If you’ve ever been stuck in a traffic jam, sitting motionless behind a diesel-belching truck as cyclists glide past happily in the bike lane, it may have crossed your mind that you’d be happier living without a car. But chances are, you quickly brushed aside that notion, imagining just how impractical that would be. After all, the whole modern world is practically built around automobile travel – and with so many places designed to be accessed by car, is living without one even possible?
The answer to that question is far from simple, as it largely depends on your specific situation: where you live, where you work, and what you do for fun. But the question is worth asking – especially if you’re someone who’s happier almost anywhere else than behind the wheel. Going without a car just might be the key to a healthier, more frugal, and less stressful life.
Advantages and Disadvantages of a Car-Free Life
There’s no doubt that there are many benefits to living without a car. The perks of a car-free life include:
- Savings. Owning a car is costly. Aside from the cost of the car itself, you have to pay for gas, insurance, maintenance, and, depending on where you live, parking and tolls. According to AAA, the total cost of owning a car comes to about $6,100 per year on average. Of course, there are ways to keep these costs down, such as buying a smaller car or paying off your car loan early. But even if you pinch your pennies, owning a car still costs you thousands of dollars a year.
- Health. Doctors agree that getting more exercise is one of the best things, if not the best thing, you can do for your health. And one of the best ways to fit more exercise into your day is to walk or bike more, rather than driving. Giving up your car practically forces you to be spend more time moving your body, even if you’re only walking to the nearest bus stop.
- Less Stress. For many people, the hours spent behind the wheel are the most stressful part of the day. Studies at the University of Montreal and Britain’s University of East Anglia both show that commuters who walk or bike to work instead of driving are more relaxed both during their commute and after it. And, in addition to skipping all those hours sitting in traffic, going car-free means no more frantic hunting for parking spaces or worrying about making it back to your car before the parking meter runs out.
- Less Pollution. If you want to live a greener lifestyle, giving up your car is one of the biggest steps you can take. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, driving is the single most polluting activity the average American does in a day. Going car-free reduces your carbon footprint, as well as your contribution to smog and acid rain.
But going car-free has its downsides too. The fact is, in many parts of this country, it’s really hard to get anywhere without a car. And even when it’s possible to get where you’re going by bus, by bike, or on foot, it often takes a lot longer than driving.
Living without a car is easier in some places than others. Some U.S. cities, such as Miami, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, encourage a car-free lifestyle by having great mass transit systems or an extensive network of bike trails. However, in rural or suburban areas, it’s often hard to get around without a car because there’s limited public transportation and few bike paths – and perhaps not even any sidewalks.
Alternatives to Owning a Car
To determine whether a car-free life makes sense for you, you need to know your options and alternatives. For example, walking and biking can be practical if you live close enough to the places where you work and socialize. And in many cities, mass transit – such as buses, subways, and trains – can take you just about everywhere you need to go.
However, even if there are places you can’t go without a car, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to own one. You might be able to share rides with others, either in a carpool or through a formal ridesharing program like Uber. Alternatively, take part in a car-sharing program like Zipcar, which gives you access to a car when you need it. And if you only need a car on very rare occasions, simply rent one or take a cab.
Walking is probably the simplest way to get from place to place. However, that doesn’t mean it’s always the easiest. Walking has a lot of perks, but it has some serious drawbacks as well.
- It’s Free. Walking from place to place requires no equipment aside from a comfortable pair of shoes. Most people already have that – and even if you don’t, you can buy a decent pair of walking shoes for as little as $35.
- It Works Everywhere. Not every area has buses and trains, car-sharing programs, or even cabs. But walking is possible anywhere there’s a surface to walk on. And unlike cars and cyclists, you’re not limited to paved roads and paths when you walk.
- It’s Great Exercise. Walking for exercise offers an array of health benefits: It strengthens your heart, boosts bone density, tones your leg muscles, reduces stress, improves balance, and helps you maintain a healthy weight. And it’s not nearly as hard on your joints as high-impact activities, such as jogging or basketball.
- You Learn Your Way Around. Walking is a great way to get to know your neighborhood. On foot, you can discover all kinds of interesting hole-in-the-wall businesses that are easy to miss when you’re speeding by in a car. In fact, a study at Britain’s University of Surrey, published on Science Direct, shows that people tend to see their surroundings in a more positive way when they’re on foot than when they’re driving.
