As I've mentioned, I've been car-free for a couple months now. Different people have different reasons for ditching motorized transport. For some it's a moral choice to reduce their carbon footprint, but in my case it was an economic decision. Based on what I was earning vs. the costs of gas, maintenance and insurance, I decided keeping a car on the road was eating up way too much of my recently-diminished income.
A recent article at Grist discussed a bit more of the math involved. It turns out that even people who are making a decent living wage are spending a sizable chunk of their workday just paying for the cost of getting to work. Now, for some folks, especially in areas with more spread-out populations, the investment in keeping up a personal automobile makes a lot of sense in terms of mobility, but in denser areas those numbers look pretty discouraging.
What I'm thinking is that for a lot of businesses, those numbers are equally discouraging.
See, in the traditional view, car ownership equates with prosperity. If people can afford a car, they can afford to shop. However, it's becoming increasingly apparently that people don't drive because they can afford to, but because they feel they have to, and in the current economy, many lower-middle-class families are stuck with car loans that eat up sizable chunks of their paychecks. Add rising gas prices, insurance rates and everything else, and all the sudden "car=prosperous" in many cases becomes "car= no disposable income."
If a family spends $300 on a car loan, $100 on insurance and $200 on fuel in a month, that means there's $600 that wasn't spent on coffee, dinner, clothes, entertainment or any of the other things that small, local businesses provide.
So not only do bike- and pedestrian-friendly communities encourage people to shop and dine locally, if that bike-friendliness also translates into the ability to bike or take mass transit to work, and live without a car or with reduced car use, that may translate into having more money to spend when they do go out.
Again, there are places where this just won't work, where things are spread too far out for people to get by without their own car, but large numbers of Americans live near urban areas, or in densely-packed suburban sprawl (coughNJcough) where, with some infrastructure improvements and the support of the business community, a car-free life could turn out to be a lot less of a hassle than driving. Things like better-developed mass-transit corridor, walkable municipal designs and even easy access to rental cars (how many people catch themselves saying "well, I could live without a car most of the time, but what about occasions x and y when I absolutely need one?") could all help. More support from employers could also help (and there are ways it benefits them, as well, for example, having fewer employees who drive regularly means having a smaller parking lot, which means less land and less maintenance, and lower costs).
It's something to think about.