Monday, October 3, 2011

Choosing to be car-free in a new residence

It looked for a while there like I might take a job in Harrisburg, PA. It fell through, but the process moved far enough along that I went apartment hunting and talking to landlords. This also meant that I had to do a lot of the planning and decision making that normally leads to increased dependence on the private automobile. I was determined not to purchase a car just to take a job if I could possibly avoid it.

It started with a phone call in late August, a recruiter trying to fill a position, who found my résumé on the Internet. I get calls or emails like this almost daily, nearly always a position hundreds or thousands of miles from my home and family in Pittsburgh. For a variety of reasons I do not want to relocate, so I usually say no, but after being out of work 10 months, I was getting a lot less picky. At 200 miles, Harrisburg was too far to commute daily, but not that far that I couldn't come home weekends. Plenty of bus, train, plane and carpool options, too, besides the obvious solo drive on the PA Turnpike. With this in mind, I said yes, I would consider the position. In turn I passed an initial telephone screen, an in-person screen with a local recruiter, and a phone screen with the hiring manager. Based on this, I was invited to travel to Harrisburg for an on-site series of face-to-face interviews. These too seemed to go quite well, but I less desire to autopsy their decision and more want to examine what I planned, and did, and would have done further, had they said yes, for if they had, I would right now be too busy carrying out those plans to write down the planning process.

Right away, I knew that purchasing a car would be cost-prohibitive, no matter what they planned to pay me. I knew I was already looking at a car payment even without this job, but acquiring a second car just to hold this job was an expense I hoped to avoid. The first question I had, then, was where was this job? If it was in a downtown location such that I could bus or even walk to it, great. If it was a suburban campus totally inaccessible to humans except by automobile, that makes a serious difference. Indeed, if I think I can get this information out of the initial call, I do. All too often I can't, since either the recruiter has such poor English I'm lucky to understand anything at all, or they themselves are dozens to hundreds of miles away from the hiring firm, and have no idea what the place looks like. In this case, I was able to speak in conversational English and obtain the name of the company. In researching the firm, I discovered they had five Harrisburg area locations, three in the suburbs, but it looked like the HQ was in the city proper, a fact I verified the next time I talked to the recruiter. A glance at Google StreetView and a perusal of the CAT Transit (Harrisburg city) system map and individual timetables on their website showed there was some reasonable number of routes near there. On this alone, I knew a car would be a luxury I did not need, provided I could find acceptable housing.

It does help that I know a few things about history which might seem irrelevant but is anything but. Harrisburg is similar to a lot of Rust Belt cities in that waves of development occurred at roughly the same times. The original city was very compact, everything within walking distance, prior to about 1860. Population influxes between then and 1910, along with horsecar lines and early trolley systems, led to expansion of the area beyond what one could comfortably walk to, but still high density. Use of the automobile after 1920 and especially after 1945 led to suburban sprawl which continues to this day. To find the walkable, bicyclable, easily busable city, then, wherever it is, you have to locate the pre-1910 development line, and search there. This job site was already within those bounds, so that meant I could rely on buses, bicycles and feet to get around.

Next complication was work hours. You cannot ride a bus if it isn't there to ride, and I might have a 4 a.m. start time occasionally. Generally most cities, Harrisburg included, have zero all-night bus service. But how to know? All of this needed to be known very early in the game, so as to know whether to even consider the job, especially not knowing what the money situation was going to be. Back to CAT's website, checking timetables. Since no buses ran all night, I saw that combining bus and bicycle began to be increasingly desirable. The old city also looked very flat, again a desirable condition for a bicycle commute, though not a requirement, as amply demonstrated by cyclists such as myself in hilly Pittsburgh.

When it looked like this might really happen, I started looking for housing while still in Pittsburgh. I knew I needed to do as much research as I could from a distance, as I would have precious little time once I actually set foot in town to select something and make it official. Very likely I would travel there only one or two times beyond the interview trip before I was there for keeps. From the Pittsburgh end, since my family was staying put and I was expecting to come back every 12 days for a 2-day visit, nothing had to change. I knew I only needed a bohemian crash pad. I did not need a full-scale apartment. A mother-in-law suite, even a room upstairs of a single-family home, would do fine.

To get things rolling, I put status updates on Facebook and Twitter, and in short order I had a couple of people querying me for information and parameters. My headhunter firm contact also had a few suggestions. Many of these expected me to have a car and drive 5 to 20 miles, naming suburbs and neighborhoods to look into, and others to avoid. Interestingly, one of the areas to avoid was the one adjacent to the job site. Using Google StreetView, I poked around a few spots, but only Harrisburg's main arterials had been done so far. Still, aside from it looking like a 1920s era working class neighborhood, I saw nothing to scare me off. I looked on Craigslist and a couple of apartment hunter websites; all reiterated the $800 to $1,000 luxury high-rises and suburban apartment complexes. I thought to myself, of course those are going to show up in every search. People like me pop up all the time. It's a state capital. Lobbyists, interns, political staffers and journalists come here for long-term temporary stints just like me continuously. Build to the market, advertise to the market. Follow the crowd, follow the money. The system is set up that way. But I wasn't playing by those rules. I already had a house I was paying on. Every expense I would incur was a duplicate. Thus, no matter what they were paying me (a handsome amount, in early discussions), anything I could avoid spending money on was money I could put to better use elsewhere.

Finally I got through to someone, via a network contact, who understood that I only really needed bicycle storage, a refrigerator, and an Internet connection. Anything else could be obtained at a Goodwill store or garage sale. I actually considered taking with me nothing more than would fit in one checked bag on a Greyhound bus, not driving to Harrisburg at all.

But to actually find an apartment, once I landed in Harrisburg for the interview, I got the advice to walk around town in the couple hours between the end of the interview and my bus trip back. Start at the corner of A & B, walk toward X & Y, and look in windows for "For Rent" signs. Lots of houses might have an upper floor residence over a first floor office, all right in center city, almost in the shadow of the State Capitol building. In fact, that was a good rule of thumb: If you can see the Capitol dome, the place was probably OK. That I did, checking every side street and alley, the whole time carrying a suit bag and still dressed in my suit. Eventually I met a postman making his rounds. Postmen on a regular route will know what apartments are available. He pointed to two buildings within 100 yards but said, go around the corner to the Grayco Apartments, very hard to get into, but they're well maintained, the best place for the money. Five minutes later, a Grayco resident gained me an audience with the landlady. I gave her the story, and yes, they might have an opening if I called back next week. Sounded wonderful, and the price was ideal. It probably would have worked out wonderfully, and in my digging around I still had four other options.

As I write this, Harrisburg is being flooded from Tropical Storm Lee, the worst the city has seen since Hurricane Agnes in 1972. That particular spot is very close to the river, but stayed dry. If the job had come through and this place had flooded upon my arrival, I don't know what I would have done. Large parts of the city did flood badly.

Though the job fell through, not all was lost. I learned what apartments cost. I learned about making major decisions from a distance. I exercised my network well. I worked the system and later successfully bucked it.

The biggest takeaway is this: You can move to a new town and be car-less, but you need to do some work and especially to question the pre-made solutions.

1 comment:

  1. If you had to take a job out of town, could you live without a car? I faced this question a month ago, and the answer is yes, but it takes some work. Here is what I did.