Do you wish you had kept your car — or does car-less life ROCK?

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My Bus © by Gilgongo, used under Creative Commons license.
We live in a location where we can get to most places via public transit or by walking, but we’re very used to using our car to go shopping or to my parent’s place in the suburbs. We’re thinking of waiting a few more years to sell our car, but I’m already getting sick of paying for insurance and dealing with maintenance issues.

People who have owned a car, but decided to get rid of it: what was the transition like? What do you do if you have an emergency or need to run to the store in the middle of the night? How do you haul large stuff around? Do you hate it…or ist it awesome? -Jessi

Stephanie says…

Yay! Public transit is one of my favorite topics, and one I try to regularly delve into on Offbeat Mama. My husband and I have lived years without a car, years with a car — and experienced both situations with and without our son. Let’s dig in!

Sean (husband in question) and I ditched our car for bicycles in 2007. We lived on-campus, a bus took students to the grocery store every Friday night, and we always had friends who were happy to cart us to and fro if we were all going somewhere that required a vehicle. Our university had a nurse on-staff, so if we had mild health concerns we could visit her. Even though our city of Huntsville, Alabama’s public transit wasn’t the best (the bus ran Monday-Friday, 6am-6pm, once an hour), we were able to take the bus downtown, to the library, etc. I got pregnant in August 2008, and we kept using the bus and/or bikes — it was what we were used to.

We loved it. We were living in a city with a population of 180,000, spotty public transit service that was totally spread out, and we made it work with minimal reliance on other people’s vehicles. We had no problem taking the bus or riding bikes to my doctor’s appointments, and everything was awesome.

We moved to Portland, Oregon, in December 2008 and were even MORE excited about the public-transit-user-friendliness of the city (though rumor has it this may not last forever). We were so stoked with the bus system in particular — every 15 minutes! All day! All night! — and happily bought our bus passes and biked everywhere we could get to until I began to feel unbalanced on my bike. Then the bus and I continued to be best friends — we even took the bus to the hospital I delivered at (I was in the early stages of labor).

When our son was born we left the hospital with him in a sling and (you guessed it) hopped onto the bus to go home. We continued to take the bus to any appointments or outings we had, and life rocked. We happened to live directly across the street from a grocery store that could meet most of our needs, and we took a cab the one time we had to go to the ER in the middle of the night with our son. Obviously it wasn’t a dire emergency, or we would have called an ambulance — which is probably what you’ll do anyway, out of instinct and life-long “call 911” training.

Then we moved back to Alabama and were promptly introduced to how much it can suck when you have a small child, no car, and live somewhere that makes it hard to practically get around without a vehicle. What was easy when it was the two of us suddenly seemed nearly insurmountable when we became three — and the third member was five months old. We still have our bikes, but we definitely use our car for way, way more of outings now.

Basically, my thought is this: if you live somewhere with kick-ass public transit and want to ditch your car, GO FOR IT. If you’re good at self discipline you can try a test: just leave your car at home. Pack only the essentials for your kid, and see how long you guys can get around without using your car. If you really don’t want to use it, I’d say it’s highly likely you’ll soon discover you can easily get along without it. We’re moving back to Portland this summer, and are hoping to phase our car out of our lives. There are awesome services like Zip Car available in many parts of the US, so you could always sign up for an account to have a car to use for trips and in other cities. We both LOVED our time without a car so much more than we love our life with one, but we’re bound by the situation in the city we live in presently.

I’m totally curious to hear from fellow car-ditchers: What were your biggest transitional challenges, and how did you overcome them?

Comments on Do you wish you had kept your car — or does car-less life ROCK?

  1. I am also mostly carless. My city does not have the best bus system, but it does work. Buses pass my house going to the nearest major shopping center, and another one (in the opposite direction) going to the university, every half hour during the day and every hour on evenings, Saturday mornings and Sundays. I am within walking distance of a major grocery store, a private grocery store and the wholesale club as well as my bank, a 24 hour drugstore and many restaurants. When emergencies come up, and for returning home from work late at night (I work bar hours), I will either take a cab or when worse comes to worse, my fiance is a driver.

