On Freedom, Choice, and Spontaneity of Mobility

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What the heck is shared use mobility, and what does it have to do with walkability, my current passion as Policy and Program Director at WalkDenver? Why should you even care? I think the best way to answer that question is by telling a little bit of my personal story.

When I was in my early 20’s, I moved to Toronto in Canada for graduate school. At that time, I was dirt poor. I had no savings, I had a mountain of debt from student loans, and I was earning just a meager stipend as a research and teaching assistant. Faced with this economic reality, I rented a tiny little basement apartment, and I gave up my car. Other than watching TV shows like Seinfeld and Friends, I had no idea how one goes about living without a car, but I was young and brave, and frankly didn’t have a lot of choice.

The amazing thing was, even though I was poor and carless, I had a very high quality of life while living in Toronto. Almost everything I needed was within walking distance of my apartment - grocery stores, hardware stores, coffee shops, a great park system, a free rec center, and an excellent transit system that allowed me to easily get to other parts of town. Also, because I was walking around so much, I felt very connected to the neighborhood and the people in my community.

It occurred to me that this kind of community didn’t happen by accident. It was the result of thoughtful city planning that promoted compact, mixed use development that put destinations within walking distance of homes. And public investments in the infrastructure and amenities to support that development, including high quality transit and pedestrian infrastructure, and public parks and rec centers. Because of that experience, I ended up switching my career and going into urban planning.

Fast forward nearly 20 years. I’m still paying off my students loans, but I’m better off financially. I’m also still car free. But instead of being an economic necessity, now it’s about choice - my personal choice not to own a car, and all of the choices I have available to me for getting around the city - which now far exceed what was available to me 20 years ago. 

Consider for example a typical day last spring. I got the bug to do some gardening, and the City was giving away free mulch. My household doesn’t have a car, but that’s not a problem. Through eGo carshare, I was able to rent a pick-up truck for a few hours. My husband and I drove to the park, elbowed our way toward the mulch pile, shoveled a mound of mulch into the back of the truck, drove it home and spread the mulch around our trees and garden. Then we went to the garden center and filled up the back of the truck with a bunch of flowers for our front porch. Easy peasy.

That day, like many days, I felt this incredible sense of freedom, that I could spontaneously move around my city using whatever mode of transportation was most convenient, and never having to rely on a personal vehicle. 

After I returned the truck to its designated parking spot, I had a few more errands to run. I needed to drop off my ballot for the municipal election, and I needed to do some grocery shopping. Happily, I could get to both the ballot drop-off location and the grocery store by walking. At the grocery store, I went on a bit of a shopping spree, and ended up buying more stuff than I wanted to carry home by walking. No problem - there is a Bcycle station near the store, so I put my groceries in the basket on the front of the bike and rode home. 

Later that night, I met some friends for dinner. I was planning on biking to the restaurant, but I was running late and it was raining. So I looked on my smart phone, found a Car2Go nearby and drove to the restaurant. After dinner the rain had stopped and I wasn’t in a hurry, so I hopped on the bus to get home. That day, like many days, I felt this incredible sense of freedom, that I could spontaneously move around my city using whatever mode of transportation was most convenient, and never having to rely on a personal vehicle. 

One last piece to my story - a couple of years ago my mom moved from Colorado Springs to Denver to live with me and my husband. Not long after she moved here, she got in a car accident. She wasn’t hurt, but her car was totalled and, like me in my 20’s, she couldn’t afford to buy a new one. For many people in their 70’s, giving up a car means giving up independence, and basically becoming homebound. That definitely would have been the case if my mom was still living in Colorado Springs. But because of all of the transportation options available in our Denver neighborhood, my mom is still very independent and actively engaged in the community - she takes the bus to church, she walks to the pharmacy to pick up her medicine, she even uses Lyft to go farther afield where transit is less convenient. 

My family has a lot of freedom of mobility, not because we each own our personal means of transportation (a car), but because we have access to a wide variety of shared mobility options - carshare, bikeshare, ridesourcing (e.g,, Lyft and Uber), as well as traditional public transit. Furthermore, the fact that we live in a walkable urban neighborhood ensures that these options are, in fact, easy to access. If we have to walk a few blocks to the closest carshare vehicle, bikeshare station, or transit stop, our walking route typically includes good, wide sidewalks and safe pedestrian crossings.  

Conversely, having shared use mobility options available on demand makes it easier to incorporate walking into our daily routines. I can walk to the store, confident in knowing that if I buy too much to carry home on foot, carshare and bikeshare options are close by. The members of my household all do a lot of walking, and we are most certainly healthier, happier, and more connected with our community because of it.

My family is lucky, because we live in a neighborhood where we have all these options available to us. For many neighborhoods, that’s not true. The opportunity that I see with the growth of the Denver region is that we can make mobility choices available for more and more neighborhoods.Through infill and redevelopment paired with policies and infrastructure that support multi-modal, shared-use mobility, we can increase choice, freedom, and access to opportunity for everyone - particularly for the 30% of the population that can’t drive because of income, or age, or disability.

One of the biggest challenges is simply that change is hard, especially when it happens fast. It feels scary, and risky. I worry that our resistance to change will cause us to turn our backs and miss out on this amazing opportunity. But I’m hopeful that we, as a region, can be brave like I was in my 20’s and my mom is in her 70’s. That we can embrace the change, and take advantage of this opportunity to transform our region into something even better than it is today.

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