Living the Car Free Lifestyle
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.
When I first started considering getting rid of my car, I was living in Lancaster, California, on the outskirts of Los Angeles County. It was unfeasible to live without a car there, because everything was so far apart. However, the rest of my life was "green" and I did want to be consistent, so I promised myself I would go car free as soon as I could move to a city with a decent public transportation system.
In 2007, I found a full-time job in downtown Pasadena, where I worked from home and commuted 75 miles, whenever I needed to meet with my boss. Late that year he offered me another job and a little promotion, if I would move there. It was now decision time. Would I make good on my promise to go car-free or not? Could I?
The Car Free Lifestyle
It turned out I could. It wasn't easy and I had to face a lot of fears––like what people thought of me, or what would happen if I missed a bus, or was stranded at night––but I did it. Now I'm healthier than before, my finances are better, I'm better organized, and I'm still living a fulfilling lifestyle.
According to a US Census Bureau report, 9.1% of Americans did not own a car between the years 2010-2015. That amount is higher than the previous 5 years and includes people living in the country, not just in cities. The city with the highest number of households without cars is New York, with its extensive public transportation system, but Los Angeles is developing a decent one too.
Right away I discovered that public transportation was not the only travel option available. Here in the suburbs are the methods of transportation I use most often:
- Walking––To and from bus stops, to nearby stores and restaurants.
- Metro bus lines––Longer distances across town, including church.
- Carpooling––To and/or from special events with friends, like eating out locally or distant mountain retreats.
- Metro train lines––To neighboring towns and cities, including Los Angeles.
- Car rental––To odd places where it would take 3 hours via public transport for a 1/2 hour trip driving.
- Airplane––To visit friends/family and attend events out of state.
Bicycling is an option too. I just don't happen to use it. Only a few streets around here are currently really safe for bicycles, and I know people who resent having to share the road. The city is taking steps to create more and safer bike lanes, however, so I may start riding mine in the future.
Good Organization and Living Car Free
Having my life run smoothly without a car requires good organization to counter the annoyances. Like I can't make a quick run to the store while cooking, because I forgot something. I can't drive over to my sister's in the next valley for coffee, whenever I feel lonely. Sometimes I have to give up nighttime activities, because the buses don't run that late and I can't find someone to do them with.
So I have to plan better ahead of time and be better organized. If I'm frazzled, I make myself stop and think. When I commit to an activity, part of that commitment entails figuring out how I'm going to get there and back, and what I'll be doing just beforehand––shall I eat at home or go out? If I take the bus, how much time will I have before I have to be there, and what will I do with it?
As a result of the extra time I take, my life is calmer (though still busy), I'm saving money and time on the freeway, my body feels stronger and healthier, and I'm able to cut back on mistreatment of the earth in my own small way.
Adaptations to Living Without a Car
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 one right now, my life would still be better, because of these changes.
- 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.
- 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 ahead of time how to get there.
- 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.
- Treat carpool drivers––When I invite friends to do things with me, I suggest they drive and I'll buy gas and coffee treats. That way we're both benefiting.
- 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.
Getting Around in Los Angeles
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 on March 24th 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, you don't need to input an address, but if it's a business location or someone's house you 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.
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 hang out and 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 nicely.
- 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. As already mentioned, 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.
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 the 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 shop for 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.
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:
$30 every 3 months
$34 per month
$90 for 3 days every 3 months
$40 every four months
TOTAL Transportation Costs:
$84 per month
It might seem like a lot of work to plan out your days and transportation to events. In some ways it is, but it's also very satisfying, knowing what you'll be doing day to day, and how you'll go about doing it.
You also have lots of unexpected mini-adventures. I once was complimented on the bus for having a beautiful singing voice––I'd been looking through a new voice training book and singing to myself. It started a whole conversation about singing in choirs. One of my carpool friends invited me to a family dinner once, after an event. And a planning committee I was part of spontaneously carpooled to the movies together, after a session.
Not having a car makes for a much more social life in some ways, once you get past the anxiety. It also makes sure you 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.