- It’s Slow. It takes a lot longer to get anywhere on foot than it does on wheels. So if you walk to work, you’ll have to get up earlier in the morning to make it in on time.
- It’s Tiring. Walking is less strenuous than many other forms of exercise; even so, there’s only so far you can go on foot without wearing yourself out.
- You’re Exposed to the Weather. In inclement weather, walking just isn’t pleasant – and if it’s severe enough, it could even be dangerous.
- Cars Are a Danger. Although it’s possible to walk just about anywhere, it isn’t always safe. Highways are designed for cars, not pedestrians, and drivers aren’t likely to be on the lookout for people traveling on foot. In many areas, it’s not even legal for pedestrians to walk along or across a major roadway.
- It’s Harder to Haul Things. When you run errands in your car, you don’t have to worry about carrying everything home – you can easily fit six bags of groceries into the trunk, or even lower a seat to make room for a couple of two-by-fours. When you’re on foot, you’re limited to what you can carry in your hands or in a backpack.
All in all, walking is most suitable for making short trips in developed areas with good sidewalks. It can also work for slightly longer trips – a few miles at a time – if you’re in reasonably good shape and have time to spare.
Riding a bike has many of the same advantages as walking – and some of the same disadvantages as well. However, it also has its own unique pluses and minuses, and it’s often possible to find ways around the disadvantages with good planning and a little extra equipment.
- It’s Cheap. If you already own a bicycle, cycling is nearly as cheap as walking. True, unlike a pair of shoes, a bicycle does require a bit of regular maintenance. But compared to cars, bikes are a lot cheaper to buy and maintain.
- It’s Good Exercise. Just like walking, cycling is a great way to work regular exercise into your daily routine. With a bike, your daily commute becomes a way to stay trim, strengthen your muscles, and keep your heart in good shape.
- It’s Much Faster Than Walking. A moderately fit person can walk at an approximate rate of three miles per hour. By contrast, a moderately fit cyclist can travel at around 15 miles per hour on city streets. So if you live six miles from your workplace, it would take two hours to get there on foot, but less than a half-hour on a bicycle.
- You Can Go Where Cars Can’t. With the exception of major highways, bicycles can go nearly anywhere cars can. But they can also go many places that cars can’t. For example, many parks have paths that are closed to cars but open to cyclists and pedestrians. So on a bike, you can often take a shortcut through the park, skirting around traffic and enjoying a more scenic view. And when you get where you’re going, there’s a good chance you can chain your bike up right outside the door instead of having to hunt around for a parking spot.
- It’s Possible to Haul Stuff. For around $30, you can attach a basket to the front of your bike – and for a bigger investment (approximately $120), you can equip the back of the bike with a wire rack and a set of panniers, which hang over the rack like saddlebags. You can even hook up a cargo trailer – which can be purchased for approximately $100 – to the rear of your bike. And if you don’t wish to modify or add anything to your bicycle, simply wear a backpack.
- There Are Some Costs. A good bicycle can be expensive. A hybrid or recreational bike, suitable for commuting and tooling around town, will set you back anywhere from $200 to well over $1,000. However, there are ways to lower this cost. For example, it’s possible to buy a used bike in good condition for as little as $100 (or perhaps even less). Or, if you’re only planning to ride occasionally, you can save by joining a bikesharing program, which lets you “check out” a bike when you need one. These programs cost around $75 per year, plus an extra fee if you need to use a bike for a long trip. Along with your bike, you also should expect to invest $100 or so in extra gear, such as a helmet, bike lock, and lights.
- Bikes Attract Thieves. One of the problems with riding a really nice bike is that it’s a target for thieves. There’s nothing quite as frustrating for a bike commuter than to leave work and find a broken cord and lock where a pricey bicycle should be. Fortunately, a solid metal U-lock will deter most thieves, and a decent one only costs around $50.
- Some Maintenance Is Required. A bike is much less complicated than a car, so it’s much less work to maintain. You can learn to do much of the basic maintenance yourself, greatly reducing trips to the bike shop. For example, be sure to keep the tires properly inflated and the chain lubricated, and replace brake pads and tires whenever necessary. Expect to spend at least a few minutes each week and at least $30 to $100 each year to maintain your bike.
