Monday, April 14, 2008

Car Free in Harrisburg

I've been here almost 3 years. I think that's long enough to make observations.

To answer a question that people are probably beginning to ask nationwide if they're looking to relocate anywhere (even here, of all places, rare as that seems to happen though) is can you live in Harrisburg without a car?

Yes! You can!

And No! Good luck!

First the yes. If you're within the city limits, it's not too hard to function without a car, if you work for the state or any place downtown (although let's face it, they all are tertiary industries to government), own a motorcycle or scooter, have no need to go out to the suburbs for anything, or have lots of friends to carpool around with. Despite the scary time I had on 2nd St. biking the city is very bikeable and I admit I'm still a fairly timid surface street biker. I'll stick to side streets and trails until I work up enough nerve. The hills aren't too bad.

While there are no 'real' grocery stores within the city limits, at least on my side of the Paxton Creek Valley, there is a pretty good Farmers Market. Parking is a bit of a premium in much of Midtown (which, despite the couple revisionists on the Pennlive message board, extends from Forester to Maclay, Front to 7th.)

The bus system, while horrible, serves its purpose: to get workers from the 'burbs to downtown government and other assorted offices since parking is at a premium downtown and increasingly expensive.

I have a couple friends I go grocery shopping with. Personally I like this method. Shopping alone is dull and it's always better to have someone to talk to. As I'm not into malls and most adult sized clothing doesn't fit me unless I special order it (and I have much too much dignity to wear children's clothing), I have no need to go out to the mall except for maybe Christmas shopping, and I don't even do that anymore. I buy gift certificates if anything at all. People have enough junk. I know I do!

As for the no, well if you want to do anything that requires leaving the city, you'll need a car, or a ride, or taxi money. While my doctor is just a few blocks away, if she orders tests they're almost always outside of the city since Harrisburg Hospital has downsized those types of medical things at their downtown location (for example, I needed a CT scan and had to leave the city to get it as the service was no longer offered at Harrisburg Hospital according to their website, but at their satellite office outside of town.) . My dentist is not exactly on a bus route. I usually just take a cab. For the handful of times a year I actually need to do this, it isn't enough for me to justify the expense (from my point of view, plus I believe when you add it all up, it's a couple thousand to operate a car) getting a car. Well, that and my stubborn mental block about it too. People who know me know that once I've made up my mind on an issue, don't bother trying to change my mind.

However I don't see how anyone could live in any of the suburbs around here and survive carless, except perhaps Camp Hill. Even then, I wouldn't want to risk crossing the Bypass to get to the Giant from the older section of town. I'm not sure if there's a pedestrian underpass. I suspect most people just drive. I suppose it is possible to live over there on the West Shore carless--I know a guy who bikes from New Cumberland to his job every day and he also doesn't drive, but it may be tougher alone. The East Shore 'burbs are older and therefore a little more walkable.

That said, my stance on driving (it's a big fat no for me, I won't do it and I have no logical reason why other then I simply don't want to and that's that!) more or less limits me to certain activities that are easy to get to by bus, foot, bike or friend with a car. It also limits me basically to the city limits to live and work and play mostly. I have no problem with any of that. I live alone and I don't (and won't) have a family to cart around. I wouldn't recommend going car free to married people or people with children especially since concepts such as carsharing and FlexCar won't come to this area because we simply don't have the density for it.

I wish people wouldn't look at me so weird when I say "I've never ever had my license and I don't want it." I also wish it didn't make it so hard to get dates around here, since everyone is so spread out. As to not driving, it isn't out of concern for our warming Earth---I'm somewhat skeptical in regards to the catastrophism that comes out of every breathless media report on the subject. It's more out of concern for my wallet and a general disinterest in the whole thing. Plus, with $4 gas approaching, would YOU want to learn to drive right now? What a waste of money, from my point of view.

It's all about trade offs though, and I think that for me, my quality of life would go down if I had to maintain a car or even spend the money to learn, which I priced somewhere in the $600 range, and I just haven't the time to do it.

So, in short, Harrisburg is survivable carless. You just have to have patience, friends, and creativity. I've got two of the three going for me, so it's all good.

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