Environmental Atty. Matt Donahue Aims to Shed His Car (Part 1)

Can an Environmental Attorney in Lowell, Massachusetts, Live and Work without a Car in the New Economy?

By Matthew C. Donahue

In early August of this year, the Donahue household was beset with a series of car crises. It was our own doing or undoing I should say.

My office is less than a mile from my house, in fact, there is a Lowell Regional Transit Authority bus that stops less than fifty yards from my back door and drops me at the front door of my office building for $1.00—or I could walk.

So the question came up as I rode the bus past the gas station where our old Suburban sat destined for the graveyard: Could I get along without a car at all?

With the bus and good weather, public transportation and walking would cover me until I needed to go to court or meet a client.

Then what?

I could have a company car that is left at the office and used for daily business, and I could get a small Yaris or Prius…something just for inner city travel.

The grocery store, the cleaners—how do I deal with all the kids and those last minute changes and games and crazy things that just happen when raising a family today?  It happened when my son, who had had his wisdom teeth taken out, had an emergency appointment that I had to cover. I could use the family car for those things, but what if that car is being used?

“Peace of mind” requires us to have something in our driveway so that you will never “feel stuck,” I guess. Just in case there is an emergency. So, the price tag for peace of mind? Cost of car + cost of insurance for car + maintenance + gas. 

Why is any of this important anyway?

It’s the Environment, Stupid.

As an environmental lawyer living and practicing law in Lowell, Massachusetts, as well as in New Hampshire, I was always quite frankly ashamed at my reliance upon our Suburban. But I rationalized that I live in a city and had bought an old house that I have incrementally made more energy efficient. I didn’t invade a suburban farm and buy a new house, forcing me to drive extra miles and eating up farm land that we will inevitably need some day.

But I had four sons, and they were very active in schools and sports, so we needed to follow in line with the standard societal norm of an expectation and the desire to hit the open road. We caved and drove like crazy for 16 years. 

We averaged 20,000 miles per year in each of two cars! Road trips to AAU games, college tours, vacations, ski trips in Vermont, transportation to schools in Danvers and Lexington.

As a lawyer I travel to courts. My wife is a nurse for the VNA and relies on a car for visiting patients.

As the boys grew up, we added a car. More insurance, more gas, more miles….

More pollution! Yes we are polluters, all of us, so can I reduce my pollution tendencies also known as “carbon footprint,” and reduce the number of miles I drive unnecessarily by introducing myself to public transportation?

Anti-Public Transportation Sentiment

I went to a neighbor’s house this week and several people talked to be me about the fact that I was riding a bus; a high school-aged girl thought it was a horror, another peer professional did ride the bus and walk for over a year when he did not have a car and decided he didn’t need one for the same reason. He lived a mile and a half from work, could walk, but he had something I didn’t—access to a company car at work.  Several neighbors ride the bus, and we talked about why people do not.

Scheduling, Convenience, Independence

The car is tough competition for public transportation, but it is an expensive peace-of-mind to keep parked in your drive way or parking garage while you work. If I did not buy a pass and used the local bus for $2 per day, five days a week, my cost would be $10 per week. 

My insurance bill alone, for my “emergency” car, is $2,500.00 per year. If we divide that by 52 weeks, is costs me $48 per week. And it is usually parked in the driveway doing nothing. So if we eliminated the car entirely, and relied upon the public transportation, it would be a dramatic savings in insurance, gas, maintenance, and back pain for driving around and being stuck in traffic.

The aforementioned professional is back with a car although he admits the busses were always clean and generally on time. But he is still smitten with the convenience of a car to go where he wants and when he wants.

Cheaper and Cleaner

Let’s face it—you can’t beat the cost of alternatives to cars. They are too expensive. Convenience costs us all money in air pollution, traffic issues, road maintenance, and accidental injury and death. If you do the math, it is simple: insurance, car payment, operation:  # of miles driven /mpg cost per gallon, tolls, maintenance and repair—all this adds up to a significant total, but we accept it because, well, it’s easy. I guess generally people have the money for it and need it for work and to live their busy lives. That is fine. I am one of you.

