Car-Free in Hartford

By , December 4, 2009 2:00 pm

I have consistently heard that people need cars in Hartford. The lack of grocery stores in downtown is one reason cited for this claim. The lack of public transportation is also evidenced. Recently, in discussions about the Plan of Conservation and Development, this car “need” as been brought up as reason for why young urban professionals are hesitant to move downtown or come into the city for entertainment.

I live in one of Hartford’s neighborhoods. By someone’s definition, I am a young professional, though I despise that term. I do not have children. I am able-bodied, though have never been the type of person to “exercise.”

Since early October, I have been without a car. I have not starved to death, nor have I taken to wandering the streets naked (you’re welcome!).

Here is an explanation for how I have been able to meet my various needs and wants while living in Hartford without a car.

1. Food

Despite what anyone might tell you, there is food within city limits. By walking two minutes from home, I can get to a deli, chicken joint, tavern, and chain pub. There is also a gas station convenience store. Being a vegetarian, the chicken place does me no good, but I mention it because it is there. A five minute walk would bring me to two bodegas and a C-Town. It’s not top-of-the-line dining, but if I am being lazy or not feeling well, I can still, fairly effortlessly, get something to eat. Walking for ten minutes will get me to two Subways, a pizza hut, two more chicken restaurants, two more gas station convenience stores, a Burger King, Ichiban, Tisane, Monte Alban, an Ethiopian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, the Half Door, and Braza. That’s if I head North and West. If I head South, there are dozens of places along Park Street, like O’Porto, Lena’s, and Barca.

It is too expensive to dine out all the time, so sometimes I force myself to choke down my own culinary creations. This requires buying unprocessed food. For about a third of the year, there is a farmers’ market operating within the ten-minute walk zone. There are others a little further away that I pass:  the Farmers’ Market at Billings Forge operates year-round now. Last week I dropped in to see what they were selling at the Studio on Broad Street. It was right before Thanksgiving. There were pies, potatoes, breads, muffins, cheeses, other types of produce, and even soap. The regional market runs year round, though it is less convenient for me to get to by foot or bike.

Within four miles of home there is a Stop & Shop (actually, there are two), Shaws, Whole Foods and Whole Foods Market, Waldbaums, Crown Supermarket, C-Town (five minute walk), and a Save-a-Lot. The Trader Joe’s is within the five mile range. Each of those markets is on a bus line. Since I am shopping for just me, it’s easy to fit more than a week’s worth of groceries on my bike. Actually, I’m buying for three. Sometimes I need to also get cat food and litter.

There are also times when a friend who is going about his errands will ask me if I need him to pick up anything. Why don’t more people do this? I do not con him into doing all of my grocery shopping for me (that’s just asking for years of bad karma), but there is not much inconvenience involved when asking for some juice or garlic from someone who would be passing by my place on the way back from the store.

At any rate, I have had no trouble feeding myself.

2. Clothing

This excuse for keeping a car kind of amazes me. How much clothing does one person need? I’m sure that anyone who helps me move will be asking that same question. But seriously, if someone (again, I’m referring to the single adult who is probably finished experiencing growth spurts) “needs” to buy clothing more than twice a year, she might need to reevaluate her priorities. It does not seem valued anymore for people to plan ahead. My sense of time is based on the college school year. Generally, if I am thinking of clothes shopping, it is timed with the beginning of the Fall and Spring semesters. Or, for others, it would make sense to shop seasonally. Even for shopaholics who thrive on the retail experience, it is not exactly an arduous journey to get to most shopping centers in North central Connecticut. True fashionistas, by the way, know that the thing to do would be to walk or bike to Union Station and hop on a train or bus to New York City.

Within five miles of home there is a major shopping mall, as well as numerous strip malls, a Salvation Army thrift store, Blue Back Square, West Hartford Center, and numerous shops within Hartford.