- It’s (Usually) Slower Than Driving. Even the fastest cyclists can’t ride as fast as a car traveling at highway speeds. Investing in an electric-assisted bicycle, or e-bike, can boost your speed, but these high-tech cycles usually cost thousands of dollars. Furthermore, many highways are closed to bikes, so riding a bike often forces you to take a more roundabout route. On the other hand, cyclists can use some paths that are closed to cars, so in some cases, riding a bike lets you take a shorter, quicker route. Also, when you’re riding on the shoulder or in a dedicated bike lane, you can often glide right past traffic jams on the road. So depending on where you’re going and how bad the traffic is, riding a bike could be almost as fast as driving – or even faster.
- You Show Up Sweaty. One problem with riding your bike to work – or anyplace else where you have to look presentable – is that you can show up sweaty and dirty from your ride. You can carry a change of clothes in a backpack or keep a suit at the office to change into, but you still need to allow extra time to clean up and change.
- Weather Poses a Risk. Just like walking, riding a bike exposes you to the elements. Furthermore, cyclists have to mind the road conditions, keeping in mind that snowdrifts that can be maneuvered in a car may be an impassable obstacle for a bike. Investing in the proper gear can make hot-weather and cold-weather cycling more manageable, but it’s never going to be as safe or easy as driving.
- Cars Pose a Risk. When you’re traveling in a dedicated bike lane, you can generally avoid traffic, though you still have to be careful at intersections. But if many of the roads in your area have a lot of traffic and narrow shoulders, they’re potential death traps for bicyclists.
Riding a bike is best for short to medium trips – say, 15 miles or less – in bike-friendly areas. This includes bicycle and pedestrian paths, roads with dedicated bike lanes, and streets with a wide shoulder and not too much traffic.
3. In-Line Skates
In some areas, you can get around with a different kind of wheels: in-line skates. Skating is sort of a middle ground between walking and cycling. It falls in between the two in terms of cost, speed, and convenience.
- Low Cost. A pair of skates costs between $100 and $200. That’s more than a pair of walking shoes, but quite a bit less than a new bicycle.
- Improved Speed. Strapping on skates can boost your speed to around 10 miles per hour. That’s significantly slower than riding a bicycle, but it’s still more than three times as fast as walking.
- Portability. Unlike a bicycle, skates are portable. When you get to your destination, you can just tie them together and sling them over your shoulder. This also makes it easier to combine skating with public transportation. You can skate to the station, then hop on the train, carrying your skates with you. There’s no need to look for a place to lock up your bike first.
- Weather Is an Issue. Like walking, skating exposes you to the elements. It’s a lot of fun on a bright, sunny day, but it’s pretty unpleasant in severe heat. And in heavy rain or snow, it can be even more dangerous than walking.
- It Requires a Paved Surface. You can’t cut across rough territory on skates the way you can on foot. You don’t need a full-sized road, but you do need a smooth surface.
Skating is practical pretty much anywhere cycling is. It’s good for trips of up to 10 miles wherever there’s good pavement and clement weather.
4. Public Transportation
In many cities, it’s easy to get around without a car. You can go practically anywhere by utilizing buses, subways, and light rail. However, this option isn’t available everywhere, and it’s not always as convenient as driving.
- Cost Savings. The cost of public transportation varies from city to city. However, in many big cities – such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – you can buy a one-month transit pass for approximately $100, permitting you unlimited travel on most city buses and trains. By contrast, the cost of owning a car, according to the AAA study, is roughly $508.50 per month. So giving up your car and switching to transit can save you about $408.50 per month, or $4902 per year. In many cities, the savings are even greater because parking is so expensive. According to an August 2016 report from the American Public Transportation Association, in the 20 cities with the highest transit use, a two-car couple who gave up one car would save an average of $9,634 per year.
- A More Relaxing Ride. Driving on crowded city streets can be very stressful, and the time required can vary greatly according to traffic. A 2014 study at McGill University found that drivers feel more stress during their daily commutes than people who use transit. Similarly, a 2013 study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that a test subject’s stress levels during city driving were far higher than at any other point during a normal day.
