How to Decide Whether or Not to Live Without a Car
I've been reading a lot of pros and cons about living without a car lately and, I have to say, had I thought about the cons before making my decision, I might not have done it. I might have kept wondering about it instead. But I had already seen how western society was destroying the environment in many ways, and had already made up my mind to be part of the solution, not the problem. Getting rid of my car was one thing I could do to be part of the solution. Then the Universe provided me with a job in the city and a car accident (not my fault) to push the decision.
Giving Up Your Car
All people are not environmentally committed like I am. Some want to go car free for a different reason––like to save money, simplify their lives, or make themselves healthier. All of those you can also do by not owning a car.
Others see owning a car as an expression of success and wouldn't even consider giving it up. For me it was easy to get past the "need" to own a car, given the commitment I already had, the lifestyle I currently lead, and the adjustments I was willing to make.
This article is for those who are still questioning. It provides personal examples, tools, and thought-provoking concepts to help you decide if going carless is possible for you. First let's look at the transportation options, so the consideration of letting go is not such a trauma.
Alternative (Non-Car) Transportation Options
Before embarking on the decision-making process, it helps to briefly consider your options. In the United States people drive to their destinations 84% of the time, which is why road construction currently caters to cars. They don't need to, but the fact that roads cater to cars, in some ways requires it. (Yes, it's a circular push.)
Cities are changing their perspectives, though, so if you should decide to get rid of your car how might you get around?
- Bicycling––According to Statistica, in 2016 there were more than 66 million people riding bicycles in the U.S, most of them in western states. That's 12.5% of the population, a much higher figure than I'd expected. With the advent of folding bikes and electric bikes, that figure is climbing.
- Walking––According to the Government Accountability Office, nearly 1.5 million Americans are walking to work these days. There would be more, if everyone living within a couple of miles of work were to walk. Unfortunately, the average commute from home to work is currently 26.5 miles, which is a little far for cycling or walking.
- Public transit––In 2017 Americans took more than 10 billion trips using public transportation. This included bus and light rail. New York is the best city for that, of course, but other cities are now revamping their mass transit systems to make them more passenger-friendly. I personally use the bus more than any other mode, except walking.
- Carpooling––Accurate carpooling statistics are almost impossible to obtain, since going somewhere with a friend is counted. There are car sharing apps appearing that help you find someone to travel with, if no one you know can carpool with you.
- Car rental/Zipcar––For special or more difficult trips you can rent a car for a few hours (Zipcar) or a few days or weeks (rental agency like Enterprise). Some give discounts for weekends. I rent about once every couple of months for a weekend from a small, local rental car company.
- Taxi/Uber/Lyft––All three of these are essentially taxis. They're a great way to get to an airport, if there's no shuttle available, or to go somewhere late at night, especially to an unfamiliar location.
Why You Wouldn't Want to Give Up Your Car
The reasons people drive in the first place are also the reasons for not giving up your car. Let's look at them:
- To get to where we want to go in a timely fashion: This is counteracted by how crowded the freeways and streets are these days, but the illusion is there that you'll always get there faster in a car than any other way.
- To go unusual places: There's something adventurous about going to unusual places and we all need adventure in our lives, don't we? Carpooling, renting a car, and taking a taxi are all viable options for going someplace out of the way on the rare occasions that we do it. I recently carpooled with two strangers from neighboring cities to get to an annual weekend retreat in the mountains.
- To gratify our need for impulsive action: It feels great to just jump in the car and go when we need something or when a friend calls unexpectedly for coffee. The downside is that we spend our time running back and forth in several trips when, if we stopped to think about it, we could combine trips and use less gas instead.
- To take others places who can't get there on their own: Someone has to own a car to carpool, right? In addition, most families have cars to take their kids and pets places. Sometimes they're necessary, other times the trip could be handled a different way.
- To carry equipment somewhere or purchases back from shopping: This is viable, depending on how much you have to carry and how often. I carry groceries on my back and laundry in my arms. But I don't often have to carry heavy equipment anywhere, like some people do.