One of the benefits of taking the bus, riding a bike, or walking, is that the amount of stuff that can be schlepped is somewhat limited. This means that I spend more time thinking about every purchase. Since not being able to just lug everything in a car, I have nearly eliminated junk food from my purchases at grocery stores. I feel less tempted to pick up an extra pair of shoes while out.

But let’s just say that there is a cold snap and I can not bear to bundle up to get to West Farms. Then what? Well, there is this magical series of tubes that enables shopaholics to engage in their addiction without ever leaving home. The lack of car has not hindered my access to Etsy, Amazon, or any number of other online shopping sites.

3. Work

Although some of the work I do can be done at home, I need to be present most of the time. I have been doing online tutoring for the past few years on the weekend. Two days of the week I can sit in my pajamas while working.  Monday through Friday I do work that requires face-to-face interaction. Though I have the ability to occasionally set up work-from-home days on MWF, I avoid overdoing that.

Both of my workplaces are 2.5 miles from home. In one direction, the terrain is fairly level and the traffic speed is reduced. There is an indoor bike rack at that job, which is located in a corner of the lobby which would otherwise be “dead space.” It’s near security. When I drove, I had to walk for two-to-three blocks from the parking lot. My other job is uphill, which was an obstacle to me at first. The easy commute was one I walked often before I had no car. This uphill one, not so much. Because one of the streets in this section of town is faster and lacks a bike lane, I use the sidewalk (which almost never has pedestrians on it) for that stretch, which is also the uphill. One day, when I am stronger and faster, I hope to ride out on the street. When I arrive at the job, I can bring the bike right into my office if I want to, but I usually lock it right outside the building. Because it’s quite easily the most beat up bicycle on campus, I am not terribly concerned about its safety.

I do not change or shower when I get to work. Why? Because I am not that kind of cyclist. I do not deck myself out in spandex because I am not racing. I’m a dawdler in most things that I do. My alarm is set early so that I can move at my own pace in the morning. I leave my house much earlier than necessary so that I am not forcing myself to move at breakneck speeds to get to work on time. There is an extra stick of deodorant in my office just in case I happen to break a sweat. I am fortunate to have the type of professional job that does not require me to wear a costume to work. I can wear jeans. I can wear skirts or slacks. Although I have not done this yet, if I had to wear something fancy that I was worried would get messed up during commute, I would just change when I got to my destination. It’s really not that big of a deal, and anyway, it’s not like I’m wasting time at the gas pump or sitting in traffic.

4. Social Life/ Night Life

Before anyone asks, my mother knows about this, and even she is not concerned about my safety. She would be the first to panic.

I have ridden my bike, in Hartford, at 2:30 in the morning.

I had to.

Every other week I have a commitment to host a radio show on WWUH. This show happens to be from 0300 to 0600. The bus does not run at that time and I can not justify paying a taxi to take me somewhere when I can get my own self there. The first night that I biked out around 2 in the morning, I was a little nervous. If I got jumped, then plenty of people would be ready to make “I told you so” type comments. What I have been banking on is the knowledge that too many people in our society are fast food-and-passive entertainment-dependent. I psych myself up with the belief that I can probably outrun or out-bike people who live off of Mickey D’s and Cheetos.

Hartford is quiet in the middle of the night. There are a few cars. The ratio of police-to-civilians-outside is much higher than during the daytime.

Beyond this commitment, I like to enjoy arts in the city. I like to hang out with friends. Not wanting to burden folks, I rarely ask for a ride somewhere. The beauty of Hartford’s size, though, is that if I am exhausted, sore, or if there’s a torrential rain storm, it’s generally not asking too much to beg a ride home from someone heading in that direction.

