Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Jason Rothstein's book "Carless in Chicago"

By John Greenfield

Jason Rothstein’s new book, Carless in Chicago: Live and Thrive in Chicago Without Owning a Car, will be coming out this summer on Chicago’s Lake Claremont Press.

Rothstein works at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health and is closing in on his master’s degree in the field. His book is a how-to guide for improving your health, saving money and reducing stress by ditching your car if you own one, and getting the most out of Chicago if you’re already car-free.

The book will be in stores in a few weeks. In the meantime, Rothstein’s website,, which went live this week, is a great resource in itself. It includes Rothstein’s blog about car-free living, links to other green transportation blogs, agencies and organizations. There are also links to “Carless Tools” like the Chicago Bike Map, CTA Bus Tracker, RTA Goroo routefinder, and Walkscore, a site that rates the ped-friendliness of any address.

Vote With Your Feet recently met with Rothstein at Intelligentsia Coffee near Metra’s Millennium Station and asked him about how the book came to be, what it offers to both car-free newbies and black belts, and what Chicago need to do to become America’s top city for green transportation.

I think I read in some promotional materials that you used to be an “autoholic” and have since made a transition to being car-free. Can you tell me the story of how you changed from someone who drove a lot to someone who’s putting out a book on car-free transportation?

I’ve had a car since I was in college many years ago. It made sense for me to have a car then because my family was in Chicago and I was going to school in Ohio and was driving back and forth. After a while I lived and worked for a while in the Twin Cities up in Minnesota. I didn’t find the Twin Cities to be a particularly transit-friendly place to live and it certainly made a lot of sense for me to have a car there.

And I was just so used to it by the time I moved back to Chicago, about a decade ago, that it never really occurred to me to give up my car. Except that, the way Chicago is, I was already preferring mass transit, and walking when I could, and biking when I could and so-forth. And so I started thinking about what am I actually spending on my car, and what is my car costing me in other ways in terms of health and other aspects of my life.

And it actually was cost finally that drove me over the edge. It was when I was about to replace my third driver’s side mirror in less than a year because it had been smashed that I started to really think about this. But even from that point it probably took me another year to actually cut the cord. I was anxious about giving up my car. I was very worried that it would be really limiting, that I would be giving up a lot of freedom.

That was certainly one of the motivations behind writing the book. When I talked about this with other people about the possibility of giving up their car they expressed a lot of the same fears that I had had. So this book was intended in part to help them.

What were your fears?

Well, you know we have this idea in our culture that cars equal freedom and when you have a car it means you can hop in your car whenever you want, and go wherever you want and do whatever you want. It’s considered liberation on wheels, so the biggest fear is of losing that flexibility.

But when I thought about it I realized that the car was actually more of a shackle then a mechanism of freedom because it ate up money that I would rather have used for other things. It ate up anxiety in terms of leaving this big expensive hunk of metal out on the street where it could lose a driver’s-side mirror, for example. Stress from commuting, and other aspects of car ownership that are actually just not that pleasant.

What are some of the benefits you’ve experienced since you went car-free?

It’s on a couple levels. Certainly there’s a huge financial benefit, and the book does talk about that quite a bit, only because a lot of people don’t realize just how much their car costs them. A lot of the costs of cars leave our lives in these big, orderly chunks: a car payment every month; an insurance payment every six months. And so we don’t necessarily feel the sting of what that costs. It’s often a surprise to people when they really think about it and add up what they’re spending on their car.

There are other benefits as well. I wasn’t in poor health before but certainly there are health benefits to walking more, to cycling more. There are mental health benefits to stress through using mass transit. A personal benefit to me, which won’t apply to everyone but may apply to some people, is that I’ve been working part-time on a master’s degree for the last few years. Switching my commute to mass transit meant I had time to do all my reading. I don’t think I’d be finishing my masters degree today if I didn’t have that enforced two hours a day to do school work.

Can you walk us through the different sections of the book – what can people expect?

The book is really divided into two major sections. The first section is about the benefits of going carless, in terms of the financial benefits, figuring out what your car really costs you, does it make sense to go carless from that perspective. It’s about the health benefits of going carless. It also talks a little bit about our societal heath benefits of having fewer cars. That’s not a big theme in the book but I do go into that a little bit.

It talks about assembling a tool kit if you’re going to give up your car in terms of your transit passes and maps and technology. If you have a smart phone there are tools you can use to track your bus routes and things like that. There’s a little bit of a guide to navigating Chicago. Some people, particularly if they’re new to the city, don’t understand the grid system, even though it’s dead simple. So I include some helpful tips.

There’s some information about getting ready to walk more in your life, about getting ready to cycle more, how to become a first-time bike owner. And then the other section of the book covers Chicago by mass transit with the primary focus on the subway and El. And there’s a little entry for every stop on every line, talking about the surrounding neighborhood and some things of interest nearby.

One of the things I really hope is that, in addition to native Chicagoans who are already living here, I’ve talked to people who are visiting Chicago for a week and have found out they’ve never left downtown and Michigan Avenue. And it would be really gratifying to me if some of those people picked up this book and used it as a way to explore the city more thoroughly, because so much of what I love about Chicago takes place outside of downtown and the Near North. I’d like to share that with the tourists as well.

So did you actually visit every El stop in the system?

To the extent that I could. I’m from here originally and I grew up in Hyde Park. As a born and bred Chicagoan I’m quite familiar with most of the city. The scope of the project meant that I had to rely on some second-hand sources, but I did as much direct research as I could.