- To go many places in a short period of time: If those places are also close together, you could take a bus to the first place and walk to the rest, but sometimes that's not feasible. When I was marketing, I needed a car for same-day meetings in different parts of the city.
- To be a successful part of the American Dream: This includes impressing friends and family. I suspect some of my siblings look down on me a little because I don't own a car, but others don't. And I remember going car shopping once (when I didn't have the money to purchase) to take photographs of myself in a Toyota Camry to post on my dream board. That felt good, but didn't go anywhere.
Why It's a Good Idea to Give Up Your Car
In Europe and other places in the world there are even more travel options than I listed above, but now that you know what they are in the U.S., let's talk about why you might want to live without a car.
- To save money: Cars are incredibly expensive, when you sit down and look at it. You need to buy them and license them. You need to maintain them, gas 'em up, and keep them clean. You've got monthly insurance costs. You need to watch your driving, so you don't get tickets. You've got other fees like toll costs and parking fees, plus towing fees if your car breaks down. Without a car I pay just over $1,000 per year for transportation (including insurance). According to Money Under 30, most people pay closer to $6,000 per year if they own a car outright, and more than $8,000 if they're still making car payments. That's without any tickets, fines, or fees included.
- To lower stress: How do you like driving on crowded or blocked roadways and freeways? Dealing with rude drivers, emergency vehicles, and road blocks is really stressful. If you're in a rush it's worse, so you counteract it by texting friends. Then you get honked at when the light turns, you get a ticket, or you crash into someone.
- To connect with your surroundings: Have you ever noticed how cut off from the rest of the world you are in a car? When you walk, bike, or take the bus there are other walkers, bikers, and riders you can greet and talk to. You can look around in town more and see stores and restaurants you might have missed before. You connect better with nature––seeing beauty, hearing wildlife, feeling the rain and wind. You're not cut off from the world like you are in a car.
- To improve your health: Walking and bicycling keep you physically active, and help reverse the deterioration of age. They also help lose weight, tone muscles, improve eyesight, and increase stamina. And there are no trainer or gym costs. For older people, losing the car and building up to walking a couple miles a day can extend your lifetime.
- To help the environment: This is my favorite reason. Not only are you giving up more space to relieve road traffic, but you're also helping to prevent air pollution and reduce global warming. I could write a whole article on this alone. Did you know that some years back, when China was having serious problems with city air pollution, they sent a delegation to California to find out how that state had reduced theirs? There were three main things California did: Reduce vehicle traffic (that's us), improve fuel quality, and improve the quality of vehicles.
- Because you hate driving: If you hate driving, and I know someone who does, you will be an erratic and dangerous (to others) driver. You'll get tickets and cause near accidents. You'll scare your passengers (he laughs at me). You'll be late everywhere, because some part of you doesn't want to get in the car. If you hate driving, give it up. You'll love your life much more, if you do.
- Because you're getting into trouble: There are lots of ways to get in trouble, but driving is especially prone to it. You get tickets for driving too fast, not stopping properly, running red lights, parking in the wrong place, hitting people or cars, using your cell phone, drinking while driving, and more. If this happens to you a lot, you can save a lot of money and your reputation (and maybe a stint in jail) by giving up your car.
Which of these is most frustrating for you?
Who Should Not Go Car Free?
Not everyone's life can be reshaped to live without a car. Here are some types of lives that would be difficult without a car:
- Construction workers of all types, most of whom transport lots of tools
- Landscape workers with lawn equipment
- Traveling salespeople
- Housekeepers with many customers
- Musicians with heavy instruments
- Home care nurses with several patients
- Film crews who meet on location
- People who live where there's no public transit system, roads are too rough for bicycles, and shops are far away.
There are a few things that typify these types of jobs: Most of them travel from location to location during the day. Most of them have a lot of equipment or very heavy equipment that would be awkward or impossible to carry on a bus. Those who are members of work crews can carpool to locations, but those who work solo cannot.