Here are some of the places that I have biked to for socializing/arts/entertainment: Real Art Ways, Wadsworth Atheneum, Red Rock Tavern, and the library. Three of the four mentioned have bike racks, and nobody at the Red Rock has ever complained about bikes being locked to the fence out front.  Last night, for instance, I biked to the first Thursday cocktail event at the Wadsworth Atheneum. The Wadsworth has decent sized lockers inside, which is helpful for storing bike helmets and other assorted items one does not feel like carrying around while balancing a beverage and snacks. I wore a dress with sandals to this. There were no worries about where I might find parking. If the rack at the Wadsworth happened to be filled (it wasn’t), I could try the rack at neighboring City Hall, or the one at the library, which is on the other side of City Hall. Didn’t have to worry myself over whether or not I could park in a certain spot because it was a Thursday or after a certain time, or whether or not I’d have to pay to park. Not so complicated.

5. Out-of-town Travel

Sometimes I have to leave Hartford.

A friend who I had not seen in years and recently reconnected with was having a party in October. Since I did not want to flake out on her after all the efforts to get in touch again, I made it a priority to travel to Windsor to see her. Though sporadic since it was a Saturday,  I was able to get bus service from downtown Hartford to the end of her street!

The most inconvenience that I have had so far was Thanksgiving. Normally, I am able to take an Express bus from Hartford to the town neighboring where my parents live. From there it’s about a mile and a half that I can walk, or, like any good daughter would, insist they come pick me up. Technically, I could put my bicycle on the bus, but my parents are a mile up a steep hill that’s windy and somewhat narrow. It would not end well. In theory, though, this is all fairly simple to manage. I can walk a mile and a half like nothing now. But Thanksgiving, the day when it is basically mandatory for children to visit their parents, there was no express bus service. I can not bike this distance yet (it’s 18 by highway, and I have no idea how long it’d be by bike route and back roads). This was the one time since early October that borrowing a car was basically necessary. Admittedly, there was another alternative, but I was not okay with it. I could have taken the express bus the day before, slept over, and then returned on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Some people are cool with this alternative, but it would have probably meant sleeping on one of my parents’ couches and waking up being licked to death by a Pug and a Chihuahua mix. I’m a cat person.

Perhaps next Thanksgiving, I can exercise yet another option: Zipcar. At this money-saving phase, Zipcar is too expensive for me, but I could envision using it at some point in the future. If it’s just a rental to get over to my parents’ house, then it does not make sense, but if I were to combine this with errands like picking up large purchases from IKEA, doing holiday shopping in Northampton, or visiting all sorts of random peeps, then it’s not so bad. Still, another thing that I have noticed about living in a city (versus in suburban or rural areas) is that people are far more willing to share their vehicles. Growing up in a rural area, the only people who ever borrowed cars were teenagers from their parents. Now, it’s not uncommon for me to see neighbors and friends sharing.

Other Observations

That we have viable alternative transportation options is so far out of the consciousness of many people who can readily afford private motorized transportation. I will be the first to admit that while I could abstractly conceive of Hartford as a walkable or bikeable city, it was not until my own private transportation required extensive repairs (to ready it for sale) that I forced myself to see if this was true or not.

It has been a strange experience.

People either react with pity or with admiration when they learn that I have biked myself somewhere. I am not sure that either response is really appropriate. It’s not like I biked to work with my handlebars on fire. Once, I jokingly mentioned to my students that they should limit their essays to the specified page maximum because I had to haul these home on my bike. If anyone has ever wondered how to impress college students, it’s this. Not a one can claim that I am not dedicated. After all, I had to put forth a little physical effort to get into the classroom to teach them.

I have also noticed that I have built up strength and endurance much more quickly than anticipated. There’s still a long way for me to go in this department, but for someone whose exercise since college has been limited to sporadic beginner yoga classes and ambling a few blocks here and there, I am impressed with myself. There are leg and arm muscles where once there was just jiggle. I no longer feel like vomiting after biking up the hill on Albany Avenue. My energy level has increased. When I get to work after riding, I feel more alert than I did when driving. There’s less dependence on caffeine.