There’s also a section on CTA buses, how they work and the routes, and then a little bit about Metra and Pace. And there’s a section about when you do need a car. It talks about the city’s two competing car-sharing organizations, it talks about car rental and taxis and a fair amount of information about how to decide between them when only four wheels will do.

What do you hope people will get out of your book?

It depends on the audience. The people I thought about writing this book for were people who were in a position like the one I was in. You have a car, you can think abstractly about the benefits of giving up your car, but you’re not exactly sure how to go about it. Because even if you’re familiar with the transit system and familiar with other modes of transportation you may be having a hard time envisioning your life without a car and how to make that transition.

Also, I think that there are people who are carless by circumstance and maybe feel that they aren’t getting enough out of the city. These are people who don’t have a car either for financial reasons or mobility reasons or something else. Even though the book is called Carless in Chicago, there are a fair number of people who go through a life transition, they get married or have a child or something else and the question is do you need a second car? I hope that this book will help some people decide that they don’t.

And, of course as I mentioned, visitors to the city.

Can you a story about a commute or an excursion you’ve taken that involved interesting uses of different modes?

I love the water taxi. Adding it to my commute adds about 20 minutes in one direction or another but I love doing it – it’s just something I derive a tremendous amount of pleasure from so actually I take the water taxi all the time in the summer ‘cause I just love it. What I usually do is take the 147 [Outer Drive Express] bus from to the Wrigley Building and then take the water taxi to the West Loop and then grab a 38 [Ogden / Taylor] bus from there to my office at UIC.

Another example. As I describe in the book, I’m not a capital “C” cyclist but I enjoy cycling and I like to do it. I don’t have great facilities for cleaning up in the summer heat if I bike to work, so a great thing I like to do is take my bike to work on the bus and then ride home, which is kind of a perfect compromise because I get the benefits of the cycling but also can show up for that 9 am meeting without having to spend a lot of time cleaning up or worrying about what my meeting-mates think of the sweat running down my face.

What are some surprising tips that people who are already car-free might get out of your book?

There are a few things. For one thing, over the last few years the technology component has changed so much that it’s been hard for some people to keep up, in terms of the number of tools available to get schedules and check routes. That’s really changed not only how people use transit but how people make decisions about transit.

I’m often surprised by how little people know about car sharing. They think it might be too expensive or they think it would be too burdensome. They know about it but they assume it isn’t for them without necessarily understanding how it works.

The one that really surprises me is how few people know about commuter benefits, transit benefits. A lot of organizations, particularly larger companies and public employers offer employees to buy transit passes and tickets with pre-tax dollars through a paycheck deduction and it makes a huge difference in terms of what these things cost.

Jason, if you agree that Chicago has the potential to be America’s foremost city for green transportation, that is the big city that’s easiest to get around without a car by various modes, what are the challenges we need to overcome to achieve that status?

It’s a big question and I don’t have a comprehensive list. There are a few things that I would like to see happen in Chicago. We really have a lot of policies that encourage excess car ownership. Whenever we put up a new building, whenever people build new housing, the zoning laws that are such that you have to provide a whole bunch of parking. And that’s not the best policy if you’re really trying to discourage people from bringing more cars into the city.

I’m not sure if we have the political will to get into something like congestion pricing like they do in London or as they’ve considered doing in New York. But it would be nice to Chicago at least seriously look at some of those policies and how some kind of congestion pricing mechanism might reduce the number of cars on the road.

I would like to see the CTA get a little bit more creative about how it expands service. I’m not a transit planner, but I’d like to see things like bus rapid transit [a system of dedicated lanes for buses and kiosks where patrons pay before boarding,] which is relatively inexpensive to build. I’d like to see an expansion of inter-city rail also.

It would be nice if we just had a greater willingness to undertake large projects. We often talk big about transit projects and rail projects, but when it comes down to it there’s a certain lack of will about the funding and the disruptions that would happen to neighborhoods on a temporary basis to make such projects really succeed.

I’m hopeful that if Chicago gets the Olympics that might steer us in some of these directions. I’m sure if that’s going to happen or not but it would be nice if that was at least one more impetus.

And then there’s the other problem of how do we pay for all of it. And that’s a big question and I don’t have any easy answers. Certainly I’d like to see the state fix how it funds mass transit in Illinois but the state has larger funding issues to deal with right now before we can tackle this specifically.


chitownclark said...

Great to have a book for us "car-less" Chicagoans. I've been enjoying living without a car in Lincoln Park for 30 years. I can't even calculate how many hours I've saved by not sitting in traffic, but 30x$6 000 (annual cost of a car) has started adding up to real money.

Mr Rothstein seems to give short shrift to Pace and Metra. These suburban transit resources deserve at least as much attention at the Chicago Transit Authority system. For instance, I play golf all over the suburbs each week, using Pace, Metra, and my own two feet. I have a list of over 30 golf courses that can be reached by transit. A most enjoyable lifestyle only possible in Chicago with its abundant golf and transit....

Clark Maxfield

T.C. O'Rourke said...

I was beginning to have my doubts, but now I feel vindicated. Breaking off all those mirrors *does* have a positive environmental effect!!

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Anonymous said...

The 38 no longer goes to UIC, it's not the 157.

Anonymous said...

Ha! I think I went to college with him!

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