- More Free Time. When you’re sitting on a bus or a train, you don’t have to focus on the road. You can use your time for other things, such as reading a book or checking your email. So even if it takes longer to get to work, at least the time isn’t wasted.
- No Parking Hassles. Parking spots in the city are often scarce – not to mention expensive. When you ride on a bus or a train, you can just hop off at your stop and go.
- Not Available Everywhere. The biggest problem with public transportation is that, in many places, there simply isn’t any. This is most often the case in rural and suburban areas, but even in some cities, transit stops are few and far between.
- Longer Travel Times. Even in cities with plenty of buses and trains, there isn’t always one that’s headed straight to where you want to go. Getting from point A to point B often means taking multiple buses or trains, which makes your trip longer. A 2015 study at the University of Michigan found that the cities where most people commute by transit (rather than by car) also tend to have the longest commute times. For instance, in transit-friendly New York City, the average commute is nearly twice as long as in car-dependent Oklahoma City. Check Mapnificent to see how many places it’s possible to reach in a given time using your city’s transit system.
- You’re On a Strict Schedule. If you drive to work, waking up a few minutes late in the morning just means you arrive at work a few minutes late. But if you commute via public transportation, running a few minutes late could mean missing your bus and having to wait for the next one. Depending on the schedule, that could make you as much as an hour late. Going out at night can be an even bigger problem, as in many cities, the buses stop running late at night. So if you miss the last bus, you could be stranded until morning.
- It’s Hard to Haul Stuff. Most city buses and trains don’t provide much storage space for baggage. So if you take a bus or train to the store, you can’t bring home a carload of groceries – you’re limited to what you can fit in a backpack or beneath your seat.
Public transportation is a great option if you happen to live in a city with a good transit system. It’s especially useful for commuting, since many urban areas have extra trains and buses running during the morning and evening rush hours. However, even for city dwellers, mass transit can’t always get you everywhere you want to go. For instance, if you often visit friends who live in the suburbs, you can’t always count on trains and buses to get you there.
5. Getting a Lift
Even if there are some places you can’t get to without a car, that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be your car. Often, if you don’t own a car, you can share rides with friends or coworkers who do.
In theory, you can go anywhere and carry anything in a friend’s car that you could in your own. In practice, however, you can usually only share rides to places that your car-owning friend is going too. A good friend probably won’t mind giving you a lift to the airport once in a while, but if you ask for a ride to the grocery store every week, that’s taking advantage of the friendship.
However, if you don’t have a friend who wants to go where you’re going, it’s sometimes possible to get a ride from a stranger. Slugging and real-time ridesharing are two safer ways to find drivers who are willing to give you a lift.
If you have coworkers who live in your neighborhood, you can carpool to work together. Carpooling has many advantages:
- Save Money. Four people riding in one car spend less on gas, tolls, and maintenance than four people in four separate cars. In addition, one car needs only one parking place, so you can all share the cost of one parking permit.
- Reduce Traffic. Carpooling reduces the number of cars on the road. That means less traffic during the morning and evening rush hours, which makes the commute less stressful.
- Prevent Pollution. A single car with four people also produces less pollution than four separate cars. Having fewer cars on the road helps cut down on smog, acid rain, and greenhouse gas emissions.
- Enjoy the Company. Sharing a ride with coworkers is a good way to get to know them better. Chatting with your friends on the way to work is a much more pleasant way to pass the time than sitting alone behind the wheel cursing at the traffic.
The main drawback of carpooling is that it only works if you have people to carpool with. If you work at a small company, the chances of having coworkers living nearby are slim. Also, carpooling requires you to be on a stricter schedule in the morning. If you run late, you either miss your ride or make all your coworkers late along with you.
In many cities, rush-hour drivers pick up extra passengers so they can use the faster-moving HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lanes on the highway. This practice, known as “instant carpooling,” or “slugging,” is most common in Washington, D.C.
To catch a ride this way, you have to stand in a “slug line” with other passengers seeking rides. Then you wait for a driver to pull over and call out a destination that matches yours. Slug-Lines.com explains where to find slug lines in the District of Columbia area.
