Dr. Gridlock

Lynn Woodward sold men's clothing, made millions in real estate, and raced Corvettes at 120 mph. Now he dreams of a car-free society.

Woodward, who has seen it all before, is unfazed. He is, after all, a one-man band. It's not his style to organize a bunch of people to stand around waving signs. He sincerely believes in the logic of his vision, which neither begins nor ends with an express bus to the airport. While the words "light rail" are often invoked by policymakers as a panacea to ease the urban commuter's woes, Woodward imagines a different world: a world of vastly improved and convenient bus routes; a world crawling with clean taxis; a world that might include "smart cars"; a world where, if you lived in a neighborhood that offered the right amenities, you wouldn't even need a car.

Woodward has even taken to referring to himself as "Dr. Gridlock"--as in, "Dr. Gridlock Cures Congestion," which has the vague echo of some superhero you've never heard of. "I have no one paying me to do this. I volunteered to do it," he says proudly. (Ron Shaffer has been writing a commuting-oriented column called "Dr. Gridlock" for the Washington Post since 1986. Woodward's nickname has no relation to the column.)

Save for a handful of sympathetic legislators, though, Dr. Gridlock hasn't made much headway at the state capitol, where transit issues are a hot topic. And that's too bad. Because for every one of his off-the-wall, pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams, Woodward has another reasonable, workable proposal that just might make life run a little more smoothly in the Twin Cities.

 

Woodward's St. Paul apartment is lined with edifying memorabilia: Plaques on the wall speak to careers in academia and business; a series of photographs chronicle the days when he raced Corvette, Trans Am, Le Mans, and Indy-style cars at 120 miles an hour, just for fun. The oscillating fan above his head hums; the radiator hisses loudly. "This is pretty big for me," he says, sitting in the snug space. "I've never been one for big houses."

A 1962 graduate of Eden Prairie High School, Woodward holds a doctorate in business administration. During the go-go Eighties, he quickly became a millionaire working as a real estate developer in Wichita, Kansas, specializing in luxury office space. Then, in 1986, when oil prices plummeted and the real estate market crashed, he filed for bankruptcy.

Since then, he's been a free agent, tapping into a trust fund and working as a business consultant to pay the bills. He is also available as a writer and public speaker. His two main talks are titled "How to Learn Twice as Much in Half the Time" and "Dr. Gridlock Cures Congestion."

The one-time speedster first got religion on the car-free life in the 1970s, while attending graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin. "There's one place where a car is a pain in the ass," recalls Woodward of the college town. Parking was so tight, recalls Woodward, that taking the bus was a no-brainer. If there wasn't a bus available, there was almost always someone willing to share a taxi. Or you could just walk. That one of his professors was confined to a wheelchair and another had lived without a car for 30 years also had a lasting impact on the activist.

Over the years Woodward traveled the world, visited various libraries, and compiled some 1,400 ideas concerning conventional transportation. After reading, rereading, copying, and underlining a host of articles, he came up with a comprehensive vision he dubs the Integrated Alternative Transportation System, or I-ATS. Among other things, the scheme calls for zoning changes that would allow the sensible integration of real estate with transit. He promotes the idea of people renting or sharing cars. He's convinced that a more reliable taxi service is essential, as is a complete overhaul of the bus system--which would be modified to integrate Metro Mobility's service for disabled riders. In Woodward's perfect world, people would telecommute, lines of luxury coaches would run to and from rural destinations, and "smart cars" would drive themselves down the freeway.

Woodward says I-ATS grew out of his hopes to develop, and profit from, what he calls a "no-car or low-car" neighborhood. This 16- or 32-square-block area would offer residents a combination of affordable housing and convenient retail, so they would be within walking distance of almost everything they needed.

In and of themselves, Woodward's ideas don't amount to much, he says. If only a couple of the schemes are implemented, there will still be too much congestion. He insists, however, that everything he dreams could become reality for no more than $100 million--a fraction of what projects such as LRT will cost taxpayers.

Woodward tries to live the ideal himself. This is the fourth city--after Wichita, Denver, and Madison--that he has lived in without a vehicle. When he moved to St. Paul from Edina last year, he selected his apartment because of its close proximity to a bus line. Woodward also liked the locale at Lexington and Grand because there were so many businesses such a short distance away. "Practically everything is here, plus every service that you could imagine, all within walking distance," he exclaims with giddy enthusiasm.

So far, no one has embraced Woodward's broader vision. And to put his ideas to the test, Woodward knows he will need some help from the government. So while the grand plans sit idle, Woodward schemes to become part of the very system he is fighting.

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