When I drove, I had a lot of anxiety about it. Car accidents claim a lot of lives every year. People drive too fast for conditions, weave and pass on the right, and have road rage. Although in some respects, I am much more vulnerable when biking alongside motorized vehicles, I also have more easy bailout options. It’s not ideal, but I can hop up onto the sidewalk or lawn if I have to dodge something. Chances are pretty good that by doing so, I will not accidentally run over and kill a dog or small child.

Being car-free is not for everyone, yet in conversations, I have heard sentiments like “I’d love to do that, except _____.” I hear a lot of excuses, some justified, some not so justified.

What about…

…when it rains? The best answer I read to this so far was on a blog I can not find a link to right now, but here it is: “I get wet.” Sometimes I cuss a little if I did not realize it was going to rain. If prepared, I cover the seat with a plastic bag when it’s parked, and then remove it so that I do not have a soaked rear. If not, I find a paper towel or rag to wipe the seat off with. Wearing gloves helps to keep the fingers from getting too cold. Putting lights on the bikes helps to be more visible. I try to keep my speed down so that I do not skid through intersections. There are puddles to avoid. If I had fenders on my bike, most of the misery would be reduced. I’m working on that. Basically, what I would suggest is that people not be freaked out about getting a little dirty, and if there is any possibility of rain or muddiness, avoid light colors.

…snow? It’s New England! I have little experience with biking in the snow. Some places sell studded tires to help get traction on ice. If it proves too difficult, I will walk or take the bus. Part of why I wanted to be in a city to begin with was because I abhor driving in snow and ice, and I wanted the option of alternative transportation to work so that I do not have to call out for being a wimp.

…people with families? It gets trickier to manage getting several young children to come along on errands. Like I noted, even with youth discounts, hauling a family of four or five on the bus quickly becomes costly. One Canadian blogger shows how she hauls her baby around by bicycle. There are cyclists in this area who tote children around on the back of their bikes. More difficult? Probably. Impossible? Not for smaller families. Then again, I have seen pictures on gossip blogs of Brangelina toting and hauling several of their children. I don’t know how many kids they have in all, so I can not say for sure if they can do this for the entire family.

…being female? This has not been much of an issue for me yet. An issue for others, maybe, but not for me. I have gotten less gender-based harassment on a bicycle than I have while on foot. In my limited bus-riding experience, I have received no harassment.

Part of the battle is seeking out role models. There are a number of awesome female bike bloggers — none that I am aware of in this area, sadly — who show that it’s possible to do things like ride in skirts, heels, and with huge, pregnant bellies. Being femme is not necessary, but it is an option. On the routes I take, I see far more male than female cyclists. I also see far more men than women walking. That should not deter anyone.

…riding at night? Put reflectors on the bike and add some lights. I have ridden a few times at night without lights, and it was a little hairy because motorists really did not see me. Not advised. I have been told to wear brighter colors. If you ride at night, people will probably assume that you are crazy and just keep their distance.

…being in sketchy areas? I have gone through some sketchy areas, at night no less, that others avoid while in cars with windows up and doors locked. They are places that I am familiar with. It’s not always comfortable, so I usually will ride a lot faster than I would in the day time. Would I ride around in an unfamiliar sketchy place by myself? No. Anyway, what is “sketchy” to one person might seem perfectly comfortable and safe to someone else. I just read somewhere about how two females were “stranded” in downtown Hartford, and how they thought that they were asking to get mugged because they were wearing dresses in a dangerous area. I do not find downtown Hartford the least bit frightening, but there are some areas of the city that I will not go through at any time of day. I understand how to get where I need to go by using alternate routes.

hating spandex? Simple. Don’t wear it. I have a few pairs of those trendy leggings that college-aged women tend to live in, and these are reserved for wearing under skirts and dresses when I ride. Otherwise, I wear jeans, corduroy pants, or regular slacks. I wear layers of long underwear, waffle shirts, sweaters, etc., but nothing special or specific to biking/walking/bus-riding. I have two jackets and coats which happen to be bright colors. I have one pair of bike gloves and a helmet. A friend tells me I might want a balaclava in the winter. Baklava might be better. What I am saying is that it is possible to avoid wearing (what I believe are) tacky, unfashionable cycling clothes.

