I admit it. Sometimes—and I mean on rare, fleeting occasions—I miss my car. While the exultant thrill of whizzing past SUVs on my Schwinn could only be surpassed by, say, sprouting wings and taking flight, biking home with a sack of potatoes is a real circus act of balance and strength. And even though, after two years of commuting to Evanston on the Metra, I still breathe a sigh of gratitude as I glide along the rails at 65 miles-per-hour instead of being trapped in the gridlock below, using public transit to run errands in the suburbs is next to impossible. Even the most militant cyclist has to concede that having a car can be pretty handy. Whether picking up groceries, taking the cat to the vet or slogging a rain barrel
home, it seemed some cargo-toting chore was always coming up, so I thought it was time to give car sharing a try.
You've probably noticed signs in various parking lots for the two prominent car shares in Chicago: I-GO, a local non-profit, and Zipcar, a commercial outfit out of Boston. As always, my heart beats for the local guys, so I went to the I-GO website to sign up. Membership entails a one-time registration fee of $50 and an annual $25 membership fee. Car reservations cost $6 per hour, plus .50 cents per mile—cheaper than a cab and you get to control the radio.
About a week after registering, I received a card and membership info in the mail. Soon after, I scheduled my first trip, a series of errands that included hauling three weeks worth of dirty clothes to the laundromat and picking up about 20 pounds of costumes for alteration. I reserved the car the same morning, and found one available when and where I needed it. The igo fleet is comprised mostly of fuel-efficient Honda Civics and a couple of hybrid models to boot. I was a little disappointed that the hybrid was already taken, but equally glad to see the most fuel-efficient cars getting snatched up first.
I have to confess (with no small delight) that the whole affair had a subtle tinge of espionage—anonymously arranging to pick up a vehicle at a designated time and place, unlocking the doors via satellite with an electronic card. Of course, the Civic was no Aston Martin, but it was a real beauty: light, agile and pristine. I found all the accoutrements where the member guide indicated: keys and gas card (igo pops for the petrol) in the glove box, accident report forms behind the visor. The Illinois road map and Chicago bike map in the door were a particularly nice touch. Two hours later, with my tasks completed I returned the car to the pick-up point.
My adventure in car sharing took place the week preceding the narrowly averted RTA doomsday, so the fun of piloting my own vehicle was heavily tainted, not only by the knuckle-gnawing trials of rush-hour traffic, but by an awareness of just how much worse things could get. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs states that "the point of cities is multiplicity of choice." While Jacobs was, in this instance, bemoaning the growing dominance of automobiles in urban centers, her statement holds as true for transportation as it does for commerce. It's essential for city dwellers to have plenty of options for getting around, particularly in an expansive, neighborhood-y city like Chicago, where myriad walking-friendly areas are widely scattered and don't always coincide with a convenient train line.
Jacobs writes at length about the importance of cross-use and diversity. These same principles make public transportation in Chicago viable: If it starts to rain while I'm riding my bike, I can put it on the next bus; if my friends and I want to get to a party without looking like we just finished working construction on the Blue Line, we can catch a cab; if I need to bring home a piece of furniture, I can use the car share. And a commuter rail system is the backbone of a healthy body of transportation options. The igo and Zipcar pick-up spots cluster by necessity around L stops. Without affordable and reliable public transit to take people where they routinely go, ingenious programs like car sharing are moot. So before you log onto the igo site, why not check out what's happening with our beleaguered CTA? You might even send a shout-out to your congressman, so more Chicagoans have the chance to unshackle themselves from the bonds of car ownership.
To voice your support of public transportation to your legislators visit www.savechicagolandtransit.com.
It took a move from the regimented lawnscapes of the suburbs to the congestion of a major metropolis for Sharon to look twice at what she puts in the trash, down the sink and into her own body. She reports fortnightly on her endeavors to change "greening" from calculated deviation to a practicable way of life. You can contact her here.