How to Live Car Free in the City

Updated on June 2, 2018
Sustainable Sue profile image

Susette comes from a big family, where she learned early on about good health maintenance. She eats, works, and lives as "green" as she can.

In my experience, the biggest deterrent to living car-free is the fear of it. If you've already done it, or have friends who've done it, you already know that finding bus routes, carpooling, and renting cars is pretty easy––figuring out how to work that all out is sort of mechanical and today's Internet apps help make it easier. But having the courage to do it is another matter. It does change your lifestyle.

This is the Toyota I drove before moving to Pasadena.  It was a good, reliable car, with 127,000 miles on it. I still miss it sometimes.
This is the Toyota I drove before moving to Pasadena. It was a good, reliable car, with 127,000 miles on it. I still miss it sometimes. | Source

According to a US Census Bureau report, 9.1% of Americans had taken the plunge by the years 2010-2015. That included people living in the country, not just in cities.

The best place to live without a car, of course, is in a city with a good public transportation system, so it's not surprising that the city with the highest number of households without cars is New York. Los Angeles is developing a decent transit system too, but just having one doesn't mean that people are going to use it.

Moving from the desert to the suburbs of Los Angeles, I soon discovered that I needed additional travel options to public transit, if I was going to live without a car. Here are the methods of transportation I now use most often.

Option 1: Walking

I live in a slightly hilly area, nice neighborhood, outside of Pasadena, near hiking trails. There are two buses that run near me––one right around the corner, the other 15 minutes walk away, across the street from a laundromat. I had to teach myself to take my time walking to these bus stops, because if I raced every day I ended up with knee or ankle pains. "Patience," I told myself. "Leave a little earlier and give yourself time to get there."

Slowly my thighs and calves have built up strength walking the gradual rises, which is one of the benefits of walking a lot. I've gotten to know neighbors by stopping to talk when they're outside. I pet dogs whose owners are giving them a walk. And I often take photographs of neighboring gardens to use in articles. Sometimes I go hiking in the canyon nearby. And, of course, I walk further in town than I used to when I could drive from store to store.

When I first moved, I used to cut across a small college campus near my office and walk across this bridge to get to Starbucks or Jamba Juice. It was much more relaxing and interesting than driving.
When I first moved, I used to cut across a small college campus near my office and walk across this bridge to get to Starbucks or Jamba Juice. It was much more relaxing and interesting than driving. | Source

Option 2: Public Transit

Regularly riding buses around town raised fears I didn't know I had. One had to do with my public image. In our culture, we're expected to buy a car as soon as we're adults. If you don't buy one, there's something wrong. I've owned at least five cars in my life and now I don't, but nobody who sees me knows that.

So riding the bus brought out fears of being looked down on for being poor, unsophisticated, or unable to get a driver's license, none of which are true. I had to prove myself in other ways and, meanwhile, stop worrying about it. Touting the benefits to myself helped:

  • I don't have to focus on the road, but can do other things in transit, like read or write or talk on the cellphone.
  • I don't have to deal with traffic. The bus driver will handle that.
  • I get healthier walking to and from stops, as well as carrying things.

I take the bus almost everywhere I go: To my workplace, to church, to the Metro Gold Line station, to downtown Pasadena to shop.
I take the bus almost everywhere I go: To my workplace, to church, to the Metro Gold Line station, to downtown Pasadena to shop. | Source
I take the Metro Gold Line whenever I go to Los Angeles. To visit my sister, I take it to LA, then the Amtrack to Simi Valley, where she picks me up at the station.
I take the Metro Gold Line whenever I go to Los Angeles. To visit my sister, I take it to LA, then the Amtrack to Simi Valley, where she picks me up at the station. | Source
When I go to conferences out of state, or visit family or friends in other states, I fly. Flying puts out a lot of carbon emissions, but the airlines pretty much pack their flights now, which offsets the per capita carbon output.
When I go to conferences out of state, or visit family or friends in other states, I fly. Flying puts out a lot of carbon emissions, but the airlines pretty much pack their flights now, which offsets the per capita carbon output. | Source

Option 3: Carpooling

Carpooling is like riding places with friends. Either you trade off driving your own car (if you own one) with theirs the next time or, in my case, they drive theirs all the time and I pay for gas and buy them coffee. It gives us a chance to talk about where we're going, where we've just been, or about anything else.

