When Every Day is Car-Free Day

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When Every Day is Car-Free Day

By: Kelley Versocki | Published Thursday, November 16th, 2023

Every September Lehigh celebrates Car-Free Day, a worldwide event that encourages individuals to use sustainable methods of transportation, if only for a day. This year’s Car-Free Day on September 22nd saw an increase of nearly 17 percent in people pledging to observe the day over the previous year. Most of them chose to forgo their usual methods of transportation in favor of walking, taking public transportation, or carpooling. 

The Car-Free Day Fair, organized and hosted by the Office of Sustainability, allowed the Lehigh community to explore sustainable transportation options that are available both on and off campus. A variety of organizations, including Lehigh’s Transportation and Parking Services, Lehigh Police, Eco-Rep Leadership Program, Peer Health Advisors, PSECU, LANTA-LV, and CAT Lehigh Valley, set up information tables. 

A Car-Free Vision for the Lehigh Valley

For one Car-Free Day Fair participant, Car-Free Day isn’t just an annual event, but a lifestyle and a vision of the Lehigh Valley that is not car-centric.

Jennifer Cunningham, Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations, joined the Car-Free Day Fair this year to raise awareness about the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation (CAT), where Cunningham is the Board Vice President. CAT envisions “a world where bicycling, walking/ADA accessibility, and public transportation prevail” (CAT) which is a deeply personal vision for Cunningham. 

“I’ve always said when I win the lottery, I want to just reimagine cities so that they are much more friendly to walkers, bikers, and more public transportation - that would be my dream!” says Cunningham. 

Jennifer Cunningham, Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations, in her office at 3rd & New St. with “Sulu” her bike. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Cunningham.

Jennifer Cunningham’s Car-Free Lifestyle

Cunningham works from home two days a week (taking advantage of Lehigh’s Flexplace Policy), and on the days she needs to be in the office she rides her bike the ~6 miles from her home in Bethlehem Township to her office at 3rd & New St. 

“Probably 95% of the time I ride my bike. I call her ‘Sulu’ which is from Star Trek. Sulu is one of the navigators” Cunningham explains. 

Door to door it takes her on average 35 minutes and about another 10 minutes to get changed and settled at her desk. This is a process that she is well accustomed to, as she has been doing it for most of her professional career. 

Over the 30 years of her career, Cunningham estimates that she has only driven a car to commute to work consistently for about 2 years. When she lived in NYC and Portland, OR, she walked, preferring it as she found it easier and “just so much more pleasant to walk.” When she lived in Ithaca, NY, she combined biking with public transportation, as it was much more cost-effective and preferable.

How it all Began

It was during her time in Ithaca that she “sort of fell into” what would end up being her preferred mode of commuting to work. When in New York, Cunningham and her husband were searching for a second car, and in the process, she started taking the bus and eventually biking to work. As the deliberations continued on what second car they should purchase, a moment came where they realized “oh wait, we don’t even need a second car.”

Challenges Faced & Overcome

Over the 28 years of using public transportation, biking, and walking, she has faced challenges. Cunningham notes that carrying a lot of stuff, or certain kinds of things, can be incompatible with bicycling. For example, she has a houseplant that she has been wanting to bring into the office, but has not done it yet, and will likely wait to do so until there is a day when biking to work is not an option.

The weather can also present challenges. In New York, Cunningham discovered her threshold for riding in the cold to be 14 degrees. At that temperature, she found that even while wearing thick ski gloves, her hands would get so cold that she couldn’t properly use her hand brakes.

Occasionally she has forgotten her change of clothes or laptop, but every challenge she’s faced, she says, was ultimately not a huge deal and there has never been anything “insurmountable”.

“The Benefits Outweigh the Challenges”

For Cunningham, the benefits easily outweigh the challenges and now she is prepared for most anything. She leaves a spare set of clothes at work just in case, has learned how to adapt to the weather, and how to maintain her bike. “You learn things,” she adds.

Cunningham emphasizes that her choice to use sustainable transportation isn’t because “I’m such a good person and trying to reduce carbon” (though some might argue that she is, and science would declare it does) but rather because she has found so many benefits of not just driving around in a car by herself. “Cities are lonely and riding in a car is lonely,” Cunningham says, describing biking as a way to get out, connect with others, and enjoy your surroundings.

Cunningham’s Tips

Cunningham understands the concerns and challenges people face when they first start out, but as a certified instructor for safety and a trail patrol on the D&L Trial, Cunningham is well-trained and equipped to answer questions and troubleshoot any problems someone might run into. With a laugh, Cunningham will tell you, “I have an answer for everything.”

What are her “answers” for someone interested in trying to commute via bike, walking, or public transportation? She has a few:

Tip 1: First and foremost, connect with CAT. She notes that “many of us [at CAT] have commuted by bike to work wherever we lived and worked,” and if somebody says ‘hey I want to try this’ they will assist in finding a viable route and helping them obtain anything they might need. Cunningham and other members of CAT are even willing to ride or commute alongside someone to help them navigate any challenges they may face.

She also mentions that CAT is a bike co-op where people of all ages can work on their bikes, take classes, obtain equipment, and connect with like-minded individuals. Cunningham describes CAT as a community filled with people who have a common interest in and passion for sustainable transportation for all kinds of reasons.

Tip 2: Use Google Maps. Cunningham notes, “It’s very good now, it will give you a bunch of different routes.”

Tip 3: Try your route. Preferably do this on a Sunday afternoon or another day when you have the time to test it out and are not rushed to get somewhere. It will give you a chance to know how long it will really take you, what challenges you might face, and what changes you might want to make to the route.

Tip 4: “Don’t feel like you have to do it every day,” says Cunningham. She says she used to be really “die-hard” but then realized it didn’t need to be all or nothing. She recommends, “don’t beat yourself up if you can’t do it every single day or you don’t want to do it every day.”

As Cunningham points out, it’s not just something you do for the environment, “It’s for yourself.” “It’s just a nice way to start and end the day [...] a lovely way to, you know, bookend your work day,” she reflects.

While going car-free 95% of the time may not be for everyone, Cunningham encourages people to “try it,” even if just once a week or once a month.