Walking and biking is the best. Exercise is always good. Plug in the iPod and go. The heat of the summer and cold of the summer and the volatility of weather in between in the global-climate changing world of ours would require some effort on my part. It would require me to have a change of clothes at my office, ideally a shower. 

Another roadblock (no pun intended)? But I then realized that there is a health club across the street offering a yearly membership for $99! I could have access to a locker and shower and I would be all set. So I am joining next week.

Reality Check

Someone once told me that our wives exist to prepare their husbands for how an idea will be accepted—or scoffed at—in the real world. I thought that was true but difficult to listen to at times. So my wife played that role with this idea.

However great an idea, she said, there are other considerations. I will need a car, she said. So while it would be environmentally responsible to eliminate a car entirely, the fact is I am going to need one occasionally. The goal here has to be to significantly reduce the number of driving days in my life.

So I bought an emergency car. But will I succumb to convenience and use it on days when I do not plan properly?

For the sake of this blog though, I am being stubborn. I am trying to eliminate the emergency car for one simple reason: I hate paying money for cars. So how do I fill in the gaps from days I can walk or take the bus to those days when I will need a car for business and personal appointments that require further travel?

Enter the Zip Car! A Zip Car franchise that rents cars by the hour is located in Cambridge. The cars cost $7 per hour or $69 per day—and that includes insurance and gas!

I have put a call in…I will keep you posted on my daily travel…stay tuned.

—Matthew C. Donahue © 2010

9 Responses to Environmental Atty. Matt Donahue Aims to Shed His Car (Part 1)

  1. Peter Richards says:

    I always suspected that Matt was crazy, I am now convinced. From this Prius driving environmentally sympathetic sort-good luck. I look forward to reading about your adventures. A subcommittee meeting might be in order.

  2. C R Krieger says:

    And going to Vermont?  I took a bus from Selma, Alabama to Los Angeles one Christmas, and then rode it back to Selma.  Fifty hours on the road, each way.  I had family at the other end, so I didn’t need a car there.

    People do adapt.  When President Jimmy Carter jacked up parking fees at the Pentagon and car pooling became the thing to do, at least on the Air Staff, it became acceptable to leave a meeting at some point soon after 5:00 PM with the statement “My Car Pool is leaving”.  Not only did you need them, but they needed you, to make up the magic number of people for the HOV Lane.  But, to the Car Pool’s advantage there was always the “Slug Line”.

    I am looking forward to reading more.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  3. DickH says:

    Matt – Thanks for sharing your essay. It’s an intriguing subject. I’ve walked to and from work a few times – 30 minutes each way at a good pace – and have enjoyed it. But the convenience of a car always seems to win out. Maybe if gas goes back to $4 per gallon, I’ll get more serious about it.

    In the meantime, a couple of observations: Rather than forsaking a car entirely we can do it incrementally by looking more aggressively for opportunities to walk instead of drive. As a city we could do more to make our streets more walkable. I always go back to cars parked on sidewalks – as if it’s more important to protect the parked vehicle than the walking pedestrian from being struck by a passing motor vehicle. Same goes with not shoveling sidewalks.

    As with so many other things, we should also look to history for guidance. Most of Lowell was built before cars even existed and people still worked and shopped and worshiped. By digging into how they got around, maybe we can learn something useful.

  4. PaulM says:

    Alternatives to cars are gaining momentum in Lowell. The historic trolley system is in line for expansion. Improvements to the Thorndike Street gateway and Hamilton Canal District developments should stimulate more use of trains and buses coming out of Gallagher terminal. UMass Lowell has beefed up its campus shuttle bus service. Jeff Speck’s downtown master plan update for City Hall and the Lowell Plan will be informed by Speck’s commitment to urban walking, biking, and mass transit. The LRTA bus fleet has been upgraded and made more “green.” The National Park Service continues to connect the pieces of the Canalway, the linked paths along various canals. The Riverwalk skirting downtown and the Acre will one day be as busy as the Vandenberg Esplanade on the north bank of the Merrimack in Pawtucketville. The Concord River Greenway when completed will offer a nature-side altenative to street routes from downtown to South Lowell. If rehabbing the bricks-and-mortar of commercial buildings and improving neighborhood housing stock was the dominant focus of the past 30 years or physical renovation in the city, observers 30 years from now may point out that collective improvement of the urban transportation routes and systems was the next major physical development as a whole in Lowell.