You may have expected me to include families with kids, but that can be worked out. I just read of a family with six kids who gave up their car and energized the family as a result. You can utilize school buses for younger kids and regular buses for older ones. There are sports activities at nearby parks. The kids' friends could take them places in exchange for overnighting at your house. You can go on daily or weekly family walks. And you can always rent a car for occasional special trips, like camping.
Who Could Live Without a Car?
On the other end of the road, there are people whose lives so obviously don't need a car, that one can hardly believe they still have one.
- People who work at home
- Students with no kids
- Older folks who are mobile and live near public transit stops
- Single-job employees working within a couple of miles from home or right next to a light rail station
- People who live, work, and shop close to public transit lines
You might be surprised at how many people in these situations are commuting, and probably equally surprised at how many could, but aren't. In downtown Denver, according to one recent study, 37% of those who worked within 1/2 mile of a rail station took the commute. Of those who both lived and worked within 1/2 mile, 50% commuted. But that means that 63% who worked close to a rail station did not commute, and 50% who lived AND worked close to a station did not commute.
I wonder how many of those could adapt to living their lives completely car free? If your circumstances are listed, but you're still not sure whether going carless would work for you or not, here are some considerations to help you decide.
Questions to See if Your Lifestyle Is Conducive
- Family size (incl. pets)––How big is your family and what ages are they? Are any of their current activities accessible by bus or train? Are they close enough to walk or cycle? Could you sign up for activities that are closer?
- Type of work––Is the work you and/or your partner do steady, i.e. always at the same location and pretty much the same time each day? Is it close enough to walk or bike? If not, could you bike to the nearest bus or train stop, take your bike on board and, when you get off, bike the rest of the way?
- Night activities––Do you often go out at night? Could you carpool with friends in exchange for treating them to drinks? Would going out earlier make it easier to use public transport?
- Weekends––What do you do on weekends? Could you spend weekends working on the house or yard as a family, then rent a car once a month to go somewhere cool? Is there a park, public swimming pool, tennis court, or an active church or school nearby?
- Routes and road conditions––Do an online search to find the routes of buses and trains that go near you. How many of them stop near places you go (or could go)? What are the roads like for walking or bicycling? Are they safe? Do you see others walking or riding on them? What does your city say about it?
- Relocation options––For those routine activities that look like they're hard to get to without a car, can you find a place nearer instead? Or even one that's further away, but better accessible to public transportation?
To help you get a visual of alternate ways you can get to various destinations, I've included a table below. Try listing all the routine places you drive to, then look to see how else you could get there.
If I Gave Up My Car, How Could I Get There?
Activities Needing Transport
Going to work
Taking the kids places
Analysis––Putting it all Together
Now that you can see the alternatives, it might be interesting to do a cost comparison. You should be able to estimate your current driving costs from bank statements, receipts, and memory. Try adding up the following to get an average annual total: Car payments, interest, licensing costs, gasoline/electric costs, repair costs, car washes, insurance, parking and toll fees, fines for tickets, etc.
Then use your chart to estimate how much it would cost to take public transportation, walk, bicycle, etc. for most of your activities. Add any rental car or taxi fees. Then translate it into a total annual cost. Now you can compare the two.
Another exercise you can do is to reorganize your activities. Look at your chart again. How many of these activities can you organize into one trip? Can you go to the movies, have a late lunch out, then go food shopping afterward on the same trip? Can you ride the public bus with your kids to school, then meet a friend at a coffeeshop or gym near the school? Or go from there straight to work?
What isn't taken care of yet? Hopefully you've been engaging the family (if you have one) in this exploration. Maybe you could brainstorm together to see how to handle whatever is left. If it looks feasible to live without a car, then try it out for a month, before actually ditching the car. That should also give you enough experience to decided whether to get rid of the car completely or keep it on hand for emergencies.
Talk to friends too, especially those who have already considered or actually gone through with it. Leave comments below for other readers still questioning––they might need the questions you ask or the tips you leave.