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Green awakening: Our car-lite family decade

Marc Lefkowitz  |  10/09/14 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Biking, Transit, Transform, Walking

Back in the good old days of 1999, I didn’t give a second thought to how I got around. Like many, I turned the key in the ignition every day; I couldn’t imagine hopping on a bike or walking to the corner to wait for the bus. I didn’t know I had a choice to be “multi-modal” when I entered a transportation space daily.

Building confidence<br />My wife, Corrie Slawson, pulls our son in a bike trailer. She started riding a bike again in the last year.My green decade<br />The author in EcoCity Cleveland's former offices at Lorain and Fulton.Moving up<br />EcoCity Cleveland's second home, the third floor attic space of the Beach home.Green guru<br />David Beach and the solar array on the roof of the Cleveland Environmental Center which Beach helped bring into being.Sustainability center<br />The Cleveland Environmental Center, at Lorain and Fulton, was the city's first green building retrofit (opening in 2003).Breaking ground<br />Manda Gillespie (left) worked tirelessly to bring the Cleveland EcoVillage Townhomes (at W. 58th Street) into being.EcoCity days<br />The staff of EcoCity Cleveland before it became GreenCityBlueLake.
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Early dawn

At the time, I was a staff reporter at a business magazine in downtown Cleveland and renting an apartment in Cleveland Heights. It never dawned on me that I could get around without a car. My first inkling otherwise was a roommate who was car free (we both put on a tie, but he rode the bus to work at a big bank downtown). At the end of the month, I didn’t have two nickels to rub together after the rent, car payment, downtown parking spot and my hefty entertainment bill was paid (neither did my roommate, but he also made child support payments).

I could sit in a gut-wrenching traffic jam, or hope to spend a little less money, but didn’t connect the dots on how my decision to own a car affected those things. I couldn’t have told you that my transportation-related costs were probably higher than my rent and grocery bill combined (this was before the days of Quicken).

A green movement forms

On assignment one day, covering the burgeoning green building sector, I was invited to lunch at Seoul Hot Pot on Payne Avenue in Cleveland’s Asia Town. There I met folks like Sadhu Johnston, a graduate of Oberlin College’s Environmental Studies program. Sadhu was starting a green building umbrella group. He also had a dream to convert the Antiques in the Bank building at Lorain Avenue and Fulton Road into a sort of steampunk version—keep the old, solid materials but retrofit it with state-of-the-art mechanicals like a solar array and green roof and a geothermal well that would heat the place with the ambient temperature in the earth. I wrote an article in 2001 about the making of the Cleveland Environmental Center, the city’s first green building retrofit. It felt like a watershed moment in Cleveland.

It inspired me to want to write more about the visionaries who felt Cleveland could transform into a green city on a blue lake—like David Beach, Sadhu and the Cleveland Green Building Coalition and Holly Harlan who was starting up Entrepreneurs for Sustainability. They would seed the ideas, build the capacity and form the hub of a sustainability network for the next decade.

Wait, I can make a living at this?

At this point, I had left the business magazine and was enrolled in graduate school at Cleveland State University. As I worked on my urban planning degree, I also interned for EcoCity Cleveland, one of those visionary groups broadcasting ideas on how Northeast Ohio would transform itself.

Hard at work at the Beach’s house, tucked into their third-floor attic, I witnessed David and Manda Gillespie usher in the EcoVillage green townhomes and Ryan McKenzie co-design the Euclid Avenue bike lanes. The attic was stuffed to the rafters with the EcoCity Journal, an inspirational pursuit of ideas on how Northeast Ohio could grow more sustainably (many of the ideas David wrote about in the 1990s were seen as radical. Some, like the Citizens' Bioregional Plan, became the basis for the current VibrantNEO plan).

One snowy winter day, I was making tea in David’s kitchen when Ryan rolled up on his green road bike. I was astounded that anyone would choose to ride a bike from Ohio City to Cleveland Heights on snow covered streets. It made a deep impression. That spring, I started riding my bike—mostly on side streets at first—from my apartment to work.

Around that time, I met my future wife, artist Corrie Slawson. Both of us were renting in the Coventry area. One day, we walked from her apartment to the Cleveland Food Co-op’s second store on Coventry (where City Buddha is today). It was a bitter cold winter day and she— wearing her blue puffer vest with a Wonder Woman pin—insisted we walk back to her place with our groceries. I was impressed that anyone would walk in the winter from the grocery store.

