One Year of Being Car Free in Indianapolis

On December 30, 2009, I put together my first blog post on the trials and tribulations of being car free in Indianapolis, Indiana, a city known for its auto-orientation (need I say more than the Indy 500?) and poor transit service. At the time, I was not sure if I would last in this Midwest-as-Midwest-can-get city without auto wheels supporting my mobility, but I nonetheless vowed to periodically write about my experiences walking around town and riding IndyGo until I caved in.  And after my bike was stolen the very first day I gave up driving, I was sure I would cave quickly.  But one year later, here I am, still car free and still writing about what I’ve learned and experienced.  As Barry Manilow would say, looks like we made it (cue awful background music).

I’d first like to thank my apartment location, without which none of this would be possible.  Your central location and accessibility to work, the grocery, and countless restaurants and bars has ensured my ability to stay car free for one year.   I’d also like to thank the friends and significant others I have met this past year.  I moved to Indianapolis 1.5 years ago not knowing a single person and unable to rely on anyone for a ride when I needed it.  Thankfully, I have met some great people who have often been willing to drive me places, pick me up, or take me home.  You know who you are and I appreciate your support.

In terms of lessons learned…well where do I start?  Well, I guess the biggest thing I learned right off the bat was not to trust others with your bike or they might ‘accidentally’ leave it in the alley behind your building.  I won’t soon forget the feeling in the pit of my stomach as I went to hop on my bike for the morning commute only to find my sole mode of transportation lost and gone forever.  Lesson learned: don’t trust your ex.

For quite some time, I opted not to buy a new bike so not only was I car free, I was bike free as well.  I started walking my butt all over downtown Indianapolis – to and from work, to and from the grocery, to and from Mass Ave – you name it.  Ok, so maybe my walking patterns weren’t the most exciting part of my car free lifestyle, but many perks quickly became apparent from the large amounts of walking I was now doing.  For one, my legs and butt whipped themselves into super-shape in an instant, something that was welcomed by my former too-tight-fitting skinny jeans.  Lesson learned: walking is a great substitute for cardio at the gym.

Because I no longer deemed it necessary to frequent the gym as much as I had been, I quit my gym downtown and opted for my scaled down gym at work.  The way I saw it, I was still getting a similar work out for a cheaper price minus all the fancy cardio equipment the other gym offered.  But hey, my walking patterns, no matter how boring they might be, were more than making up for not using those machines.  Goodbye overpriced gym membership.

With all this walking around in the middle of Indianapolis’s public realm, I soon became more aware of how I looked and carried myself.  In no time, I ditched my gym shoes for my walks to work and opted for the more stylish dress shoes.  I used to change in to them once I got to work anyway, so I simply cut out a step and simplified my morning commute, which was an added bonus.  On the down side of things, it wasn’t the smartest decision I’d ever made, as the heals became worn down and my pinky toes became inundated with blisters.  I didn’t care though as I was sick of being two large shoulder pads away from looking like Melanie Griffith in 1988’s “Working Girl.”  Plus, I liked strutting when walking to work, with my stylish work attire (I love me a cardigan or two), skinny ties, sharp sunglasses, and the ‘I’m urban and better than you’ swagger.  Quite simply, the gym shoes were holding me back.  Lesson learned: style over comfort, no matter what.

After walking to the ends of the earth, one might assume that I would jump at the chance to drive a car and feel the comfort of pushing a pedal to get me where I need to go.  The truth of the matter is that when this opportunity first arose, I quickly found myself more annoyed than relieved at the ‘convenience’ a car brings.  My first real bout behind the wheel came around week 31 in my year long adventure when my sister and her family flew out of Indianapolis (Cincinnati’s airport is still too expensive to fly out of) to San Francisco to visit my brother-in-law’s side of the family.  Instead of parking the car at the airport, they decided to leave it with me and in doing so, saved them some money while allowing me to take care of a few errands I might otherwise not be able to do.  Well after two days of driving to the north side and back for errands I thought I had to complete, I decided to ditch the car and leave it at my work’s parking garage downtown, and quickly resumed my pedestrian lifestyle.  After being used to walking everywhere and the ease of mobility that brought, I found driving offensive, annoying, and a pain-in-the-butt.  What’s worse was how I constantly worried about the damn thing, thinking to myself ‘is the car ok, is the white still pearly and gleaming, did someone hit the big back-end?”  Needless to say, every time a family member or friend came to town for similar reasons (which happened twice since) I opted to leave the car parked on my street and continue my walking ways.  Lesson learned: road rage is real, stick with what you know.

