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How to live without a car

Whether it’s to save money, reduce environmental impact, or be safe, a lot of families find themselves living with one car – or none at all. The number is likely to increase as the population ages, too. Cars are useful but costly: along with the purchase price and monthly payments, you have gas, insurance, maintenance and parking costs.

Life without a car isn’t costless. It is cheaper than life with a car, but it involves costs you may not have thought about. Whether you are thinking of giving up your car or of taking the keys away from someone else, knowing what is involved can help you plan for a better experience.

Your location matters

Ideally, you will start life without a car by choosing where to live. Walk Score is a site that ranks neighborhoods by walkability and connects that information to rental apartment listings. Right now, my family has one car and three drivers, so someone has to navigate through the day without a car. 

However, our neighborhood in Chicago has a Walk Score of 88. It has several options for public transportation and alternative transportation (car sharing, bike sharing, taxis).  It’s an easy walk to four different grocery stores, three pharmacies and a ton of bars and restaurants. We live near Wrigley Field, and on game days, it’s easier to leave the car at home.

“The key question isn’t ‘Is this place transit-friendly?’ It’s ‘Do I have the resources I need to get where I need to go, when I need to get there?’” says Jason Rothstein, author of Carless in Chicago. The key considerations, he says, are getting to work or school, getting groceries and visiting family and friends.

Going carless is much easier if you have time to prepare. “For some people, it may actually be worth exploring a move to a more transit-friendly neighborhood or town,” Rothstein says.  “If $100 more a month in rent allows you to save $350 a month in car costs, that’s a worthwhile trade to consider.”

Living without a car can be a hassle if you’re not prepared

Without time to prepare, being carless can be a huge hassle. Elizabeth Ridley, a writer in suburban Milwaukee, found that out last year. Her car needed repairs that she could not afford at the time.  “When my SUV broke down, I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. It would have cost between $2,000 and $4,000 to repair it. I didn’t have that kind of money at my disposal,” she says. She owed more on the car that it was worth to trade it in, so she was stuck making payments on a car she could not drive. Ridley found it to be difficult.

Because Ridley works at home, her livelihood was not affected by not having a car, but her social life was. “There’s no longer such a thing as spontaneity in your life,” she says. “If you need to go somewhere, you need to plan far in advance and make sure you have a way not just to get there, but also back home again after.”

She found that friends and family were willing to help, to a point; the issue wasn’t money for gas (Ridley always offered) so much as the extra time it would take for someone to pick her up and get her back home. Because of that, she recommends that people who are going to be without a car take up at-home activities, whether scrapbooking, reading or knitting.

Make a plan before taking away someone’s car

It’s more complicated if you have to take away someone’s car. Many people have older relatives who should not be driving but who can’t imagine life without a car. Ridley suggests thinking carefully beforehand. “Think of every situation in which you now use a car — groceries, laundry, church, socializing, medical and dental appointments, etc., and figure out how each particular issue can be taken care of without a car,” she says.

It will be easier to convince a loved one to give up driving if you can present a list of buses, ride-sharing options, senior taxis and other resources. And, Ridley says, think through how these trips will be handled long-term. A neighbor may be willing to offer an occasional ride to church but not be interested in doing it week in, week out, for years.

Gear up to go carless

How to live without a car - Blue Zipcar and people carrying boxes

Photo: Zipcar

No matter where you live your carless life, you may need some new equipment. We use a granny cart and a Radio Flyer wagon on different errands – with bike locks, if they need to be parked outside. We’ve hauled groceries, Christmas trees and thrift-shop donations this way.

Second, learn all you can about delivery options. Depending on where you live, grocery stores and restaurants may offer delivery. You may also be able to find people on TaskRabbit who will run errands for you. Amazon Prime is a great value for those without cars because subscribers get free two-day delivery on thousands of items; the movies on demand can help with the need for new sources of entertainment.

Third, check out car-sharing options. More and more communities have services such as ZipCar and Enterprise Car Share. We use this for the handful of times each year when it would be really nice to have two cars. If one of the drivers needs a car for a two- or three- day trip, Enterprise’s regular rental service will pick you up and drop you off. Renting a car for a few weekends per month could still save you money.

Rothstein says that giving up a car can mean gaining freedom from worry about money, but that it comes with other costs. ‘The feeling of control that a car give you may be largely an illusion,” he says, but there will be a transition to life with fewer – or even no – cars.

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