Giving Up Your Car — The Unthinkable Act?

The famous curmudgeon HL Menken once noted that each problem has “an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” The simple answer for getting to work is to drive, but if you can reliably get to and from work without a car, you probably don’t need one.

Picture of get rid of your car

Is your car truly necessary, or is it a convenient habit? Photo by John Lloyd.

In previous postings of car week, I wrote about not loving to drive and the high cost of car ownership. If you would like to go car-free or car-light (getting rid of most of your cars), but wonder if it is really possible, take heart; with a little planning most people can. A great source of information is Chris Balish’s book “How to Live Well Without Owning a Car.”

Plan for your own resistance
You may worry about what other’s think about you when you drive. As far as I can tell, no one seems to consider me to be a loser because I don’t drive to work. Instead they are generally impressed and interested. Face it, most people have way to much going on in their lives to spend time thinking how you get around.

More difficult than other people’s perceptions about your are your perceptions. The auto industry has done an amazing job of tying our self-image to our cars, and fear of an identity crisis is well-founded. In my experience, however, a new identity forms quickly, and if you are willing to pursue this experiment, chances are good that you will prefer your new identity to your old one. Besides, if you are relying on your car to send a unique message about you, you may not have noticed that in your city hundreds of people are driving the same car as yours.

Plan on finding another way to work
If you drive a lot, you may not have noticed the other options that may be available to you 49% of Americans live within a mile of a bus stop, biking to work is generally possible, and you may have co-workers in your neighborhood. Just opening your eyes to transit or putting a note on the lunchroom wall will open up a world of possibilities.

The key to successfully getting to work without a bicycle is to have redundancies available. In almost 16 years of non-car commuting, I have never missed a day at work due to transportation problems. Here is my current system of redundancies:

  • Primary Mode: Bicycle. I plan on pedaling to work and carry a patch kit and a pump to deal with the occasional flat tire.
  • 1st Backup: Transit. I always carry in my wallet two tokens that allow me to use my local bus and rail system. I once had a blowout that could not be repaired. A call to the transit company (I have the number programmed into my phone), connected me to an operator who told me where to find the nearest bus stop. Also, I take transit on red air days or if it is below 15 degrees Fahrenheit. I use transit about 8 days a year.
  • 2nd Backup: The Family Car. I once had a flat tire that I was unable to fix. I was not in a position to get to the bus in time to get home for an appointment, so I called my wife to come get me. (I have saved enough money by not owning a car that she has the opportunity to be home). I have probably done this twice in the last eight years.

Two layers of redundancy are sufficient for me, but I suppose I could add another level and call a taxi. It might be expensive, but peanuts compared to a car payments.

Plan on finding another way to run errands
If you are car-light like us (two drivers — one car), errands are no problem. If you are going totally car free, you will still need to get groceries, see movies, go on dates, etc. You are saving so much money by not having a car that this should be no problem.

Picture of a scooter

If you must have a motor, consider this.

  • Make arrangements with a friend to for a ride to the store (if you can’t get there any other way); she has to buy stuff to, and you could offer to buy lunch. This makes the solitary grocery run an enjoyable social activity.
  • Get a membership in a car-sharing service (they are popping up in lots of cities). This is great for dates as well as errands you don’t feel like sharing.
  • Get a scooter. These mini-motorcycles generally don’t require a special license and you can buy one new for almost what you save in just one month of not paying for a car.
  • Rent a car. Once or twice a year, you may want a road trip. With all the money you are saving not having a car payment, you can easily afford to rent a car for a week.

If you are worried about your social life, don’t be. Many people who have given up their cars have actually reported being more social. They know their neighbors; they ride, shop, and lunch with friends. They have parties at their houses, because…they can afford houses — often with really nice home theater systems.

Can you give up you car? The only way to know for sure is to try it out — park your car for a month and tell your friends that it is out of commission. See what happens. You may be delightfully surprised.

Question: What’s stopping you from giving up one or all your cars? Use the comment field below.

1 Sean September 18, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Thanks for the thought about building in redundancy. Having a plan in place will takes away an excuse I have been using.

2 Bike To Work Blog September 19, 2012 at 6:11 am

Victor, wives are pretty insightful; do you want to ride? If so, why, and is your reason good enough to get you out there everyday?

If you reason isn’t strong enough to get you on a bike everyday, but you still want to give up your car, you need to make plans for the days you will not ride. Can you take transit, carpool or telecommute?

Here’s the test: Park your car for a month. You won’t get the immediate gratification of selling the thing, but you will demonstrate to your wife (and yourself) that you can and will go car-free.

And when you do go car-free, make sure you spend some of the money you save on her!

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