Perhaps my most consistent experience during the past year has been my never ending need to ride Mega Bus.  Let me first say how incredibly grateful I am for their service to Cincinnati, Columbus, and Chicago as these are the only cities I need access to on a regular basis and the availability and route times have proven beneficial to my schedule.  Having said that, my Mega Bus experience can best be described as a mega pain-in-the-butt due to its repeated mega lateness.  I’ve waited anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours for the bus, sometimes in the hot blistering heat and others in the freezing cold.  And yes, the bus even left early – without me.  Once I boarded the bus (those I actually caught anyway), the mega oddities continued – anything from running into old friends on my way to Chicago to a woman getting arrested for refusing to get off the bus in Cincinnati to a woman throwing a fit (and by fit I mean temper tantrum) for accidentally catching the bus to Chicago when she meant to catch the bus to Cincinnati.  And need I even get into the bus break downs and the horrible thoughts of being stranded in the middle of nowhere?  But despite these mishaps full of frustration, they have kept my experiences mega interesting and so I will continue to ride the Mega Bus.  Plus, let’s face it, in the Midwest any form of real inter-city transit is non-existent.  Lesson learned: Mega pain-in-the-butt or not, it’s the best thing I have going for me transit wise.

Well clearly I have learned quite a lot this past year while being car free in Indianapolis.  While the aforementioned ‘lessons learned’ have been important for my daily survival on the mean sidewalks of downtown Indy, there are two lessons that stand out above the rest.  And ultimately these two revelations have made my car free experience worth the walk.  First, walking around the city has truly opened my eyes to my surroundings, piqued my curiosity, allowed me to see things I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed by car, and thus inspired me to write many of my blog postings on urbanOut and urbanIndy.  Second, my adopted lifestyle has taught me to hold an extremely flexible schedule since I depend on external sources for transit trips every now and then.  With this increased flexibility has come increased patience and tolerance when situations have gone awry in life or at the workplace.  And at the end of the day, who knows, I might have these new found personality traits to thank for maintaining my job in the down economy.

So for these two reasons alone, I am truly grateful for my choice a year ago to give up driving all together and hit the concrete in full force.  Here is to hoping this coming year is full of lessons and surprises as rewarding as this past year.  And with all the new experiences and interesting observations urban life brings, I am not expecting anything less.

For the complete car free story, check out my other postings below, starting from week one.

Car Free in Indy – Week 1

Car Free in Indy – Weeks 2-3

Car Free in Indy – Weeks 4-5

Car Free in Indy – Weeks 6-7

Car Free in Indy – Weeks 8-10

Car Free in Indy – Weeks 11-13

Car Free in Indy – Weeks 14-16

Car Free in Indy – Weeks 17-21

Car Free in Indy – Weeks 22-25

Car Free in Indy – Weeks 26-31

Car Free in Indy – Weeks 32-40

Car Free in Indy – Weeks 41-50

Comments 20

  • I would highly recommend you check out a pair of Clark’s for your next pair of dress shoes. They are the only shoes I will wear at this point. Very stylish and as comfortable as most walking shoes.

  • This was a fun read. I have also found that after months of taking the bus and walking places, using a car feels like more of an annoyance than a convenience. You probably already know this but Greyhound now offers a competing express bus service. I plan to try it out next time I need to go to Chicago. On my last Mega trip the wifi went out after 30 minutes and I was stuck with no reading material at all.

  • I was about to say the exact same thing that ahow626 said: Clarks, and the Cole Haans with Nike insoles, are a lovely choice for stylish blister avoidance.

    One of my favorite arguments for phasing out car culture is the potential health benefit. Walking a block or two to a bus stop or 10 blocks to work can provide lovely, easy health improvements.

  • I wear Clark’s as well. My wife’s doctor recommended them when they diagnosed her back problems, and now, they are all I wear… well not my WIFE’S Clarks. heh heh

    Good job Greg!! Hope you keep it up. You alude to, but never mention it, but have you bought a bike since yours was stolen?

  • Thanks for the greyhound tips. I will surely look into that option. And Curt, no I have not officially bought a bike but I have been borrowing a friend of mine’s. Come this spring I will finally purchase one! Getting excited. 🙂

    • Hey Greg, when you do get around to getting a bike, head over to Matthews Bicycles on Pendleton Pike and talk to Graham Dickey. Long-time friend of mine, and he’ll be more than happy to answer questions for ya and recommend a quality, reasonably-priced bike for ya w/o any pressure to buy. HIghly recommended, and thank you for all of your posts. Great reads.

  • For most Hoosiers the idea that not having a car can actually be LIBERATING is counter-intuitive. But so true. There’s a lot out there about the macro benefits of a society less dependent upon cars – thank you for sharing your experience and highlighting some of the micro benefits as well!