Slugging is free and is often faster than public transportation. The obvious downside is that it’s not available in most cities – and even if you happen to live in Washington, slugging isn’t a sure thing, like taking a bus. Chances are you’ll find a driver who’s headed to where you want to go, but you can’t always be certain.
If you don’t live in Washington, D.C., you can still find people to share rides with through a real-time ridesharing site. Real-time ridesharing isn’t the same thing as commercial ridesharing programs such as Uber (discussed below). Instead, it’s simply a way for drivers looking for company to find passengers looking for a lift. SpaceShare and the “rideshare” section on Craigslist are two sites you can search to find a driver who’s heading your way.
Unlike slugging, real-time ridesharing is an option in all parts of the country. However, there’s still no guarantee that you can find a driver who wants to take you where you want to go. Your chances are better if you live in a big city, where there are lots of drivers and passengers to match up with each other.
Also, ridesharing sometimes comes with a price tag. A quick search of Craigslist for my area turned up only a few listings from drivers offering free rides, or asking only for gas money. Most listings were from drivers seeking money for a ride – basically, unlicensed taxi services. If you’re going to pay for a ride, it’s safer to take a real taxi.
6. Taxis and Ridesharing
Ridesharing systems such as Uber and Lyft have more in common with a taxi service than with an informal carpool. When you sign up with one of these services, you create an account, download an app, and put your credit or debit card on file. Then, when you need a ride, you use the app to signal a driver who’s in your area. The fare gets charged automatically to your credit card.
Ridesharing vs. Cabs
Of course, it’s still possible to call a cab the old-fashioned way. Traditional cabs usually cost more, but not always. According to Consumer Reports, for long trips where cab fares would cost more than $35, Uber is likely to be a cheaper option. But for short trips, the traditional taxi costs less, even with the tip.
Also, Uber often raises its rates based on demand. By contrast, taxis generally charge the same amount per mile at all times. So in high-traffic areas, or at busy times of the day, an Uber ride is likely to cost more than a cab. For example, in New York City, the average cost of a cab ride is $19.50, while the average UberX ride costs $23.50.
Taxis have other perks compared to ridesharing companies. For instance, many Uber and Lyft drivers have compact cars that don’t give you a lot of room to stretch out. Also, these drivers don’t always know their way around the city as well as a seasoned cabbie.
On the plus side, using a ridesharing app can be more convenient than hailing or calling for a cab. These apps allow you to track where drivers are, so you know how long you’ll have to wait for your ride. You can also rate different drivers and avoid being paired with the ones you don’t like.
- You Can Go Anywhere. Both taxis and ridesharing services can take you anywhere within driving distance. This makes them a good choice for traveling out to the suburbs, where mass transit doesn’t always go.
- Ready on Call. With taxis and rideshares, you set your own schedule. You don’t have to sit at the station waiting for the next bus or train to show up. You can just call for a ride at any time – even late at night.
- Room for Baggage. A cab or rideshare car has a trunk that can stash your belongings. That comes in handy when you’re coming back from a shopping spree loaded down with purchases.
- You Don’t Have to Drive. If you’re heading home after a night of bar-hopping, you’re probably in no condition to drive yourself. With cabs and rideshares, you have a sober driver who can get you home safely. These services also work if you can’t drive because of a disability, or just because you never learned how. And if you’re in an unfamiliar city and don’t know your way around, a cab or rideshare lets you leave the driving to someone who does.
- It’s Pricey. Although Uber and Lyft can cost less than cabs, neither option is exactly cheap. In New York City, you pay a minimum of $2.50 for a cab or $8 for UberX, with per-mile costs on top of that. By contrast, a ride on the New York City Subway costs a flat $2.75 no matter where you’re going.
- You Pay While You’re Parked. If you have several errands to run, you don’t just pay for the time you spend on the road – you also pay for each minute your driver sits outside waiting while you shop. So if you spend 40 minutes doing your weekly grocery shopping, you can rack up quite a hefty bill. Also, with ridesharing services, drivers aren’t actually required to wait for you. If your driver isn’t willing to wait, you’ll have to call for a new ride when you’re finished shopping.
- Urban Areas Only. Ridesharing services are only available in certain cities. The Uber and Lyft websites have lists of cities where these services run. Taxis too can be hard to find outside of urban areas.