Environmentally speaking, it only works if we're going to the same place and we live near each other, or I live between them and our destination. It does not work if they have to drive clear across town to pick me up and then drive back again to our mutual destination. Or if (as happened recently) I'm at a party at their house and they offer to drive me home across town. That I will refuse, unless it's late at night and there are no buses running.

Carpooling with a friend in Colorado. We drove to the local reservoir, then up into the Rocky Mountains. She said carpooling with me was fun––that we went to places she'd never seen before.
Carpooling with a friend in Colorado. We drove to the local reservoir, then up into the Rocky Mountains. She said carpooling with me was fun––that we went to places she'd never seen before. | Source

Option 4: Car Rental

I used to rent from Enterprise, but now use a local rental car supplier. What I liked about Enterprise was that they often offered weekend specials. That was great for running odd errands, but not so good for holiday trips, since they never had specials on those days. When I switched to Value Rentals, I started getting much better prices overall, including holidays (although no weekend specials). I rent about once every three months.

When I rent a car, I show them my driver's license, give them contact information, and sign a lease. They'll ask if I want insurance. I have a policy for non car owners, so I never get theirs, but if you don't have insurance you'll need to pay a little extra for it.

Alternate Transportation I Don't Use

Bicycling––I know a lot of people who ride bicycles all the time. I have one, but I'm wary about riding around here. Local drivers are still resentful of having to give up space on "their" roads to accommodate cyclists. As a result, there aren't a lot of places I can go on a bike safely. However, that's changing with new lanes that accommodate cyclists, so I'm keeping this option open.

Zipcar––Zipcar is a company that offers car sharing services different from a regular car rental. One joins as a member, then uses their app and zipcard to reserve and drive a car for only the amount of hours needed. There's no minimum. To extend the time you do it on the app, rather than dealing with a person.

Uber/Lyft––Some people might see these vehicles as alternative transportation, but they're really not. Uber and Lyft act more like taxis, which is not any more sustainable than driving a car by oneself, since the driver would not normally be going where you are paying them to take you.

Getting Around in Los Angeles Without a Car

To understand how all this works, it can help to give you examples. When friends and I went to the "Women's March" in Los Angeles last January, we carpooled to the nearest Metro Gold Line station, then took the train to Pershing Square in downtown LA (about 1/2 hour). We walked from there to City Hall to hear the speakers and performers, taking photos the whole way.

When I attended the "March for our Lives" in Los Angeles in March this year, I took the bus to my church in Pasadena, carpooled with a bunch of friends to downtown LA, parked in a public parking garage, then walked together to City Hall from there.

If I need to go any other place in downtown LA, there are Metro buses and local shuttles that run through all the major streets down there. The Metro app is useful to find out how to get from one place to another. If it's a major location, like the Music Center, I don't need to input an address, but if it's a business location or someone's house I do.

If I'm going to catch a flight out of LAX, I take the Metro Gold Line from Pasadena to Union Station, then the LAX shuttle, which drops me off at the airport terminal I want. The whole trip takes about two hours and costs less than $10.

