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Political worker mounts a one-woman campaign for carless living

Helen Anders

Katherine Haenschen is drinking Little City's coffee from her own portable mug, and there's a good reason for that. She spends her days chasing buses, coffee cup in hand.

"You can't bring an open disposable container on a bus," she says. "Yesterday, they did let me bring on a half-eaten banana, though."

That's the way life is for someone who navigates Austin without a car: occasional victories amid constant frustrations.

Haenschen, a 28-year-old campaign worker currently stumping for Democratic Third Court of Appeals candidate Kurt Kuhn , has never owned a car. She grew up in New Jersey, taking public transportation during the week and borrowing her parents' car on weekends. She got her undergraduate degree from Columbia University in New York City. No need for a car there.

She went to work in Chicago, still using trains and buses, then went back to New York for a year before arriving in Austin in 2006, determined to continue to use nothing but public transportation.

She's done it — but it hasn't been easy.

"I'm always running after a bus, because the buses leave the stops early," she says. "I've memorized a lot of the bus schedule, and Cap Metro is not as user-friendly as we might think. The (bus) 1 is good. I live near the 7, and that's pretty good. But in the middle of the day, it can be 20 minutes between buses, and on weekends, just forget it. It might be 40 minutes."

She says she has to plan hours of wiggle room into her schedule.

"If you miss the bus by five minutes and you have to wait for another one, it can really throw you off," she says. "It's a time or money equation. I save a lot of money, but I lose a lot of time."

She rambles off a list of grievances: There's a lack of east-west routes, especially in East Austin. Waiting can get hot at unsheltered bus stops in the summer. Buses stop running at night when she's still out and needs to get home.

"And there are places you just can't really get on the bus," she says. One place it's difficult to reach from her home, she says, is the Travis County Democratic Party headquarters at Sixth and Navasota streets. Getting there from her apartment near 45th and Duval streets can often take 40 minutes or more, she says. The north-south bus is easy to catch, but the next bus often takes so long to show up that she just walks the last 13 blocks.

Still, Haenschen is sticking with her plan. She says she likes having a minimal impact on the environment, and not having a car saves money.

"When I first got here, I was a graduate student" at the University of Texas, she says. She was paid $9,000 a year, "and I couldn't afford a car."

Then, last year, she worked on Chris Riley's successful campaign for Austin City Council. Riley doesn't own a car, either; he rides a bike. His campaign office had one car that workers shared.

"Not everybody needed a car," Haenschen says. "We would get dropped off and picked up. It definitely was an added layer of organization to the campaign, though, because everyone assumes everyone has a car."

Now, she has more money, but she still doesn't want a car.

"I'd rather spend my money on living in a better neighborhood, hearing live music and eating fancy Central Market produce," she says.

Her primary mode of transportation is the bus, but she'll use a bike "when I can work in jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt all day." Kuhn's campaign covers numerous counties, so she and other campaign workers carpool and use Austin CarShare. When she goes out at night with friends, they "good-naturedly know that I always need a ride," she says.

She has no plans to buy a car.

"I don't like feeling like I'm forced to get a car because of the lack of infrastructure. I can make it work."

handers@statesman.com; 912-2590