  2. I had a car for about a year – but I had to give it up because of a sudden increase in the insurance cost.

    I very occasionally miss it – when I want to see my parents or something. But in daily life, I don’t mind it at all.

    I live around a mile from everywhere I might need to be – I almost always walk. Occasionally I take the bus. If it’s late (and/or I’m drunk) I take a taxi. If there was an emergency, I know I could get a taxi or an ambulance, no problem.

    As someone said above, in the UK you can get groceries delivered from most major supermarkets – and I get a veg box delivered too. So I only need to shop occasionally.

    Maybe I’ll change if I have kids… but maybe not. It doesn’t feel like a necessity to me really.

  3. My partner and I moved from a town, with no public transport to speak of, to Seattle where the public transit system rocks. We sold our cars to get here and could not be happier.

    Aside from the money we save on insurance and (OMFG)gas, we really enjoy not having to do the find-a-parking-spot dance or play the who-doesn’t-get-to-drink-tonight game.

    The only bummer is we can’t just jump in a car and get out of the city when we want, but it’s been pretty easy to coordinate those sorts of trips with friends who either have vehicles or want to all split the cost of a rental. For longer trips we’ve discovered the joy of riding Amtrak (Seriously, y’all. Trains rock!)

    Honestly, the adjustment to doing shopping and errands by bus was not a big one and any annoyance incurred by it is completely overshadowed by the loss of stress from dealing with traffic, accidents, driving in bad weather, etc.

    If I never have to own a car again I will be a very happy person, indeed.

  4. Its all about location, really. My husband and I don’t have driver’s licenses so we have planned our living arrangements around that. We live a short walk to the centre of the small Aussie city we live in. We can walk easily to restaurants, cinema, grocery stores, parks etc. There are OK buses here for when we need to go a little further afield. People told us we’d need a car when we had a baby… but this just wasn’t true. An ergo, a stroller and a granny cart are all we need. Internet shopping, including home delivered groceries and organic veg is a life saver. We will be unschooling, so I would like a license in future so we can take the kids right out of town for field trips… but even then I think I’d prefer to borrow or rent a car for those trips rather than own one. I love not having to pay petrol, insurance, rego, repairs, or find a park!

  5. We went car-free about 8 or 9 years ago. We both work from home in an urban area, which makes being car free viable for us. I also joined a car club, so we have access to a car when we need one. I did miss the freedom of having our own car at first but I adjusted. And I definitely don’t miss the responsibility and expense of having a car.

    Most of the time we use public transport or walk – we do most of our shopping locally or online. We get our groceries delivered – it’s about the same cost as hiring the car for an hour. If we do need a car to go further afield, I just book it out on the car club website. There are 4 cars within 10-15 minutes walking distance so I never have a problem getting one even at short notice and the nearest one is literally parked right opposite our house. My teenage son walked or biked to school – it kept him fit.

    Later this year we’re moving to a small town but we’ve deliberately chosen one with excellent transport links so that we can stay car free or at least ‘car light’ since we plan to join the car club there too.

    • we did use when i was working and during the first couple of months after our second child was born. now that i stay at home, i do all of the shopping at our neighborhood stores.

  6. It’s funny, I lived in Portland for years but HATED public transit- I only ever took it when my car was broken and it always left me feeling trapped and constricted (and a little grimy. Also met some pretty scary characters on the bus…and some downright weird ones too, like the guy dressed as wizard-elvis who wouldn’t stop talking about how great my shoes were.) On the other hand, I’ve visited towns like London that have very comprehensive subway systems, and LOVED it. I guess I’m just not a bus person. (Portland has the MAX and the streetcar which are both train-like things, but they were rarely headed where I needed to go so I didn’t use them much.)

    I think part of it comes from growing up in a rural area, where having a car meant you finally had the freedom to go places. I want to feel like I can escape and explore at any time or I start getting claustrophobic.

