Being Car-Lite in Minneapolis

Photo of a person walking down the street in Minneapolis in the rain holding an umbrella.
Photo by Josh Hild on

My partner and I moved to Minneapolis two years ago in 2019. We moved for many reasons, primarily for him to study at the University of Minnesota. He and I made many adjustments to our lifestyles when we landed in Minnesota. We found new friends, discovered new foods, located new stores for us to buy supplies. We also used the move as an opportunity to shed some of our belongings. Before our move, I donated several boxes of books and movies, sold a few pieces of furniture, and made the decision to scrap one of our cars.

Prior to Minneapolis, my partner and I lived in Milwaukee. We rented a quaint apartment in Bayview, two blocks away from Lake Michigan. The apartment was within walking distance to a grocery co-operative, several restaurants, bars, and it was close to public transit. We couldn’t ask for a better neighborhood. However, our jobs and lifestyles required both of us to own a car. We would try to limit our trips around the city, and we supplemented public transit where feasible. However, we held onto our motors the entire time. This commitment to our automobiles required numerous trips to the mechanic, several car payments, two insurance premiums, and a few break-ins during the overnight. When we moved to Minneapolis, we made the decision to leave one of our cars behind.

Car-light households are somewhat common in the United States. According to the latest American Community Survey estimates from the census bureau, 33% of households in the country have one car, 37% have two cars, and 9% have no car. In Milwaukee, 44% of households have one car, 29% have two cars, and 17% have no car. In Minneapolis, the statistics are about the same. 43% have one car, 31% have two cars, and 17% have no car. Living with one car has been very easy, and sometimes more beneficial than owning two cars. My partner and I rarely experience a scheduling conflict where we both need a car. When we do, we carpool, or take other steps to make it work. Our bills are cheaper. There’s one less item to own, maintain, and insure. Furthermore, we are able to reduce our carbon footprint by reducing our vehicle travel altogether.

The 2021 UN Report on Climate Change almost guarantees a warmer planet, but suggests that proactive actions to curb greenhouse gas emissions could stabilize the climate and avoid catastrophic changes. According to the EPA, 29% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States come from transportation, and 58% of all transportation emissions originate from “light-duty vehicles” (i.e., our cars). Since 1990, there has been a 19% increase in the number of passenger cars on the road, but there has been a slight decline in emissions from passenger cars overall.

Share of US greenhouse gas emissions by section, 2019: Residential 6%, Electric Power Industry 25%, Transportation 29%, Industry 23%, Agriculture 23%, Commercial 7%. Share of US Transportation Sector Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Light-duty vehicles 58%, medium and heavy duty trucks 24%, rail 2%, all other transportation sources 5%, aircraft 10%, ships and boats 2%
Source: United Stated Environmental Protection Agency (2021). Facts Facts U.S.Transportation Sector Greenhouse Gas Emissions 1990 –2019.

In addition to removing a vehicle from our transportation arsenal, my partner and I increased our bicycle and public transportation usage. Our workplace offices are located on public transit routes, which greatly reduced our vehicle usage before the pandemic. Since COVID began, remote work further reduced our overall transportation needs. COVID also encouraged us to increase our bicycle transportation. Now we use our bicycles for running errands, grocery shopping, and traveling to campus. Minneapolis has some of the best bicycle infrastructure in the country, and we certainly take advantage of it.

We still own a car. It mostly sits in our parking lot. We use it once or twice a week, usually for a larger grocery run or a trip out of town. The car itself is 5 years old, and it has about 16,000 miles (which means less than 4,000 miles are added each year). Most of our miles are accumulated when we leave the cities to visit family and friends in other states.  

Never-the-less, we all can do more to reduce our transportation emissions. I recently acquired a new single-gear bike, and I will continue to increase my bicycle transportation this fall. I would also like to make more use of inter-city transportation, including Amtrak and other bus operators. Now that I am fully vaccinated, I feel more comfortable in shared transportation spaces (albeit still cautious with the emerging variants of the virus). This fall, my goal is to completely abandon my car for inner-city trips, and reduce my personal vehicle use for inter-city trips.

I encourage others to develop goals to become less car dependent this fall. Not everyone’s goals will look like mine. I acknowledge that I am coming from a place of privilege, because I live in a location that has fairly robust multi-modal transit. I also have the physical ability to navigate a bicycle. I don’t want this article to sound ableist or elitist, but I do want to support others in their pursuits to live car-light (or perhaps entirely car-free).

Consider the following ideas to reduce your car dependence:

  • Walk or bike to any destination that is less than 2 miles away. Once you reach this goal, try to increase your radius to 5 miles.
  • Reduce your car trips by running all errands in one afternoon. When you are out shopping, consider traveling to a shopping center where you can hit multiple stores at once.  
  • Pick one or two days a week where you do not move your car. Once you reach this goal, try to add more days each week where your car stays parked.
  • Talk to others about your goals. Normalize non-car transportation.
  • Contact your elected officials and encourage them to support multimodal transportation infrastructure. There’s a lot of buzz about transportation planning right now from President Biden’s Infrastructure bill. Build on that buzz.

You may have to reprioritize your commitments. My partner and I experienced this when we became car-light. Access to a personal automobile makes everything go faster. It’s possible to pack several events into one day when you have access to a car. When you leave the car behind, you have to be more mindful of time. This means you may not be able to visit one friend at their house, and then grab dinner with another friend, and then stop by Target for a quick grocery run on your way home. But, that’s okay.

I find that my daily activities are more meaningful when I spend less time “on-the-go” and more time being present in my physical space. For example, my Starbucks tastes better when I’m sitting at the bus stop rather than when I’m driving to someone’s home. At the bus stop, I can stop and taste the coffee. In my car, I’m focused on many more things than just my coffee.

For those that live in car-dependent areas, you still have options. Consider carpooling, or driving to a transportation center when you can switch to public transit. This practice is very common in larger metros, like my hometown in Chicagoland. Many folks will drive to a train station to travel from the suburbs to downtown. This is less possible in Minneapolis, but it can still be done. If you decide to take your car into the city, bring your bicycle along. You can park your car in a garage and explore different neighborhoods by bike. Perhaps when it’s time to move, consider moving to a more transit-friendly location.

It’s time to get creative with our transportation use. Our wellbeing truly depends on it. And have fun with it. Share your experiences on your socials. Take pictures. Enjoy the scenery. We are lucky to have the opportunity to improve the world with our individual actions.

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