Riding a bike, walking, or relying on public transit means thinking differently about how we live. It requires people to stop being so Type A. Sometimes, it means doing something unconventional or what might be perceived as risky. So far, I do not miss the car.

This post was inspired by a portion of a recent blog post on Urban Compass.

14 Responses to “Car-Free in Hartford”

  1. Mara says:

    Hey, great post! I used to bike to work 1.5 miles in Ohio, often in a dress, on a three-speed with fenders. Fenders make life sooo much better. In college, I used to bike to get groceries every week, but it’s warmer in the winter in N.C. — I won’t bike when it’s below 50.

    By the way, I’m brand new to Hartford, moved to the city two weeks ago, and I’d love to talk to you about tips about cool places to go — I know about Real Artways and Tisane, but want to discover more.

  2. Richard says:

    Wonderful piece Kerri. I never drove a car and I have lived in all sorts of places from very rual (Catskill mountians) to very big city NYC and everything in between. The important thought here is “thinking differently about how we live.” I am nearing 62 and have never allowed not driving a car or bike to stop me.

    Guess what??? I go out in all kinds of weather.

    P.S If people don’t like to carry home groceries on the bus or bike well there are some very good pull shopping carts out there. A nice walk home does everyone some good.

  3. sujal says:

    Hey Kerri,

    I get what you’re trying to say, and appreciate your perspective.

    The thing is, this post is about whether living without a car can be done. That’s really a pretty uninteresting question. Of course it can.

    The question we should talk about is whether most people would *prefer* living in Hartford without a car. I get that for you, for Richard, and for others living without a car is possible and even preferable. I don’t think it really tells us much about Hartford.

    The issues you raised in Heather’s post’s comments section I think point to some of the key issues: public transit is infrequent. A once-an-hour bus can’t replace the convenience of a car. Beyond that, too much of the area’s resources, jobs, and good restaurants are outside of Hartford with no way to get to them conveniently. It’s possible to live *well* in nyc, boston, philly, San Fran without a car. I don’t think that’s true about Hartford for most people, especially with major employers (including my own) located away from the city and away from any public transit.

    ( should add that I haven’t looked at a bus schedule in years (since I first moved here), to be honest, so maybe something has changed. Am I missing something? )

    Sujal

    • The bus route closest to where I live is ridiculous, and I am certain that its inconvenient scheduling is part of why I just say “to heck with it” and walk or bike instead. If I want to walk ten minutes, I can get the Park Street or Farmington Avenue buses which run fairly regularly. But there is no cross-town bus that I can take to easily take to get to one of my two jobs. I’d have to go downtown, and then basically do a U-turn. To me, that makes no sense at all. I’m not at all saying that we have an adequate public transportation system. I avoid the bus because it tends to not meet my needs for flexibility.

      Is not having a car preferable?

      Well, we live in a car-dependent society where we constantly hear about obesity rates. Clearly, human-powered transportation (or exercise) is not favored by most. I guess it depends on what a person’s lifestyle “needs” are. Do I “need” to eat at restaurants in Middletown or New Haven? No. There is plenty to choose from in West Hartford, Newington, Simsbury, Wethersfield, and Hartford.

      My point, though, was simply to argue the mindset that the reason yuppies, ahem, young professionals, are not moving/staying downtown is because they need cars to buy clothes and food. Except for the few who may not be able-bodied, these young professionals do not *need* cars…they *want* cars. There is a difference.

