, but it’s never been easier to weigh your options. With a few taps on a smartphone, you can compare the fare of an Uber, the availability of a car2go and the proximity of a bus. See nothing that fits your needs? Then rev up that station wagon in the driveway.
How the racers compare
Seven competitors raced from Ballard to Capitol Hill using different modes of transportation during rush hour. See how their rides compared in time and cost. Hover over the transportation type for more information about the trip.
Graphic by Garland Potts / The Seattle Times Source: AAA's Your Driving Costs
AND THE WINNER is . . .
It’s trickier than you’d think to determine the winner of our little race. The easy pick is whoever gets there first. The second option is whoever gets there cheapest.
But the more accurate calculation would consider time, cost and distress — some combination of how long the wait, how assured the ride, how affected by weather, how much money or effort is required for the return trip.
By time alone, the winner was the uberX rider, who beat the second-fastest racer by 10 minutes.
By cost, the biker sailed in with high spirits after a cloudless ride, but came in third by time.
The car2go driver lucked out in Ballard with a nearby vehicle and beat the cyclist at the finish line only by running ahead while the biker locked up her wheels.
I had to hoof it to my car in a parking lot some blocks away, then find street parking on Capitol Hill for a middling finish time on the heels of the Lyft rider.
The bus rider predictably came in last by time, but enjoyed a pleasant hour of reading.
The sad loser this time around was the taxi rider, who called three cab companies and waited nearly 30 minutes before he could snare a taxi, then paid as much as the other ride services. But, in all fairness to the beleaguered taxi industry, they abide by rules that their competition hasn’t had to follow. At the time of our race, taxi licenses in Seattle were limited to 688, while Lyft, uberX and Sidecar have said they each contract with 900 or more drivers.
Post-race, as the evening grew late and the bill was settled, the biker headed off while the rest, those of us beyond walking distance, piled into the personal car to be dropped off along the way.
Because, despite evidence to the contrary, the car still feels free.
Katrina Barlow is a Seattle Times news producer. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.