Breaking Away

Why I parked my car—maybe for good.
March 2011

Two years ago this month, I ditched my downtown parking garage for a bicycle and an RTD pass. I didn’t do this to save the environment from the fumes of my car; I did it because I’m cheap. My parking garage, conveniently located just an elevator ride from my office, costs $160 a month (a fairly standard downtown fee). And while my employer was gracious enough to pick up half of that cost, I was ponying up the rest. Forget gas, or insurance, or maintenance—I was dropping nearly a grand on parking annually. That would not do.

So I handed in my garage pass, wheeled out a city bike I had bought on Craigslist, and started making the six-mile trip to my office. Bike commuting isn’t an obvious skill, and at first, I made a lot of errors. Things you’ll need to learn and acquire (trust me): The best route is not always the most direct one (look for bike paths, bike lanes, or quiet city streets), pick up essential equipment (get a lock, lights, bike rack, and panniers to carry your clothes and laptop), and invest in cyclist clothing (do not bike in your work clothes unless you have a very short ride or never sweat). Once I got the hang of it, the 12 miles round-trip became my built-in exercise routine. After all, I have to go to work, so why not burn a few calories? I pedal at a moderate pace, but it only takes me 25 minutes to reach the office, which is the same amount of time it’d taken me to battle the traffic on Speer Boulevard.

When it’s raining or drops below 40 degrees, I take the light rail to work. The 20-minute ride is a joy: The train is never stuck in traffic, and I get to read, listen to music, or play Angry Birds on my phone. I check my e-mail if I’m feeling ambitious. I’m also not in a rage about the incompetence of drivers distracted by texting, smoking joints, putting on their makeup, or just being of Texas provenance.

The exercise, cost-savings, and stress-reducing aspects of commuting by bike or public transit are swell, but the hidden benefit is that you become a more active observer of your city. Instead of being locked in a climate-controlled cube of metal and glass while you peer out at the world, you’re in the world. When you’re commuting sans automobile, you notice the days growing slowly longer as the shaky morning sun starts creeping across the pavement earlier and earlier. On the light rail, you see construction workers rehabbing the restaurant on the corner. You spy a boutique owner changing the dresses in the window or your neighbor putting up a tree house. You’re driven to be involved, to get a plot at the community garden, to spend your money at the new Italian joint, or to pick up flowers for your wife. You watch your neighborhood grow, evolve, and change—firsthand.

I haven’t sold my car yet, but I’ve been thinking about it. My car trips have dwindled to treks to the mountains or trips to meetings across town. I’m even biking or walking to run errands and pick up groceries. Could my wife and I survive with just her car? Probably—we just might see. As for that $1,000 I saved on parking last year? I rewarded myself and bought a stunning Jamis commuter bike. It’s a really nice ride.