Yesterday was the first anniversary of giving up (OK, totaling) our family car.
To mark the occasion: a tally of our accomplishments, followed by an announcement of our plans.
Driving: We reduced our driving by two-thirds compared to our average in recent years. We drove 90 percent less than the average US family of our size and income. We drove about 2,500 miles—about 7 miles a day on average—in Flexcars (mostly), carpools that went out of their way to pick us up (often), and borrowed cars (occasionally).
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Gasoline and climate change: We burned 80 percent less gasoline in our car-less year than in the previous year, slashing our emissions of greenhouse gases. We reduced our gasoline consumption more than our driving, because many Flexcars are hybrids.
Health: We walked and biked much more than before. Our fitness improved. We’ll live longer.
Money: We saved between $1,500 and $4,000. We spent about $6,000 on the year of living car-lessly (details below). Compared with what we would have spent to replace our old Volvo with a different used car, we saved about $1,500. Compared with buying a new hybrid like the ones Flexcar rents us by the hour, we saved more than $4,000. (The first-year depreciation—the loss in resale value—on a new Prius is almost $6,000 and the total first-year costs are almost $13,000!)
Awareness: We’re more aware of our surroundings in our walkshed. This is a practical benefit: we know what’s nearby. It’s also a plus in terms of mindfulness: I remember my son Peter calling on his cell phone from his first bike ride home along a particular route—a route we’d driven since his early childhood. Incredulous and dismayed, he exclaimed, “Dad! There’s a really big hill!” His tone of voice implied, “Where did it come from?!” When you’re strapped into the back of a moving car, hills are an abstraction, not a reality that you feel in your muscles.
Inspiration: A lot of people tell us that our example has motivated them to drive less. One Sightline friend wrote, “Inspired by The Year of Living Carlessly (and…ahem…a slight motorbike mishap in July), I’ve been riding the bus, using Flexcar, and fixing up my long-neglected bicycle. If I can get my pesky ankle problem under control I should be bicycle commuting by spring.” In Bellevue, Corvallis, and Eugene, readers gave up their own cars. Other car-free or low-car households wrote from every major city in the Northwest—and from much further afield too—about their own years (in some cases many years) of living car-lessly. One neighbor has started walking to work rather than driving. A fellow parent has been walking her kids to and from school every day. Another couple that we know has begun sending their kids to school by bicycle when the weather’s nice: three miles each way. And we hear stories of families that have begun taking the occasional outing by bus. It’s not exactly a mass movement. But it’s something.
It all sounds so good, you might assume we’re committed to car-lessness for the long haul. But we’re not. Drum roll . . . We’re undecided.
As rewarding as it is, being car-less with kids is also challenging, especially in the dark, wet Cascadian winter. Managing the child-raising transportation demands of December—a soccer tournament for Kathryn, six days a week of drama rehearsals and performances for Peter, holiday errands and gatherings for all of us—had us pining for a family car at times. The logistics get pretty elaborate (thanks to the first of my five vacation lessons). And more of the logistical nightmares fall on Amy than on me, which isn’t fair. She shoulders more of the burden, because she does more of the family errands—shopping, transporting kids—than I do. And her work as a roving self-defense teacher takes her to more out-of-the-way places at transit-unfriendly hours.
So we’re making no promises that we’ll stay car-less another year or forever. Still, we’re not rushing to the dealership either. We’re taking it one month at a time.
One thing’s clear: we can envision what a future might be like in which car-lessness is more commonplace. The more car-less and low-car families emerge, the easier it’ll be to live well as one, because most of the problems we’re experiencing are classic challenges that face early adopters. As more people shed one (or more) vehicles, transit and taxi service will improve. Traffic will diminish, improving life for those of who live with “no box.” Walkshed maps, complete with loo coverage, will become readily available. Car-sharing, car-hopping, and high-tech hitch-hiking will catch on and spread—thinning the ranks of parked vehicles and filling the seats of moving ones. Transportation will become something we buy by the trip, rather than by the vehicle—with the result that we will end most “default driving.” Above all, the political demand for complete, compact communities—the kinds of places where cars are accessories to life and not its organizing principle—will become irresistible. It’s a vision of the future that keeps us inspired. We’re just impatient to get there soon.
Maybe if lots of other people join us, we’ll feel moved to make a longer commitment. If we stay car-less, will you join us? Will you shed a vehicle?
. . .
Appendix: boring calculations, estimates, and explanations
Miles driven: Flexcar reports that we drove 1,600 miles in their vehicles. I estimated that we drove 400 more in borrowed cars and 500 more in carpools that went out of their way to pick us up. Total = 2,500 miles.
Money: The $6,000 costs of the year of living car-lessly I estimated generously as follows: $2,800 on Flexcar, $180 on our small supplemental insurance plan, $400 on filling others’ tanks when we carpooled or borrowed a car (that’s far more gas than we burned but we like to contribute toward other costs, because cars operate in a gift economy), $1,000 on transit (and occasional taxi) fares, $500 on bike gear,
$500 on “walking around money,” and $600 on our cell phone bribe. Some of these expenses—such as the cell phones and the “walking around money”—had big side benefits, but I’ll include them in this tally anyway. I estimated the cost of buying, fixing up, and maintaining a 10-year old Volvo station wagon using information at Edmunds.com and the Way to Go website.
Caveat: Our eldest son, 19-year-old Gary, is taking a year off before college. He’s been splitting his time between home and a house nearby where he stays with friends. And he’s been borrowing a pickup from a friend much of the time and driving it just about everywhere he goes. So you could argue that the family driving and emissions tallies that I reported above are artificially low. Amy and I don’t have a car, but Gary had nearly full-time use of a gas-guzzling pickup for most of the winter. I excluded him from the family tallies above for two reasons. First, he’s at least half-way out of the nest. Second, our car-less decision didn’t cause him to start driving the pickup. Gary is nineteen and male and has wanted a truck of his own with unbridled intensity for years. So no matter what Amy and I had decided last February, I believe Gary would have got his hands on his own ride.