  7. i think it also has to do with the culture of the place you live. i used to be more or less car-less – the husband and i had a car to share, but he worked an hour away. we had just moved to a smallish town in florida. i loved walking to the grocery store, biking downtown, etc. and it was great to not have to rely on car. but… some places are sadly just not as “offbeat friendly” as others. that was a culture where people drive to the gym to run or bike indoors on a beautiful sunny day, or swim in the pool 3 blocks from the ocean. people really thought i was completely crazy for biking or walking. it was still doable, of course, and if i were a better person i probably wouldn’t have cared, but i just got tired of being the crazy bike girl.

    now we live in memphis. i’d love to try out the bus system, but i’m a little scared as two different people in the last year have gotten hit by random gunfire on our bus line. it’s also been ranked the second worst city in the country for bikers. so… for now it’s car for me. but i do envy all you new englanders and pacific northwesterners with your great public transit and bike-friendly towns! maybe someday.

  8. SUCH a well timed post! I literally just tonight made the final decision to move to Chicago for law school and I already am considering selling my car. The biggest problem for me is that I play a 6 foot tall, 70 pound harp which would be exceedingly difficult to move around on public transport. I’m wondering if I can just rent a car or borrow a friend’s if I need to move it though? I realistically don’t play it in public all that often.
    /goes and reads all the rest of comments/

  9. Here’s a weird thing that may or may not matter to you: how will your job feel about carlessness?

    We we first went to one car, I was still working for a non-profit. I discussed the change with my boss, but she continued to arrange meetings I HAD to drive — or bum a ride — to. Not for the purpose of making it easier on the other party, but because she enjoyed one bar or coffee shop or restaurant over another. These were places not on a bus route, and caused some friction. She felt it was a reasonable request for me to meet at a cafe with no bus access at 7 AM, and I insisted that she had not hired my car AND that my less-than-a-living wage was part of our decision to get rid of my car.

    It wasn’t fair, but it is something to consider! I’m JUST experimenting with complete carlessness. Wish me luck!

    • In my part of Kansas, nearly all jobs ask if you have reliable transportation, and they don’t count the bus service since it’s so limited. A car is a ticket to a better job. I can hardly blame them though. If they hire you with the understanding there’s a chance you may have to work at 6 am, but the bus doesn’t start until 8, they can;t guarantee you will be able to be there reliably.

      • YUP, I’m from the burbs of Kansas City and this was always a problem for me and my sister as well… for economic reasons we didn’t start driving when we turned 16 (and now I’m 22 and she’s 20 and we’re only getting to the place where we can afford cars on our own) but we needed summer jobs to pay for stuff. So, because we live too far out of the city for public transportation (which, I’m ashamed that I’ve never ever used in Kansas City) we depended on our parents to drop us off before they went to work (inconvenient) or walked (a 3.5 mile walk in my case). I’m happy with not having a car now in the college town I live in, and because the infrastructure is more suited for walking or biking I do alright without one, but it was complete agony as a teenager or an undergrad to not have a car when EVERYONE ELSE HAD ONE.

        • Hey if you ever end up moving back to KC, I suggest moving into the urban core. The city is a cool place and you can get around quite easily without a car. Don’t listen to the people who say otherwise. I’m sure they have no actual experience.

          I live in downtown Kansas City and am living the carless life. I absolutely love it. It is fun walking around the city every time I need to do something. It’s always an adventure and there is plenty to see and experience. If I need to go further, the bus system is pretty solid, especially if I’m staying in the heart of the city.

  10. we’ve been carfree since 2008 and love it. we are a family of 4 in portland, or and we walk or use public transit for almost everything. both of the companies we work(ed) for paid for our transit passes. we use zipcar about once per month, on average. we bike during the warmer months because it’s difficult to pack the kiddo onto the bike seat in rainy weather and not feel like a bad parent. we don’t want to go the trailer route. we order giant packs of TP and paper towels from amazon. i walk our oldest boy to and from school everyday with the little one in a beco (3 mile double round trip). i make a couple of small grocery store trips per week with a backpack and a tote bag. for stuff in the middle of the night, we hit up the 7-11 a few blocks away. we haven’t had any medical emergencies but we’d probably call an ambulance since cab service is kind of crappy here. i rode the bus to the hospital when my water broke with my little one, i was not in labor yet but i was only 35 weeks so they wanted me at the hospital. sometimes my parents help out with larger items. i occasionally wish we had a car, like when it’s 34 degrees outside and i am making my boy walk to school and trying to make sure baby’s hands aren’t frozen. we’ve survived and i’ve lost all of my baby weight by doing the daily walk. we’re healthier, happier and richer because we don’t own a car 🙂

  11. i drive an electric bike & discovered i actually don’t need a car.

    a few things i discovered.

