It's Strong Citizens Week at Strong Towns, and I was invited to share what life is like in a major American city without a car. I live in Hoboken with my wife, and we both commute every day to Manhattan. In much of the United States, people feel that it is not possible to survive without a car, and so I thought it would be of interest to many readers if I share how our daily life goes on.
I moved here about 8 months ago with my wife. She is from Arkansas and the transition was more drastic for her, but we made it work. When we moved to the New York City area, we kept our options open for shipping up our car, but after 3 months of living here and seeing that we do not need a car for daily life, we thought we would rather sell the car for a little extra cash instead.
We both live in Hoboken, and my wife and I both work in Manhattan. For me, it is about a 35 minute commute door-to-desk. For my wife, since she has a little farther to go and does not work right on top of a subway stop, it usually takes around 10 minutes longer. The commute does not seem that bad, because it is idle time for us and we can listen to music, read, or talk, and we commute into Manhattan together, then split off.
Driving into New York City every day would be expensive, so that is not an option. The garages around us in Hoboken cost $300/month, the Lincoln Tunnel toll is $12.50 (and that is if you have an E-ZPass, otherwise it is $15), and I could probably get the early bird parking rate near my work at a rate of $30 a day. Assuming 20 work days a month, that would be $1,200/month, on top of the rest of the fees of owning a car. Driving is not a practical option.
Thankfully, transit in Hoboken is plentiful, and there are three possible routes we could take:
- We can ride a NY Waterway ferry across the river, then transfer onto a free shuttle bus to our final destination.
- We can take the PATH into Manhattan - which is a subway system crossing New Jersey and New York state lines. The PATH would drop me off within walking distance of my work, but my wife would still have to transfer onto the NYC subway.
- We can take a NJ Transit bus into Manhattan - through the Lincoln Tunnel - then transfer onto the NYC subway.
There are pros and cons with each.
The ferry would probably be the fastest option, but it is expensive: $9 one way, or $272 a month. The monthly ferry pass may be worth it if it was the only transit pass that you had to purchase and if the free NY Waterway shuttle busses in Manhattan could get you to your final destination. Thankfully, that is the case for us, but there are other reasons why we do not do this, which I will explain below.
Another commuting option is the PATH train, which runs directly from Hoboken into Manhattan (it only takes 8 minutes to reach the first stop in Manhattan), but unfortunately, the PATH station is about a 15 minute walk from where we live. 11 minutes to get to the stop by my work, then a 5 minute walk once I am in Manhattan. Add in a few more minutes for waiting for the train, and this could easily take 40 minutes, while my wife's commute would be even longer since she would then have to transfer onto a NYC subway. But, this would be the cheapest option, which would only cost me $89.00 a month, and $205.5 for my wife, since she would have to also buy a NYC subway pass.
Taking the bus into Manhattan then transferring onto the subway requires two monthly passes, which for one person is $223.50 a month. The bus stop is also only a 2 minute walk from our house. For price, speed, and comfort (least walking), this option makes the most sense and the one we choose.
Also factoring into the decision is that we like to have the option of exploring the city outside of work. It is really nice to have an unlimited pass for getting anywhere in NYC on weekends and after work, while also having a NJ Transit pass that we can just hop on a bus to get from one side of Hoboken to the other or to ride the light rail.
One of the biggest questions I get from people outside of the NYC area is: how do I get my groceries? "Do you take them on the bus?" "Do you use ZipCar?" No. Fortunately, Hoboken is pretty good about having grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, and delis just about everywhere.
I have about half a dozen options for groceries within a 3 block walk of home. To put things in perspective, if I wanted to drive to get my groceries, my nearest my ZipCar bay is about a three block walk from me. By the time I walk to the ZipCar bay, I might as well just have walked to the grocery store itself.
It is nice having many different places to get groceries from, and many times we do the weekly all-at-once grocery shopping (my wife has one of those QVC Trolley Dolly folding carts), it is often just as convenient to pick up things as we need them. There is even a convenience store that we walk past every time we get off the bus to go home, and often we will just pick up things mid-week as they get low.
We like giving our business to the small family-run groceries stores rather than to go out of our way to the larger corporate supermarket near us. At first, we were worried if we could get everything we needed from the smaller grocery stores - especially since they fit everything into maybe two aisles, compared to a dozen or so aisles that you find in a supermarket. But, it works well because you do not really need 10 different brands of olive oil, 5 different brands of soap, and 6 different brands of cheddar cheese to choose from to be happy. You will be surprised that you can find just about everything you want in these small stores.
If we need to find something specific, there are larger stores we can visit too...