  • Great write-ups! Keep it up!

  • Hey Jon, it’s a long walk out Mass Ave from downtown to Shadeland & Pendleton Pike. And according to IndyGo, it’s a one-hour bus trip. 🙂

  • I love reading what you write Greg.
    I was also car free, for 16 months.. for other reasons, but I can agree with you on every account. 🙂

  • Thanks Jess. And I did not know you were without a car for 16 months. These type of things should come up in conversation the next time I see you. 🙂

  • Going on 3 1/2 years now without a car, 2 in Indianapolis. Life improves dramatically without a vehicle. Living downtown helps but the bus system is fine to most popular residential areas (Broadripple, Castleton, etc.)

  • Just out of curiousity: how many of the car-free commenters also have their own children, either of pre-school or school age?

    • Greg- congrats on 1 year car-free!
      Chris – I am not completely car-free, but my husband and I share one, which he uses 98% of the time. We have a 21-month old who loves walking and riding the bus. I take him to and pick him up from daycare using IndyGo. Luckily, our house, his daycare and my office are all just off Washington St on the east side.

      • erika, since you live along Washington, grocery shopping via IndyGo is also possible because of Marsh and Aldi in Irvington (or on foot if you live close enough).
        And, as you point out, you still have a car in the family. So you can get yourselves or your son to the doctor or ER if necessary…and that is where I was headed with my question.
        This speaks to the constraints of living car-free in Indy; it gets a whole lot harder for parents of young children. Not everyone is able to find a job near where they live (or along the same busline on the same side of town), nor is everyone able to afford a home near where they work. And there is not necessarily acceptable daycare everywhere.

        • Great points Chris. Like Erika, we share one car and have a 15 month old. I can’t image having zero cars. And that’s considering the fact that we live downtown, both my wife and I work at the downtown hospitals, and our daughter goes to a downtown day care. Alternative transportation is one thing for an adult — and I did what I could before my daughter arrived — but it’s an entirely different with a toddler.

          • Actually, we were thinking about the constraints of only 1 car when we chose a doctor for our son. We can also get there by bus, if necessary. But you are both right, having at least one car to share makes things a whole lot easier.

  • I commute by IndyGo (or bike, during the warmer months) as often as I can, and like Erika, I live within a block of Washington Street in Irvington, but with three young kids I can’t imagine going completely car-free. My job requires me to take a significant number of day trips within Indiana, sometimes on short notice. Also, given that we have three kids in car seats, a minivan is our most fuel-efficient option for transporting the whole family (and it gets better mileage than an 8-passenger SUV, but it’s not great). Because of that, keeping our paid-for compact, even considering the cost of insurance, is more efficient than me putting 5,000 work miles per year on the minivan. If I spent all day, every day downtown, I would be quite tempted to sell the extra car. As it stands, we require the flexibility.
    As Chris notes, I think it would be very tough to be car free in Indy except for childless downtown dwellers. As much as I enjoy taking advantage of transit for work, it’s much less useful on weekends. Given how short of time I am, I’m not inclined to turn a 15 minute trip Saturday a.m. trip to the hardware store into a 90 minute adventure.

    Of course, there are plenty of people who live in Indy who do are carless by financial necessity. A better bus system would attract more “voluntary” riders but also would be a substantial quality-of-life bump for those who have no other option.

  • Nicely done sir. I don’t know any of you guys (those that have commented), but you all sound like lovely people. 🙂

    When my wife stopped working full time to care for our daughter, we decided it was time to go down to one car as well. I’m about 4 miles from work. I’ve never taken IndyGo. According to their website, the estimated trip time from Herron-Morton to my office at Morris and Kentucky is 45 minutes. I’m not a paragon of fitness (indoor soccer 1x week), but I can easily beat that time on foot and cut it in half by bike and still have time for a shower at the office. Similar to your experience with driving, I find the idea of waiting for a bus to show up when I could be running or biking to work, somewhat distasteful. Though collectively, you guys have convinced me that I should give it a shot sometime.

    Speaking of bikes, I’ll throw in a plug for one. I’ve riden a bike to work off and on for about 4 years or so now. Having tried several different varieties, I’ve settled on a single speed commuter from Trek. I like this style for the following reasons: (1) With only one gear and the brake cables buried in the frame, there’s no maintenance except replacing the brake pads on the joyous day that you’ve discovered you’ve completely worn them out. (2) Indy’s lack of topography makes multiple gears somewhat optional. (3) I like the stance of a commuter over a road bike in that it’s easier to see what’s going on around you and get off in a hurry if you need to. Thankfully, I’ve never really needed to take advantage of this – but it makes me feel better.

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