I have never seen the train so packed. This was coming back from the Women's March in LA last year. The way down was even more crowded––we had to wait for five trains to pass, before we found room. (This year Metro added trains for the march.)
I have never seen the train so packed. This was coming back from the Women's March in LA last year. The way down was even more crowded––we had to wait for five trains to pass, before we found room. (This year Metro added trains for the march.) | Source

Getting Around in Pasadena and Other Cities

For everyday getting around in Pasadena, these are the most important places where I go, along with the way I usually get there. The general concept of this applies in other cities as well:

  • Laundromat––There's a good one within a fifteen-minute walk from my house. I put soap and a book or project of some kind in my backpack and walk over, carrying my laundry in a duffel bag over my shoulder. There's a bakery right across the street with WiFi and coffee, where I can work, read, or hang out with friends while my clothes are washing and drying.
  • Stores––Next to the laundromat is one of the stores where I shop. They carry quite a few organic items (at my request) and have good prices. I walk there with my backpack and an extra bag to carry groceries in. I also take the bus to Pasadena to shop at Trader Joe's or Target. Carrying grocery items in my backpack has built up my leg and back muscles.
  • Church––Twice a week I take the bus to church, once on Sunday morning for services, the second time on Thursday night for choir practice. With both events, I carpool back with people who live near me. This gives us a chance to get to know each other better, and I now count those people as friends.
  • Airport––When I fly somewhere, it's out of LAX. I take the bus from my house to the Metro Gold Line (train) station, take the train to Union Station, then catch a shuttle from Union Station to the LAX terminal. I don't have to hassle with parking. My landlady, meanwhile, likes to catch flights from Burbank Airport. She has me drive her there in her car, but then while I have the car I can drive it around on errands. So I go to the hard-to-get places, instead of renting a car, and a few days later pick her up at the airport.
  • Eateries & Entertainment––I like to eat out (a lot) and go to the theater every once in a while. If I go with friends, they pick me up or I take the bus into town to meet them. At night I have to watch the time, since my bus stops running at 9:30 or 10:00 p.m. If it's going to be late and I'm with friends, they will give me a ride home. If not, I leave early.

This corner,  within walking distance of my house, has three places I frequent, plus a bus stop. This photo of the bakery (good coffee, and homemade pastries and cakes) is taken from near the laundromat and grocery store I go to.
This corner, within walking distance of my house, has three places I frequent, plus a bus stop. This photo of the bakery (good coffee, and homemade pastries and cakes) is taken from near the laundromat and grocery store I go to. | Source

Adaptations to Living Car Free

There are several changes I've made in the way I run my life, as a result of not having owned a vehicle for the last ten years. If I were to buy a car right now, my life would still be better because of these changes.

  • Develop a routine––I developed a weekly routine, using a calendar to record events and some tasks, except the everyday ones that I wouldn't forget anyway. This helps me plan transportation ahead of time.
  • Make a list––I keep a list of things I run out of and use it to schedule my weekly shopping time. This I found hugely beneficial for saving time and money.
  • Shop online––I buy quite a bit online. I've bookmarked my favorite clothing store (L.L. Bean), organic food store (Thrive Market), beeswax candles (Bluecorn), linens and such (Overstock) and more, in addition to Amazon.com.
  • Buy kits––Instead of buying from a furniture store, I buy kits online and put them together at home. I've made bookshelves, an office chair, a small buffet, and other items this way.
  • Make things––I sew more, instead of clothes shopping downtown. That way I get clothes that are the colors, sizes, and styles I want, without having to drive around to dozens of stores searching. And the sewing quality is usually better.
  • Shop by neighborhood––I bunch tasks together that are located within walking distance of each other––like shopping at Target, eating lunch across the street, then walking down the street to Trader Joe's to finish shopping. On the way, I'll post a package at the post office a few doors down. The following week I'll shop somewhere else.
  • Carry a backpack––I always carry a backpack when I go anywhere, with two additional bags folded inside. Shopping requires a particular kind––one with a large central compartment devoid of pockets inside, insulated, and with padded straps, so it's comfortable on shoulders and back. Insulation helps keep butter, meat, and frozen products cold while I'm finishing up. I can stick a paperback in one of the outside pockets to read while on the bus.

