Guest Series: Carmen Godwin, Executive Director of RAP

December 15, 2011 66 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville consistently offers the opportunity for our readers to absorb the editorials, personal accounts, and vocal opinions of some of the key players in the decision making process of our community. This week, Riverside Avondale Preservation Executive Director Carmen Godwin tells what one year without a car is like.

Dec. 5 marked the death of the Riverside Trolley past Five Points. Although we worked for several years with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, pitching ways to increase transportation options in the Riverside Avondale Historic District area, there seems to be no lasting effect from our efforts, despite a small group successfully securing short-lived expansion and promotion of the trolley service. We encouraged a light rail option and even introduced a techie to them who could implement a real-time transit application for free, but to no avail. While I do not abdicate JTA’s responsibility for the failure of the trolley, I believe the real problem was that no one rode the damn thing. The JTA gave us a test, a trial run, to see if we could increase ridership, and we failed – our community just didn’t support it. No matter how sexy we try to make it, people in Jacksonville love their cars a little too much to inconvenience themselves with public transit.  

I loved my Mini Cooper convertible too. I loved it so much that I just couldn’t part with those keys, walk two blocks to the Riverside Trolley stop, and take a leisurely ride when I had meetings downtown. It took me physically selling my car to make me stop such madness and live life in a new way, to experience my community the way it was designed – as a historic, walkable, bikable neighborhood – a new urbanist’s dream.  

Riverside Avondale has been my home for over 15 years and I have been the executive director of RAP for almost four of those. I am lucky to live in a "Top Ten Great American Neighborhood" and work for an organization that allows me to make a difference in the quality of life of those I love.  On Aug. 8, 2011, I started a personal challenge to go car-free for one year, an experiment to see if living in the historic urban core neighborhoods without a car is a viable alternative for a professional working person and mother of two. Four months later I can say that it is not only possible, but also a life-changer in a lot of positive ways.  

There are no rules. I walk, bike, hitch, and use public transportation. Sometimes, when I am really desperate, I ask my mother if I can borrow her minivan – and boy, that sure makes me feel 16 again. The initial summer months were awful but I powered through them, so when the weather cooled off, it was easy street. At the same time I started to recognize the health benefits – more positivity, more strength, and more energy. Going car-free has made me slow down and enjoy the positive force and beauty of the place I call home – the magnificent tree canopy, the expansive green spaces, and the beauty of the River Walk.  

While I never really considered the financial aspect much, the elimination of a car payment, gas, maintenance, etc., helps me to accumulate over $700 in my bank account each month. And while my Mini Cooper had great gas mileage, the realization that I was reducing my environmental impact was a major factor in my decision as well.  

The downside to my experiment is how much planning it takes. Spacing out work meetings if one is downtown and another in Riverside is the easy part, as long as I leave enough time to bike it or ride transit (about the same time actually). Juggling the kids’ schedules is a little more challenging. We walk to school, walk to music lessons, ride bikes to Boone Park for tennis, and hitch rides to the Good Sheppard pool. Yet, I have it easier than most. I have family and friends who help me.  And Riverside Avondale is a neighborhood with parks and vibrant commercial corridors close by, with a major hospital and grocery store - really all the necessary (as well as most nonessential) services one could want. With the sprawling way that Florida was developed, it is a luxury to live in such an area. Unfortunately, very few people take full advantage of this reality and continue to exclusively drive. As commercial corridors intensify, the dependability on cars breeds a negative impact on the adjacent residential quality of life, as cars and activity are pushed further onto residential streets. Residents surrounding our historic commercial corridors have asked RAP to help them protect their properties and quality of life as nearby businesses expand. Responsible growth creates a balance between this mixture of uses we all enjoy.  

No one can expect that people are going to give up their cars as I have. So what is the solution? Buy-in, collaboration, and participation by everyone involved.

While I am not a planner or traffic engineer, I believe we can start by encouraging the adaptive reuse of historic structures, and promoting small-scale development that limits commercial intensity, especially when near residential areas.  The Overlay does this; It also requires that if a business wants to develop new construction that intensifies or is out of scale with the surrounding area, then it has to either scale it back or figure out a solution. We can't give them a pass from the requirements - it forces residents to bear the negative results and rely upon the City or the JTA to fix the problem. Growth has to be responsible and considerate of both businesses and residents.  

Businesses can help by engaging the JTA directly to explain the needs of the community. They can offer collaborative partnerships and provide incentives to people who take transit, walk or bike. They can install bike racks (that are actually stabilized to the ground) and encourage employees to park in nearby lots and walk, or commute.  They can partner with other businesses to hire transportation services to and from area parking lots. Shared parking agreements can be useful, but only if all the spaces aren’t already utilized at specific times, and if they are legally binding agreements between businesses.

The City should challenge the JTA to address transit in a new, inventive way that will increase discretionary ridership. Partner with businesses to re-expand trolley services to Riverside Avondale, San Marco and Springfield, connecting the historic residential communities immediately surrounding downtown to the core. Marketing sponsorships on the JTA website and on the interior of busses, printed schedules, etc., could help subsidize the trolley until people actually start utilizing it in a meaningful way.  

Market transportation better and make it easier to understand and utilize. Provide a discounted pass for those who use only one leg of the service. Buses/Trolleys need to run after 8pm on the weekends, but first they need to run at higher intervals in general (45 minutes to 90 minutes is just too long). Reliability and predictability are essential if ridership is to increase beyond those who have no other option.

The City can offer incentives to people who use transit or to one-car families. Provide more bike lanes (like the new sharrow for Riverside Avenue coming in January) and walking paths within the built environments around the urban core. Protect residents by creating a residential parking decal program on streets that parallel commercial corridors.  The City Planning Department should be instructed to enforce the zoning code and various neighborhood overlays as these are the vision plans for the neighborhoods that support responsible growth, if simply enforced.  

Bottom line: there is no easy fix. Everyone has to participate and buy into the process. Most importantly, residents need to walk the talk and leave their cars at home. If that doesn’t happen, then no amount of time, talk or investment in transportation matters. The citizens of Jacksonville will prove whether transit is important to them or not.

In the meantime, my car-free journey continues and I encourage some of you to drink the punch. It is easy to reel off all the reasons why one needs a car, but as a full-time professional, mother of two, as well as being involved in statewide organizations, I can tell you that many of those reasons are just excuses. Rearranging (simplifying) your life and planning out your schedule is all it takes, and doing those things will actually increase your quality of life in the end.  

To read up on her experiences more visit

Editorial by Carmen Godwin.