    • Richard says:

      Well Sujal living without a car tells me a lot about Hartford. Perhaps by my 30 years of living here and not driving a car a few less inner city children have asthma. We all know from numerous studies that traffic polution especially in cities adversely affects respiratory health in children. We all are well aware that the release of nitrogen dioxide mainly from motor vehicle exhaust causes these adverse respiratory health effects in our urban children. Cough, cough, choke, choke, wheez, wheez, get it!

      Again as Kerri says, thinking differently about how we live is the key and being a part of the soultion, yes if only a small part, is better than being a part of the problem with more excuses than carter has liver pills.

      Oh, and let me say living so far from ones food supply(work) is not a very bright idea. Perhaps you should move closer to your work and walk.

      I have never had a problem with getting a bus no matter where I have lived in the city. I love living in a city so I adapt myself to it, not expecting it to adapt itself to me. This means since I do not drive I live where the buses run frequently, since I need to wash my clothes I live in a building with a laundry or near one, I live where I can walk to the grocery store, drug store or bus it to anywhere I need to go, etc.

      Just seeing, smelling and hearing all of these cars each day reminds me of a plauge. Someday you all will read in the newspaper, Crazy old artist shoots a bazooka at cars! And when you do you will know that is me.

      I am not a young urban professional nor do I ever want to be an old one so I don’t have the problems that come with such a lifestyle which judging by what I hear and read are numerous.

      P.S What is a zip car?

      • Richard says:

        May I add that I am well aware that buses are not really the answer as they run on disel. Ct. Transit is trying out new hybrid buses which is a great thing. Ct. Transit does not allow their buses to idle at hold over times so this does cut down some on emissions. But I would think 40 + people riding in one vehicle is far better than all this one to a car driving. Ct. Transit will be adding a large number of Hybird and Hydrogen busses to their fleet this year making riding the bus even more attractive to me or to anyone who cares about the enviroment.

  4. Michael says:

    First off I applaud this post. I am a huge supporter of cities and public transportation. I don’t know how this is though considering I grew up in rural and then suburban America in the last 22 years. Yes I have heard that Greater Hartford has a great system of public transportation but after living in London and New York City (outer borough and Manhattan) I sadly see greater Hartford as extremely car dependent and in need of a better system of transportation. I can only wish though….

    We will never be an area with a subway or light rail because we are so spread out but we have buses. We need to have buses crisscrossing the entire metro area. Everyone within a 10-15 mile radius of downtown Hartford should easily be able to travel within that area via a reasonable combo of bus and foot. Some might see this as a huge feat but there are some very suburban areas of New York City that are easily served by bus. What we have in greater Hartford is acceptable but I know we can try harder as a region and achieve so much more.

    Young professionals move to urban areas all the time and make the switch away from car and to public transportation. One does not turn down living in New York City because it means giving up a car (even though there are those “car owning New Yorkers out there”). By having an array of shops, restaurants, bars, schools, and businesses within easy reach of a bus that runs 24 hours a day I would make that car to bus switch. In order to sustain these new bus routes we need to increase rider ship which I will leave for another time. It also means getting thousands of people who have lived in the area there whole lives to try the bus out. Most that have grown up in the area have not used the bus in ages (including my entire extended family. However as I rode the subway back to my dorm in NYC this afternoon I ran into people of all ages who would never have even dreamed of driving today.

    Also if we could get a version of zip car in Hartford that would be amazing…though, there are plenty of car rental places in the area to serve people’s car needs.

    Despite this slight criticism of our public transportation network I continue to be one of Hartford’s biggest cheerleaders.

  5. Julia Pistell says:

    Slight addition! Love the post; I’ve been living without a car in Hartford for the last 18 months and it has been no problem at all. Just wanted to say that Stop & Shop has a delivery service called peapod, which is cheap, reliable, and actually gives you very fresh stuff. It’s been awesome and actually a whole lot easier than getting sucked into supermarket-land.

  6. [...] as was the idea of having jobs in the neighborhoods. Several participants wanted cars to become superfluous in [...]


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