Car-dependent skeptics made into car-free believers

May 18, 2011

Matt Smith and Kyle Lewis have been crisscrossing the region on foot, by bike and public transit for the past month. They are competing for one year of free transit in Arlington County’s Car-Free Diet Skeptics Challenge.

The winner will be announced in Rosslyn on Friday – on National Bike to Work Day — and it is anybody’s game, said Bobbi Greenberg of Arlington Commuter Services.

The month-long competition aims to get people out of their cars and have them tweet, blog and preach the lifestyle, Greenberg said.

“We know people aren’t going to give up their cars, but we’d like them to use it less,” she said.

The county’s commuter services program has been able to reduce car trips in the county by 38,000 trips a day, eliminating 42,000 vehicle miles traveled, she said. That means 64,000 tons of carbon dioxide and lots of other pollutants were removed from the county’s air, she said.

And after a few weeks in, Smith, 27, and Lewis, 26, are believers. It took a little getting used to, they said.

When Smith, who lives two miles from the Ballston Metro, told his friends and family he was a finalist in the challenge, their response was, “ ‘I don’t understand what you won. Going car-free sounds like a horrible prize,’ ” he said.

Driving in this region is what is horrible, Smith said. In the year and a half that he has lived in the area, he has had “murderous” thoughts behind the wheel and wanted to learn how to live without his car.

He works freelance in marketing and can telecommute. Every trip he took this month was different, from running errands to hanging out with friends. It didn’t help that on the first day of the challenge, he missed his bus and was three hours late to a job interview.

“I was up against a lot of obstacles . . . I should have planned better,” said Smith, whose new accessories consist of tote bags, walking shoes and an umbrella.

Lewis, who lives equidistant from the Court House and Clarendon Metro stations, thought he was suffering from daily heart attacks caused by his enraging car commutes to Chantilly. It was just stress, but he wanted to be in the competition to make his trips more enjoyable. Weeks before the competition started, his office, a college-application company, moved to Clarendon. Lewis was excited to take on the challenge; his mother, however, was not.

“ ‘You are accident-prone,’ ” Lewis said, recalling the conversation. “ ‘How are you going to get to the hospital?’ ”

Just as his mother predicted, Lewis’s worst day was when he rolled his ankle playing basketball and had to figure out a route to his Clarendon office while on crutches in the rain. His trip, a bus-to-Metro combination, took almost 45 minutes. His office is only about a mile away.

Lewis also missed Mother’s Day with his family in Roanoke and hasn’t shopped for bulk groceries at a BJ’s Wholesale Club in a month. Smith is still having issues trying to time public transit after a night out on the town.

Despite the headaches, going car-free was worth it, the once-car-free skeptics said.

“I’m so much more laid back,” Smith said. “I love taking the bus. I love sitting and looking around.”

They talk about the joys of meeting their neighbors and fellow bicyclists. They like getting exercise.

“I’d like to look back on this contest and say, ‘This is the moment I changed my life,’ ” said Smith, who thinks that once the challenge is over he’ll use his car only when necessary.

“I don’t understand why more people don’t do this,” Lewis said. He persuaded his mother to try car-free travel alternatives and sold his car. He isn’t sure whether he’ll get another one.

Smith was contacted for a job interview by a company who read his car-free blog. And regarding the interview that he was late for: He ended up getting the offer.

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