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How Being "Car Ownership Free" Led to Healthy Living, Community Organizing and Embracing Transit

Nancy Fischer and Lars Christiansen, photo by Brian Martucci

Lars Christiansen and Nancy Fischer, photo by Brian Martucci

Lars showing the way, photo by Brian Martucci

Lars Christiansen, photo by Brian Martucci

Lars Christiansen and the Friendly Streets team

When you meet Lars Christiansen for the first time, you realize he looks like he spends a lot of time on his bike: He’s fit and trim, with enviable posture. What you realize soon after is his passion about improving transit, deepening public engagement with the urban planning process and reimagining public space across the Central Corridor.

The Hamline-Midway resident also admits that car-free living remains harder than it should be.  “Our society has more cars than it needs,” he says flatly, “and that makes it hard to be completely car-free.” He prefers the term “car ownership free” to explain his family’s arms-length relationship with private motor vehicles.

He and his wife, Nancy Fischer, sold their car about two years ago, plunging with abandon into the Twin Cities’ increasingly rich network of public and alternative modes of transportation.

An avid, all-season cyclist, Christiansen bikes about 11 miles, round-trip, to his job at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. With two rear panniers and extra straps for bulky items, he bikes whenever and wherever possible, even on full-fledged grocery runs.

Fischer’s cycling setup isn’t quite as extensive, so she’s turned into a deft user of multimodal transit. She walks to her Green Line station, slides her bike into the rack, and after reaching her stop rides her bike to her Minneapolis workplace. On a recent jaunt to the Birchwood Cafe, she hopped on the 67 Bus to the Seward Co-op’s Nice Ride station and then biked to the restaurant.

Her success hints at the possibility of a completely car-free future for the couple and others like them. Many of their car-owning friends seem to have “spare capacity,” says Christiansen, noting that they freely offer their vehicles without prompting. Such informal car sharing arrangements can be useful, since not everyone can afford HourCar or Car2Go memberships.

But ultimately, “transit and biking facilities are key,” Christiansen says, to a completely car-free lifestyle. “You need to have a reliable, well-funded transit system” that facilitates point-to-point travel to and from virtually anywhere in Minneapolis-St. Paul, he says, like from a quiet side street in Hamline-Midway to a quiet side street in Seward.

Four reasons to be free of car ownership

According to Christiansen, four factors facilitated their switch:

1.  An increasingly robust network of bikeways and bike lanes across Minneapolis-St. Paul, coupled with more opportunities for year-round biking;

2. Carsharing options like Car2Go and HourCar, Christiansen’s favorite resource for those unavoidable trips to the home improvement store;

3. The opening of the Green Line light rail, and;

4. Nice Ride Minnesota’s growing network of bike stations (he’s a former board member).

Four reasons to love being car ownership free

While Christiansen and Fischer realized swearing off car ownership would require some lifestyle changes, the switch also resulted in four immediate and positive changes they didn’t anticipate:

1. Healthier living. Whether he’s trotting to Groundswell for a cup of coffee or she’s making her way to the Green Line’s Hamline Station, the couple collectively takes “thousands of additional steps” each day. And they’re sitting less, too.  

2. More (and higher-quality) public engagement. “When you’re driving, you’re in private space,” Christiansen explains. “If another driver makes a mistake, you automatically assume malice and take it as an affront,” he says—the root cause of road rage. “By contrast, when you ride a bus, train or bike, you’re in public. You encounter a greater diversity of people, with whom you develop camaraderie.”

3. More financial breathing room. Between gas and insurance alone, Christiansen estimates that he and Fischer spent $160 per month on their vehicle. Repairs, parking and other sundry items raised the cost of car ownership even further. “All that’s gone now,” he says. Together, the bikes, transit passes and alternative transit memberships cost a fraction of the old expenses.

4. Less stress. This is perhaps the least tangible but most important change. “We habituate to the burdens of driving and car ownership quite readily,” Christiansen says, “but once they’re gone, it’s like a veil has been lifted.” Now that they no longer deal with the daily stresses of driving, the couple’s quality of life has improved markedly.

Car-free living on Friendly Streets

Because the couple lives the car ownership free dream every day, they’re advocates for the lifestyle change. So Christiansen, with help from a handful of other Hamline-Midway and Frogtown residents, hatched a plan to help others cut the internal combustion cord: the Friendly Streets Initiative.

The Friendly Streets Initiative (FSI) “gives neighborhoods tools and resources to transform public space, with a focus on healthy, safe, fun walking and biking, and creative placemaking,” according to its website. Each of FSI’s two-year projects focuses on the public spaces of a problematic street or area, soliciting community input on how to support alternative transit, improve intersection safety and incorporate art and small-scale green space into the streetscape. FSI presents the results of its organic fact-finding and data-gathering processes to the city to generate innovative, mutually agreeable plans that are likely to be funded and implemented.

The goal is to enliven the planning process by employing “creative modes of engagement,” such as family friendly block parties at which organizers display aerial neighborhood maps, customized “concept images” of streetscape improvements, and life-size models of pop-up parks and traffic diverters. The organization solicits input from everyone at the events, from elementary-school children to grandparents, and combines that input with rigorous field research (Christiansen has a Ph.D. in sociology) to create compelling reports for city planners. FSI also demonstrates its forward-thinking infrastructure elements at gatherings put on by other Twin Cities organizations, such as What's Growing Here, a recent community-building event sponsored by LISC and Prospect Park 2020.

The seed for FSI was planted in 2009, when the Green Line’s Hamline Station Plan identified Charles Avenue as an east-west bikeway that would funnel bike traffic off University. Christiansen, then a member of the Hamline-Midway Coalition’s Transportation Committee, resolved to “get ahead” of the public planning process and take the question directly to members of the local community.

In 2012, along with five colleagues who volunteered their time, he secured a small grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative (CCFC) to hold five block parties in the Hamline-Midway and Frogtown neighborhoods. Great turnout led to great input and the final Charles Avenue Bikeway plan enjoyed broad-based community support. Much of the route is either finished or under construction.

In 2013, a similar process—complete with a block party called Pelham Palooza—resulted in a comprehensive traffic-calming plan for a mile-long stretch of Pelham Boulevard. After demonstrating proof of concept, FSI secured a larger grant from CCFC and set to work on nine bike- and pedestrian-friendly streetscape projects within the St. Paul segment of the Central Corridor.

The most ambitious project is the Better Bridges for Stronger Communities initiative, a partnership with several district councils and neighborhood organizations in St. Paul that aims to improve the eight I-94 crossings between Pelham and Dale. “The bridges over I-94 are psychological barriers to Green Line access from the south,” Christiansen says, citing the noise, exposure to the elements and unpleasant concrete streetscapes.

With better wayfinding, more bike- and ped-friendly features, livelier design elements and community-generated art, locals might actually want to cross these bridges outside of the confines of their cars. The Knight Green Line Challenge agrees: Better Bridges is a finalist for the prize, which will be announced October 14. If Better Bridges wins, FSI will actively partner with the District Councils Collaborative and the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation.

As a result of their lifestyle change and advocacy, Christiansen and Fischer have had a busy two years: After saying goodbye to car ownership, Fischer embraced her love for transit, bikesharing and healthy living. Christiansen dove into year-round cycling and honed his passion for community organizing.

And from its humble beginnings on Charles Avenue, the Friendly Streets Initiative is growing into one of St. Paul’s premier public advocacy organizations. "We're aim to make public planning more immediate—and fun—for members of our communities," says Christiansen.

Brian Martucci is The Line’s Innovation and Jobs Editor.

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