I always keep a shopping list, adding onto it during the week as I run out of things, then double checking before I leave to go shopping.
I always keep a shopping list, adding onto it during the week as I run out of things, then double checking before I leave to go shopping. | Source
Tofu is on my list. Eggs too. There are so many good things to buy in this store, that restricting myself to a list helps keep me from overspending.
Tofu is on my list. Eggs too. There are so many good things to buy in this store, that restricting myself to a list helps keep me from overspending. | Source

Non-Car Living and Good Physical Health

I cannot stress enough the health benefits of not using a car to go everywhere. I've been told I look ten years younger than I am, and part of that is my free-flowing energy. Here are some of the major health benefits I've experienced:

  • Walking strengthens my leg muscles––not just calves, but thighs and butt too.
  • Carrying things on my back strengthens my shoulders, back, and legs. When I buy oils, liquids, and detergent at once, my backpack can be quite heavy. It's a great way to built core body muscle.
  • Being outside a lot gives me the vitamin D my body needs, which helps reduce stress. The sun mixes with skin oils to produce it.
  • I sleep better at night for two reasons: I got exercise during the day, and I get home earlier at night, since the buses don't run as often.
  • I don't have to worry about gaining weight. Instead, I can eat as much as I want and know the physical activity will turn it into muscle, not fat.
  • Since I know I'll be out and about, I usually carry water with me. This helps me stay properly hydrated, so muscles work properly and blood is thin enough to carry nutrients where they need to go.
  • Being outside and breathing deeply while walking helps my body produce endorphins, which means I'm pretty regularly in a good mood. That helps put others in a good mood too, which makes people want to be around me.

This is a popular hiking/walking trail near where I live. It's good exercise and fun walking on the trail, but walking in town is good exercise too. Instead of looking at nature, I'm looking at store windows.
This is a popular hiking/walking trail near where I live. It's good exercise and fun walking on the trail, but walking in town is good exercise too. Instead of looking at nature, I'm looking at store windows. | Source

Car Payments, Car Insurance, and Other Savings

Yes, I save money by not owning a car. I save on car payments, insurance, fuel, and car repairs. For my non-owner insurance policy, I pay $34/month with GEICO (including long-time member and good driver discounts). I spend about $30 on fuel every few months. I spend nothing on car repairs or car payments. Together, that's quite a savings.

For public transport I spend about $40 every two or three months. For a rental car, about $90 for a weekend every three months, plus the gas above, which equals $120 or an average of $40 per month for car and gas. The average person spends $6,000-8,000 per year on car expenses. Check out the difference:

Expense
Cost
Avg/Month
Fuel
$30 every 3 months
$10
Insurance
$34 per month
$34
Car rental
$90 for 3 days every 3 months
$30
Car payments
$0
$0
Car repairs
$0
$0
TAP card
$40 every four months
$10
TOTAL Transportation Costs:
$1008 per year
$84 per month
Note: I work primarily from home, now, so you might spend more on a TAP card than I do.

Are health, financial, and environmental benefits enough to persuade you to try living without a car?

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It might seem like a lot of work for me to plan out my days and transportation to events, but it's also very satisfying––knowing what I'll be doing day to day, and how I'll go about doing it. I also have lots of unexpected mini-adventures I can share with friends and family.

In fact, not having a car made for a much more social life in some ways, once I got past the anxiety. It became easier, for example, to invite friends over than to go to their house. It also makes sure I get home earlier at night, which contributes to better sleep and being healthier. At this point in my life, I wouldn't buy a car even if someone offered me one.

Questions & Answers

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      • Natalie Frank profile image

        Natalie Frank 7 weeks ago from Chicago, IL

        Your articles are always so useful and practical. Thanks for another great source of information!

      • Venkatachari M profile image

        Venkatachari M 2 months ago from Hyderabad, India

        Very informative and useful article.

        People need to understand the importance of saving our earth from pollution and other related issues of congested roads and trafficjams, etc. Your article serves as a good message.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 2 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        We see this in our grandson who lives in the heart of the city and also when we stayed in Barcelona as everything we needed was within an easy walk from where we stayed even fresh fish. We will need to think about this soon. You have shown here that it is possible even if you don't live in the centre.

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