The nice thing about this particular store, and I have noticed that many supermarkets in the NYC area do this too, is that they offer delivery. You can go in, shop as you normally would in a grocery store, then get them delivered to your home instead of having to carry them all the way back.
There are also a few farmers' markets in Hoboken, but those only run during the summer months. New York City has some year round markets, but that is a little too far to cart any serious amount of groceries back from.
Manhattan is such a retail mecca, that there is very little need to head out into the suburbs or even the other boroughs of New York City. Macy's, TJ Maxx, Century 21, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Nordstrom Rack, Best Buy, K-Mart. If there is a shop, Manhattan probably has it, or two, or three of them. This is when our monthly transit passes are useful, because virtually all of it is easily accessible by the subway.
We can also take the light rail easily from Hoboken to the Newport Centre mall in Jersey City. It is a nice mall, but it is filled with all of the same national chains that you would find in any mall across the country.
The bad thing about shopping without a car is not getting between stores, but having to tote around what you purchased for the rest of the day. Thankfully, plenty of places deliver, or we can find what we want in-store, then go online and order it.
There were two times when we first moved to Hoboken that we wanted to head out into the suburbs to visit a particular store. For one of them, we used ZipCar to head to Walmart for an inflatable mattress just a few days before we had visitors staying with us, and the other time we used Uber to visit a furniture store to see a sofa before we purchased it.
ZipCar is a service where you can rent a car by the hour when you need it. There are ZipCar spaces all around Hoboken and New York City, and the idea is that if you need a car, there will be one within walking distance of you that you can reserve via their website or their app. It seems like a nice idea, but my first and only experience with ZipCar was a hassle. At first, I only wanted to book an hour, because I assumed it would only take 20 minutes to get to Walmart, 10 minutes to go shopping, and 20 minutes to get back, but my wife thought we should book 2 hours to be safe. When our time started, it took us 5 minutes to figure out why the engine would not start, 20 minutes to get there, and then we wasted some time circling the parking lot. Thinking we had plenty of time, we took our time in Walmart, only to realize that an hour had passed and we had 30 minutes to get home. While trying to drive back to Hoboken, we took the wrong ramp and ended up on I-95, and the next exit lead us to another freeway. Eventually, we found an exit to a local street and were able to turn around and backtrack, but we had to extend our ZipCar reservation by another hour. In the end, we had spent more than if we had just done a return trip with Uber.
Uber is nice. We have used Uber (and their competitor Lyft) a few times - mostly for trips to the airport and back. Gone are the days of calling a taxi and wondering for 20 minutes when they are going to show up. Now you can just request an ride through your phone and see exactly where they are.
We usually cook at home most weeknights, but sometime when we get home after a long day we do not feel like cooking. Thankfully, the Internet has given us tools to make city life a little easier. Our usual go-to place has been a pizza place across the street, but when we want something different we have been relying on websites such as Seamless and GrubHub. These websites let you enter your address and the cuisine you are in the mood for and they will show you a list of matching restaurants that will deliver to you. The whole process of ordering and tipping the delivery guy is done through the website.
I have stumbled across another website called OpenTable which allows you to search for restaurants and make reservations. OpenTable has some 8,500 restaurants in the NYC area to choose from. OpenTable is nice for finding new restaurants and being guaranteed a seat when you get there. (In reality, unless we decide to eat out in Times Square, we really have not had to wait long to be seated or have a reservation.)
Trips out of the City
The great thing about the North East is that there are many strong places that are doable as day or weekend trips, and are enjoyable without a car. We found $22 Megabus tickets to Boston for a short weekend trip, and a similar deal to Atlantic City for a day trip when my parents were visiting.
I wish there were more options for making the natural beauty around the region outside of the city accessible. It is easy to not need a car to get around the city, or go on day trips to other cities, but not so much to get out of the city. (I guess we could always pay to go on a guided tour in a van full of tourists?) Come this summer, we are going to make it a point to occasionally rent a car so we can head out into the country side to explore.
In the mean time, we have many wonderful city parks like Central Park, Prospect Park, and Liberty State Park for us to enjoy.
I would imagine many people's next question would be about raising a child in the city. I have not yet had that experience. But, every time I go out onto the street I see families and children everywhere.
I do not see parents taking their kids to school everyday on a bus or a train as some might assume, but I do see parents and children walking together in the mornings. I would imagine, to keep life convenient, most parents would choose schools and after-school activities within walking distance of home. But, rest assured, people raise their kids in the city and they make it work.
I have tried to share a glimpse of what daily life is like in a major city without a car. It is a different way of life to one where you need a car for most things, but essentially, life goes on, people make it work, there are businesses and tools out there to make things more convenient, and it can be enjoyable.
All photos are my own except Philip Jonat's of the children crossing the street.