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Cities offer freedom from cars, green living

As the environmental and economic benefits of car-free living become impossible to ignore, urban leaders across the country are working to create ongoing motivation for us to ditch our gas-guzzling ways. GreenDAY's Marisa Belger explores the benefits of urban living.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

I have a car. And I live in New York City. Along with a monthly payment, insurance forms and parking tickets, the acquisition of this vehicle — an unfortunate requirement for my husband’s line of work — has awakened an almost vehement determination not to use it.

I’ve discovered that I’m happiest when I’m not in it. That’s right. I feel the most joy not when I slip this vehicle into “drive” and cruise the city streets, but when I back my ride into a multiday parking spot. A sweet satisfaction rolls over me each time the car is tucked, nice and snug, in its place on the side of the street. Free from its bucket seats and all-wheel drive, I can openly question why I need it. I don’t. I have a bike and feet and, most conveniently, a city increasingly designed to serve me when I’m not behind the wheel.

New York is not alone in its push to get citizens out of their cars and onto the streets. As the environmental and economic benefits of car-free living become impossible to ignore, urban leaders across the country are working to create ongoing motivation for us to ditch our gas-guzzling ways.

Why you should park it“Getting out of your car is the greenest thing you can do,” says Carol Coletta, president of CEOs for Cities, an organization dedicated to building and sustaining American cities. “But many of our communities do not make it easy.” If your community is based in rural farmland or an isolated suburban subdivision, chances are high that you’re going to get in and out of your car — a lot. Everyday events like commuting to work or going grocery shopping or visiting friends most likely require the starting of an engine. But if you live in a bustling, service-oriented city, your reliance on that engine decreases significantly.

According to the EPA, a gallon of gas equals about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. This means that carbon emissions from driving are one of the biggest contributors to climate change. You can recycle, switch to energy-efficient light bulbs and fill a reusable bag at the supermarket — each a positive step — but nothing beats keeping the car at home (or refusing to buy one in the first place). And the easiest way to live without four wheels is to go urban. Cities are packed — with people, resources and opportunity. Partner this density with alternative forms of transportation — biking, walking and public transit — and a car quickly becomes obsolete.

A vision of a bustling metropolis full of cheery bikers and satisfied pedestrians, each inhaling gulps of sweet, clean air, may seem frustratingly idealistic. Trust me, I know. Today I can’t cross a street in my Brooklyn neighborhood without stepping on a freshly painted bike lane, but five years ago biking in New York City was still a life-threatening experience. Each time I hopped on my rig, I’d say a little prayer, asking the spirits above to shield me from wayward taxi doors, double-parked delivery trucks, jaywalking pedestrians and drivers who seemed to enjoy slamming on the brakes and blowing through red lights.

Getting from point A to point B on two wheels required a steely focus — there was no room for daydreaming, fidgeting or — yikes! — a quick call on the cell. Back then, bike lanes were few and far between and helmets were not an option — it would take more than the threat of a brain injury to squash my coif with a clunky sphere of plastic. I was young and invincible — or so I reminded myself as I wove between an idling garbage truck and a double-parked stretch limo. I was agile and resilient, with the reaction time of an NBA forward and the stamina of a Navy SEAL. But with a limited number of bike lanes and even less respect for bikers, New York was pushing me toward an inevitable collision. I eventually crashed, slamming into a taxi door flung open by a harried passenger who shot me an annoyed look as he stepped over my mangled bike. I landed, bruised but free from major injuries, in a sidewalk flower patch. I limped my bike home and didn’t get on it again until 2009.

The ‘bikeablity’ of a cityCEOs for Cities’ Coletta believes firmly in the “bikeablity” of a city. And the “walkability.” These two terms, though yet to find a place in spell check, are at the heart of what makes a city a greener place to live. She cites safe walking, safe biking and “densely networked transit systems” as the keys to living a life with fewer car trips. A supremely functioning city should have all three.

When I dared to climb onto my bike again, I found that NYC had done some serious work. We weren’t Amsterdam, but with 200 miles of dedicated bike lanes, it was safer than ever to pedal my way around town. And when not biking, I walk. An easy stroll takes me to a variety of restaurants, the post office and corner deli. I can skip with my toddler to the playground or to his best friend’s house. Coletta helped me understand that without the convenience of numerous local services and a vast selection of high-quality parks and playgrounds, I probably wouldn’t be so inspired to walk and bike and my city probably wouldn’t be so green. “Real urbanism is about living close together with an emphasis on public space,” she explains. “People who live in cities are trading private space for public space, they’re trading the backyard for park space. If cities don’t make that trade a good one, they’re going to be at a disadvantage for getting people to live near each other.” Innovative public spaces like Millennium Park in Chicago, the High Line in New York and the BeltLine in Atlanta up the incentive to call a major city home.

If Coletta has her way, more people will choose to leave their cars behind (or, in my case, parked) for an urban life based around biking, walking and public transportation. “Cities give us so much freedom — freedom from car dependence, freedom from the costs of a car, freedom from time spent in traffic,” she says. Looking past your car also has long-term benefits. In “City Dividends,” a 2008 study, CEOs for Cities found that if the average person in each of the 51 largest U.S. metropolitan areas drove one less mile each day it would save about 2.8 billion gallons of gasoline per year, which equals about $10 billion and a reduction in carbon emissions of 28 million tons nationally each year. “It’s as simple as getting out of your car,” Coletta says. 

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.

Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products reviewed in this column.