Strong partnership

In 2004, when we got married and bought a house, we discussed consolidating our two cars into one. Was it such a radical idea? As Americans, it practically comes with the milk that driving preserves our freedom. We thought about the money saved and doing something positive for the environment. Corrie was raised in Cleveland Heights and went to art school in New York City, so she had some experience living car-free.

Around that time, I was paying more attention to my carbon footprint. I ran the numbers, using an online calculator, on how much carbon emissions I produce in a year. It was typical of Northeast Ohioans—around 20 tons a year per person.

Maybe we could do more—without double car payments, bills to the mechanic and gas fill ups—to advance other ambitions, such as pursue careers in creative fields that are notoriously underpaid? We didn’t want to live like hermits, either.

I realized that there was little I could do to control whether FirstEnergy burned coal instead of investing in wind power. We were also “house poor,” so any thought of insulating the attic and basement were years away. If I wanted to lower my carbon footprint, I would have to choose something cheap and within my power to control.

It was amazing how buying a house throws critical light onto every financial aspect of life. My “aha moment” came when walking around Coventry. Seeing our neighborhood with new eyes, I realized two bus stops were a five minute walk to home. I started occasionally taking the bus. Ten years later, I realize that I would probably take it all of the time if I knew that it was coming more frequently than every 30 minutes during rush hour.

What I've learned

I had chosen a path not of fabulous riches but as an urban planner and writer. I was free to enjoy the ride. How would we make up the gap between owning a home, even in an affordable place like Cleveland, and not being constrained in our thinking about what we could do? I was raised in Beachwood where I rode my bike until high school when it wasn’t cool to be seen on a bike. So, it was a revelation that I could live in a suburb where it was cool to leverage a central location and close proximity to a grocery store and work as an opportunity to walk, figure out the bus or ride my bike. You could retain the option to drive, but also choose a form of transportation that was cheaper, greener and healthier.

Ten years ago, we bought a house approximately a quarter mile from where I had been renting for the previous decade. This probably sounds trite, but I feel like I moved a world away from how I viewed things. I don’t say this for self-congratulatory reasons, but I could not have predicted that, in 2014, I would see more of Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs and invest more in understanding this place than in 1994 when I was living single, paying $225 a month to lease a car, and driving who knows where (the average American drives 12,000 miles per year).

In the last decade of sharing a car (we started a new chapter this summer when we inherited a second vehicle), we had a kid, Corrie went to grad school for her Master’s in Fine Art at Kent State University, we commuted, and figured out that it is possible to live car-lite in Cleveland year round. Combined we average around 8,900 miles of driving a year. I also logged 800 miles on my bike since May. It was easier before we became parents, but even after our son was born, we continued for four years with one little Volkswagon Beetle.

The sacrifices were not so much in where we could go, although, the sprawling geography of Northeast Ohio meant curtailing some work events based on what can be reasonably reached on transit or bike. The bigger question, I would say, for a family may be, who will carry the load? Particularly when a child arrives and later when his daycare and pre-school becomes a constant juggling act. I admit, Corrie carried the load of driving when we had one car.

For me, it meant more freedom to choose to bike to work or to walk, sometimes in a driving snowstorm (my choice—I refused to pay for transit after realizing that I preferred to walk 30 minutes instead. In part, having an interesting walk through Coventry Village and Little Italy to University Circle, where the office moved in 2008 to join the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, is an incentive to walk). But, if Corrie wanted to bike to Midtown to her job at Zygote Press, it would be a long, challenging ride for all but the fearless (she also ganged up work trips with making her own work which meant transporting giant silk screens and art materials would require special equipment and skills on a bike).

Were there lessons? We’ve been able to afford a really nice house in a neighborhood that I thought was above our means because of its “location efficiency.” Like so many of our neighbors, we walk to the store, to the playground, to work and hopefully, one day, our son to school. The money we saved by not owning a second car was reinvested in our education, in travel, in making art, in making our home more energy efficient and comfortable for two adults, a young child, three cats and a bird.

Choices have to be made. It was less than perfect. We don’t necessarily have a bigger budget, but, at least with transportation not eating up 25-30% of it (the average for Northeast Ohio) it helps while wages stagnate and costs of living increase. As a family, we’d like to see the urban road network between Cleveland Heights, Cleveland and its many interesting destinations improve for bike travel (with protected bike lanes) so that there is more equity in who will drive to pre-school / bike to work or together as a family.

Our story isn’t unique; I know other families who want more choices for their transportation. They want to see Cleveland become safer and more convenient to move around in and build up for car free living. Our experience reflects that of many people I know who are living car-lite in Greater Cleveland. It convinces me that reinvesting in existing places and a sustainable transportation system is the right idea if we want to attract even more people to give it a go.

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