Taxis and ridesharing are a good choice for city dwellers who need to travel to the suburbs and vice versa. They also come in handy late at night. Calling for a ride is safer than walking home at 2am, and it’s less of a hassle than hurrying to catch the last train.
However, because of the cost, these services only make sense for occasional use. Taking a cab for a grocery run once a week is probably cheaper than owning a car – but using one to get to work every day would be a real budget-buster.
7. Carsharing and Car Rentals
Rentals vs. Carsharing
Car rentals and carsharing programs both give you temporary use of a car, but in different ways. With a rental, you pay for your car by the day. You also pay for gas, insurance, and parking, if needed.
With carsharing programs, you pay a monthly fee to get access to a fleet of cars. On top of that, you pay by the minute, the hour, or the day when you check one out. Gas, insurance, and parking are all included.
Which service is the better deal depends on how you use it. In the U.S., a basic Zipcar membership costs $7 per month, or $70 for a full year. On top of that, you pay between $7 and $10.50 per hour, depending on where you live. You can also get a full day of use for $66 to $89.
Car rental costs vary by city, time of year, and type of car. USA Today says you can pay as little as $45 per day to rent an economy car, while a luxury car can cost more than $120 per day. For a midsize car, the price averages around $60 per day.
Based on these rates, you can see that for long, infrequent trips, renting a car is clearly cheaper. There’s no monthly charge, and you pay less per day. Even if you add $20 for gas each day, that’s still cheaper than Zipcar in some cities.
However, if you regularly need a car for a few hours at a time, carsharing is a better deal. If you use a Zipcar for three hours at a time, 10 days per month, you’ll pay a maximum of $322 for the month. If you had to rent a car for each of those 10 days, you’d pay at least $450 – not counting the cost of gas.
- Cheaper Than Owning. For infrequent users, both car rentals and carsharing are cheaper than owning a car. According to the AAA study, owning a car costs the average driver $6,100 per year. By contrast, using Zipcar 10 times a month would cost around $4,000 a year. And for very rare users, renting a car for two weeks per year would be even cheaper at $840.
- You Can Drive Anywhere. Once you’re behind the wheel of a rental car or a shared car, you can take it down any road in the country. You’re not limited to areas you can reach through transit or reach on foot without tiring.
- Plenty of Cargo Space. Renting and carsharing give you a whole trunk to carry luggage, shopping bags, or anything else. You can also rent a bigger vehicle, such as an SUV, if you want to haul home a piece of furniture or several board feet of lumber.
- No Fee for Waiting. Unlike a cab, a rental car doesn’t sit there running its meter while you take care of your errands. You can go from store to store, running in and out, and pay the same hourly or daily fee.
- Costs Add Up. Renting and carsharing are affordable choices if you only need a car occasionally. However, they can get expensive if you use the car regularly. If you took a Zipcar to and from work every day, leaving it parked at your workplace for eight hours, you’d need to pay for a full day’s use during about 23 days a month. In this scenario, your monthly tab could come to as much as $2,054 – far more than the cost of owning a car.
- Limited Locations. You can go anyplace you like in a rental car or shared car. But to get the car in the first place – and drop it off when you’re done – you have to live within striking distance of a rental office or car-sharing location. Zipcar is available in more than 100 U.S. cities, but many states have only one location, and Car2Go operates in only nine U.S. cities. Car rentals can be found in most good-sized cities, but there aren’t many in smaller towns.
- Reservations Required. To rent a car or check out a Zipcar, you need to reserve the car ahead of time. This means they’re not really a good option for spur-of-the-moment trips – for instance, if something in your house breaks and you have to make an unplanned run to the hardware store. You can try to reserve a car for immediate use, but you can’t be sure there will be one available. Also, when you reserve a Zipcar, you only get it for a fixed length of time. You can use the app to extend your reservation if your plans change, but only if the car hasn’t been promised to someone else.
- You Have to Drive. Driving in heavy traffic is stressful, whether you own the car or not. With a rental or shared car, you’re the one who has to worry about avoiding accidents and navigating through crowded streets. Rentals and carsharing also aren’t a good choice for nights out, when you may be coming home too sleepy or tipsy to drive safely. And, obviously, driving a rental isn’t an option if you don’t have a license.
