In January, Atlantan Tom Opdyke challenged himself to live 31 days in our car-obsessed city without driving. During that period, he biked 207.3 miles, walked 59 miles, and spent 70 hours getting from Sandy Springs to Vine City to Stone Mountain to Peoplestown and everywhere in between. He also learned to navigate MARTA, talked to tons of Atlantans, got hit by a car on his bike (and nearly hit as a pedestrian about two dozen times), and logged the whole experiment on Autoless ATL. For this week’s Friday Five, we talked to Tom about the challenges, lessons, and surprises he encountered during his month-long adventure.
What made you decide to do this experiment? And in January, no less!
About a year ago, I got really into cycling. I got a bike off Craigslist, and I would ride on the BeltLine and just here and there. Then one day I was like, “I wonder if I could bike to work.” I live in Little Five and work is up near Lenox. I thought, “I could beat traffic!” but the first time I did it, it was so ridiculously hard. I took my bike to Loose Nuts to get it fixed up and make it more ride-able then I started cycling more. I would have a day or two where I didn’t drive at all and I was like, “This feels great! I kind of like not driving.”
I grew up here in Atlanta, and in the suburbs as a kid, and I’ve always had a car here, but everywhere else I’ve ever lived — like the UK, Norway, and Australia — I didn’t have one. You didn’t need one. That’s what everybody always says about other cities: “We don’t need a car.” There’s that whole — and I hate saying this — Millennial thing where we don’t want to drive and we want walkable neighborhoods, but everybody is always saying, “You can’t do that in Atlanta. Atlanta is a car city.” So I wanted to see if I could go without one. I wondered if I’d be able to live the same lifestyle I do now. Would the city be just as welcoming or would I feel isolated and stranded? I wanted to find out.
And January was hard and really cold, but maybe I should do it again in July? That would be equally difficult for very different reasons.
What does a cyclist need to know and do to feel safe biking on Atlanta’s streets? Give us your best advice for new bike commuters.
You need lights. Oh my god, you need lights! I see so many bikers who don’t have lights. It’s crazy! It’s literally not the car’s fault if they hit you. The cyclist will be cited. You’re improperly operating a vehicle on the road. You’ve got to have at least a back light and a front light. I have like eight lights on the bike. I’ve got lights that go on the spokes of the tires. I’ve got helmet lights. I’ve got two taillights, two headlights. I’m lit up like a Christmas tree, so that made me feel safer.
Overall, to feel safe biking, I feel like 1) you’ve got to have a bike that will move. You can’t have one of these cruiser bikes like you see at the beach. If you want to ride that, keep it on the PATH or the BeltLine. If you’re in traffic, you’ve got to be able to go like at least 12 to 15 mph minimum, which, for somebody who hasn’t done it in a while, can be kind of fast and tiring.
The other thing is, when you’re a cyclist, especially when you’re first starting out (assuming you’re not in a bike lane), your tendency is to stay almost on the white line on the right edge of the road. The longer you cycle, the more you realize that that’s actually dangerous. You need to take the lane. You need to act like a car. The more you’re in the center of the lane, the easier it is for cars that are making a right turn or changing lanes to look out and see you. And the other thing about acting like a car is that you’ve got to stop at stop signs and lights. You can’t expect special treatment if you’re going to be on the road. Part of sharing the road is using it like a real road. In the cycling community, I would say like 10 percent blow thorough stop lights and the rest of us just hate them because it causes problems. Also, you can’t be scared of cars. Somebody is gonna yell at you. Somebody is gonna honk at you, but you can only go as fast as you’re going to go. You have a right to be there, so you kind of have to have a little bit of bravado about it.
When you’re driving your car, you’ve got to remember to look around and double check for cyclists. Don’t drive in the bike lane. Pay attention. Notice that there’s more stuff than just cars in the road. If you’re next to a bike lane, the biker who is going straight on the green light has the right away. If you’re making a right at an intersection, you’re crossing over a bike lane where the cyclist has the right of way to go straight.
I got hit in broad daylight. What happened was that a car didn’t look to see if there was a cyclist coming up in the bike lane. It made a right turn and I just went right into the side of the car. It’s called right-hooking. And then she drove off. Ugh, I’m still pissed. If you hit a car, 99 percent of us would not drive off, and nine out of 10 cyclist accidents you hear about end with “And then they drove off.” And pretty much every cyclist who has cycled in Atlanta for more than six months has been hit.
Was the whole experience of going carless harder or easier than you expected?
