Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Do I Walk the Walk?

Dateline: 2:51 pm December 14, 2007 Filed under:

Now for me. I talk the talk, but do I walk the walk? Since I call myself an urbanist, I feel somewhat compelled to back it up. Ideally, I’d live “sustainably” in a condo or urban townhome with my family, located in or near downtown, within walking distance of a park, a daycare, a school and all my shopping needs, and have rail access to the airport. And there would be three hour train service to Milwaukee to visit the inlaws (some day!). Well, reality dictates that I compromise some of those ideals, but here we go.

For starters, I live with my wife and son in Minneapolis, one block south of the 38th Street light rail station. Riding the bus downtown with my grandfather as a little boy and living and working in London for a short period as an adult, where I chose between the bus or the Underground, instilled in me a certain fondness for transit. As a result, I not only have never actively looked for a job outside downtown Minneapolis (except London), every house and apartment I have lived in (in Minneapolis, Madison and London) have been close to a transit line.

In 2004 I gave our Realtor a map of the Minneapolis light rail stations with half mile rings drawn around them. My wife and I were looking for a house and our only criteria was it had to be within a half mile the train, and preferably within a quarter mile, or a comfortable five minute walk. We looked at a couple decent houses before finding a wonderful, simple one and a half story home with hardwood floors built in 1939. We knew at first sight that we wanted it, and since the housing market had not yet cooled, we bid above the asking price to ensure we got it. Since it was March 2004, and the light rail line (the first in the Twin Cities) was to open in June 2004, I believe we were the first “transit speculators” in the Twin Cities.

The proximity to light rail is paying off in spades. It is a four minute walk to the station, and from there a 15 minute ride to downtown Minneapolis or 10 minutes to the airport. Literally I can print my boarding pass, leave the house, catch the train, and if there is no security line, be at my gate within 30 minutes. When we moved in, I still worked downtown, and because I was able to take the train to work, I filled my gas tank about once a month and had a very noticable dip in mileage driven. Just telling people that fact as gas prices rise generates a lot of raised eyebrows. Relatives of ours that thought living by the train was a novelty suddenly registered the possible savings in doing so. In fact, I have several friends and colleagues that also live near a station stop. We are all living proof that living near quality transit service reduces mileage driven and the corresponding cost of driving. We are proving that there is demand in the real estate market or living near transit.

We still own two cars, but drive them a total of fewer than 10,000 miles per year, 4,000 of which are highway miles for vacation or to visit family. With no small amount of sadness, I parted ways with my 195,000-mile 1989 Toyota Camry this year. It averaged just under 30 miles per gallon, and we replaced it with a 2003 Honda Civic, which averages 34. Since it has a CD player and sunroof, I really don’t miss the Camry much anymore, and the increase in mileage is very much appreciated.

But I am human. I will admit to a certain respect, no, fondness for some trucks. Take my father-in-law’s GMC full-size pickup, for example. Now there is a real man’s truck. It’s way too big for our needs, but for hunting, fishing, and towing a boat it is sure nice. Occasionally I rent a Ford Ranger or Jeep Liberty while on business trips, particularly if I don’t have too many miles to drive. I like the Liberty because of its small size and rugged feel. It fits in to small urban parking spaces well, but it is also a truck, meant to be taken off road. Trucks don’t need all those frilly gadgets on the interior – since when does a truck need a DVD player or seat warmers!? But alas, real urbanists don’t need trucks – I shudder to think of the hell I will catch if I were to buy a Liberty. But face it, at 20 MPG it gets roughly the same as most minivans and not much worse than a Subaru Outback or Forester.

To offset my future potential Jeep Liberty carbon emissions, I bought a Euro-style Trek bike this summer, as well as a two-kid Burley trailer! This is exciting. I had always biked for excercise, but my trip to the Netherlands inspired me to buy a commuter bike complete with a bell, chain guard, generator-powered headlight, huge fenders, and a mini-lock that clamps the back wheel so you can run inside for a quick errand and not need to lock the bike to something. With the grid of streets and distance to most stores of over a half mile but less than three, our neighborhood is well suited for biking. Occasiaonally I bike to a business meeting as well as towing Ellis around on errands. I even go on the occasional bike pub crawl.

Our neighborhood is well suited for biking but also walking. Our house gets a Walkscore of 72. If you haven’t used Walkscore, please try it. It is a mapping system that takes your address and spits out a ranking on a scale of 1 to 100 of the amenities – shops, restaurants, parks, libraries, etc. – that are within walking distance. I recommend Walkscore for home purchases or deciding on an apartment, but also planning where to stay on vacation to make sure your hotel isn’t out in the sticks.

A little more about our neighborhood. Notable walking destinations are my beloved Tillie’s Bean coffee shop (assuming it reopens), a fantastic rib joint called Ted Cook’s 19th Hole (the best ribs I have ever had), A Baker’s Wife (the best bakery on earth), a family-owned Ace Hardware and a wonderful new little neighborhood pub, Buster’s on 28th. Buying local keeps more money in the local economy. I am quite proud to say that our neighborhood has almost entirely local and family-owned businesses, and I do frequent many of them.

A local grocer or food cooperative more suited to our tastes is in order, as well as a pharmacy. A major transit-oriented development is planned across from the 38th Street station and two blocks from us, but retailers have not yet been announced, so here’s hoping for a grocer.

As for our house, it was built in 1939 but is a lot like a typical postwar one and one-half story home – three bedrooms and one bath. We don’t have excess space, but also don’t have to heat and cool a huge house. We reinsulated the upstairs, but haven’t done anything particularly green on the inside or the outside. We plan to grow strawberries next year and hopefully other food in the future. I suppose a rain cistern and rain garden are also in order. There is also the half-baked notion of replacing our single-car garage with a double containing a granny flat above.

I try to walk the walk. I also bike and take transit for some, but certainly not all of my local travel. There may be better locations in which to live that result in a smaller ecological footprint, but we like our neighborhood, as it has good amenities but also good value. We have a good local elementary school and beautiful playground nearby, and those things are not always easy to find in cities. There is room for improvement, and I suppose being aware of the impact of our decisions and striving to do better is a step (literally) in the right direction.

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