Approximately two years ago today, I left my comfortable job in Washington, DC to pursue my dreams of attending urban planning graduate school at Rutgers University. Stop me if you’ve heard this one already.
Along the way, I opted to sell my car for two reasons: First, having lived in DC for nearly a year and a half, I was used to only really using my car on the weekends. I commuted into and out of Arlington either by bicycle or the train, only using the car for grocery trips, weekend excursions, and the occasion weeknight fast food run. I knew that I would be moving to New Brunswick, New Jersey, a place where home, school, work, transit, and groceries would all be within walking or bicycling distance. I knew I could live without a car.
Second, I needed to save money. Thankfully I didn’t have any car payments. But owning a car still means regular costs like insurance, gas, taxes, registration, and regular maintenance, as well as the occasional maintenance disaster that is always timed as if to do the most financial damage.
But there’s also a large hidden cost to owning a car: you make lots of dumb trips. Say, an unnecessary drive to school, when I could easily walk or bike it. Or a wasteful trip to McDonald’s because I was too lazy to cook. Or, God forbid, an aimless Saturday trip to Barnes and Noble, simply because I didn’t have anything else to do. Mr. Money Mustache has something similar in mind when he calls them “clown car habits.” Since my goal was to get through graduate school debt-free, I knew the car would have to go.
In retrospect, I learned a lot about mobility in these past two years. Everyone who thinks seriously about cities — let alone urban transportation — should spend a year or two car-free. But short of that, I’d like to share a few of the insights I have gained, both for folks who are considering this lifestyle and for transportation wonks.
1. You can do it.
This is the most important thing: You can absolutely do it — especially if, like me, you are in decent health and childless. Just about anywhere in the US, you can find a place to live within one (if walking exclusively) to four miles (if bicycling or taking a bus) of work or school. If you go the bicycling route, shell out the money and buy a decent used bicycle, paying careful attention to the weight; the lighter the better. Be sure that there are plenty of shops, including a supermarket, pharmacy, and hardware store, within a mile of your home. Once you build the habits, you will realize just how silly car-dependent living can be.
2. There are hidden benefits.
So far, I have only really talked about money. But there are massive hidden benefits to going car-free. For starters, you don’t really need to exercise, unless you want to go above and beyond in the health department. A mile of walking or bicycling, combined with a reasonably healthy diet, will offer great benefits for most people. At the same time, you also get a lot of sunlight every single day, which can keep your circadian rhythm in check and your mood sorted out. You don’t need to fret about parking at your destination. Concerns about drinking and driving go out the window. You never have to sit in rush hour traffic. There are lots of small, mostly invisible benefits like this that come with ditching a car.
3. You need to understand the limits.
Not owning a car comes with certain limitations, obviously. Some are probably good for you, like the fact that it’s hard to run out to Target and blow $50 on a sweater you don’t need. But some aren’t so great. For starters, it’s harder to just get out of town. When I owned my car back in DC, I would often take aimless road trips out into the Virginia countryside. I miss those trips. Living as I now do in New York, I can get close to that with the trains, but there’s something nice about being able to hop into a car and drive. This can be partially mitigated by new car-sharing services that allow you rent a car for a day for next to nothing, but they take some extra planning that isn’t required when you own a car. Consider the tradeoffs!
4. It’s impressive how bad our infrastructure is.
One of the things that will blow you away when you first start living car-free is just how awful the infrastructure is in most municipalities, particularly if you wander out into the suburbs. Lots of streets don’t have sidewalks, and even if they do, they are often too narrow for two people to walk past each other. Most large intersections are death traps, and when choosing where to live, you need to avoid regularly walking through them. Virtually all streets lack bike lanes. This isn’t ideal, but it isn’t a deal breaker on slow, lightly traveled neighborhood roads. Your real enemy will be poor road maintenance. In New Brunswick, there were many roads I had to avoid altogether because they had essentially devolved into gravel roads — literally a killer if you are on a road bike. As with driving, you will learn which roads you can walk and bicycle on, and which roads you can’t.
5. Ridesharing is a lifesaver.
Living car-free flatly wouldn’t be possible —or would be much more difficult — without ridesharing. There are some trips where you will just need a car: the monthly big trip to the grocery, the occasional visit to the friend way outside your neighborhood, and so on. Taxis are slower to call and far more expensive, plus frankly, I find the service normally awful. Ridesharing on the other hand, for all the grief that it gets from so-called urbanists, is fast and quite cheap. To save money during grad school, I would normally take $5 Lyft Lines and Uber Pools to get around, and I would nearly always be joined by someone in a service work uniform going to work somewhere. It’s too bad that these routes aren’t served by high-quality transit, but until that day comes, urbanists need to reconsider their hostility. Ridesharing services make life a lot of easier for those who don’t own a car.
All in all, I think selling my car for those two years was the smartest thing I could have done. Even if I go back to owning a car, which I might do when I have kids, my hope is to absolutely avoid commuting by car. It’s stressful and expensive. But for now, I live happily car-free in New York City, where it is quite a bit easier than suburban New Jersey.
These were just some off-the-cuff thoughts on my experience. But I want to hear from you: If you live car-free, what has been your experience? What helps the most? What needs to be done to make it easier?