My Year Without a Car

At this time last year I was making the decision about whether or not to sell my car.  It seemed like an easy choice to me.  I live in a bike friendly community with a moderate climate and free public transportation (well technically it’s “fareless”, anyone with a water bill pays a small monthly fee for it).  This didn’t mean life without a car would always be convenient, but my favorable circumstances combined with being able to consume less fossil fuels was too good to pass up.  As I was telling friends and family of my decision some were excited for me, but many expressed concern and doubts, some even tried to talk me out of it.

When making these types of decisions I often pretend I am being visited by someone from a future where life is severely disrupted due to climate change.  I think of how I might explain my decision to this person, and what their reaction might be.  Living in a world built on fossil fuels there is not always a viable alternative.  So I imagine this person being able to understand if I say something like, “I needed my car because I had an illness that required multiple trips to the doctor and my area has no bus service”.  But that wasn’t me, what I heard myself saying was, “I don’t really like biking in the rain, all that rain gear is annoying.” and “it’s going to make it more inconvenient to go on trips out of town”.  Looking through the eyes of my visitor from the future, these didn’t seem like very good reasons.

We need to rethink how we get around and how our communities are designed to facilitate that.  Where we live and work plays a big role and also how we spend our leisure time and vacations.  The fossil fuel empire grew strong with the growth of suburbs where people commuted into nearby cities for work.  And the age of the car has allowed us to take off on a whim for a weekend trip out of town.  We need to change how this works.  But please, keep reading, because although there are challenges, there are also many benefits that I will get to at the end.

Choices of Where to Live and Work

At the time I knew that I would need to move soon and I decided that I would buy a house.  My mother pointed out that not having a car was going to limit my choice of potential homes.  This was true.  It turns out that where I live, and probably in most other places, the most centrally located neighborhoods with the best walkability, are also the most expensive.  Since I was in the “starter home” income range, this really was a challenge.  I’ve had friends that live on the outskirts of town and still live a car free lifestyle, so it’s not impossible, but as a newbie I wanted to make the transition as easy as possible.  I had some specific requirements, it needed to be walking distance to my son’s school, a grocery store and one of the major bus lines.  I think there was a bit of good luck involved, but I found a place that met all my requirements in my price range.  So this is a challenge that as a society we need to remedy with better neighborhood planning so more neighborhoods can meet the basic needs of a car-free lifestyle.

The same challenges apply to work locations.  I work from home, so that made things easier for me.  However at some point my work situation may change and continuing this lifestyle will mean limiting job choices to ones I can get to in a reasonable amount of time by bus or bike.  This again could be solved by better neighborhood planning, transportation options, and in cases where it’s possible, encouraging employers to allow people to work from home.

Getting Out of Town

One of my biggest hesitations when making my decision is the challenge of visiting friends outside of town in rural areas with little or no public transportation options.  I ended up signing up for a car sharing program.  I can rent a car by the hour, day, or overnight.  There are several versions of this concept, usually with better availability depending on where you live.  Bigger cities have more flexible programs and most small towns don’t have this option at all.  I’m in a mid-size college town, and we have a few car share cars all located on or next to the college campus.  The closest car is a ten minute walk from my house.  I can reserve time on line, then use my key card to enter and start the car.  Although I must confess, I still have not used this service.  The hourly rates are nice for around town, but I manage to do all my in town errands with my bike and trailer.  For an overnight trip I took to my friend’s house out in the country, it turned out to be a better deal just to do a regular car rental.  But for those that do occasionally need a car in town, this could be a great option.  For other out of town trips to more urban areas, I have been able to use the bus or the train.

Challenges aside, it turns out there are a lot of benefits to living car free.  Once we get over the growing pains associated with many big changes in our life, we can end up being much better off.

More Exercise and More Outdoors Time

Sure, riding my bike is good exercise, but even all those short walks to the store and the bus stop add up to a lot of extra steps.  Having a desk job, I haven’t abandoned the gym completely, but it allows me to occasionally blow off an exercise class without feeling guilty.  And I get more outdoors time.  Since I spend a lot of my day inside in front of a computer, any extra time spent outside is a plus.  I also find myself feeling a bit more in tune with my surroundings. I’m certainly more aware of the weather as I try to plan my outings accordingly.  Also by moving at a slower pace, I notice more of what’s around me.

Less Stress

There’s a lot of stress involved with driving. You have to deal with traffic, finding a parking spot, flat tires and break downs, just to name a few things.  Walking or biking is much more relaxing, and since exercise itself helps reduce stress it makes it that much better.  I love my bus time, because I get to just sit and stare out the window while someone else worries about the driving. I also do some pretty long train trips to visit family out of state.  I remember doing the long boring drive and the stress of finding a hotel room late at night with the gas tank nearing empty.  Or dealing with getting to the airport in time to find parking and get through the security lines.  Getting to the train station is very low hassle compared to the airport. Now the train trip has become part of the vacation. I get to spend some quality time with my son.  I can move around and eat and sleep whenever I feel like it, and the views are great.

Save Money

Even with the expense of an occasional car rental and bus or train tickets, not having a car still saves me money.  Car insurance, registration, parking fees, gas, oil changes and other maintenance, it all adds up.

Less Pollution and CO2

And of course the most important reason is keeping our air and atmosphere healthy for life as we know it.  It’s the hardest one for people to grasp because it’s not as easy for us to measure in our everyday lives like not having that monthly car insurance bill is.  But to our visitor from the future it’s the one that matters most.