It’s been about 2 years now since we sold our one remaining car, Eleanor the Subaru Outback. It feels weird but liberating to say we have zero cars.
In this post I’ll share our decision process and a few reflections on car culture. And I’ll wrap it up with the benefits of car-free life and a list of some places I’ve been able to travel without a car.
From 1 Car to Zero
Life With Eleanor: the Good and the Bad
I had Eleanor for 12 years and miss the days of loading her up with people, dogs, bikes, and kayaks. She provided excellent transportation to many great adventures. But in the last few years we shared, poor Eleanor spent most of her time sitting in traffic jams. When she blew a head gasket during my dreadful commute, I began to question the quality of living with a car in a congested city.
The Zero Car Decision
Once we put our house on the market, we had a great opportunity to choose where we live. Our number one priority was to find a location where we could take advantage of our employer-subsidized transit passes. (Thank you, generous employers!!) We just had to find a place where we could get to work and groceries easily. The rest we could figure out. We found the perfect apartment building quickly and at the lease-signing found out that they charge $150/month for car storage. We were leaning strongly toward selling the car anyway, and that sealed the decision. There is no way in HELL we would pay $1800/year just to park the car. We had some friends whose kids needed a car, so re-homing Eleanor was a win-win.
Two Observations about Car Culture
Number One Complaint in Portland: Traffic
Eleanor was not the only one blowing a head gasket in Portland traffic. It seems that everywhere I go, traffic is on the top of people’s whine list. When I was still driving, there were times when my leg would shake with fear as I observed the hostile and distracted drivers around me. Now there isn’t a day at the office when I don’t hear at least 3 complaints about congestion and/or road rage. People are visibly agitated as they recount their experiences of auto-induced terror and frustration. During our unusually icy winter, there was one storm that resulted in 5 crashes per hour and an evening commute that averaged 6 hours.
They Paved Paradise and Put Up A Parking Lot – Joni Mitchell
Though parking lots are certainly more peaceful than over-crowded roads, they are equally frustrating. I work in an inefficient office park with a few one-level buildings surrounded by a sea of parking lots. More than a few times I have felt deeply troubled by the waste of space created by un-used cars. I know that some people have to drive by themselves to work, but there must be some percentage of my officemates that could carpool, bike, walk, or use public transit.
This Washington Post article summarizes the magnitude of the parking lot issue well:
Parking is a major component of our driving experience. A large amount of our driving time is spent looking for a free spot, and our cars are parked on average for a staggering 95 percent of their lifespans. Parking infrastructure is so pervasive that for every car in the United States, there are approximately three non-residential spots — amounting to 5,000 square miles, an area larger than Puerto Rico.
Fortunately most of the article goes on to create hope that growing car share programs and self-driving technologies will create opportunities to reclaim the concrete wasteland. Imagine how much more beautiful and healthy our cities would be if a few of the parking lots were replaced by parks!
Pedestrian Contemplations on City Driving
Just Like the Car Ads?
As people who frequently get around by walking, Mr. Grumby and I have had some time to observe city cars and their drivers. One common theme is that nobody looks like the happy people in the car advertisements. Occasionally we’ll see someone smiling as they rock out to their favorite tunes. But most people who we see driving around in the city usually look angry, distracted, frustrated, or stressed out. And most of them are alone and are driving cars far too large and costly to be transporting one lonely body.
A Different Kind of Fast
When it comes to the cars themselves, the obvious observation of a pedestrian is that they’re noisy, smelly, and sometimes menacing. Something less apparent is that they’re too fast. I’m not talking about a vehicle’s response to lead-footed drivers, but about the unnatural speed with which cars transport their human cargo. When you move from point A to point B at a speed that doesn’t allow you to fully experience your surroundings, reality becomes distorted. You’re physically separated from everyone and everything by a fast-moving metal box, and it’s easy for the mind to get agitated and to flip into competition mode. Think about the last time you experienced road rage. If you and all the other drivers around you had been walking or riding your bikes, how might that experience have been different?
My experience as a pedestrian and as a cyclist is that 99% of the time when I’m moving from point A to point B, I feel relaxed, happy, and connected to my surroundings. I’m moving slowly enough to make eye contact with others out walking or riding and to exchange a smile or a hello. I might even stop to talk with them. A couple of weeks ago, Mr. G. and I met Catherine, Steve, and their sweet dog Juniper when we were walking through the neighborhood. We got to stop and pet Juniper and Catherine told us about how their house is painted 2 different colors because she and Steve couldn’t agree on one color. Front and back are blue and the sides are green – it actually looks pretty cool. If we’d been driving by in a car, we may not have even seen them.
OK – I know many people who live in the city need their cars to get around. If you are physically able, I would like to encourage you to seek opportunities to walk, ride your bike, or to take public transit more often. When you do this, pay close attention to how you feel. How does it compare to how you feel when you’re driving in the city?
If you have a chance, please check out one of these movies about moving slowly:
Benefits of a Car-Free Life
The greatest benefit of car-free life is improved health. When you use the power of your own body for transportation, you become physically stronger. Your mental health also receives a boost from physical exercise and from moving at a speed that enables you to connect with your surroundings. And when your transportation does not emit extra carbon dioxide, you’re contributing to the health of our planet. A win-win-win!
There are financial advantages to living without a car as well. If you live and work in a city where ditching your four-wheeler is logistically feasible, do a side-by-side comparison:
- All car-related expenses: car payments, gas, insurance, maintenance, parking, etc.
- Zero-cars (or fewer cars) expenses: transit pass, car/bike share membership, occasional Uber ride or car rental, etc.
Reducing or eliminating cars isn’t always an option. We are very fortunate to have this unique experience and our transportation expense has gone from an average of $4,000/year to about $1,000/year. That’s a 75% reduction! And our $4,000 a year expense was less than half of the average car ownership cost of $8,400 per year.
We’re able to go where we want to go with greater health and more money in the bank. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out Mr. Grumby’s post about having a regional job without a car. And here’s my take …
Eleven Places I Have Gone Without a Car
- Work: 12 miles each way by light rail (reading time!) or by bike
- Grocery shopping: 3 stores within walking distance of the apartment; 5-minute light rail ride to Trader Joe’s
- Multiple parks: by bike or on foot; many within 5 miles; Forest Park is a 25-minute bus ride
- Central Library: 20 minutes by light rail or 40-minute walk
- Airport: 30-minute light rail ride
- Veterinarian: 4 block walk
- Dentist: 1 mile by bus or on foot
- Primary Care Doc: 20 minute light rail/walk combo
- Physical Therapist: 18-minute bus ride
- REI: 16 minutes by streetcar or nice 30-minute walk
- Numerous restaurants and concert venues: by bike, on foot, bus/light rail/streetcar; most in 2-3 mile radius
What Do You Think About City Driving?
I’d love to read your comments about city driving.
Any stories about experimenting with different transportation options?
Where have you been able to travel without a car?
If you have any questions about zero-car living or anything else in GrumbyLand, please ask!