I was kind of looking at it more as “Is this doable or is it not?” And it is doable. I was happy about that. I still went to everything that I would’ve normally gone to, but I didn’t cycle as much as I thought I would because I wound up being tired. It was more exhausting than I thought, and that was the thing I didn’t really anticipate. Just getting home maybe 30 minutes later makes a difference. Driving home from work takes 30 minutes. On the bus? Minimum an hour. Not having that extra time suddenly, I felt like I had to rush around. My house got really messy, that kind of stuff. So that part kind of sucked, but there were other parts that were definitely easier than I expected.
MARTA was actually easier to deal with and to take bikes on than I thought, once I figured out the buses. There’s a MARTA app that tells you where the buses are at any given time. That was helpful because that way you don’t feel stranded, like, “Okay, I got off the train but now I’ve gotta walk two miles to get where I’m going.” No, there’s a bus. Although, once you’re outside of commuter hours, the buses only run every 45 minutes, so when you’re coming home from work, you’re passing stuff. You’re passing Moe’s. You’re passing the grocery store, that kind of thing. But you can’t say, “I’ll get off at Moe’s, grab a burrito, and get back on the bus because there’s another one coming in 10 minutes.” No, there’s not. Once you’re on the bus, you’ve pretty much got to go where you’re going and that’s the deal. That’s kind of hard and that’s the catch 22 with MARTA. A lot of people I’ve talked to say, “Well, if it went more places and came more often, I’d ride it more.” But because more people don’t ride it, it doesn’t go more places and it doesn’t run more often.
Also, I didn’t spend a million dollars doing the whole thing. To own a car in Atlanta, I budget $213 per month. My goal was to avoid spending more than that. I ended up spending about $196 for everything including a $95 month-long MARTA pass and about six or seven Uber rides when I was like, “I’ve gotta get to this place. MARTA’s not coming. I don’t wanna bike.”
I was happy overall. I was tired, but it was still slightly easier than I imagined.
What kind of impact did this have on how you felt during the month?
When I was living other places like the UK and walking everywhere, you’d walk a mile without thinking about it at all. And you could do it in like 15 minutes. It took me about a week, but I finally got my walking legs back… then suddenly bam! I could walk anywhere — in my dress shoes and a suit, going to work, not even thinking about it. That was great.
Cycling was really good. I had to put a bag on the back of my bike to bring clothes to work and that sort of thing. That made the bike heavier, so after a little bit of that, I could cycle even faster.
I walked about 60 miles during the whole thing and biked 207, so I feel healthier for that, but I didn’t get enough sleep and I was tired a lot. I wish I’d eaten a little better because it would’ve been cool to be like, “Well, I lost 10 pounds doing this,” but I ate like crap the whole time.
Did you feel safe walking around the city for the most part?
I felt safe the whole time. I never actually got panhandled on MARTA. I got panhandled once when I was walking down North Avenue, but I wound up having a whole conversation with the guy and it was actually pretty friendly the whole time, so that was the closest to what you would think of as not feeling safe. But then there was one night I was going to my girlfriend’s house. She lives near Lindberg Station. I was getting the train at Candler Park. It was like 12:15 at night and there’s nobody at this station, and I was like, “Man, if I was a woman, I would be like, ‘No. I just don’t want to put myself in this position. This is dumb.’” As a guy, it was a little easier to deal with. I thought about that a lot because I’m a white guy with kind of a big beard. I can look scary if I want to, I guess. So I felt safe the whole time, so I was kind of surprised.
The cars were more of a problem. People don’t pay attention in their cars. If you’re driving you don’t think about pedestrians as much, but there are more and more pedestrians and bikers every day, and there would be even more if they weren’t afraid of the cars. Like I said, I got hit by a car at one point when I was on my bike, but I almost got hit walking in crosswalks when I had the right of way like two dozen times. It’s crazy.
Bonus Question: Has doing this changed your daily habits, or are you back behind the wheel every day?
At the end of the experiment, I gave myself two days to basically do all the driving I wanted. And I remember the first day I could drive — it was a Saturday — I was like, “Okay! I’m gonna go run all of these errands and do all this stuff!” and then I realized all I needed from the store was two things, and I needed to go to Lowes to get some keys copied. Those were all things I could have done on a bike on my way home. Nothing crazy. So having a car wasn’t actually adding convenience. It’s not like I was super inconvenienced in terms of errands and stuff. I think I’ll keep cycling to work a bunch, now that I know I can cycle any day of the week and have the clothes in the back of the bike. I will. And the idea of not having to be in the car is great. There is nothing better than just whizzing past cars on a Friday afternoon when everybody is driving home from work. I get home like 20 minutes sooner on the bike versus being in the car, so it’s kind of like, “Why wouldn’t I?”