Carsharing and car rentals can be good choices if you live in a city where they’re available and you only need a car occasionally. They work well for trips you’ve scheduled ahead of time, such as doctor’s appointments, so you can reserve the car in advance. They’re also handy when you have a lot of stuff to carry. However, these services are too pricey to rely on for everyday use.
Steps to Plan a Car-Free Life
If you’re thinking about giving up your car, you have to ask yourself two questions. First, is there some combination of car alternatives that can get you everywhere you want to go? And second, would trading your car for this mix improve your overall quality of life?
To answer these questions, you have to think about where you live, where you work, and where else you travel. You have to look at the car alternatives that are and are not available in your area. And finally, you have to consider how these options stack up against driving in cost, time, and safety.
All this will give you clearer a picture of what your life could look like without a car. Compare that potential scenario to your life as it is now and decide which looks better to you.
1. List Your Destinations
The first step in planning out a car-free life is to make a list of all the places you drive to regularly, or even occasionally. Here are several locations your list might include:
- Your workplace
- Homes of friends and family
- Hardware stores
- Clothing stores
- Shopping malls
- Post office
- Doctor offices
- Movie theaters
- Concert venues
Your list needs to be as complete as possible. To ensure that you don’t omit anyplace, look through your calendar or date book for the past year. Be sure that every place you’ve visited makes it onto the list.
2. Determine Your Options
Now go through your list item by item. For each place, think about how you could get there using one or more of the car alternatives shown above. Then write down all the choices that you think would work for you. For example, next to “the office,” you could write “bus,” “bike,” and “Zipcar.”
At first glance, it may seem as though there are some places you simply can’t go without a car. However, it’s possible you just need to look at your choices in a different way. For example, maybe you think you can’t take your bike to the store because you wouldn’t be able to carry all your purchases home. But adding a rack or a trailer to your bike could make this a realistic option.
Even if there are some places on your list that can only be reached by car, that isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. If you only visit those places once in a while, perhaps you could borrow or rent a car on those occasions.
It’s also possible that there are some places on your list you could eliminate completely. For instance, if you can’t get to the grocery store without a car, perhaps you could use an online grocery service instead. Or, if you can’t easily get to the mall, you could do more shopping at local businesses.
3. Compare Your Choices
If you can’t think of a way to go everyplace you need to go without owning a car, then your decision is made. However, even if it’s possible to get to all the places on your list without a car, that doesn’t mean it’s your best option. You need to consider all the difficulties of traveling to each place without a car – the cost, the hassle, and the time involved. Then you can see how these problems stack up against these costs of driving.
Go through your list again. Look at each place you’ve listed and each method of getting there, and determine how much the trip would cost. For some methods of travel, this is easy to figure out. For instance, walking is always free.
For other methods, you need to do a little research. You can check bus and train schedules to find out the cost of a round-trip fare to each place on your list. You can also visit the websites for taxi cab companies and car-sharing services to see how much they cost.
If you can’t easily determine the cost of a single trip, then figure out the monthly cost instead. For example, if you are considering carsharing, estimate how many hours you’d need to use the car each month. Multiply that by the cost per hour and then add in the monthly fee. For bicycling, you can estimate the yearly cost of owning and maintaining a bike, then divide that by 12.
Now estimate how many trips you’d need to make to each place on your list in a typical month. For example, you might make 23 trips to and from work, five trips to the grocery store, and five to the library. Add the costs of all these trips to figure out the cost of one car-free month.
Lastly, figure out how much you’re paying per month to own a car. The AAA survey gives average ownership costs for small, medium, and large sedans. If you want a more exact estimate, check out the Car Cost Calculator by Financial Mentor. It allows you to adjust factors like your car’s gas mileage, how many miles you drive per year, and how long you plan to own it.
With this information, you can see how the cost of owning a car compares to the cost of living without one. For most people, going car-free is likely to be cheaper. However, if you use your car a lot, keeping it could be cheaper than giving it up.
If time is money, then the costs of going car-free should factor in time costs as well. Figure out how long it would take to walk to the post office, or get to work on the bus. If you’re not sure about travel times by transit, check the schedules to find out. Remember to factor in the time spent waiting if you have to change trains or buses.
