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Tips for Living without a Car

It’s very easy for me to simply suggest on a blog that people should sell their cars and enjoy a car free life. Many people who own cars understand that they’re not the best for the environment, they hate being stuck in traffic, and they would love to save money. But, as some commenters have pointed out, it’s usually not so easy.

When writing on this blog I always try to avoid coming across as if I’m pointing a finger at any individuals for problems that are society-wide, with the exception of people like a particularly selfish Lincoln Navigator driver I saw yesterday. But that’s another rant.

I owned and drove a car daily for over 10 years, so for me to condemn drivers would be seriously hypocritical. Most of my friends and family own cars. The root of the problem is that car ownership is not an isolated choice: almost every facet of our modern world is built around car ownership. To go against this grain and live without a car, therefore, can be a challenge. Depending on your location, your situation, and your earlier life choices, it may be nearly impossible.

Talking about alternatives usually brings to mind other forms of transportation.

Walking is the most obvious and natural form of travel. A lot of us, after many years of driving, forget how far and how fast an able-bodied person can walk if they are in decent shape and put their mind to it. Using a nifty site called the Gmap Pedometer I was surprised to realize that many of my usual walking routes to nearby destinations are 3, 4 or even 5 kilometers, round trip. I often make these journeys without thinking about it. 8 or 10 years ago, when I was living in the suburbs, a walk like that would probably have resulted in some very sore feet.

The problem with walking, of course, is that all neighborhoods are not equipped for it. I live downtown, where sidewalks are plentiful, and parks, stores, and cafes are disbursed around my neighborhood. A long walk doesn’t seem like a test of physical endurance when I can stop part way to get a coffee, check out the new releases in a book shop, or take a break on a bench. In many suburban neighborhoods, a walk like this might be far less pleasant, with many blocks of subdivision houses followed by a death-defying jaunt across a major multi-lane roadway with poor sidewalks, capped off with a trek across a vast desert-like parking lot surrounding a compound of box stores.

Bicycling carries with it the benefit of being much faster: you can go very far, very fast on a bike. The cons are extensive, though. Even in a city with an organized biking culture and some semblance of marked bike lanes, it is still a dangerous adventure. Deaths and injuries to cyclists are not infrequent. Weather, especially in northern climates, can make journeys by bike even more hazardous, or at the very least unpleasant. When you add to this the problem of rampant bike theft, this method of transportation often becomes something for only the most hardy and determined. I myself do not bike on the streets of Toronto because I am simply too afraid of being killed, which is very sad when you think about it. I am glad there are some hard-working people out there that are putting their lives on the line to try to improve this situation.

Public Transit is the most practical and logical means of non-car transport, but unfortunately it is also the one that varies in quality the most from region to region. If you live in a large city, the population density probably means that you have a transit system that’s at least usable. Whether it is convenient, comfortable, and safe is another story.

Somewhat ironically, housing costs are most expensive in areas where transit is most convenient, which often means that those who are wealthy enough to own one or more cars usually live near the best transit, even though they may use it only occasionally, if at all. People like students who often not have enough extra income to own a car often need to live in more remote areas where rent is cheaper, but where transit is also less frequent and requires multiple transfers. This means that an opportunity to turn young people into lifetime voluntary transit users is often lost: after a few years of forced hardship on poorly funded transit systems, young people usually purchase a car at the first opportunity. And I don’t blame them.

As a final alternative, there is also occasional car use. Much in the way an occasional drink or two doesn’t make most people an alcoholic, renting or sharing an automobile for occasional use is far more sustainable for the world than individual car ownership. It’s a sensible alternative that can make living in our car-centric society without actually owning a car a real possibility for more people.

Taking a Taxi sometimes seems expensive, but if you do it only occasionally and compare the cost to what it would cost to own a car, the savings are still enormous. If you need to go farther, Car Rental is cheaper than you might expect. If you pay for your rental with a credit card that has travel protection (sometimes for a minimal annual fee) then you can decline the rental company’s extra insurance, and a multi-day rental can come in at well under $100. This is pretty reasonable if you only rent a few times a year for holidays or trips out of town.

Finally, if you need to drive fairly regularly – say once a week – but still don’t want to own, Auto Sharing companies are beginning to pop up in more neighborhoods. Think of these as car rental companies with a low annual membership and less hassle when it comes to booking, picking up, and dropping off cars. The best part is that for some companies, like Autoshare, all members are considered to be insured drivers. This is very important: if you are currently a driver, but stop driving for even a short period of time, you can lose your insurance record. This means that if your situation changes and you need to buy a car a few years down the road, you may find yourself paying the insurance rates of a brand new driver even if you’ve been driving for decades. Personally I find this practice unfair and discriminatory: most people won’t forget how to drive after only a few years, and I think insurance companies should legally be required to maintain your record for at least 5 or 10 years.

Torontoist posted a great comparison of Toronto-area car sharing companies last week, which is well worth reading.

In the end though, for many people, even all the alternatives mentioned above will not be practical. For the really determined, going car free can often mean greater lifestyle changes than simply putting a vehicle for sale in Auto Trader and buying a transit pass.

If you live in suburbia, especially outer suburbia, you probably already find yourself locked into to a car-centric lifestyle. When trying to decide where to a make a home, many of us consider factors like home prices, square footage, access to the outdoors, privacy, and commuting times, but we don’t always consider the hidden costs of an option that makes us wholly dependent on a car.

For example, most people I know who have chosen to leave the city for the suburbs cite bigger square footage for less money as the reason. However, if the remote location and sparse transit of the outer suburbs means that they must own two cars and use them frequently, the costs of owning and operating those cars may easily cancel out the costs of the more “expensive” condo or home they were considering in the city, where they might be able to have only one car, use it less frequently, or maybe even live a totally car free lifestyle.

Similarly, the choice between what job you take, and where you work, can impact your travel options greatly. A job with a higher salary that requires you to own a car and commute great distances may not net you more money in the end, even if you don’t consider the negative mental effects of having your time and sanity eaten away by commuting. A slightly lower-paying job within easy range of walking, biking, or transit may give you a better quality of life: an obvious thing not always taken into account in a world that values money above all other factors.

A decision to live car free still garners surprising reactions from many people. It is not easy: I still spend a lot of time at family gatherings trying to assure people that my decision not to own a car is voluntarily, that it is actually easier for me in my downtown neighborhood, and that I am not poor. Often times I am met with skepticism. However, I know I’m not the only person who’s come to the same conclusion. Others are out there, and it can be done, and it doesn’t always have to be a hardship.

Our car addicted society can change, but it has to come from two directions. Change has to come from the bottom up, with individuals making the decision to live without a car. At the same time, change also has to come from the top down, with governments, city planners, and builders making sure that our neighborhoods are designed with non-drivers in mind, and that alternatives like public transit and bike routes are properly funded. As more people take the leap, with any luck the idea will begin to seem less radical and a little easier every year.

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