Young Philadelphians driving less, raising kids outside of ‘car culture’


A once-common practice is becoming more rare: driving. Young city dwellers are trading in the car keys for a SEPTA pass, bicycle or sneakers. Some Philadelphians are continuing their voluntary car-free lifestyle even after having children.

Steven Falkowski’s son does not like car rides. “When he was small, whenever we put him in the car, he would cry and cry and cry and cry and freak out,” he said.

Lucky for his son Cecil, Falkowski and his wife don’t like car rides either. In fact, the South Philly couple now has two children but still no car. Sitting out in front of their house is a special bike he and a friend built so he can cart the kids, or cargo, around.

Falkowski and his family have been car-less for 10 years. He says, when necessary, his family rents a vehicle from car share or calls a taxi. But usually they stay away from the four-wheeled motor vehicles. He says it makes for more pleasant traveling.

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“When we walk around the neighborhood or bike around the neighborhood and we see people we know, we’re able to stop and talk with them, and it contributes to a close-knit kind of feeling that we have in our community,” he said.

Dropping mileage

Drexel University sociologist Mimi Sheller says Falkowski is part of a bigger movement away from “car culture.” “There’s this general trend of people driving less distance, and it’s especially strong among young people,” she said. “Between 2001 and about 2009, 16- to 34-year-olds dropped 23 percent the number of miles that they were driving per year.”

Owning your very own big hunk of steel was once a sign of maturity and adulthood, but it’s clear that’s changing. Candice Enders, a 34-year-old mother, has lived in the Philadelphia area her whole life: from Bensalem to the University of Delaware to Penn to Center City.

In all that time, Enders says, “I have never owned a car. In my entire life. And I swear I’m an American citizen!”

Enders is now pregnant with her second child. She wishes there was a mass-transit option she could take from her house in the Italian Market to work near Rittenhouse Square. Instead, she commutes by foot or — when it’s really cold — she takes a taxi. Her husband is an intellectual property lawyer who works from home. She says, for her family, going car-less isn’t that difficult.

“We have a Whole Foods and a Superfresh that are three blocks away, we have the Italian Market right there, we have a Rite Aid, we have a CVS, we have a dry cleaner,” she said. “Also, we use Amazon a lot — especially with the baby and diapers and all that stuff.”

When her family moved in to a new house, one of the neighbors’ first questions was how many parking spaces her family would need, she said. And when her new neighbors learned that her family didn’t even own a car, they let out a collective cheer and warmly welcomed her to the neighborhood.

Enders says not dealing with parking, insurance, and car maintenance saves her family time and worry. “You know, a lot of people said, ‘You’re going to need a car when you have a baby.’ And I said, ‘Well let’s wait and see how it goes.’ And now, with my second, people are like, ‘Well now you’re really going to need as car.’ And I’m like, ‘You know, I’m not so sure about that.'”

Getting around by bus, bike or foot

In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter and his Office of Sustainability have pushed to make Philadelphia the greenest city in America by 2015.

The city is moving in the right direction to accomplish that goal, according to a State of the City 2013 report released by the Pew Charitable Trusts about Philadelphia. “Fewer and fewer vehicle-miles are being driven in the city, use of mass transit is up, more energy-efficient buildings are coming on line, and the number of bad-air days is trending down.”

The Pew report also showed that a third of Philadelphia households do not have a vehicle and that ridership on SEPTA’s City Transit division has risen by 13 percent over the last 10 years. “The number of Amtrak passengers at 30th Street Station also has been increasing. Meanwhile, total vehicle miles driven in the city have dropped-at a faster rate than in the rest of the country.” Among the nation’s 25 largest cities, only five have a higher percentage of people who use public transit to get to work than Philadelphia.

Bicycling represents a small but growing segment of the commuting public. A 2011 report by the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia found that, per capita, Philadelphia has twice as many bicycle commuters as any other big city in the country. In a sizeable increase, the report also found that “bicycle commuting increased 151 percent from 2000 to 2009.”

SEPTA General Manager Joe Casey said SEPTA’s primary focus is to maintain and deliver safe and dependable transit service to its current riders and to ensure the system is strong for future generations.  In a written response for this story, Casey said SEPTA has “encouraged and supported residential development near our stations, such as Paseo Verde adjacent to the Temple University Station that allows for a car-less lifestyle.”

Casey said SEPTA is also looking into the feasibility and funding opportunities for service expansion, “such as the proposed Norristown High Speed Line extension into King of Prussia and the Broad Street Line extension to the Navy Yard.” He said any service expansion would have to be cost effective and compete for Federal “New Starts” Funding with projects across the country.

Not for everyone

If the practice of affluent people raising kids without relying on a car seems odds, well that’s because it is. Or at least it has been, says Drexel’s Mimi Sheller. “In a person’s life cycle, your peak driving years are from your 30s to your 50s,” she said. “And especially when people form families and have children and move them around to a lot of different activities, they tend to be driving more.”

Sheller depends on her car to shuttle her kids around. She says she hasn’t seen research on families going car-free in the U.S. yet, but she did study the practice in Copenhagen. Denmark’s capital, known for its bike infrastructure, is a bicyclists’ dreamland. Through that work, she learned some bicyclists were, believe it or not, doing their best to prolong their commutes.

“We’re going more slowly,” she said. “Because they wanted to spend time with their family members. So we realized that people weren’t always trying to get somewhere as quick as they can, but they might want to take the slow route or the prettier route or the one with less traffic, because it’s nice time together.”

That sounds familiar to Nate Hommel, of Fishtown, who relies on the bus to get around with his 4-year-old daughter. He says that traveling doubles as quality time with his little girl. “We sit at the bus stop and we talk a lot, and we get on the bus and we talk, and we’re on the train and we’re looking at all these different things,” he said.

Hommel’s family does have a car — but he’s quick to point out he almost nevers uses it. He says when he bought the 2007 Jeep Wrangler a few years ago he was realizing a dream he had: to finally own a new car. “I’d never owned a new car before,” he said. “And that dream fizzled almost immediately. And we realized we just don’t need it.”

Hommel says he and his wife thought about getting rid of the vehicle until she got pregnant with their second child and it became harder for her to travel by scooter. “For the most part, my wife will use the vehicle two or three days a week, and I basically don’t use it. The only reason she uses it is because our smallest daughter is too small to ride on a bike,” Hommel said.

Hommel takes the El to work and tries to commute by bike at least once a week, dropping his older daughter off at her pre-school in Northern Liberties on the way. He says the couple still uses the car to visit family in upstate New York or go on vacation. But he says within Philadelphia they’re using public transit by choice. Those people you see riding the bus and smiling? Hommel says, that’s his family.

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