Add up the travel times for all the trips you make in a month by car. Now add up the total time those same trips would take without one. Subtract one from the other, and you can see how much more time – or, possibly, how much less – it would take you to get around without a car.
Walking, biking, and taking a train are often slower than driving. However, for many people, they’re also less stressful. For these people, a pleasant half-hour walk is a much better use of time than a frantic 15-minute drive.
The hassle factor is a lot harder to quantify than money or time. However, you can make a stab at it by rating each type of travel on a “hassle scale” from one to ten. A trip that you look forward to making each day – say, a walk through the park – would have a rating of one. A trip that you dread, such as a hectic drive in heavy traffic, would rate a ten.
So go through your list again, and rate each location using this scale. Give each place on the list two ratings: one for traveling there by car, and one for making the trip without a car.
Remember to factor all parts of the trip into your rating. For example, for a trip made by train, think about the time spent walking to the station and waiting for the train, as well as riding. For a trip in a rental car, consider the effort required to reserve the car and pick it up.
Also, remember that the hassle of a particular trip could vary based on the time of year. For instance, walking to work might be pleasant in springtime, but unpleasant in the summer heat. So rate each trip based on how the hassle would average out on a year-round basis.
Add up the hassle ratings for all your monthly car trips. Now add up the ratings for making those same trips without a car. If the first total is lower, that means your life is generally more pleasant with a car than it would be without one. And if the second total is lower, it’s the other way around.
The final factor to consider is safety. For some trips, this isn’t really a concern. For example, driving a rental car isn’t really safer or less safe than driving one you own. The same goes for driving a shared car or taking a cab.
In other cases, though, safety is a concern. For example, walking and cycling can be unsafe on busy streets. Walking can also be risky late at night, especially in crime-ridden neighborhoods. And cycling can be dangerous in bad weather.
On the other hand, driving also has its dangers. For instance, your risk of an accident could be higher on roads that are:
- Narrow and twisty
- Poorly lit
- Poorly maintained
- Not always plowed in snowy weather
So go through your list one last time, and consider the safety risks of every trip. Put a minus sign next to any trip you think could be unsafe – with a car or without one. Then add up the number of minus signs for car travel and the number for non-car travel. The column that has fewer minus signs is the one that’s safer overall.
Remember, there are often ways to make non-car travel safer. For instance, you can plan out your trips so you stick to safe routes as much as possible. You can also equip yourself, or your bike, for foul weather. So take these points into account before giving a trip a minus sign.
4. Look at the Big Picture
At this point, you have a complete picture of how your life would look without a car. You know what it would cost in terms of money, time, hassle, and safety. And you know how these costs compare to living with a car.
Take a moment to look at these two pictures side by side. Then ask yourself which version of your life looks more appealing to you.
For example, maybe giving up your car would save you money, but would also cost you time. In that case, you have to decide which is more important to you: having more time or having more money. Or perhaps a third factor can break the tie. If you’d spend more time traveling without a car, but each trip would be less stressful, perhaps that’s enough to tip the balance for you.
There is no right or wrong answer here. If your life with a car looks better than your life without one, there’s nothing wrong with that. The point is to consider all the factors involved so you can make the best decision for you.
If it turns out that it isn’t practical for you to give up your car, don’t despair. Even if you can’t go car-free, you can get many of the same benefits by going “car-light.” Basically, this means you keep your car, but you only use it once in a while.
For many people, going car-light is the best of both worlds. For example, you can walk or ride your bike in pleasant weather, getting healthy exercise and enjoying the fresh air. But on days when the weather is cold and the roads are slippery, you have your car as a backup. You can also use the car when you have to transport several people or a load of luggage.
Going car-light doesn’t eliminate your driving expenses, but it can reduce them. Obviously, the less you drive, the less you have to pay for gas. Driving less also puts less wear and tear on your car, lowering maintenance costs. You still have to pay for auto insurance, but many companies will reduce your premiums if you drive very little.
To estimate how much you could save by driving less, take a look at the AAA report. In addition to showing the cost per year of owning a car, it also estimates how much it costs per mile to drive one. According to this report, if you cut your driving from 15,000 miles per year to 10,000, you would save about $1,120 per year. And you would enjoy the health and environmental perks of driving less as well.
Have you ever lived without a car?