    *parking is WAAAAAAY easier. i pretty much just pull over.
    *yes, i can do my grocery shopping with a bike. the secret is carrying a mix of bungle nets & cords. i’ve actually carried my closet, washing machine, a few small trees & bushes, AND MY MOM home just using my back basket. … just not all at once.
    *i really don’t miss gas stations
    *sunblock is extremely important. for instance, i need to go to the store in a bit (& also a coffe run), but the sun is so strong right now, that i’m waiting b/c on a bike, you’re pretty much laying out the entire commute. not good.
    *public transit rocks. when i had my prius in america, yes if i wanted to go to the city & visit a mall i could drive 1.5 hours there & 1.5 hours back. here, i take the bus for 2 hours. not a huge diff in travel time, but i can sleep & read the entire way & i don’t have to know where i’m going. 😛 or if i want to go further, i can take a sleeper train, (pretty much moving bunk beds) & arrive fully rested. soooo much better!
    *while i do miss blasting music & loosing my voice ATA, riding a bike safely means no headphones … you know what i discovered? birds! i do some of my best thinking while on my bike. it’s peaceful.
    *one of my big concerns is that i am a mostly dresses kind of girl. i wasn’t sure how that would work on a bike & i like fashion too much to throw on spandex everywhere i go. turns out, if you sit a certain way, you’re just fine. heels are slightly tricker, but i do that also. plus, you kinda look like a vargas girl. hehe
    *weather … you don’t notice how much of a bubble you live in till you get rid of a car & you notice how cold the wind can be, especially when it’s raining. i keep a teeny poncho in my bike. & scarves are a life saver.
    *getting around helmet hair is tricky at first, but you CAN do it. you can use the heat to set finger waves or just wear a high bun.

    ok, i’ve waited long enough … time for an iced espresso … oh & i can carry a regular cup of coffee by looping a bag on my handles, easy.

  12. We are former students without much money, so we have not owned a car. Our city has got great public transit – there is a bus every ten minutes from right in front of our door into town, subways and trains going from our town to the next bigger towns every 10 to 20 minutes, and even at night you are not lost, because there are always busses. Of course it can be tough to do the weekly grocery haul, but we use a bundle buggy and recycled grocery bags. Since we live on the edge of town it sometimes takes more planning to meet with friends, but even though most of our friends do not have a car of their own, it has never held us back from being merry together. I would love to use my bike more, but our flat is on top of a steep hill, so I will often walk places. You guessed it, this keeps me fit. ^^

  13. Hi! I’m the Jessi who asked the initial question. We live in Minnesota, and we have had a really dry and warm winter. It has been really easy to just hop in the car and go places. Every time I think that we should practice not using the car for a week, I get lazy! It takes 10 minutes to drive to work, and 45 minutes to take the bus, and 30 minutes to walk.

    I think with some planning it is totally doable. We have HourCar in the Twin Cities, which is a car share, so I could use that to get to my parent’s, or friends’ houses, but it might not work if lots of people want to use it for the holidays. I’m sure someone would come pick us up for Christmas! It’s still kind of new, so hopefully it becomes more popular and it’s sticks around for a while.

    This sounds crazy, but I hadn’t seriously considered a bike! I’m actually kind of scared of the drivers in MN…

    One more concern is school and sports. My son is only a toddler, but we would like for him to attend the German Immersion school and we would have to provide our own transportation. Also, I would feel bad if he could not participate in after school activities just because we can’t drive him.
    So there is still a lot to think about!

  14. I bike mostly and found that buying a bike trailer (the ones that hold kids inside of them) can hold up to 100 pounds usually so I use that when I need a big shopping trip.

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