I drive an American car forum member’s fantasy: a stick-shift diesel wagon. Except that I don’t. I love that car, but it stays in its garage most of the time, unlike its predecessor in New Jersey, which I drove 60 miles a day plus 200 on weekends.
Sure, I could do like most of my colleagues do, and drive the car to work. It’s a 12km (7 miles) commute, some 20 minutes without traffic, 30 minutes on bad days, including the short walk to the parking garage. Half city driving, half highway.
But even though I am more of a car nut than most any of my colleagues, I’m cheaper as well. Since commutes mean a cold engine and higher fuel and oil consumption, and the car has a real world average of 6.3l/100km (37.34MPG) I estimate the fuel consumption at about 2 liters a day. 1.4€ per liter, 21 commutes a month equal 60€ a month in fuel costs. I am not counting tire use, oil, car depreciation, or repairs induced. With that comes the convenience of a variety of radio stations, MP3 player connectivity, he at, and AC.
What’s the alternative? I currently live in Strasbourg, France. Strasbourg is 3km from the German border, and the city shares its love of bicycles with its Northern European neighbors. As much as biking 11km to work is fun, I get quite sweaty doing so, and smelly people are rarely appreciated by their coworkers.
The solution? Combined commuting: 5 minute walk to the tramway, 25 minute tramway ride, followed by 5 minute biking to work. The bike is securely locked in a semi-public shed, and the overall commute time is barely higher than with the car.
The cost? 100€ for a used bike, and 42€ a month for the tram, half of which are covered by the employer, by law. The shed is free with a tram pass. If the bike lasts 2 years, it’s a cost of 25€ a month, 35€ less than the mere fuel costs when using a car.
It even makes owning a car a fairly uninteresting proposition. I considered using the city-sponsored rental program, which is fairly cheap, at about 40€ to register (or 30€ with that tram pass; the city council REALLY wants me to not have my own car), 10€ a month for the subscription, and 2-3€ an hour depending on the vehicle. They have dedicated parking spaces, removing that hassle, with a station near my home. But the cars need to be reserved several days ahead of the rental to ensure they are available, and forums indicate that many renters don’t stick to their alleged schedules. You must have flexibility.
Car seats! Having 2 young kids means 2 car seats, and I just can’t imagine lugging them around on foot to rental stations.
Boredom! The available cars are random public rental-sharing program blandmobiles. There are a few Fiat 500s, kind of fun to drive but impractical, but mostly Toyota Aygos, Peugeot 107s, and Prius plug-ins. No way I’m driving those on a week-end trip!
The trams run every 5 minutes during rush hour, so that’s not a problem. Obviously, I have to deal with other commuters directly, in the flesh, something that’s completely anathema for many car commuters. But it often is for the better as that direct eye contact generally ensures far more civility than is usual when there are 2 windshields in the way of direct communication. Teenagers with idevices of course do their best to avoid eye contact and therefore having to give up their seats to pregnant ladies, but there again, nothing a shoulder tap, nod and smile can’t cure. And if nothing else works and somebody insists on getting in the tram before commuters have gotten out, my 6’2 frame and a growl do the trick.
The free newspapers are an added bonus, as is seeing all the lights turn to green when you approach, while hapless motorists must sometimes wait for excessively long periods of time as the rush hour flow of trams streams through the intersection. The trams have their own light system that trumps car traffic lights. Its is not unusual at all for a motorist to wait for 4 trams to drive past, or about 5 minutes…at ONE light. Just imagine if your commute crosses a tram line 4 times, which is not unusual. Biggest real drawback: higher likelihood of catching a cold through involuntary germ exchange, but having 2 kids in daycare means that I get those anyway.
What about the biking part? We’ve all heard horror stories about the dangers of biking and seen hilarious videos of NYC cyclists crashing into obstacles spread in their bike lanes. Not so in Strasbourg, where cars generally take cyclists into account and bike lanes are most often on sidewalks or, even better, separated from both the road and the sidewalk, ensuring a high safety for bikes (and also for pedestrians from bikes, but that’s yet another story). Obviously, in order to ride that bike, one needs to be healthy, have practical clothes (high heels and skirts make it difficult, as do heavily stuffed suitcases or computer shoulder bags) and accept that short compromise on comfort.
I may use the car more during winter, and sometimes drive it to work for practical reasons such as carrying paperwork, running late, or having to fix the bike. But overall, that combined walk/tram/bike commute remains a cheap, ecofriendly, and practical to commute every day, and I thoroughly appreciate that the city of Strasbourg has created that system.
On the other hand, the city council has adopted what amounts to an anti-car stance which often borders on dives enthusiastically into silliness, such as refusing to adopt smart lights and multiplying one-way streets to make the city less practical for cars. It creates more pollution due to idling and detours than it saves. A policy is at its best when it creates a compelling incentive to change one’s way rather than to forbid or discourage through trick measures.