What I've Learned Being ‘Car-Light’ in St. Louis for 6 Months

The alderwoman and her husband now share a single car

click to enlarge These days, Alderwoman Anne Schweitzer takes the bus or a bike to work. - COURTESY ANNE SCHWEITZER
These days, Alderwoman Anne Schweitzer takes the bus or a bike to work.

My husband Jimmy and I were visiting friends in Portland, Oregon, over the holidays when I set my New Year’s resolution: Drive less. 

Our friends had gone down to one car, and biked, bused and cable car’d (not a joke) to work most days. They had a car when they needed it for adventures or to get somewhere when another option wasn’t viable, but there were rarely days when both of them used it. I was enamored with this lifestyle, which I had heard described as “car-light,” and decided I’d try my best to emulate it when I returned to St. Louis.

Upon our return home, we received some bad luck: Jimmy’s catalytic converter had been stolen and his car wouldn’t start. While I hope that I would have stuck to the resolution either way, this obstacle presented a unique opportunity to really commit. 

So, commit we did, and for the past six months, Jimmy and I have shared one car. Since his workplace isn’t on an easy transit route, he drives to work or carpools with co-workers if I need the car. I take the bus to City Hall most days — most regularly the number 10, which picks me up on Gravois and drops me off across the street from City Hall. I try to bike or walk to meetings in the ward, and I take the car in the evenings when meetings run late. It isn’t always easy, but it is working for us.

I could tell stories of beautiful interactions with strangers on the bus, or moments of fear when drivers didn’t notice me on a crosswalk or on my bike, or getting to know the woman who is always watering her lawn when I am walking home, stopping to chat with constituents or pet a friendly cat, and a thousand other individual events. A lot more happens in one commute than I had ever experienced before making this change. 

But instead I want to use my soapbox here to share a few recommendations based on what I’ve learned in the first six months of my resolution.

1. Follow and share the rules of the road. And if you forgot how to do that, here’s the refresher that I feel drivers need most: Stop before the stop sign — the crossbar is there for a reason, and if there isn’t one, and it’s in the City of St. Louis — contact the Citizen Service Bureau so it can get painted. Remember that pedestrians have the right of way in a crosswalk and bikes need three feet of space in order for you to pass them. You have to stop at red lights before turning right, and please, please don’t pull into the crosswalk (have I said that enough yet?), park on the sidewalk or block a bike lane. A yellow light means go slower, not speed up. A “St. Louis stop” is not a stop. Also, put your phone down. Lives are quite literally on the line.

2. Bring back the courtesy wave. There is too much aggression on the roads and we need a cultural shift away from that. It’s a much more pleasant experience for everyone when kindness and gratitude are expressed, and mistakes are greeted with a wave and a commitment to do better, instead of a middle finger or a shout. Some of my favorite moments of the past six months are interacting with other road users — whether it’s a nod from another biker heading the opposite direction, a friendly chat while waiting for a “walk” signal, or a wave between a driver and a pedestrian when a midblock crosswalk is actually adhered to. More of that, please.

3. Slow down, and plan. People drive too fast in St. Louis, and everywhere, it seems. Give yourself plenty of time to get where you’re going so you can easily stop at that red light or stay behind a cyclist for a few blocks when it’s not safe to pass. If you are already taking the bus, walking or biking, you know how much planning this takes, but if you’re making the transition to car-light or car-free, you will soon become a much better planner out of necessity. The buses don’t come frequently enough to just go whenever you feel like it, unless you really enjoy waiting, and it takes some time to learn the safest bike routes. Metro’s Transit app is enormously helpful, as is having a friend who will help guide you through your first bus trip home from work (thanks Alderman Guenther!).

While my daily commute to and from City Hall has almost tripled in length since taking the bus, about 20 minutes of that time each way is now taken up with walking — which has dramatically improved the amount of time I spend exercising and the number of steps I get — and my time on the bus is spent brainstorming for work, listening to audiobooks, reading the news, or responding to emails or texts in a way that doesn’t put other road users in danger. I’ve also had some of the most interesting conversations of my life on the bus, meeting folks I might never have talked with otherwise. Occasionally, Jimmy drops me off at City Hall in the mornings or picks me up in the afternoons, and we get that 20-minute ride to chat and catch up. We both have busy work schedules and we don’t always get this sort of time together during the day, so that’s been a wonderful addition to our relationship. While the commute time is definitely longer and requires more planning, it is more productive and healthier in a lot of ways.

4. Maybe consider giving ‘car-light’ a try. There have been moments in the past six months where Jimmy and I almost threw in the towel and just bought another car. Late or missed buses, flat bike tires, unanticipated meetings across town, unsafe situations, and people in our lives questioning why or how we are doing this don’t make it easy. All of that said, climate change is here and we must do everything in our power to lessen our daily reliance on fossil fuels. Even if it’s hard. This is something I feel is in my power. I understand that this is possible within the city because of intentional decisions made by planners, and that not everyone in the region has the same opportunities. (Insert shameless plug to move to the city here…)

5. Infrastructure and enforcement must improve and services cannot be further cut. I maintain there is no place hotter than an uncovered bus stop on a St. Louis summer day. Bus stops need shade and a place for folks to sit. Bike rides over utility plates are not helping my mid-thirties back, and bike lanes must be maintained and protected. ADA accessibility is crucial. Drivers going 50 in a 30 need to be pulled over, ticketed and likely given a round of driver’s education. Cars cannot be allowed to park in the bike lane or on sidewalks. Bus routes cannot continue to be cut. Road conditions must improve.

I could go on and on. And I intend to. As chair of the Public Infrastructure and Utilities committee at the Board of Aldermen, I’m using my experiences to help inform policies that address these issues and I am working with other stakeholders to improve outcomes for all road users.

And, I am always happy to talk to anyone who is interested in making this lifestyle change. Hope to see you on the road soon!

Anne Schweitzer is the alderwoman of the 1st ward of the City of St. Louis, which includes Carondelet, Boulevard Heights, Holly Hills, Bevo and the Patch. In her free time, she teaches yoga, volunteers with Epworth Children and Family Services, plants trees with Forest ReLeaf of Missouri and enjoys spending time with her indoor cats and outdoor chickens.

The RFT welcomes short essays on topics of local interest. Contact [email protected] if you've got something to say.

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