  5. Marianne says:

    Thanks so much for sharing, I am really looking forward to reading more about your adventures. I am so glad you are thinking and writing about this – I think that most of the time we don’t think of what the best mode of transportation is for a certain trip, we just default to the car.

    I have found that for most of my trips in Lowell, my bike is my best bet. It doesn’t take much longer than driving (and it’s definitely faster if I have to cross a bridge), I don’t have to worry about parking, and it inserts a bit of fun and freedom into my day*.

    I ride an English-style commuter bike that is fully equipped with fenders, a chain-guard, lights, and baskets, this allows me to ride in my regular clothes (including work-wear: dresses and heels.) My rule is that I will ride anything less than 7 miles one-way – this covers work (3 miles each way), most work meetings, grocery shopping, picking up my CSA, social activities, etc. When it was really hot and humid, I just rode slower; when it rains, I wear raingear and in the winter, I’ll bundle up.

    Good luck, I am looking forward to hearing more.

    (*This is the real reason I bike – saving money on gas and reducing my carbon footprint are nice but it’s the fun that has me hooked. Going to places I hate, hello dentist, is much more palatable when I have a fun bike ride bookending the dreaded activity. Traveling by bike keeps me cheerful.)

  6. C R Krieger says:

    I agree with Pual M’s point about Lowell, but it is the larger county issues that concern me, transportation wise.  When I work I work off River Road, close by I-93. Before that I worked below the Raytheon plant off Route 133 by I-93. Before that I worked off Route 20 in Sudbury. And before that it was off Concord Street in Willmington.  While I didn’t try to track down public transportation to each of those destinations, I was alert to any signs of it and I saw no signs.

    The solution may be the John McDonough solution that people in Lowell work the jobs in Lowell, and the same goes for Chelmsford and Wilmington and Andover and Sudbury, but that seems to fight the recent view that we get a better economic deal if we are willing to see labor flexible land mobile.

    Paul’s points work for us as a bedroom community for Boston or some town along the rail line from here to there.  But does it work for the Route 128 corridor or the I-495 corridor or the new Route 3 (my submission for the name, per Kendal Wallace’s request for such is “Burlington North Road to Growth”)?

    Request  —  Cliff

  7. Greg Page says:

    Like a lot of the commenters so far, I’m a huge fan of walking, just for its own sake.

    I never owned a car until I was 24…that wasn’t a political statement as much as an economic one, but I think cars in college can be a huge distraction — definitely more trouble than they’re worth, and something I’m glad to have avoided altogether.

    I may be looking at a daily commute down to Boston within the next couple of years…there’s no question the train from downtown or the direct bus from Nashua is going to be the way to do it — with free Wi-Fi, no parking hassles, and the chance to catch up on sleep or reading (neither of those tend to work well with I-93), it seems like the benefits outweigh the only advantage of the private auto, which is a bit more flexibility with the schedule.

    Working now right where Reading-meets-Wakefield-meets-Lynnfield, the car is really the only option.

    I’m looking forward to hearing how Matt Donahue progresses with this, as well as people’s policy ideas to help separate us from our foreign oil dependency. For what it’s worth, I’ll chime in here as a realist (not a cynic, I hope!) and say that any great solution has to be rooted in an appeal to personal incentive.

    As Warren Buffett’s investment partner Charlie Munger likes to say every time he gets the chance: “Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.”

  8. JoeS says:

    There are some walking improvements in Lowell, as can be seen on Thorndike street and the work going on with the old railroad bridge and along the Hamilton Canal. If the trolley system gets a significant expansion that will help even more. These changes will be important in getting people along the Lowell commuter line to places like the new Trial Court and the RMV. And it will aid those people living in Lowell that take the commuter train to Boston for work.

    But the location of some good jobs in the downtown area and surroundings would be the best way to reduce automobile traffic. That should be a full-court press.