Downtown Denver, it turns out, is a pretty good place to live without a car.
We are learning the truth of this while we wait for our 2012 Ford Focus to arrive, probably in about three weeks. Dimples, our beloved hail-battered blue Volvo S60, has taken up residence in Cambridge, Mass. So ever since returning to Denver from Cambridge in January, we have looked to alternate transportation. Our Wyoming friends Tom and Tish helped out by leaving their Volvo here during their extended visit to New Zealand and Australia. But since their return several weeks ago, this has gotten serious.
We are very fortunate to live in Denver’s Lower Downtown, known locally as LoDo, near the the Free MallRide that runs up and down the I.M. Pei-designed 16th Street pedestrian mall every minute or so during business hours, less frequently on weekends and nights. This vital connector makes it
easy to walk out of our building and reach City Hall or the State Capitol, for example, within 10 minutes. Denver’s amazing Performing Arts Complex, the second-largest performing arts center in the world after New York’s Lincoln Center, is an eight-minute walk from here, so to reach our seat at a show we don’t even need to hop the free shuttle, unless it happens to pull up as we’re walking and maybe it’s raining.
We can also walk 15 minutes in the other direction, past Union Station, through Commons Park, over the historic Platte River to a funky collection of shops and eateries on Platte Street. Our favorite is The House of Commons, a fantastic English tea room on Platte just north of 15th Street.
All of which is to say that even when Dimples was with us, Darlene and I didn’t drive much here in Denver. We always take the RTD SkyRide to Denver International Airport and back, since it’s so easy to wheel our bags to the Market Street Station for the hourly departures. And I love the ride of 50 minutes to and from the airport, for listening to podcasts or dozing. Before or after zipping across a couple of time zones to Boston, I always find the bus ride to be a pleasant, grounding interlude.
I could tell Darlene was nervous about our time without a car. While we were still using Tom and Tish’s Volvo, she made repeated trips to Whole Foods and King Sooper, stocking up on supplies like she was getting ready for a blizzard. So I have three big jars of chai tea to last me a month, not to mention enough toilet paper and paper towels to equip a battalion. She wasn’t sure she was going to ever get comfortable with the most crucial tool in our carless sojourn – a locally based hourly rental business named OccasionalCar.
It’s a fantastic system that I’ve been playing with both here and in Cambridge, where the best-known model is ZipCar. When you know you’ll need a car, you go to the OccasionalCar web site, enter your membership number and password, and then enter the date and hours you need the car. We have several OC cars within a few minutes’ walk. You click “reserve” and that’s it. What I love most is when the time comes to drive the car away, you hold a gray fob next to a sensor attached to the windshield and wait to hear the click of the doors unlocking. Inside, the key to start the car is attached to a retractable chain, so there’s no risk of walking off with it. OccasionalCar is using the Toyota Yaris, a sensible compact similar in size to the Ford Focus. When the gasoline level falls to a quarter tank, you’re supposed to fill it up using a credit card in the glove compartment. The first time I did this I got everything wrong – I entered the trip mileage instead of the odometer reading at the pump, and I couldn’t remember if I had listed our home phone number or my mobile number in the OC registration. You need to know that, because your PIN is the last six digits of the registered phone number.
Darlene has now used OccasionalCar a couple of times, and she loves it. She has found the call center support staff to be very friendly and helpful for extending the time of a rental and generally passing along useful information, including the fact you can rent one of the cars for a whole day for $40. That was handy yesterday, when her quilting marathon with Tish and Karen went well into the night. I was not thrilled about them returning the car to a questionable area of Colfax Avenue past 10 p.m., so instead she simply kept the car in our parking space overnight and returned it this morning.
So we’ve got a walkable downtown, a great bus system, and convenient hourly car rentals. But wait — there’s more! Denver last April launched what then was the largest bike-sharing program in the nation, with 500 bikes located at 50 kiosks. In September, Washington D.C. took the lead, with a system of 1,000 bikes at 100 kiosks. The Mile-High version is named Denver B-Cycle, and the bikes will return to their racks soon after a brief winter hiatus. To support the program and for added convenience, I signed up for the annual membership for $65. You can also sign up for passes that offer use for 24 hours, seven days, or 30 days. Google Maps now offers a bike feature, in addition to walking, driving, and public transportation. So I can see how a certain route will take full advantage of the Cherry Creek Bike Path, minimizing my time on the streets.
Depending on how going carless in Denver works out during the next few weeks, we may extend the experiment indefinitely. I’m excited about the 2012 Focus, because of its latest-generation Microsoft Sync technology, called MyFordTouch. It’s a gadget on wheels, which appeals to me. But I couldn’t get MyFordTouch on a hybrid vehicle, and with gasoline headed for $4 a gallon, maybe, hybrids are going to be the way to drive in cities. Think of the savings and the smaller carbon footprint! But when you compare going carless to a hybrid, it gets even better. I’ll be interested to compare our current transportation costs with the costs of owning a car, but even with a fair amount of use of OccasionalCar, I bet we’re spending less a month than we did on Dimples, what with car insurance, taxes, and maintenance costs.
Still, the convenience of having your own personal car, available without going onto a website, with no planning required – that’s a lot to give up. The Focus, when it arrives, may lure us to remaining carless in Denver till 2012, because I’m going to be tempted to drive it to Cambridge in May or June when we migrate East for the rest of the year. I’m not sure what would become of Dimples under than scenario, because it’s certainly crazy to have two cars in Cambridge.
As for the soon-to-arrive gadget on wheels, the 2012 Kona Blue Ford Focus, I plan to chronicle my adventures with it in a new podcast, The Edge of the Road, which I’ve set up with a pilot episode, but I don’t have it at the iTunes Store yet. Stay tuned!