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Joe Nathanson: Consider living with one less car

Returning to Baltimore after a vacation in Italy, I’ve been reflecting on the ability to live essentially car-free for two weeks.

There was, for sure, the one-hour taxi ride from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport over traffic-clogged roads to the heart of the Italian capital. But once settled in at the hotel, we were within walking distance of Termini, Rome’s bustling transit node, and its connections to the Metro, city buses and intercity trains.

Armed with the local transit map, it was possible to negotiate the Eternal City on foot, by bus and by tram with relative ease.

Moving on from Rome to Florence aboard the EuroStar AV high-speed train operated by Trenitalia enhanced the sense that it was easy to get around the country without a private auto.

The ride to Florence was a smooth 90 minutes. A few minutes into the ride, train attendants came through the car with complimentary drinks and snacks. Several days later the experience was repeated in a comfortable two-hour ride to Venice.

In the interlacing of land and canals that is Venice, one is presented with an entirely different auto-free environment. There are no land vehicles and when not walking (or getting lost in) the streets of the city, one could easily move to other districts by vaporetto, Venice’s water-based mass transit vehicle.

Zipcars and bikes

These experiences led me to think about living without a car, or at least with one less car, in Baltimore. In the far-flung suburbs, in larger households with the many different and busy schedules of individual household members, this may be near impossible. But, for those living in the city or at transit-accessible nodes outside the central city, the one-less-car approach might be worth further consideration.

Various initiatives are making this more feasible. The Zipcar car-sharing service is becoming ever more ubiquitous throughout the Baltimore area. Starting with campus-based fleets at Johns Hopkins University, Towson University and Goucher College, Zipcar has been deploying its vehicles in the downtown Baltimore, Federal Hill and Mt. Vernon neighborhoods, among others.

One year after its summer 2010 launch, Zipcar had outpaced its projected demand and expanded its fleet from an initial 43 to 85 vehicles, according to the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

Hardier types among us are considering biking for their commuting. In recognition of this, one can see increased capacity for bike storage at Baltimore’s Penn Station, Washington, D.C.’s Union Station and even the Fells Point waterfront, where one can store a bike and proceed across the waters of the Inner Harbor to Locust Point by way of the free water taxi (weekdays only), an extension of Baltimore’s Charm City Circulator.

Economic considerations

With the price of gasoline still well above the $3 mark, there are also economic considerations to bring into the calculus of owning and operating another car.

The American Public Transit Association has made that calculation for us. According to APTA, people who switch from driving to riding public transit could save, on average, $819 per month, based on current gas prices and the relative costs of transit fares, parking charges and the typical costs of auto ownership and maintenance.

APTA has examined this proposition in greater detail, analyzing the top 20 cities by transit ridership. The components of the APTA analysis include “fixed costs of insurance, license registration, depreciation and finance charges.”

The comparison uses 23.4 miles per gallon as the average mileage of a mid-size auto and $3.43 per gallon as the price for self-serve regular unleaded gasoline as recorded on Oct. 13.

The analysis assumes that a person will drive 15,000 miles per year. Baltimore comes up as No. 14 on the APTA list, just below Washington and ahead of Cleveland. The annual savings of a newly converted Baltimore transit rider comes to $9,916.

Saving nearly $10,000 a year should give some households pause as they consider their residential location and commuting decisions. Of course, making that switch from driving one’s car to relying on public transit could be made even more palatable if the transit ride began to approach the reliability and amenities of my train rides in Italy.

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Joe Nathanson heads Urban Information Associates Inc., a Baltimore-based economic and community development consulting firm. He contributes a monthly column to The Daily Record. He can be contacted at urbaninfo@comcast.net.