Car-Free Diet: Shed Traffic, Fatten Wallet

By Mark Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

Kate Heffley was five months from finishing graduate school when she made a momentous decision: She was going to get rid of her car.

Heffley, 30, had driven the 2001 Honda Civic for the seven years she had lived in Arlington County. But she had student loans to pay off and a car that she used only on weekends. So, in January 2007, she sold the vehicle to her father.

"I feared that it would feel like missing a limb, but not at all," Heffley said. "It was a smooth adjustment. Between Zipcar and Metro, I wanted for nothing."

Arlington is looking for more people to do what Heffley did. County officials spread the word last week to about 150 business people and residents at its Car-Free Diet Expo, aimed at publicizing the county's Car-Free Diet initiative, a marketing campaign as well as a quality-of-life program.

"We can't build any new roads, so the only way for Arlington to prosper through growth is through people walking, biking and taking public transportation," said Chris Hamilton, the county's chief of commuter services.

"Traffic congestion has not increased in 10 years," Hamilton said. "Arlington has grown. It's because people are choosing to bike, walk and take public transportation."

The Car-Free Diet campaign is pushing another benefit: By walking or bicycling more, you can fatten your wallet and lose weight at the same time. As the promotional T-shirts say, you can lose 2,000 pounds, really fast, by losing the car.

The county is off to a running start. More than half of the trips in Arlington that are not related to work are made without a car, said Howard M. Jennings Jr., marketing projects manager for Arlington Transportation Partners. He said that one in every eight workers age 18 and older said in a 2006 county survey that they did not have a vehicle in their household. That makes Arlington a leader in efforts to reduce the use of cars, Jennings said.

Heffley, who visited the expo at the Hotel Palomar in Rosslyn, said living in Arlington helped her decide to sell her car. The Civic wound up with her sister, a student at James Madison University.

"I found when I sold the car, I not only made the financial goal, but life did get simpler," said Heffley, director of communications for a company that creates Web-based educational products. "Maintaining a social life in Arlington and getting to work and doing all the things I normally do was just as easy relying on public transportation and Zipcar."

Heffley also experienced a downside of the car-free lifestyle after she moved to Shirlington in December. She found the buses there so unreliable that she had to borrow her parents' Toyota Camry two weeks after she arrived.

In March, she plans to return to the Courthouse neighborhood because she misses having everything near her doorstep. She'll be able to resume her walk to work in the Virginia Square area. And she is planning to use a Zipcar if she needs a car on the weekends.

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